Cleveland Public Hall's Rock and Roll Roots
On September 15, 1964, the Beatles descended upon Cleveland Public Hall. A horde of approximately 11,000 screaming fans piled into Cleveland Public Hall to see the Fab Four perform their particular brand of musical magic. At first glance, the aging Public Hall may not have appeared to be a particularly monumental venue, but it was about to cement its place in the city's eventual reputation as a rock and roll capital.
The facility was initially opened in 1922, and was part of the city's ambitious Group Plan, which sought to formalize the layout and architecture of downtown Cleveland in the mold of the City Beautiful Movement. At its opening, it was splendid and the largest venue of its kind. However, by 1964, other venues such as Municipal Stadium were available for large events, making Public Hall a different and interesting choice for The Beatles' Cleveland debut.
The Beatles made numerous landmark appearances throughout the country in 1964. Seven months after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9 of that year, they arrived in Cleveland. According to reports, the crowd of screaming fans, mostly adoring young women, rushed the stage at such a volume that the concert was stopped by police for ten minutes. It was the first time a Beatles concert had ever been stopped and it had everything to do with the layout of Public Hall. When The Beatles greeted fans that day in 1964, the stage was raised at one end of the concert hall, with police barricades in front, and a floor full of folding chairs and concertgoers. The fact that the stage was so close to the fans – it was in fact, practically on the floor – made it seem as though The Beatles were one with the fans. According to Steve Bellamy, a fan who attended the concert, "... girls, started standing up on the seats, but the seats would kind of collapse on them, their ankles would get caught in the seat, they started screaming and panicking." The sheer chaos of the scene set the Public Hall concert apart from other Beatles performances in Cleveland and ensured it would live on in public memory. But The Beatles weren't the only band to leave a lasting mark in Public Hall.
Next up on our musical journey of Cleveland Public Hall is the infamous Rolling Stones concert on November 3, 1964. By comparison, the crowd was small, with only about 1,000 people in attendance. This reportedly made the Rolling Stones “furious,” as the two groups had been positioned in the media as rivals for the rock and roll crown. Although the crowd was smaller, they were no less determined to get as close as possible to the band, again causing police to stop the show. While there was not much press coverage of the show itself, the Plain Dealer reported that a 17-year-old girl fell from the balcony during this show. The girl was not seriously injured, although she was transported to St. Vincent Charity Hospital and given X-rays and treated for bruises. This led to the “concert ban” by current Cleveland mayor Ralph S. Locher. Although the ban did not explicitly prohibit all rock concerts, it did ban major rock acts from performing at publicly owned venues, a policy that stood until the summer of 1966 (when Locher himself lifted the ban). Nonetheless, when The Beatles returned to Cleveland in 1966, they chose Municipal Stadium as the venue.
Between the infamous shows of 1964, until David Bowie appeared in 1972, there were a number of notable concerts that took place at Public Hall. The year 1968 brought some incredible talents to the city. The Jimi Hendrix Experience played to a sold out crowd on March 26, 1968, in support of their Axis: Bold as Love album. Cream sold out Public Hall on May 12, with support from Canned Heat (the first and last time Cream played in the Greater Cleveland area until 1975). On August 2, 1968, when The Doors appeared at a sold out Public Hall, the crowd was anxious to see what the infamous band would do. The Doors did not disappoint. Frontman Jim Morrison brought his usual antics, at one point diving into the crowd during “Light My Fire," an act that seemed utterly outrageous at the time. The following year, on October 24, Led Zeppelin played Public Hall, followed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on December 12. At a Creedence Clearwater Revival show on July 17, 1970, the Hell's Angels biker club, by then notorious for their violence at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, “…took over the first three rows,” according to CCR drummer Doug Clifford.
September 22, 1972, was an extraordinary moment to be a rock music lover in Cleveland and illustrates how Cleveland earned its reputation as a rock and roll powerhouse. David Bowie and his Spiders From Mars backing band took the stage at Public Hall, marking the American debut of Bowie's legendary Ziggy Stardust persona. Famed Cleveland Plain Dealer rock critic Jane Scott described the performance as “electricity.” It has been posited that Bowie chose Cleveland to begin his North American tour because his Ziggy Stardust album was getting significant radio play on Cleveland's trailblazing WMMS, while other cities were largely ignoring his music. The band received a ten-minute ovation. Bowie claimed it was the first moment he sensed the success of his show.
Public Hall, in its rock and roll heyday, was in the unique position to offer the best of several types of venues. With a capacity of approximately 10,000 but maintaining an intimate feeling due to the closeness of the stage to the fans, it offered musicians an almost-literal connection to their audience. Its grandiose ornamentation and stately civic architecture lent a sense of importance to the events inside, at a time when rock and roll was still fighting for recognition. Cleveland Public Hall, which still operates as a venue for popular music today, is Cleveland at its finest, with equal parts splendor and warmth.