THEATER. In a frontier situation, where the settlers must be self-sufficient, entertainment is usually a home-grown product. So it was in the village of Cleveland early in the 19th century, when amateur theater manifested itself. Playreadings and amateur performances, mostly in the schools, appear in the record with sufficient frequency to suggest that considerably more of the activity went unrecorded. Such activity eventually led to the forming of the first recorded community drama group. They called themselves the Theatre Royal Society, performed in a hall called the Shakespeare Gallery in the early spring of 1819, gave the proceeds to the village, and vanished from the record. The first known visit of a professional acting company to Cleveland was in 1820, when Wm. B. Blanchard and his troupe performed in the dining room of Mowrey's Tavern, under conditions little more adequate than the elemental prescription for theater, "a passion and a plank."
It wasn't until 5 years later that a second dramatic company visited Cleveland. That year, 1825, also saw the beginning of work on the OHIO & ERIE CANAL, which upon its completion in 1832 sparked an explosion of growth in Cleveland, the canal's northern terminus. Since the lake and the canal were the principal avenues of travel to and from the outside world, it followed that the theater season would be a summer one, coinciding with open season of transportation on those freshwater routes. Seeing this opportunity, 2 enterprising actor-managers, Edwin Dean and David McKinney, put together a company of players in 1834 to perform on a lake circuit formed by the triangle of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, with intermittent extension south on the canal to Columbus. In Cleveland, ITALIAN HALL served as the showplace for their productions for 4 seasons from 1834-37. With local backers, they were planning a fine new theater building for the city when the financial Panic of 1837 intervened. Another venue for performances appeared in 1810 when J. W. Watson built a small theater on the 2nd floor of a building on the north side of Superior Ave., between Bank (W. 6th) and Seneca (W. 3rd) streets. After 6 different names and ownership changes, as the GLOBE THEATER it was razed in 1880.
The coming of the RAILROADS to Cleveland in the early 1850s precipitated another period of rapid growth. Joseph C. Foster continued the struggle to establish a permanent stock company in Cleveland. His effort found its focus at the Cleveland Theater on Center (Frankfort) St. By 1853 he had been successful enough to set about building a new, more satisfactory theater in the vicinity. In 1859, after a quick succession of names, the new theater became the ACADEMY OF MUSIC, and under that name it began its nearly 24-year tenure as Cleveland's premiere legitimate theater. The man responsible for the name and for the ascendancy of the "Old Drury," as it came to be known, was JOHN A. ELLSLER, who with his wife and daughter solidly established the stability and reputation of the stock company as one of the finest in the country. As Cleveland entered the 1870s, a consensus gradually developed that the academy was becoming inadequate for the changing times. Ellsler took the lead, and the result in 1875 was a new first-rate theater for the city, the luxurious EUCLID AVE. OPERA HOUSE. Better times in the 1880s led to more theater-building as the city continued to grow. In 1883 the Park Theater opened on the northwest quadrant of PUBLIC SQUARE, and in 1889 it became the LYCEUM THEATER. It was first managed by AUGUSTUS F. HARTZ. The CLEVELAND THEATER, another playhouse named for the city, opened in 1885. A tent theater, the Cleveland Pavilion Theatre, flourished that summer in the city. HALTNORTH'S GARDENS had popular alfresco entertainment also. The Columbia Theater opened in 1887, presenting vaudeville, melodrama, and eventually burlesque. In the 1890s theater became more flamboyant and sensational, striving for a surface kind of realism. In 1896, as the 10th-largest city in the nation, Cleveland celebrated its centennial. There were parades, pageants, and various amateur entertainments. An original opera, From Moses to McKisson by W. R. Rose, was presented at the Euclid Ave. Opera House.
In the 19th century, the plays and the stagecraft, in terms of originality and innovation, were pretty much imported products, created and often packaged in New York. The reversal of this order was "Uncle John Ellsler's School" at the Academy of Music, which contributed such performers as Clara Morris and EFFIE E. ELLSLER to the national acting scene and Abe Erlanger to management. Up to mid-century, the repertoire offered was typical enough; melodrama and spectacles, tragedies and comedies were all popular. Particularly popular on Cleveland stages also, and probably connected to the New England heritage in the Western Reserve, was the stage Yankee, that Down-Easter character, rustic, shrewd, and comic, and descended in numerous plays from Royall Tyler's Jonathan in The Contrast (1787). The effect of New England Puritanism on theater in Cleveland is more difficult to assess. John Ellsler, writing in his memoirs and reflecting on a lifetime of theater activity in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and a fortune lost in Cleveland theaters, ruefully concluded that Pittsburgh was the better theater town, a conclusion that, if true at the time, would certainly be reversed in the next century. After mid-century, strong abolitionist sentiment gave stage adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin a unique popularity beyond their artistic merit. The existence of this fervent abolitionism alongside Jim Crow seating in some Cleveland theaters was an ironic fact of the times.
More new theaters came in with the century. The Empire Theater opened in 1900 on Huron Rd. with more vaudeville, as did the COLONIAL THEATER in 1903. Then in 1908 came the mighty HIPPODROME THEATER. This immense playhouse was awe-inspiring and in many ways typified the ebullient spirit of the times. It was built to accommodate the realistic action-spectacles that the movies would soon be doing massively and more successfully. These national trends toward the colossal and superficial in entertainment were soon to be challenged by a counterforce: the Little Theater movement that began in Europe in the 1880s and spread to America in the new century. It was a movement that would soon profoundly and permanently affect the course of theater in Greater Cleveland. The year 1915 has to be noted as special in the annals of Cleveland theater history, for that is when 2 great and enduring theater organizations had their tentative beginnings: the CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE and KARAMU. Both grew in different ways from the ideals and ferment of the Little Theater movement. While formal dramatic activity at Karamu did not begin until a few years later, 1915 was the year that ROWENA and RUSSELL JELLIFFE came to Cleveland with their galvanizing beliefs that the cultural arts could make a significant contribution to race relations in an urban setting. The first full-fledged City Club ANVIL REVUE, which had evolved from its earlier stunt nights, was held in 1917. The 1920s witnessed the rapid rise of local theater organizations as the important tastemakers and educators of audiences. In addition to the Cleveland Play House and Karamu, another important force for the "new theater" was gradually coming into being at Western Reserve Univ. BARCLAY LEATHEM, working to overcome faculty prejudice against academic credit for theater studies, formed the Dept. of Speech there in 1927. By 1931 it had become the Dept. of Drama & Theater and was offering graduate study in the field. It was part of Leathem's vision to promote a working relationship between his department, the Play House, and Karamu, in which his students would gain practical experience working with seasoned actors and technicians in professional-level productions. On campus, his department's own pioneering productions helped to introduce students and local audiences to such important playwrights as O'Neill, Strindberg, Brecht, and Sartre.
The "wonderful year" for theater openings in Cleveland had to be 1921, when HANNA THEATERS opened as legitimate houses. Under the management of Cleveland playwright Robert McLaughlin, the Ohio hosted New York road shows and a summer stock company in the 1920s, until its eventual conversion to motion pictures. The Hanna remained as Cleveland's primary outlet for Broadway shows well into the 1970s. Elsewhere in the city, at E. 6th and Lakeside, PUBLIC AUDITORIUM was dedicated on 15 Apr. 1922, with its huge stage and impressive architectural style. The Public Music Hall and the Little Theater were added in 1929 to complete the complex.
The fall of 1929 brought the stock market crash, which became at once a jolting epilogue to the 1920s and a sobering prologue to the 1930s. The talkies and RADIO came into their own as inexpensive entertainment. One amazing local phenomenon in radio was GENE CARROLL and Glenn Rowell doing their show, "Gene & Glenn with Jake & Lena," heard on radio station WTAM. It attracted national attention. The Theater of Nations, beginning in 1930, boosted ethnic pride as a 3-year series of plays, presented in the Little Theater of Public Hall by nationality groups from around the city. Karamu's entry in the first series, Roseanne, brought the group additional citywide attention when it was subsequently booked for a special week's engagement at the Ohio Theater. Indeed, the 1930s continued to bring them ever-widening recognition. Later in the decade, one of their own, LANGSTON HUGHES, turned to them as the group best suited to produce his plays. The collaboration that followed remains a rare local example of what a playwright and a producing organization working together, over a period of time, can accomplish. The effort saw 6 plays by Hughes presented at Karamu in 4 years, 5 of them world premieres, and the 1930s are remembered with pride in Karamu lore as the "Hughes Decade."
As the Little Theater movement of the 2 previous decades began to fade into the less avant-garde community-theater trend of the next 2 decades, a group in LAKEWOOD espousing Little Theater ideals was organized and presented its first play in 1931 as the Guild of the Masques. It soon became the LAKEWOOD LITTLE THEATER, which remains one of Cleveland's distinguished theater organizations. The GREAT LAKES EXPOSITION helped bolster the depressed spirits of the area in the summers of 1936-37. Of theatrical interest were abbreviated productions of some of Shakespeare's plays, presented in a reproduction of the Globe Playhouse, and in the second summer Billy Rose's lavish swim spectacle, Aquacade. In CLEVELAND HTS. on 10 Aug. 1938, CAIN PARK THEATER, an open-air, community theater, was dedicated, having evolved from modest beginnings 4 years earlier. Under the direction of DINA REES EVANS, it made a unique and lasting contribution to theater here for both adults and children. Two local ventures particularly characteristic of the Depression decade were the Cleveland unit of the Federal Theater Project (1935-39) and the Peoples Theater, an attempt by Cleveland native HOWARD DASILVA to found a workers' theater here in 1935-36.
The 1940s and the total war effort pushed many peacetime activities aside; but youngsters were not neglected, with children's theater programs not only at Cain Park but also at the Cleveland Play House and, in the late 1940s, at the Lakewood Little Theater's School and the Children's Theater-on-the-Heights. At the college and university level, there were growing theater traditions at BALDWIN-WALLACE COLLEGE and JOHN CARROLL UNIV. The Korean War and McCarthyism set the anxious tone of the early 1950s, and the growth of TELEVISION accelerated the vogue for "home entertainment." But the appetite for live theater survived, as witnessed in 1954 by the establishment of MUSICARNIVAL, one of the first tent theaters in the U.S. In 1960 the Dobama Players put on their first play (see DOBAMA THEATER). Under the vigorous and imaginative leadership of Don Bianchi, they have carved a special niche for themselves in the area. Also in 1960, the drama group of the JEWISH COMMUNITY CTR. moved into their model new home, the Blanche R. Halle Theater, to continue a tradition of excellence in production that began in the latter 1940s. In an exciting example of community effort on many levels, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, later the GREAT LAKES THEATER FESTIVAL, was established in 1962 in Lakewood. On the other hand, the situation in PLAYHOUSE SQUARE was far from inspiring. By the end of the 1960s, all the theaters in the area were closed except the Hanna, and the fine though battered old buildings were facing demolition. But in the early 1970s, the Playhouse Square Assn., led by Ray Shepardson, began its battle to save the theaters and the area. Joined by business, other community allies, and the vigorously creative theater department at CLEVELAND STATE UNIV., it achieved a renaissance, and the future of the theaters has been assured.
In HIGHLAND HTS., the FRONT ROW, a large arena-style theater, opened in 1974, staging performances by national as well as local celebrities. In the early 1980s, significant developments in Cleveland theater included the revival of the 3 downtown theaters under the Playhouse Square Foundation, and the moving of the Great Lakes Theater Festival and the Front Row series to Playhouse Square. Another important development was the founding of the Cleveland Public Theater in 1984. A nonprofit corporation, it offered much-needed development opportunities to local playwrights, actors, and directors, and new and relevant ways to present the theatrical experience. Other new groups which have emerged over the past decade include the Ensemble Theater, Bratenahl Playhouse, Working Theater, and Cleveland Theater Co. Many of them are drawing on the city's pool of nearly 200 Equity actors as well as dedicated amateurs. As roadshows continue to dwindle, the future of theater in Cleveland is more than ever in local hands.