MOVIE THEATERS. From nickelodeons to multiplexes, the evolution of motion picture houses in Cleveland is a reliable reflection of national trends. According to the dean of local movie critics, W. WARD MARSH, Cleveland got its first movie theater in 1903, when The Great Train Robbery began showing at the American Theater on Superior Ave. near E. 6th St. It was operated by Samuel Bullock, who endeavored to give his house respectability by paying women to enter the darkened auditorium. Bullock was soon part-owner of 5 movie theaters and a founder of what became the Cleveland Motion Picture Exhibitors Assn. By the time of WORLD WAR I, the city was dotted with silent movie houses bearing such fanciful names as Wonderland, Fairyland, Moonlight, Lark, See It, and Enjoy U. There was a total of 32 movie listings in 1917, including 7 downtown, 15 on the east side, and 10 on the west side.
The period between the world wars was the heyday of motion pictures, heralded by the appearance of the great first-run theaters downtown. In PLAYHOUSE SQUARE, built in 1921-22, the ALLEN and the STATE featured movies from the beginning, while the OHIO and the PALACE added them later. These were joined by the STILLMAN, built for movies, and the HIPPODROME, another converted stage house. The opulence of the downtown houses often spilled over into the neighborhoods. An Aztec motif marked the new Doan Theater at St. Clair Ave. and E. 105th St., while the Granada on Detroit Ave. at W. 117th St. boasted a starry sky twinkling from the ceiling above its Spanish-style decor. One of the last of the great neighborhood houses, the COLONY THEATER at SHAKER SQUARE, offered Cleveland one of its finest Art Deco interiors. Specialty houses also made their appearance. The city's first art theater, the Little Theater of the Movies, opened at Chester Ave. and E. 9th St. in 1927 with the Russian classic Potemkin. Drive-in movies made their local debut in 1938 at the forthrightly named Drive-In Theater on Northfield Rd., where the ushers rode bicycles and the soundtrack initially was dispersed through 8 large speakers mounted atop the outdoor screen. During WORLD WAR II, the public's appetite for news was met by a downtown theater specializing in newsreels, the Telenews near PUBLIC SQUARE.
Movie houses adopted a number of devices to cope with their first great threat, the economic downturn of the Depression. The most pervasive was Bank Night, which offered cash prizes to those whose names were drawn. About 30 local theaters successfully challenged an original police ruling in 1936 that the practice violated state anti-lottery laws. Other popular audience come-ons included China night, Crystal night, and a Bingo-like game called Screeno. Double features were also common by the mid-1930s, in spite of protests from purists. If such gimmickry couldn't restore prosperity, World War II with its gasoline rationing made the neighborhood movie theater the home front's most popular form of entertainment. V-J Day (15 Aug. 1945) marked the apogee of the movie theater, as a total of 101 were listed in Cuyahoga County. Besides 12 downtown houses and 2 drive-ins, they included 68 neighborhood theaters in the central city and 19 in the suburbs. Typically, movies opened locally in one of the 6 first-run houses downtown before being released to the neighborhoods. Most of the film distributors were centralized in or near the Film Exchange Bldg. at 2108 Payne Ave.
Under the postwar impact of TELEVISION and the rush to the SUBURBS, the decline of the neighborhood movie theater was cataclysmic. Forty of them were gone by 1952, their spacious auditoriums appropriated by such heirs as bowling alleys, churches, and furniture stores. Among the casualties were the Ambassador, Jennings, Knickerbocker, Lincoln, Memphis, Moreland, Norval, Rex, Rialto, and Stork. Even the proud first-run theaters downtown had screened their last feature by 1969. In an ironic twist, the Lake Theater at Euclid Ave. and E. 17th St. was converted into studios for WJW-TV. A few others were granted an ignominious reprieve as "skin houses" for the showing of adult movies. The landmark obscenity case of JACOBELLIS V. OHIO, however, arose out of a foreign film shown by the Heights Art Theater, a former neighborhood house in the COVENTRY VILLAGE BUSINESS DISTRICT.
Drive-in theaters enjoyed a brief postwar zenith with 10 in existence by the 1950s and 16 in 1974. Land scarcity tended increasingly to push them outside county limits, and this plus the arrival of the VCR led to the abatement of the phenomenon by the 1980s. The real wave of the future for movie houses came with the construction of the first modern suburban shopping center theaters in the 1960s. The first twin theater appeared at Parmatown in 1967, and the first quad (4 screens) at Westgate in 1971. Many of the surviving older theaters were converted to twin or triple screens, and new "multiplex" theaters were subdivided into more but ever smaller cubicles in order to attract a fragmenting audience and maximize the benefits of automated projection equipment. When Hoyts Tower City Cinemas opened in 1991, it gave downtown 11 movie screens where none had existed for years. Movie listings in 1995 yielded only 27 theater locations within Cuyahoga County, but among them they harbored a total of 145 screens. Serious film buffs also had the alternative venues of the Cedar-Lee Theater, the CLEVELAND INTL. FILM FESTIVAL and the CLEVELAND CINEMATHEQUE.