The Variety Theatre, located in Cleveland, Ohio, was in operation from 1927 until 1984. It is listed as a Cleveland Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.6 After years of abandonment, the theater is being restored.


History

With Clara Bow starting in “Hula,” the Variety Theatre was opened by Sam Stecker, Meyer Fine, and Abe Kramer 6 on November 24, 1927.1 2 3 4 Variety Amusement Company operated the 20,000 square-foot, 1,900 seat facility.5

Designed by Cleveland architect Nicola Petti, the two-story Spanish gothic-styled 6 building boasted a Kimball organ,5 a 350-seat balcony, and orchestra pit. It also featured an elaborate interior with walls and ceilings adorned with cut-glass chandeliers, marble, brass, and tapestries.3 5 6 Fireproof Rackle Artstone was used for ornamental work.4 Outside was eight storefronts and 13 600 square-foot one-bedroom apartments.2

The theater complex was built by Stecker, Fine, and Kramer at a cost of $2 million.12

The Variety Theatre was sold to Warner Brothers in 1929.6 In 1953, the building was damaged in a tornado which required the removal of the marquee. It was not replaced.

In 1954, the Variety was sold to Edward and William Wargo, both realtors, for $500,000.6 The Variety continued to be operated by Community Circuit Theaters Company until 1976. It was then acquired by Russell Koz who ran the Variety as a second-run movie house.

The Variety was opened as a venue for heavy metal rock bands in April 1985.11 Touring bands included Metallica, the Dead Kennedys, and Motorhead. During a Motorhead appearance in the fall, portions of the plaster ceiling collapsed on patrons due to the level of noise being played.9

On January 24, 1986, Judge Thomas O. Matia issued a preliminary injunction that the noise from the rock concerts be confined within the theater. It was in response to John and Frances Heyer 10 who lived behind the venue and complained of the excessive noise and loiters.2 3 A restraining order was requested in March to stop all concerts in the Variety which was denied by Judge Richard McMonagle.

Nonetheless, the Variety closed in September.

Storefronts at the Variety were later occupied by Freedom Academy and Griswold High School, both operated by Norbert G. Dennerll, Jr.7 Dennerll founded the elementary and high school in 1980 as an alternative to forced busing after the public schools integrated.8 Most of the 600 students were white and paid $1,500 a year. Freedom Academy and Griswold High were forced to close by U.S. District Judge Frank Battisti on August 9, 1989 after the Internal Revenue Service said Dennerll owed $1.2 million in withholding taxes and penalties.7

The theater’s last use was as the Cleveland Wrestleplex that lasted until 1990.

Restoration

Westown Community Development Corporation, a non-profit neighborhood organization, acquired the dormant Variety Theatre on June 12, 2009 12 for $1.1 million with the goal of restoring the venue for community events.2 Westown was spearheaded by Michael Ripich of American Tank and Manufacturing.Proposals called for the 300-seat balcony to become a venue for a large screen theater, although plans for the orchestra pit, stage and theater space were not finalized.1

Variety Theatre

Rendering of the restored theater. Provided by the Westown Community Development Corp.

The national recession, however, made financial lending near impossible for the proposed $8 million renovation.2 Westown had raised about $1 million and more than $200,000 in federal funds for the Variety.

Facing funding challenges, Friends of the Variety Theatre took over restoration efforts for the Variety Theatre. It applied for a state historic tax credit in 2014 but was rejected.1 It amended its application and in December 2015, was awarded $1.4 million in tax credits.13

Plans detailed in the application noted that the first floor would be renovated into a restaurant and entertainment venue operated by Cleveland restaurateur Tony George.13 Upstairs, the balcony would be renovated into a movie theater.

On September 13, 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Variety was the winner of the This Place Matters awareness campaign. Installation of a new marquee, designed to be a replica of the original, was completed on September 24.13 The 28-foot, 2,280-LED-bulb marquee was fabricated by Wagner Sign funded by $110,000 in neighborhood development funding. A $100,000 grant from FirstEnergy Corporation was used to bring electricity into the Variety.

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