Filed Under Entertainment

The Aquacade

One of the major attractions during the first year of the Great Lakes Exposition was the Marine Theater, a performance which took place in Lake Erie and showcased swimming and diving acts. The following year, Broadway producer and showman Billy Rose came to town and turned the Marine Theater into something even more spectacular: The Aquacade.

Rose invested $500,000 in his Aquacade show and built an elaborate moving set and seats for 5,000 spectators. Grander and more ambitious than the Marine Theater, the Aquacade featured a cast of hundreds of swimmers, divers, and showgirls who performed to live musical accompaniment. Dinner was served during evening performances of the four-act show, and tickets could cost as much as $1.50 -- quite an expense at the time. The show proved to be a great success, with sold out performances being the norm and seasoned New York critics claiming that Billy Rose had "brought Broadway to Lake Erie." Even the Three Stooges -- Larry, Curly, and Moe -- came to see the show when they had a night off from performing at the Palace Theater.

Some of the most spectacular drama surrounding the Aquacade (drama that in fact only helped promote the show further) happened off-stage, however. Johnny Weismuller (best known for his movie role as Tarzan) performed at the Aquacade, and his equally famous wife Lupe Velez (a Mexican actress) would sometimes fly into Cleveland unexpectedly. Velez would fight and argue with Weismuller in public, creating plenty of fodder for the papers. Olympic swimming star Eleanor Holm Jarrett performed in the show, too. Jarrett made headlines by giving up her amateur standing to perform the starring role in the Aquacade, but she had already been suspended from the Olympic team for drinking (itself a hot news item), and may not have been reinstated anyway. Rumors of a romantic affair between Jarrett and Rose (who were both married at the time) also fueled much speculation. The two later divorced their spouses and married in 1939

The Aquacade ended its run in Cleveland when the Great Lakes Exposition came to an end in September 1937. Rose took his show to the 1939 New York World's Fair, with Holm and Weismuller reprising their starring roles, and it again drew rave reviews and large crowds.

Audio

"Lake Erie For a Stage..." John Vacha, historian and author of Meet Me on Lake Erie, Dearie!: Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition, discusses the origins of the Aquacade. Source: Courtesy of Judith MacKeigan
Seeing the Aquacade John Vacha, historian and author of Meet Me on Lake Erie, Dearie!: Cleveland's Great Lakes Exposition, describes the scene at the Aquacade. Source: Courtesy of Judith MacKeigan

Images

Aquacade, June 1937 Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Marine Theater, 1936 The original Marine Theater at the 1936 Great Lakes Exposition was much less elaborate than the Aquacade which replaced it the following year. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Rose, Holm, and Weissmuller, 1937 Billy Rose (left) sits with the stars of the Aquacade -- Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weissmuller. Rose and Holm were both married to other people at the time, but rumors swirled about an affair between the two. They ended up marrying in 1939. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Aquacade Audience, 1937 The stands at the Aquacade could hold over 5,000 spectators, many of whom enjoyed dinner as they watched the show. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Audition Over two hundred hopeful women showed up at the Hotel Allerton in Cleveland to audition for Billy Rose (kneeling, at right). Rose planned to use one hundred swimmers between the ages of 16 and 26 who were attractive and had good figures. Rose was also looking for thirty-six show girls, and thirty-six experienced chorus dancers. The women were to be seperated into three groups based on height, including a group of "big gals" six feet tall to dance and swim. Billy Rose kept his promise of offering clean entertainment, but he also promised his audience "the most beautiful girls we can assemble, with girlish legs and no mustaches." Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Aquacade at Night The back of this postcard reads: ""The modernistic exterior of Billy Rose's Aquacade, mammoth aquatic-musical-dancing extravaganza, is most impressive under the stars. This 5,000-seat theater-restaurant has been acclaimed the sensation of the show world, presenting a galaxy of Olympic champions." Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Site of Aquacade, 2011 Today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and William G. Mather Museum occupy the space where the Aquacade once wowed audiences.

Location

Metadata

“The Aquacade,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 17, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/292.