Walking into the KeyBank State Theatre in downtown Cleveland, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Where to look first? The lobby walls adorned with priceless murals of modernist James Daugherty? The chandeliers hanging from ornate vaulted ceilings? The marble pillars splendidly lording over us from an encompassing mezzanine? Perhaps the skillfully crafted banisters and spindles on the grand stairway?
Such opulence was once seen only during Cleveland’s Golden Age the 1920s — when money flowed from the captains of industry and this lakefront city was the country’s fifth largest.
Imagine … five gilded theaters like the State built within 19 months. The district was dubbed Playhouse Square and it was the place to be.
The arrival of television and the departure to the suburbs brought the theaters’ heyday to an end in the late ‘60s, but thanks to some industrious and passionate Cleveland preservationists who began their crusade in the 1970s, these lavish theaters survive and thrive today.
The five renovated theaters with its 11 performance spaces draw a million patrons a year who provide a $43-million boost annually to Ohio’s biggest city.
We learn about this on an all-day tour of Cleveland, with Tom Einhouse as our guide for this portion. We move in and out of various spaces in several of the theaters. Distracted by the palatial interiors, I lose track of where we are.
Working for four decades to save the Playhouse Square theaters means that Einhouse can tell visitors about the decisions and processes it took to revive the splendor. He was just 21 years old when he first got involved. Where others saw only crumbling edifices beyond salvation, he saw grandeur that would also revitalize downtown Cleveland.
“I got involved because I was taken with the architecture and could see the possibilities,” says Einhouse, a-61-year-old real estate expert. “I knew it would become a big undertaking.”
And to fund and maintain this undertaking, Einhouse and other city movers and shakers formed the Playhouse Square Foundation, a unique financial mechanism for a nonprofit. With donations from public and private sources and low-cost loans, the foundation buys and renovates older buildings, converts them into usable, desirable spaces and collects the rent.
“Every not-for-profit must have an endowment and ours is real estate,” Einhouse explains. “It’s our working endowment.” The revenue-generating properties include 1 million square feet of commercial space (offices and retail); a 205-room hotel; 1,300 parking spaces, and under construction, a 34-story, 315-unit residential building.
And, he adds, “we just finished a $110 million capital campaign. The money will be reinvested in the theaters.”
Through the years, Einhouse’ job has been to assure that everyone working on the projects is doing what they promised and that the project is tracking on schedule. There is a lot of problem-solving along the way, especially when you’re trying to restore and duplicate fixtures, fabrics and art that no longer exists.
Each theater has a story or three worthy of a stage drama, too. For instance, the KeyBank State Theatre “was within hours of the wrecking ball in 1973,” Einhouse relates. “The crane with the wrecking ball was sitting in a parking lot across the street” when the Junior League stepped in with an injunction. To date, “this is the largest theater restoration project in the world.”
Playhouse Square, the largest performing arts center outside of New York City, also has the largest number of subscriptions to touring Broadway shows in the country.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.