On the evening of December 5, 1863, two thousand audience members at the Academy of Music enthusiastically applauded the acting of John Wilkes Booth. Little did they know that the actor who gave "his greatest performance" as Charles D'Moor in The Robbers would not be remembered for his acting talents, but instead live on in infamy for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Booth had appeared at the Academy of Music before starring in The Robbers. Other performers whose names became well known got their start on the same stage, such as John McCullough and Clara Morris.
The Academy of Music on Bank (now W. 6th) Street was one of the top American theaters of its time. Theater doors were opened for the first time on April 16, 1853 for the production of School for Scandal. The early days proved challenging, and two years later the theater was leased by John A. Ellsler to save it from financial ruin. It was under his rule that the theater had its heyday. "Uncle John" Ellsler started his stock company, one of the first American dramatic schools, at the Academy. It proved a great success. With the exception of some relatively brief absences, Ellsler's stock company provided Clevelanders with Shakespearean and popular entertainment for three decades. After the stock company system started to die, however, larger theater houses were built. Consequently, Cleveland's entertainment center shifted away from Bank Street and Ellsler decided to discontinue his lease for good. The Academy was then left in the hands of numerous managers, none of whom were able to regenerate the theater's previous success.
Although the Academy of Music's popularity was dwindling, it was restored to serve as a vaudeville house after being gutted by a fire on June 30, 1889. Just over three years later, the theater was completely destroyed by another fire but not rebuilt. Before the second fire on August 8, 1892, audiences would have sat beneath a china candle chandelier hung from the auditorium ceiling. The music resonating from the orchestra pit was played by students and was conducted by their teacher. Actors, comedians, and musicians performed their various talents on a downward sloped stage and were illuminated by gas footlights downstage. At the end of a night's show, a plush red curtain would drop, covering the entertainers and the stage.