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 – were contiguous on the north side of Euclid; across the street, the Hanna was lodged in the Hanna Building.

The area was dubbed “Playhouse Square,” but some considered the tag frivolous. A civic organization called the Euclid Square Association convened and resolved to christen the district “Euclid Square.” However, its efforts were in vain, because the informal name stuck.

The theaters presented silent movies, legitimate theater and vaudeville. When the Depression ensued and demand grew for cheaper entertainment, movies predominated. 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 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 fell prey 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 nonprofit status in 1970. Led by a dynamic visionary named Raymond K. Shepardson, the association 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, 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 played for two years.

Bolstered by such artistic successes, the preservationists continued to stave off demolition, assembled a professional management team and raised $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 Palace. The Allen remained on the endangered list until 1993, when Playhouse Square Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates the Center, rented the theater with an agreement to purchase it. The purchase was consummated in 1997, and the restored Allen reopened the following year with a weekend-long celebration.

In 1999, an investment group led by Playhouse Square Foundation 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. It’s easy to see why.

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