Downtown Cleveland: Playhouse Square, memory lane and beyond
CLEVELAND, July 17, 2016 – Just as most Americans don’t seem to realize that Cleveland is home to one of this country’s top five world-renowned symphony orchestras (the Cleveland Orchestra), many aren’t aware that Euclid Avenue was once home to its own entertainment Broadway, a “Great White Way” that housed a major repertory and first-run theater complex known as “Playhouse Square,” which consisted of five major theaters, all constructed in the 1920s and located within about a two-block radius.
As Cleveland began its long decline, so, too did Playhouse Square. One by one each theater, save one, went dark. Typical of urban planning at the time, by the time the 1970s rolled around, many in the city were eager to tear these decaying hulks down.
But in an astonishing move—one that may very well have saved Cleveland’s downtown—a genuine grassroots fundraising effort got the ball rolling on restoring all five theaters to their original glory, one at a time, and they’re all open today. Additionally, for economic reasons, the large Allen was transformed into two more manageable theater spaces while three additional performance spaces have been added for a total of eight. While Playhouse Square may not be Broadway, few U.S. cities can boast of such an impressive concentration of historic and still living theatrical space.
Welcome to today’s Playhouse Square
Playhouse Square is now justifiably touted as the world’s largest theater restoration project. According to the Playhouse Square website, the complex now draws over a million patrons a year and contributes some $43 million to the area economy from its performing arts activities alone. It’s consistently amazing just how much a friendly performing arts environment can contribute to nearly any town or city’s survival and revival.
The born-again Statler Arms, Heinens downtown and RIP National City Bank
Strolling back toward Public Square on Euclid Avenus after checking out Playhouse Square was for me like taking an astonishing and sometimes genuinely sad trip down memory lane.
My first nostalgic encounter was with a sturdy red brick building now known as the Statler Arms. I knew it as the Hotel Statler, which was later (I believe) renamed the Statler Hilton as was its downtown D.C. counterpart. Back in the day, entertainers, theatrical stars and everyday folk regarded the Statler as a fine place to stay while in town. But of most interest to me was the grand Statler ballroom. In the 1940s, the ballroom served as the primary HQ for the locally based George Duffy Band when the players were in town.
Duffy’s ensemble was a genuine “big band” that concentrated its booking in a single geographical area rather than touring nationwide. Such bands are still known as “territory bands” to distinguish them from those groups that sought more national attention and big recording contracts.
The Duffy Band’s territory as best I can ascertain was roughly bounded by Milwaukee and Chicago to the west, the Detroit area to the north, Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to the south and, on occasion, Washington, D.C. in the mid-Atlantic.
Why do I care? Because my mother was for years the “girl singer” for the band, belting out all the era’s favorite songs under the stage name of “Jo-Anne.” When ensconced in the Statler ballroom, the band offered live radio broadcasts each week on local stations, frequently recording these live, on-air shows on old 78 RPM lacquer platters. Using what noise reduction technology was available to me at the time (the mid-to-late 1980s). I cleaned up and recorded some of these selections to a cassette tape (remember them?).
I still have the tape, and my nephew actually used one of the copies I made to transfer my recording over to a CD. (I still need to get a copy of that one.) Playing the tape even now returns me to a bygone era when Cleveland still had a glamorous side of which the “Lovely Jo-Anne” was once an integral part.
Walking into the “Statler Arms” today, I was astonished to see a brilliantly clean, gleaming marble lobby that now serves as the entry point to the newly repurposed historic old hotel. It’s now a warren of fairly luxurious condos.
There was little action in the lobby, but I did manage to strike up a conversation with the guard on duty at the reception desk. Yes, the old Statler Ballroom was still there, but no, I couldn’t visit it, or at least the guard didn’t have the authority to let me in. It turns out that, despite the building’s renovation and numerous paying tenants, the storied ballroom is derelict, its once magnificent space a shambles to the point where management doesn’t allow visitors, fearing they’ll be hit by flying debris.
That seemed quite strange to me, but then again, if the current owners haven’t figured out how to make money out of the space, their course of action—doing nothing—was entirely logical. Very sad, really, but perhaps I’ll go higher up the food chain on my next visit to see if I can get in.
I encountered another bit of history just down the road at East Ninth and Euclid. It’s on that corner where you’ll find what was once the majestic domed building that once housed the Cleveland Trust Bank (“Your closest friend when money is a must.”) That’s where my father made a living for many years as a trusts and estates VP before getting muscled out in a “youth movement” when he was 62. (Sound familiar, laid-off Boomers?)
Cleveland Trust became Ameritrust and then, in M&A activity I can no longer follow, disappeared, leaving its domed HQ—which still reminds me of the Jefferson Memorial—derelict for years. (Don’t worry about dad. We’ll revisit his fate in a moment.)
In what to me is an absolutely astonishing development, local high-end grocery chain Heinen’s (which is a bit like the Harris-Teeter chain in the D.C. metro area and elsewhere) bought the historic building and, mirabile dictu, transformed it into a gigantic, very fashionable high-end grocery store, restaurant and watering hole. The building was cleaned up and at least partially restored, most notably the brilliant murals painted directly below the translucent dome. The location seems to be doing a decent business at this point and must certainly serve as yet another draw for the potential downtown condo buyers that builders and investors are pitching.
Traveling just a bit farther toward Public Square on East Ninth, we encounter the former world headquarters of the now-defunct National City Bank, which prior to the Great Recession was the nation’s 10th biggest bank. Upper management had stretched this once conservative bank into branching out into the far-flung Florida markets, getting involved with overbuilt Florida real estate in the process. When the financial gong hit (2007-2009), National City quickly found itself in a peck of trouble and was initially bailed out by TARP.
For reasons unknown to me (perhaps the revenge of the miserable Dennis Kucinich, who despised Cleveland’s banks for driving him out as Cleveland’s mayor in the 1970s), local politicians didn’t defend the bank, and the Feds eventually forced its sale to Pittsburgh-based PNC, which occupies most of the fairly new National City HQ Tower on Euclid, although the legacy National City bronze plaque remains on the edifice.
Why do I care? Because, exactly one month after he was “bought out” by Cleveland Trust, the old man got a call from National City, which was astonished he was available and wanted to take advantage of his people skills. In short order, he was hired by National City as a key “new business” VP at a considerable boost in salary. (That’s all I know, as most members of the now passing “Greatest Generation” would never discuss money matters, not even with their own kids.)
Dad worked for National City until he actually needed to retire at around age 78 to care for my ailing mother. He once told me he regarded himself as the most fortunate guy in the world. “What I mostly do now is take older guys who have a lot of money out to Cleveland Indians baseball games, and the bank pays me more money than I’ve ever seen,” he once told me. Obviously, his ability to schmooze must have brought National City many an influential client, so those trips to watch the Tribe must have resulted in a handsome return on investment (ROI). Even when he finally did retire under his own power, National City tried to persuade him to stay on at least part time. Opportunities like that most likely will never exist again.
Memories. All gone now.
As we proceed west toward Public Square, we also pass one of Cleveland’s most remarkable yet unobtrusive streets: East 4th. East 4th is really not much more than an alleyway. But in recent years, it’s become the favored locale of several of Cleveland’s hottest restaurants and bars, most notably Michael Symon’s renowned Lola. Now a well-known Food Network personality, star chef and successful “Iron Chef” competitor, Symon is credited with launching and nurturing Cleveland’s downtown fine dining scene revival.
Symon has plenty of fine and casual dining competitors up and down E. 4th, but Lola’s never seems to be wanting for business.
At the opposite end of E. 4th from Lola is the architecturally famous Cleveland Arcade Building, beautifully restored to its original magnificence.
It was getting shabby when I was a high school student way back when, but I still recall frequenting a vast but dark and dusty sheet music store on the lower level whenever I needed to purchase some obscure classical piano score.
But the Arcade’s restoration to its magnificent former glory is a sight to behold, and, on a slow, lazy summer afternoon when most of its businesses were closed, I had a great opportunity to take some good inside photos of the building without being hindered, visually, by a large, busy crowd.
House of Blues, Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field
Nearing Public Square once again, I passed the “House of Blues,” a long-standing live popular music venue that primarily offers R&B entertainment that packs the venue, particularly on weekends.
Traveling more or less south from Public Square past this point, I finally arrived at Quicken Loans Arena, currently home to local-boy-made-good LeBron James and the NBA World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. After massive security sweeps and equipment installation, this is where the Republican National Convention is about to be held.
It’s hard to tell what will happen in and around the arena as well as downtown Cleveland itself. The cops—and Cavaliers fans—acquitted themselves well during the Cavs’ post-championship victory parade, with only a single senseless shooting marring this otherwise happy event. Even so, the RNC is a different kind of event. Within hours, we’ll likely be finding out how this one is likely to go down.
In the meantime, the best of luck to the Cleveland Police, the Republican rent-a-cops, and the silent majority in both political parties who would prefer the United States of America to encourage free speech and democracy—like Cleveland’s former mayor Johnson—instead of the ominous, creeping fascism of the radical left.