MUSICARNIVAL opened on 25 June 1954 as one of the first summer tent theaters in the United States. It featured musicals, operas, operettas, and jazz and rock concerts on its circular stage before closing in August 1975. Musicarnival was located on a small corner of the THISTLEDOWN RACE TRACK property on the east side of Warrensville Center Rd. in Warrensville Heights. Cleveland architect Robert A. Little designed the circular blue tent, which crowned a saucer-like arena surrounding the 30-ft.-diameter round stage. The initial cost was $12,000. The fire-proof canvas roof was composed of 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, although the tent still had to be replaced every four years or so due to weather-related deterioration. 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 (some 2,000 people) was injured. The torrential rain that followed forced Musicarnival to cancel the performance for the only time in its 22-year history.

Musicarnival’s 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 spotlights” from the steel grid over the stage, flew scenery in and out, and dug a full cellar under the stage. Eventually, three elevators were installed to enable even faster entrances and scene changes. Robert H. Bishop, III, was the theater’s first president, and JOHN L. PRICE, JR., served as vice president and producer. In 1963 Price became Musicarnival's president.

Between 1954 and 1964, the theater staged 62 repertory musicals, operettas, and grand operas, as well as imported, big-name “package productions” of Porgy and Bess and West Side Story. In 1957 Price brought a then-unknown Beverly Sills to Cleveland for the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. Price also produced the world stage premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1961. Sunday afternoon jazz concerts became popular in the early ’60s; Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, and other jazz greats appeared in 1963 alone.

As tastes in entertainment changed, it became evident that Musicarnival could only stay in business by primarily offering traveling shows. Audiences were increasingly drawn to big names (national stars) and the profitability of home-grown “stock” productions was waning. Thus Musicarnival transitioned from its “Production Period” (1954-1966) to its “Package Period” (1966-1975). The latter years saw the arrival of household names such as Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Liberace, Wayne Newton, Sammy Davis, and Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. National packages ranged from Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Oliver in 1966 to Fiddler on the Roof and Gypsy in 1975. Ann Corio's raucous This Was Burlesque was staged on a near-annual basis throughout Musicarnival’s Package Period.

Blues and Rock & Roll also appeared at Musicarnival beginning in 1966 and remained a summer staple for the rest of the decade. Some of the genre’s biggest names—American and British—performed during this time, including:

  • Allman Brothers Band (August 1971 with Pure Prairie League)
  • Paul Anka (August 1974)
  • Blues Image (July 1969 with Iron Butterfly)
  • Tim Buckley (August 1969 with Linda Ronstadt)
  • Glen Campbell (July 1973)
  • John Davidson (August 1970)
  • The Doors (September 1967)
  • Engelbert Humperdinck (July 1972, July 1973, July 1974)
  • James Gang (July 1969 with Led Zeppelin)
  • Arlo Guthrie (August 1969)
  • Tim Hardin (August 1969 with Pacific Gas & Electric)
  • Iron Butterfly (July 1969 with Blues Image)
  • Tom Jones (June 1972, July 1973, July 1974, June 1975)
  • John Mayall (September 1970)
  • Led Zeppelin (July 1969 with James Gang)
  • Lovin’ Spoonful (July 1967)
  • The Mothers of Invention (August 1969)
  • Osmond Brothers (September 1967)
  • Pacific Gas & Electric (August 1969 with Tim Hardin)
  • Pure Prairie League (August 1971 with Allman Brothers.)
  • Linda Ronstadt (August 1969 with Tim Buckley)
  • Simon & Garfunkel (July 1967)
  • Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (June 1966)
  • The Who (July 1968)

Musicarnival officially closed in August of 1975, succumbing to large rent increases imposed by the owner of Thistledown and competition from the FRONT ROW THEATER, which had opened the previous year. BLOSSOM MUSIC CENTER and RICHFIELD COLISEUM also siphoned off customers. Ironically, the theater’s last production was Grease, an homage to the era in which Musicarnival had been born.

Updated by Christopher Roy on 5 January 2024.

John Vacha, The Music Went 'Round and Around. The Kent State University Press, 2004.

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