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 (renamed Mimi Ohio Theatre in 2019), State (renamed KeyBank State Theatre in 2017) 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, Mimi Ohio, KeyBank 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 an 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 vigorous grass-roots campaign to save the theaters.
Rescue and Rebirth
The threatened razing of the Mimi Ohio and KeyBank 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 KeyBank 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 Mimi Ohio Theatre. By the end of the 1980s, the curtain had risen again in both the KeyBank 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.