Once-dazzling Variety Theatre set for rebirth as new Lorain Avenue anchor

The Variety Theatre opened Thanksgiving Day 1927 with Clara Bow starring in "Hula." Over the years, vaudeville acts, movies and a host of heavy metal bands have boomed in the 20,000-square-foot main stage and theatre area. It's been dark since the late 1980s. Due to the efforts of the Friends of the Historic Variety Theatre, however, previously stalled efforts to bring the vacant space back to life have renewed energy.
"The building is in pretty remarkable condition," says Rose Zitiello, executive director at Westown Community Development Corporation, which is a stalwart partner in the project.
The building is much more than a theatre. It also houses eight storefronts ranging from 1,000- to 1,200-square feet, and 13 second-story 600-square-foot apartments, all of which front on Lorain Avenue and have one bedroom.
"It literally is one city block," says Zitiello of the fascinating structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Current construction plans, which were put together about a year ago, call for extensive plumbing work and renovation. The apartments are to remain as such and the 300-seat balcony is slated to become a venue for a large-screen theatre. Specific plans for the orchestra pit, main stage and theatre space are pending. The characterization of the reborn Variety, however, will be one friendly to original musicians and grassroots music production.
While the project was turned down for a 2014 historic tax credit from the State of Ohio, Zitiello is optimistic that the forthcoming application, which the Friends group will file next month, will be successful. She pins the hopes on the fact that the building is vacant and that the group has secured an anchor, the George Group, which intends to occupy one storefront and part of the lobby with a sports bar.
"We do have other local businesses that would like to go in there that are already in the neighborhood," adds Zitiello, but she was mum on further details.
Thus far, the $12 million project has some construction financing in place, various grants and backing from the George Group, which is headed by local entrepreneur and restaurateur Tony George. Details are confidential, but Zitiello isn't shy about her hopes for the historic tax credit dollars, both state and federal.
"We have been sharpening our pencils for the last year and we feel our proposal will be much more competitive," she says.
The Friends group, spearheaded by American Tank and Manufacturing's CEO Michael Ripich, purchased the Variety in 2009 for nearly $1.1 million. Ripich is also donating structural work on the project including steel framework from which to hang signage. First Energy funded electrical work and Wagner Sign, which Zitiello designates as a "major supporter of the project," is fabricating a new historically accurate marquee and blade sign.
The Variety Theatre Restoration will be the centerpiece of Variety Village Streetscape Plan, which is a key feature of the Lorain Avenue Master Plan that covers territory from West 110th to West 123rd Streets and has feet in Cleveland's Cudell, Jefferson and West Boulevard neighborhoods.
Zitiello brings a unique perspective to the overall vision: "If you go to the far west side of Lorain at Kamm's Corners you see the transformation; the city has made a huge investment there. At the other end of Lorain is Ohio City," she says, noting that neighborhood's much-celebrated renaissance.
"You have both ends of Lorain anchored, but you have nothing in the middle," she says. "The Variety is smack dab in the middle. This is a viable strip. It holds up the middle."
Hard to argue with that logic, but Zitiello notes yet another geographical absolute that further supports the realization of the project.
"There are five major retail banks within a mile of me," she says of Westown's Lorain Avenue offices. "That's a phenomenal show of financial strength. To allow Lorain Avenue to deteriorate? It's just not going to be acceptable."
Curious shutterbugs and history buffs will have an opportunity to poke around inside the Variety on April 11 and 12 when Abandoned America will hold The Variety Theatre: An After the Final Curtain Photography Workshop in the space. Ticket purchase and registration details are available in the link.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.