100 years of art, perseverance, and bringing people together
By Abigail Jarvis
The spring of 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of Playhouse Square. When the bright theatre marquees flashed to life for the very first time, there were five original theaters- the Allen, Hanna, Mimi Ohio, KeyBank State, and the Connor Palace. Each had its own speciality, but the district was known for hosting vaudeville performances, orchestras, jazz bands, spoken drama, and silent movies. The Great Depression became a threat for the district; however, and audiences simply needed cheaper forms of entertainment. The theaters struggled to maintain crowds with their live performances; many instead presented silent films or were pushed to close.
After World War II, the theaters continued to scramble for revenue throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. The rise in suburban living, small movie theaters, and at home television forced the remaining theaters to close. The once magnificent theaters were abandoned, vandalised and nearly forgotten. If not for the efforts of grassroots activists in the 1970s, Playhouse Square’s theaters may not have survived. The movement to save the venues continued through the ‘80s and ‘90s, successfully saving, reopening, and reshaping each of the historic theaters.
In 2009 Playhouse Square, Cleveland Play House (CPH), and Cleveland State University partnered and became known as The Power of Three. The Power of Three continued to uplift the theatres downtown. Together, they created a plan to renovate and build where the Allen, Helen & Outcalt Theatres are housed- the Allen Theatre Complex. CSU’s Technical Theatre Director, Cameron Michalak, was heavily involved in the process.
“They [The Power of Three] worked to renovate the Allen theatre from around 2800 to 500 seats, and built the Helen and Outcalt theatres. The theatres were finished in 2011 and that’s when we [CSU] got to take over those spaces to use,” Michalak said.
Michalak has an active career with the theaters in Playhouse Square. He worked with Cleveland Play House for 10 years before transitioning to CSU, where he now designs and teaches technical theatre. Some of his favorite productions that he has designed and/or built for Playhouse Square stages have been “Into the Woods” for CSU, Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” for Case Western Reserve with CPH, “The Crucible” for CPH, and “The Importance of Being Earnest” for CSU.
Michalak recognized that Playhouse Square is special and described the relationship between CSU and Playhouse Square as “everything.”
“I saw this program at CSU beginning to grow and figure out itself in a lot of exciting ways. I saw that Cleveland State was poised to make a big mark in educational theatre.”
Although the theatres in Playhouse Square are currently on intermission, the communities that occupy those theatres are staying active. Cleveland State has been staging productions in their Pandemic Theatre space, and both Cleveland Play House and Playhouse Square are present on social media where they have been hosting online events since the beginning of the pandemic. Playhouse Square continues to celebrate its history by encouraging safe participation and by making their Emmy winning documentary “Staging Success” available to stream.
The perseverance of these theatres in the face of economic disparity, World Wars, closings, and now the pandemic promises a triumphant return to the stages once audiences are vaccinated. The 101st anniversary of Playhouse Square is bound to be a celebration of all the rich history and a mark of future engaging performances.
“I am excited to get back into a theatre with a live audience. I hope they [Playhouse Square] get a chance to celebrate even more. They have been so resilient and if one thing would have gone differently, they might not have been around anymore. Those theatres could have been lost.” Michalak said. “To celebrate their return is really exciting, but I am even more excited to see when they celebrate thriving rather than surviving.”