One hundred years of Cleveland theater: Playhouse Square marks a century of ups and downs

One hundred years ago, in 1921, after a world war and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the five lavish theaters that anchor Playhouse Square began to open.

Fifty-one years ago in 1970, in an increasingly deserted downtown, obscure school board functionary Ray Shepardson began trying to save the decaying, rat-ridden theaters from the wrecking ball.

In both eras, skeptics wondered whether locals would gather in the city again for entertainment and connection. Both times, competition was rising from broadcasts and outlying theaters. Both times, though, the crowds came back to Playhouse Square and they kept coming.

Dazzle the District at Playhouse Square new chandelier first lighting on May 2, 2014.Now the COVID-19 pandemic, has temporarily shut down the district since last March, and the Playhouse Square Foundation is marking the centennial of its oldest surviving theaters quietly, with a short post linked to a 2012 documentary about the place called “Staging Success.”

With an undisclosed number of employees on furlough, the foundation has not announced further commemorations. “We will do something to celebrate our 100th at some point, when our staff is all back,” says spokeswoman Cindi Szymanski.

During the past century, the theaters have spoken loudly for themselves, dramatizing the power of performance and the tenacity of our town.

We don’t know the Hanna Theatre’s cost, but various owners, including local developer Joseph Laronge and nationwide impresarios Marcus Loew, B.F. Keith, and Edward F. Albee (the adoptive grandfather of the famous playwright sharing his name) spent $9.4 million to open buildings in 1921 and 1922 up to 21 stories tallholding what are now the KeyBank State, Mimi Ohio, Connor Palace, Allen, and Upper Allen (originally the Allen’s balcony, The Upper Allen separated from the main theater in 2018 and hold up to 750 guests).

Playhouse Square from the intersection of Huron Road and Euclid Boulevard, looking east during a wet evening on April 7, 1933. At the theaters’ openings, theatergoers admired lavish appointments. With the house lights on, the Allen’s ceiling looked like a cloudy sky. When the lights dimmed; stars began to twinkle.

The fanciest venue, the $3.5 million Palace, featured paintings by Corot and other masters and what were believed to be the world’s biggest hand-woven carpet and biggest electric sign. Behind the Palace’s stage were seven stories of dressing rooms, animal pens, a nursery, a barbershop, a beauty parlor, a putting green, even a satinwood and brass commode.

Today, many of those luxuries are gone, but the theaters still have original Carrara marble, black walnut, mahogany, grand staircases, and much more.

The Palace still has five huge Czech chandeliers. The State still has a 325-pound French urn, four acclaimed murals by rising painter James Daugherty, and a 320-foot lobby that is believed to be the world’s biggest for a single theater. It also has a dressing room kept “Yul Brynner brown” in memory of the star’s visit in 1984.

The Square’s capacity of more than 9,300 seats is second in the U.S. only to Lincoln Center in New York. Its chandelier over Euclid Avenue is the continent’s biggest outdoor one.

The foundation claims a unique blend of art and real estate. It owns at least 1 million square feet of property, including most of the theaters’ buildings, the Crowne Plaza hotel, and the new Lumen apartments. It also manages a somewhat equal amount of space for other property owners.

Theaters are more than property, of course. They’re showplaces. The Square hosts Ideastream public broadcasting, Cleveland Ballet, Cleveland International Film Festival, Cleveland Play House, DANCECleveland, Great Lakes Theater, Tri-C JazzFest, and Cleveland State University Arts Campus.

Before the pandemic, Playhouse Sqaure had some 2,000 RedCoat volunteers, welcomed more than one million spectators per year, and a nation-leading pack of about 46,000 subscribers to Broadway tours.

Playhouse Square also hosted countless top stars over the years. from Paul Robeson to Bruce Springsteen, Mae West to Joan Rivers, Harry Houdini to David Copperfield, plus local talent like Bob Hope, Sammy Kaye, Burgess Meredith, Paul Newman, and Hal Holbrook.

It hosted many top shows, including the American premiere of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and the world premieres of “High Tor” and “Design for Living.”

It premiered W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Constant Wife,” with leading director George Cukor sitting on stage and prompting the famous Ethel Barrymore.

Playhouse Square originally featured plays, musicals, vaudeville, and movies. The latter two have given way to concerts, comedy, lectures, graduations, weddings, and more.

The Stillman Theater: Opened in 1916, near the corner of East 12th and Euclid Avenue, it was the first theater on upper Euclid Avenue.Local director Joe Garry may be biased, having helped save the theaters in the 1970s with a staging of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” that went for 522 performances—an Ohio record. After years of wide travel, Garry says flatly of Playhouse Square, “It’s the greatest arts center in the world.”

The theaters open
Playhouse Square’s first theater was arguably the Stillman, built in 1916 between The Statler and East 12th Street, and billed later as part of the district. It was razed for a parking lot in the 1960s, too soon to join the district’s revival. Today’s Playhouse Square runs along Euclid Avenue from East 17th Street to East 14th Street and just around that corner.

The district’s oldest surviving theater is the State. It opened on Feb. 5, 1921, when a live orchestra accompanied the silent movies “Polly with a Past” with Ina Clare and “Neighbors” with Buster Keaton.

The Ohio opening followed a week later, on Valentine’s Day. On March 28, the Hanna was christened in memory of U.S. Senator Marcus Hanna by his son. The Allen opened on April 1, and the Palace on Nov. 6, 1922.

Early on, the press dubbed the district Playhouse Square, ignoring calls by some activists for Euclid Square. For decades, the theaters mostly thrived, with some dark stretches for remodeling and changes in fare. By the mid-20th century, though, more and more locals were living, entertaining, and spectating in the suburbs.

In 1968 and 1969, the Allen, State, Ohio, and Palace closed. The Hanna lingered until 1988. In 1971, it hosted “Hair” for seven weeks despite a protester’s bomb that blew out windows and a fire of unknown cause at the nearby Hotel Pick-Carter that killed two wives and two babies of company members.

‘They didn’t believe it could happen’
In 1970, the brash, intense 26-year-old Ray Shepardson unlocked the stripped-down, water-stained State on its 49th anniversary to see if it would do for a teacher’s meeting. Despite the decay, Shepardson marveled at the theater’s beauty.

“I was totally blown away, even in its current condition,” he later told the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Later that month, waiting for a haircut, Shepardson picked up “Life Magazine.” The cover story was about Hollywood, and the cover art was the State’s mural, “The Spirit of Cinema—America.” Inspired, Shepardson quit his job and began crusading to save the theaters.

“People thought I was wacko,” he’d recall. “They didn't believe it could happen.”

Ray Shepardson at the “Jacques Brel” opening in 1973He found influential allies, blocked demolition plans, raised $40 million in public and private funds, formed a foundation, restored the murals, and saved much more. In November 1971, Shepardson was able to sell out the Allen for a concert by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in a snowstorm.

More shows followed. In April 1973 Garry began serving dinner and staging “Jacques Brel” in the State’s lobby. “Brel” was booked for three weeks but was so popular the run lasted until June 1975. There was no air conditioning—only fans and buckets of ice to cool the crowds.

At the same time, Junior League socialites helped scrub the theaters’ floors and fix the plumbing. Visiting stars like Mary Travers, Chita Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, and Carmen McRae helped out. Della Reese plugged the restoration on “The Tonight Show.”

Shepardson would later describe himself to “The Plain Dealer” as a “career professional giant pain in the butt." In 1979, the Playhouse Square Foundation dropped him. He began to move around the country, rescuing theaters and antagonizing leaders. He briefly returned to Cleveland to run the Hanna Theater Cabaret from 1997 to 1998.

In 2014, on video in Illinois, the 70-year-old Shepardson threatened to kill himself if a particular theater didn’t heed his demands. The next day, he kept his word.

Despite its rise and fall, the foundation has been remarkably steady and persistent. It has had just four heads in its nearly half a century, and the final two leaders were promoted after long service within the organization.

The foundation reopened the original five theaters from 1982 to 1997 for steady use. It finished restoring them in 2008 for a total cost estimated at $100 million.

The five are believed to be the most theaters ever restored as a group.

The foundation has also opened four new theaters—
Kennedy’s Cabaret in 1975; the Westfield in 2005; and the Outcault and the Helen in 2012. The foundation often borrows the district’s U.S. Bank Plaza for outdoor events.

From 2014 to 2019, the foundation campaigned to raise $100 million and reaped $110 million.

Playhouse Square during Jazz Fest 2015Locals credit the Playhouse Square Foundation with helping to save more than the district.
If not for that remarkable success,” the Plain Dealer’s Steven Litt wrote in 2017, “downtown Cleveland might not be enjoying a renaissance that's projected to continue for decades.”

During the pandemic, the foundation has expanded virtual programs to reach nearly 80,000 students in 14 counties. Current foundation president Gina Vernaci expects many of those programs to continue but none to replace live theater when Playhouse Square reopens. “Human beings are meant to gather,” she says.

After all, pandemics closed theaters in Shakespeare’s day, but his fans came back. Once COVID-19 relents, Vernaci says she expects Broadway tours to resume this fall and, eventually, local productions.

Director Garry is confident, too. “Playhouse Square is a great old diva,” he says. “It will be even better than ever.”

Playhouse Square plans to announce the 2021 the KeyBank Broadway Series on Wednesday, April 7, via a virtual broadcast, which will include 2020’s postponed “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “My Fair Lady” in 2022.

For more information on Playhouse Square's history and renovations, see FreshwaterCleveland articles on the Allen and the Ohio. Also see the books “Showtime in Cleveland” and “Playhouse Square: Cleveland, Ohio,” both available at local libraries.

Read more articles by Grant Segall.

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.