CAIN PARK THEATER was the first municipally owned and operated outdoor theater in the U.S. Its genesis occurred in 1934, when Dr. DINA REES EVANS (1891-1989), a dramatics instructor at Cleveland Heights High School, began putting on student productions in a natural amphitheater in Cain Park, a wide ravine extending from Taylor Rd. along Superior Rd. to Lee Rd. in CLEVELAND HEIGHTS. At Evans' suggestion, the park was named for Cleveland Heights mayor FRANK C. CAIN. Workmen from the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Relief and the Works Progress Administration landscaped the ravine and built the 3,000-seat open-air auditorium and 80' stage. The theater was dedicated on 10 August 1938. Evans became its first executive director, reporting to Cleveland Heights City Council.
A smaller 300-seat theater was completed in 1944 and named the Alma Theater after Cain’s wife. It was intended for puppet shows and plays produced for children performed by the students in the park’s youth theater program.
Under Evans’ direction, the theater flourished despite the Great Depression and World War II. She staged band concerts, community lectures, and plays in the amphitheater. The Federal Theater Project put on two plays in 1938. In 1942, the theater hosted a mass induction ceremony for civil defense volunteers and staged an original play, “Army Red,” which dramatized the strategies for alerting citizens to an enemy attack. Throughout the 1940s, the summer season produced a play a week for ten weeks, ranging from Shakespeare and Ibsen to musical comedy and operettas. Casts were mostly local talent but also included professionals from regional theaters and universities.
Evans’ Cain Park: The Halcyon Years recounted the successes and the travails of producing live outdoor theater. The successes included robust attendance numbers: 114,410 tickets sold for 50 outdoor performances, including children’s puppet shows, in 1946. And mostly good reviews in all Cleveland newspapers. The travails included Cleveland’s unpredictable summer weather, especially the rain and thunderstorms that canceled, postponed, or interrupted performances, sometimes drenching both actors on the stage and audiences in the seats. In 1941, a play starring Marta Abba, the wife of Severance Millikin, was hastily re-staged at Severance Hall, two hours before curtain. In 1943, opening night got canceled because of a planned war-time blackout and air raid; the next night, the postponed opening got rained out. The summer of 1947 was the theater’s rainiest season on record, one storm so torrential that it flooded the orchestra pit.
In 1949, the theater ran in the red. Evans resigned as executive director, maintaining that the theater should receive larger subsidies from the city. She stayed on to direct the children’s theater program until her retirement in 1958.
During the 1950s, live theater in the park struggled to compete with television, and parking on nearby residential streets remained a problem. Musicals were performed in the amphitheater until 1957 when the city council turned over management of the park to the Cleveland Heights Recreation Department, which discontinued the use of the amphitheater for theatrical productions. In 1959, the city leased the amphitheater to Max Mink, who presented nationally known solo performers, including BOB (LESLIE TOWNES) HOPE, Frankie Avalon, Sammy Davis Jr., and Johnny Mathis. During 1962-1966, only the HEIGHTS YOUTH THEATER performed in the amphitheater. Celebrities like Bobby Vinton and Dion Demuci starred in casts of local teenagers.
During the 1970s, the Alma Theater was used for small productions, and the amphitheater stage was used for dancing and band concerts. There was only one play performed in the amphitheater, a 1973 production of “Our American Cousin.” In 1979, David Shaber, who had worked in the park as a teenager, produced his film, “Those Lips, Those Eyes,” at the park, and the film company invested $100,000 to rehabilitate the amphitheater so that it could be used again for musical productions.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were productions in both the amphitheater and the Alma Theater. A canopy over the amphitheater, designed by Dalton, Van Dijk, Johnson and Partners, completed in 1989 and paid for by a municipal bond issue, limited the threat of weather cancellations. 1989 was also the year the amphitheater was renamed for Evans.
After 2008, due to financial constraints, no musicals were staged in the Alma Theater. An exception was the 2017 production of “The Music Man,” performed on the amphitheater’s big stage without sets or costumes. The amphitheater continued to host nationally known performers like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Livingston Taylor, the Beach Boys, the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish Concert, and Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as local jazz, chamber music, and dance groups.
Continuing Evan’s educational mission, the theater offered special programming for children, and the Cain Park School of the Arts offered classes in visual arts, music, and theater.
Cain Park Theater won many awards, including the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association’s highest honor for park development in 1985, the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 1987, the Northern Ohio Live Award of Achievement in Architecture for the 1989 renovation of the amphitheater, the Dottie Mullen Arts and Humanities Award from the Great Lakes Regional Council of the National Recreation and Park Association, recognition from the Ohio Theatre Alliance in 1996 for outstanding achievement in theatre, and in 1997, the Arts and Access Award from Professional Flair for the park’s accessibility to people with disabilities.
Among the theater's alumni are Hal Holbrook, JOHN L. PRICE JR., founder of MUSICARNIVAL, Bill Boehm of the SINGING ANGELS, Ross Hunter, and Dom DeLuise.
Cain Park Theater was dark during summer 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Evans, Dina Rees. Cain Park Theater: The Halcyon Years (1980).
View image at Cleveland Memory.
View image gallery at Cleveland Memory.