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The Academy of Music

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.


Academy of Music
Academy of Music A fire broke broke out at the Academy of Music before sunrise on Sunday June 30, 1889. The fire was so large that witnesses were worried it would spread to other houses and buildings on Bank Street. Eleven fire steamers and three fire trucks were called to put out the flames. After an hour it seemed that the firemen had been successful but alas, the fire broke out once again and raged for another hour and a half. The rebuilt Academy (as shown here) operated for another three years until a second fire claimed the building for good. Image Courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr.
John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. John Wilkes Booth (left) came from a family of actors. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. came to the United States from Britain after establishing himself as a successful Shakespearean actor. John's brothers Edwin (center) and Junius Brutus, Jr. (right) had also frequented the Academy of Music's stage. The latter brother was arrested on April 26, 1865 in Philadelphia after a letter he had written raised suspicions that he had known of his brother's plans to assassinate President Lincoln. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Clara Morris
Clara Morris Clara Morris got her start in "Uncle John Ellsler's School" at the Academy of Music. It was there she met fellow actor John Wilkes Booth. In 1870, Morris began acting on the stages of New York. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Bain Collection.
Original Academy of Music Building
Original Academy of Music Building The place on Bank (W. 6th) Street where the Academy of Music building once stood is now a parking lot. President Abraham Lincoln had stayed in a home on this street during a visit to Cleveland in 1861. The president would have seen the building where his assassin performed. To add to the irony, the same theater in which Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth acted helped to raise money for the Soldiers' Aid Society in 1862. The funds went to support soldiers fighting for the Union cause. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Lawrence Barrett
Lawrence Barrett Lawrence Barrett had already been a part of the acting scene but was still a struggling actor before performing at Cleveland's Academy of Music. During the Civil War, Barrett took a break from the stage to fight as a captain in the 28th Massachusetts. After actually fighting on the battlefield, he went on to fight in character as a Shakespearean actor. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.


W 6th St, Cleveland, OH | Demolished


Heidi Fearing, “The Academy of Music,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 23, 2024,