MUSICARNIVAL opened Friday, June 25, 1954 as one of the first tent theaters in the U.S. It produced and staged musicals, operas and operettas on its circular stage until it closed in August of 1975 due to competition from the FRONT ROW THEATER and Blossom Music Center. The theater was located next to THISTLEDOWN RACE TRACK on Warrensville Center Rd. in Warrensville Heights. Cleveland architect Robert A. Little designed the circular blue tent, which crowned a saucerlike arena surrounding the 30 ft. diameter round stage, at an initial cost of $12,000. The fire-proof canvas roof comprised nine pie-shaped sections suspended from a steel superstructure of 36 radial cables attached to a central steel bale ring atop a steel tripod. This design eliminated view-obstructing poles and sagging canvas, and although the canvas tent had to be replaced every about every 4 years due to weather deterioration, it was "the safest tent ever made by man." During an August 1962 performance of The Desert Song, a tornado hit, leveling nearby barns, killing horses, and ripping the tent in several places, but the steel cables held fast and no one in the audience of over 2,000 was injured. The torrential rain which followed forced Musicarnival to cancel the performance and issue rain checks for the first and only time in its 22-year history.
The 1954 seating capacity of 1,500 was expanded to 2,563 in 1958. There were 18 concentric rows of seats, the last of which was less than 50 feet from the stage, affording an intimacy few theaters offered. As Musicarnival developed the technology of staging musicals in the round, it inaugurated follow spots from the steel grid over the stage, flew scenery in and out, and dug a full cellar under the stage. With entrances available via stairways, performers could make costume changes much more quickly than they could in the "quick-change" booth outside the tent or all the way back into the dressing room. Eventually, three elevators were installed to enable even faster entrances and magical scene changes. Robert H. Bishop, III, was the first president and John L. Price, Jr., served as vice president and producer, and in 1963 became Musicarnival's president. Between 1954 and 1964, the theater produced 84 productions of 62 musicals, operettas and grand operas, as well as packages of Porgy and Bess and West Side Story. In the early years, Price mounted an opera every year, including The Ballad of Baby Doe which introduced an unknown Beverly Sills to Cleveland audiences in 1957. Price also produced the world stage premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1961. Among the guest artists who appeared with Price's repertory company were Juanita Hall, Robert Rounseville, and Joshua Hecht. Sunday afternoon jazz concerts became very popular, and the 1963 program included Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Dave Brubeck, among others.
As tastes in entertainment changed, it became evident that Musicarnival could only stay in business by offering variety show packages. The joy and trauma of mounting original productions were gone, and the superior facilities of the Musicarnival stage were seldom exploited. But the package years (1965-1975) saw the emergence of Musicarnival's most popular show, Ann Corio's raucous This Was Burlesque. Miss Corio rehearsed her latest edition at Musicarnival in the spring, opened the season, then left on her summer tour, returning in September to sellout audiences. The appearance of old burlesque comics like Harry Conley and Mac Denison gave audiences a precious last glance at a comedy style that no longer exists.