Variety Theatre

Theatrical / Ohio

The Variety Theatre, a former theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, operated between 1927 and 1984. Listed as a Cleveland Landmark and in the National Register of Historic Places, the building is being restored after years of abandonment.


History

The Variety Theatre was opened by Sam Stecker, Meyer Fine, and Abe Kramer 6 on November 24, 1927, 1 2 3 4 with the premiere of “Hula,” starring Clara Bow. The 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 an orchestra pit. The walls and ceilings were adorned with cut-glass chandeliers, marble, brass, and tapestries 3 5 6 and fireproof Rackle Artstone was used for ornamental work. 4 Outside were eight storefronts and 13 600 square-foot one-bedroom apartments. 2

The new Variety was finalised at the cost of $2 million. 1

The theatre was sold to Warner Brothers in 1929. 6 A tornado in 1953 damaged the building which required the removal of the marquee, which was not replaced.

The Variety was sold to realtors Edward and William Wargo for $500,000 in 1954. 6 The venue continued to be operated by Community Circuit Theaters Company until 1976 when it was acquired by Russell Koz who managed the site as a second-run movie house.

The Variety began to be used as a showstopper 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. 9

On January 24, 1986, Judge Thomas O. Matia issued a preliminary injunction that the noise from the rock concerts be confined within the theatre. 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 theatre’s last use was as the Cleveland Wrestleplex until 1990.

Restoration

Westown Community Development Corporation, a non-profit neighbourhood organisation, 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 Michael Ripich of American Tank and Manufacturing spearheaded Westown.Proposals called for the 300-seat balcony to become a venue for a large screen theatre, although plans for the orchestra pit, stage and theater space had not been finalised. 1

Variety Theatre

A rendering of the restored theatre. 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 in private financing and gathered 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. The organisation 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 form 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 restored into a movie theatre.

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 neighbourhood development funding. A $100,000 grant from FirstEnergy Corporation was used to bring electricity into the Variety.


Gallery


Sources

  1. O’Brien, Erin. “Once-dazzling Variety Theatre Set for Rebirth as New Lorain Avenue Anchor.” Freshwater Cleveland, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. Article.
  2. O’Malley, Michael. “Restoring the 86-year-old Variety Theater on Cleveland’s West Side: Whatever Happened to …?” Cleveland Plain Dealer 1 July 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. Article.
  3. O’Malley, Michael. “Shuttered Cleveland movie houses targeted for restoration.” Cleveland Plain Dealer 22 Dec. 2008. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. Article.
  4. Rackle Products As Usual. Advertisement. Cleveland Plain Dealer 24 Nov. 1927: 29. Print.
  5. “Variety to Open.” Cleveland Plain Dealer 23 Nov. 1927: 19. Print.
  6. “The Lorain Avenue Master Plan.” Westown Community Development Corporation, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. Article.
  7. Stainer, Harry. “Freedom, Griswold parents picket founder” Cleveland Plain Dealer 22 Oct. 1989: 6B. Print.
  8. Westfeldt, Amy. “Padlocked schools aim to reopen.” Cleveland Plain Dealer 11 Aug. 1989: 2B. Print.
  9. Scott, Jane. “Motorhead’s in the driver’s seat again.” Cleveland Plain Dealer 31 Oct. 1986: 39. Print.
  10. “Judge allows concert at Variety Theater.” Cleveland Plain Dealer 14 Mar. 1986: 14A. Print.
  11. “Variety facing legal action.” Cleveland Plain Dealer 12 Mar. 1986: 7F. Print.
  12. Lambros, Matt. “The Variety Theatre.” After the Final Curtain. 6 July 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. Article.
  13. DeMarco, Laura. “Restoration begins at Cleveland’s historic Variety Theatre.” Plain-Dealer [Cleveland] 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.