A Message from Art Falco, CEO and President, Playhouse Square
The celebration of our 90th Anniversary in 2012 gave us the opportunity to tell a unique story about the saving of Playhouse Square. The history of the theaters, included on this website, in historical archives and in many books written over the years, explain how the theaters came to be, how they were used during their heyday, abandoned later, then brought back to life. Those sources feature interesting facts about the architecture, décor, famous performers, and even a bit about Cleveland’s past.
But they do not tell the human side….The personal, passionate and often poignant stories of an unlikely group of activists, volunteers, businessmen and artists. The tale of how they banded together to defeat the wrecking ball, each group passing the torch to the next, to save the theaters from certain demolition. And the leaders who took that foundation and built upon it the largest performing arts center in the country outside of New York.
Playhouse Square is Cleveland’s indisputable gem and we couldn’t be more proud. As stated by many of the people we interviewed for our PBS special, saving, rebuilding and then growing Playhouse Square was an idea that went beyond their wildest dreams. We are so thankful that they dared to dream so big.
The renovation project of the Connor Palace, State, Ohio, Hanna and Allen Theatres still remains the world’s largest. The 90th anniversary celebration gave us the opportunity to say “thank you” by paying tribute to the visionaries who made it possible.
Staging Success: The Playhouse Square Story | Documentary and Interview Archives
Playhouse Square thanks the Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, Think Media Studios and WVIZ/PBS ideastream® for making “Staging Success” possible.
Playhouse Square, located in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, is the “world’s largest theater restoration project,” and the country’s largest performing arts center outside New York City (eclipsed only by Lincoln Center), as well as Northeast Ohio’s home for touring Broadway shows, concerts, comedy, opera, dance and children’s programming.
Playhouse Square draws more than 1 million people annually to its eight performance venues while contributing in excess of $43 million in local economic impact every year exclusively from its performing arts activity (according to a Cleveland State University 2004 study).
The not-for-profit Playhouse Square is not only a tourist destination, economic development engine, entertainment presenter and producer and a district real estate developer, but has also become a national leader in arts education, creating the nationally-acclaimed and much-copied “Partners in Performance” bus subsidy program that, as of 2009, has funded the bussing of 60,000-plus students to shows.
Today Playhouse Square’s ten performance spaces include the Allen, Hanna, Helen Rosenfeld Bialosky Lab, Ohio, Outcalt, State and Westfield Insurance Studio Theatres, as well as the Connor Palace, Kennedy’s Cabaret and U.S. Bank Plaza.
Playhouse Square’s original five venues (Ohio, Connor Palace, State, Allen and Hanna) were constructed in the 1920s in a mere 19 months. Impacted by the rise of television and population flight to suburbia, by 1968-69 all but the Hanna were eventually boarded up, as entertainment also moved to the suburbs. But in the 1970s, a grass-roots effort saved the historic venues from the wrecking ball, restoring and re-opening the theaters one by one, ushering in a new era of downtown revitalization, which was heralded by the media as “one of the top 10 successes in Cleveland history.”
Opened: February 5, 1921
Closed: February 2, 1969
Purpose: Movies & Vaudville
Style: Combines Roman, Greek & European Baroque
Features: Four 50-foot murals by American Modernist James Daugherty (1890-1974). Fifth mural by Arnold Englander. Total length of lobby from street to theater is 320 feet (said to be the longest in the world).
First Show: Movie- A Polly with a Past & Buster Keaton short, Neighbors. Hyman Spitalny and his orchestra.
Re-opened: June 9, 1984
Opened: November 6, 1922
Closed: July 20, 1969
Purpose: Vaudville (B.F. Keith);(Modified for movies, 1926)
Style: French Imperial
Features: Grand Hall, Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers, blue urn made in Serves, France before WWI. Seven floors of dressing rooms backstage.
First Show: Vaudville- Elsie Janis, the Cansinos, and Grace Hayes, several additional acts and a big band. (Orch. seat was $1.65)
Re-opened: April 30, 1988
Opened: February 14, 1921
Closed: February 2, 1969
Purpose: Legitimate Theater
Style: Italian Renaissance
Features: Italian Renaissance lobby contained 3 murals by Sampitrotti, entitled “Cycle of Venus.” Two paintings by P. Pizzi, in balcony of 14th century Venetian designed auditorium (All lost in lobby fire of 1964)
First Show: Play- The Return of Peter Grimm with David Warfield
Re-opening date: July 9, 1982
Opened: March 28, 1921
Purpose: Legitimate Theater
Style: Italian Renaissance
Features: Interior features bronze trimming and marble corridors.Original ceiling- coffered Roman- remains today.
First Show: Play- Mark Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper starring William Haversham.
Re-Opened: September 1997; September 20, 2008 (restored)
Opened: April 1, 1921
Closed: May 7, 1968
Style: Italian Renaissance
Features: One of the few “daylight atmospheric” theaters in the country. Side boxes decorative only.
First Show: Silent movie- The Greatest Love- Phillip Spitainy and 35 piece orchestra.
Re-Opened: November 1, 1994 (unrestored); October 3, 1998 (restored); September 16, 2011 (renovated)
Opened: January 13, 2012.
Purpose: Built as part of the Allen Theatre complex, primarily used by Cleveland Play House and Cleveland State University.The adaptability of the Outcalt Theatre can be reconfigured to present events in Thrust, Arena, End-stage or Runway modes.
Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre
Opened: February 1, 2012
Purpose: Built as part of the Allen Theatre complex, primarily used by Cleveland Play House and Cleveland State University.
Opened: November 15, 1975
Purpose: Cabaret Theater
Features: Located under the Ohio Theatre lobby and was formerly a workroom for the State Theatre. It contains an ashwood bar from the old Elegant Hog Saloon on Buckeye Road and is decorated with original 3-sheets. It is named in memory of Kathleen Kennedy, author of “Conversations with an Irish Rascal,” and an early staff member of Playhouse Square.
Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre
Opened: September 10, 2005
Purpose: Multi-purpose Black-Box Theater/TV Studio built as part of the Idea Center in 2005.
U.S. Bank Plaza
Purpose: U.S. Bank Plaza, located in the area bordered by Euclid Ave., E. 14th Street and Huron Road, is considered Playhouse Square’s unofficial 10th stage. It was completed in 1996 as a Cleveland Bicentennial Legacy Project. The Plaza is a tree-lined city haven featuring ample seating and used year-round for entertainment and activities. Both residents of the Theater District and community visitors alike enjoy a variety of outdoor concerts, a farmers’ market and classes at the Plaza, and find its peaceful greenspace an ideal place to bring their lunch and relax. In 2014 the crossroads of the Plaza became home to the world’s largest outdoor chandelier, the GE Chandelier.
The Rise and Fall of Playhouse Square
Between February 1921 and November 1922, five opulent theaters opened along the stretch of Euclid Avenue between E. 14th and E. 17th streets. Four of the new theaters – the Allen, Ohio, State and Palace (renamed Connor Palace in 2014) – were contiguous on the north side of Euclid; across the street, the Hanna was located within the Hanna Office Building.
The district around the theaters was dubbed “Playhouse Square,” which some considered a frivolous tag. A civic organization called the Euclid Square Association convened and resolved to christen the district “Euclid Square.” Its efforts, however, were in vain, as the public vernacular continued to call it “Playhouse Square.”
The venues presented silent movies, legitimate theater and vaudeville until the Depression era demanded cheaper entertainment, which movies would provide. But the post-World War II flight to the suburbs and the rise of television sent the downtown theaters into a death spiral that accelerated throughout the 1950s and 1960s. While the Allen, Ohio, State and Connor Palace had opened in a 19-month span, it took just 14 months (from May 1968 to July 1969) for all four to close. The Hanna limped along for almost two more decades.
The grand old theaters that closed became subject to neglect and vandalism. No one foresaw their renovation and reopening, especially when suburban cinemas consigned downtown movie palaces to the ash heap. But gradually, a bold plan evolved to rescue the four shuttered theaters and meld them into a fine arts and entertainment center.
The planners formed a group known as the “Playhouse Square Association,” which gained formal non-profit status in 1970. The Playhouse Square Association, led by a group of visionaries, launched a launched a vigorous grass-roots campaign to save the theaters.
Rescue and Rebirth
The threatened razing of the Ohio and State in 1972 galvanized community leaders, including politicians, activists, funders, businessmen, and the Junior League, who obtained a stay of execution. In succeeding years, limited repair and renovation allowed for sporadic staging of productions as money was raised for complete restoration. The musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris opened in the State Theatre lobby in 1973 with expectations of a three-week run. It would play for two years setting an Ohio performance record!
Bolstered by such artistic successes, the preservationists continued to: stave off demolition, assemble a professional management team and raise $40 million in a spirit of public/private partnership (with half the funds coming from each sector).
Restoration began in earnest, and culminated with the July 1982 reopening of the Ohio Theatre. By the end of the 1980s, the curtain had risen again in both the State and Connor Palace. The Allen remained on the endangered list until 1993, when “Playhouse Square Foundation,” the nonprofit organization that operated the center, rented the theater with an agreement to purchase it. The purchase was consummated in 1997, and the restored Allen reopened in October, 1998 with a weekend-long celebration. In 1999, an investment group led by Playhouse Square agreed to acquire the historic Hanna Building, a move that brought control of the Hanna Theatre as well as significant street-level retail opportunities.
In a newspaper poll, civic leaders hailed “the saving of Playhouse Square” as the leading triumph on a list of the top 10 successes in Cleveland history.
For more information about the History of Playhouse Square, read the book Playhouse Square: An Entertaining History.
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