Kaleidoscope: Theater complex draws thousands to Cleveland

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

In the 1960s, commerce began a mass exodus from downtowns to rapidly growing suburbs and rural areas. The entertainment industry also was affected, as many downtown movie houses and live performance theaters closed.

Cleveland followed that trend, as four once-thriving Euclid Avenue theaters -- the Palace, Ohio, State and Allen -- shut their doors within a 14-month period at the end of the 1960s. The Hanna around the corner on East 14th Street limped along until 1989, when it followed suit.

A revitalization of what is now known as PlayhouseSquare -- one word -- began in the 1970s after some of the theaters were saved from the wrecking ball. The four on Euclid Avenue reopened in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Hanna followed in the late 1990s.

I'd never been inside any of the majestic Cleveland theaters until November, when I decided to take a monthly tour offered by the PlayhouseSquare Foundation, which manages the complex.

The tours generally take place on the first Saturday of each month except for December. They are free and last about 1 1/2 hours. If you are a lover of music and the performing arts, it is well worth the time and effort to check out the tours. No reservations are necessary.

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING

The four Euclid Avenue theaters originally opened within a 21-month period from Feb. 5, 1921 to Nov. 6, 1922. The State was the first to open and the Palace was the last.

The Palace was the largest, boasting 3,680 seats to the State's 3,400. Today, the State is larger -- 3,198 to 2,854 seats. The Allen once had 3,080 seats, but today sports only a few more than 500, with the remainder mothballed and off limits to the public. Originally, the Ohio and Hanna were the smallest.

Cost to build the five main theaters ranged from $1.8 million for the Hanna (located in the Hanna Building) to $3.5 million for the more elaborate Palace.

The Ohio and State originally were part of the Loews chain, while the Palace was owned by B.F. Keith / Edward Albee Theaters. The latter eventually became part of RCA's RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum) Pictures and later RKO General.

The Ohio and Hanna began as "legitimate theater" venues, while the Palace and State were for vaudeville shows and movies and the Allen for movies.

When it was announced that the Ohio and State theaters would be razed in 1972, politicians, activists, businessmen, fundraisers and the Junior League of Cleveland rallied to save the venues, and in 1973 the musical revue "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" opened in the State's lobby. It ran for an Ohio record two years.

A newspaper poll touted the saving of the theaters as the leading event on a list of the top 10 successes in Cleveland history.

THE THEATERS TODAY

More than $50 million has been spent in the last 40 years to restore, reopen and improve the complex, which is now the nation's second largest theater district after New York City's Lincoln Center.

In addition to the five original theaters, the complex includes smaller venues / cabarets such as the Second Stage and Lab (built in recent years between the Allen and Ohio), Kennedy's (under the Ohio's lobby), Westfield Insurance Studio (west of the Allen) and 14th Street (Hanna Building).

The Second Stage and Lab are primarily used by Cleveland Play House -- which also utilizes the Allen -- and Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve universities. The 14th Street Theater is a cabaret occupying former restaurant space. The Westfield is part of the Idea Center.

The State, Ohio and Allen theaters are accessed from a corridor which stretches 320 feet from Euclid Avenue. It is said to be the longest entranceway to a theater in the world. The Palace's lobby can be entered from the street or off the long corridor.

Architecturewise, the theaters are of the Italian Renaissance, Roman-Greek-European Baroque and French Imperial styles. They contain grand staircases, crystal chandeliers and marble corridors.

In the State's lobby are four magnificent 50-foot long by 20-foot high murals by American modernist James Daughtery and a fifth smaller one by Arnold Englander. If the theaters would have been demolished, Daugherty's paintings would have been lost forever since they are painted directly on the walls.

Three spectacular murals by Sampitrotti titled "Cycle of Venus" and two paintings by P. Pizzi in the Ohio's lobby were destroyed by a 1964 fire.

The Palace's Grand Hall is grand. In addition to crystal chandeliers, it boasts a blue urn made in Serves, France before World War I. Its backstage area has seven floors of dressing rooms.

The tour groups on the Saturday I visited got to walk on the Allen's stage and backstage, but crews setting up for the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Joe Bonamassa shows in the Palace and State prohibited us from going on stage or backstage.

But we observed the crews working feverishly on stage and backstage from the balconies of the theaters.

Today, nearly 1,000 events annually take place at PlayhouseSquare, where a new 40-foot vertical sign bearing that name was erected in October above the Ohio's / State's entrance marquees.

It is part of $16 million in improvements, which will include erection of the world's largest permanent crystal chandelier -- 20 feet high -- over the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 14th Street. It will hang from a 44-foot high steel structure and will contain 4,200 crystals.

May 2 has been chosen as the date for lighting the chandelier.

Also planned in the latest renovations are four gateways leading into the theater district, a 40-foot "stick built" sign on top of buildings near Euclid and East 13th Street, energy-efficient LED lighting and digital signage.

The outdoors transformation of the theater district should be something to behold.

SOME OTHER THEATERS

Like Cleveland, other big cities in Ohio have saved their opulent theaters. I've been inside a handful of those, plus the Capitol Music Hall (3,000 seats) in Wheeling, W.Va., where in the 1970s I saw several country music stars when it was home to the weekly "Jamboree USA" radio show.

Akron, of course, has its beautiful Civic Theater (2,600 seats) on South Main Street just north of Canal Park. A Marcus Loew structure completed in 1929, it is one of only five remaining "atmospheric" theaters in the U.S.

Northeast Ohio also boasts one of the others -- Canton's Palace (1,500 seats), built three years before the Civic. I've been in both, which were designed by architect John Eberson of Chicago.

In the mid-1960s when I was a newspaper carrier and won a trip to Columbus for signing up the most new subscribers, I saw a movie in Columbus' Palace Theater (1926). Our group stayed in the 12-story Deshler-Cole Hotel next door, which was torn down in the early 1970s.

The Palace is in the 555-foot building called the LeVeque Tower. (originally the American Insurance Union Citadel, and when completed in 1927 was the tallest building between New York and Chicago. It was Columbus' tallest until 1974.

On the south side of the Capital Square stands the Ohio Theater (1928). It and the Palace have about 2,800 seats each. Like the Cleveland theaters, the Ohio was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1970s and restored.

Columbus boasts a third grand theater -- the Southern -- which was renovated in the 1980s. It was built as part of the Great Southern Hotel in 1896 and now has 950 seats. In its heyday, it had 1,700. The Southern Hotel, now called the Westin Columbus, continues to operate.

The three Capital City theaters are under the auspices of the Columbus Association of Performing Arts, which like the PlayhouseSquare Foundation, has raised millions of dollars to restore and upgrade them.

The Palace in Canton's Kilgen pipe organ and the Ohio in Columbus' Robert Morton organ are two of a handful of theater organs worldwide in their original homes.

Many other old theaters have survived around Ohio and West Virginia. Some of the bigger ones I've passed by are the Palace in Marion and Lorain, State in Sandusky, Renaissance in Mansfield, Midland in Newark, Ritz in Tiffin, Victoria in Wheeling and Smoot in Parkersburg.

Smaller ones I've seen or been in are Kent Stage, Quaker in New Philadelphia, Athena in Athens, Cla-Zel in Bowling Green, Colony in Marietta, Lincoln in Massillon, Galion, Sorg Opera House in Middletown, Apollo in Oberlin, Highland and Linda in Akron, Main Street in Columbiana, Strand in Sebring, Mount Union in Alliance and Barrow-Civic in Franklin, Pa.

Sadly in some towns I've visited, theaters -- mostly those which showed movies -- couldn't survive tough economic times. They are now closed and in some cases falling apart. The Mohawk in Waynesburg has been creatively transformed into an Italian restaurant called Cibo's.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.