The Stillman Theater

The Playhouse Square Theater That Wasn't Saved

The beginning of Cleveland's Playhouse Square is almost universally acknowledged to be February 5, 1921, when Loew's State Theater opened, showing the photo play (silent film) Polly with a Past. According to an article which appeared in the Plain Dealer, it was a gala event, attended by Ohio governor Harry L. Davis, Cleveland mayor William S. Fitzgerald, a host of other city and state officials and businessmen, and a contingent of silent film stars led by Marcus Loew, the owner of the new theater and the man who, in the early twentieth century, revolutionized the film entertainment industry in the United States. The day's agenda also included a parade in the afternoon, which stopped at City Hall, where Mayor Fitzgerald presented Loew with a key to the city, and then proceeded to the luxurious Statler Hotel. There, the Rotary Club feted its guests with a luncheon in the hotel's grand ballroom. Conspicuously omitted, however, from the Plain Dealer's reporting that day was any mention of Loew's Stillman Theater located in the Statler, right next to the ballroom where the luncheon was held. Whatever the reason for this omission, looking back today, almost a century later, you can make a good argument that, without the Stillman Theater--Loew's first downtown theater, there would never have been a gala opening of the State Theater on February 5, 1921, and perhaps no Playhouse Square at all, or at least not on Cleveland's upper Euclid Avenue.

The Stillman Theater, which was built in 1915-1916, more than five years before the 1921 gala Playhouse Square event, did not start out as a Loew theater. It was the brainchild of Emanuel Mandelbaum, the visionary owner of the Knickerbocker Theater at East 83rd Street and Euclid Avenue, who wanted to open a theater downtown which would be designed and built primarily to show silent films rather than vaudeville performances. In 1915, he obtained a lease on property just to the west of the Statler Hotel and entered into a partnership with the hotel's owners, which enabled the Statler to build an addition onto the west side of their hotel and for Mandelbaum to build his theater behind the hotel, with access to it from a lobby in the hotel.

Mandelbaum decided to call his new theater the Stillman Theater. "Stillman" was the first name of Stillman Witt, a Civil War era Cleveland railroad baron, known for his business integrity and charitable giving. In 1884, nine years after his death in 1875, Witt's family built a luxury hotel on the westernmost grounds of his former estate. They called it the Stillman in his honor. It was the first hotel built in downtown east of Public Square. While a favorite hotel for Cleveland's elite in the late nineteenth century, it, as well as the nearby Stillman Witt mansion, were razed in or about 1902, as upper Euclid Avenue began to intensely commercialize under the vision of Cleveland businessmen like John Hartness Brown, Charles Pack, and others. By so naming his theater, which would sit on the former site of the Stillman Hotel, as well as that of the estate of Stillman Witt, Emanuel Mandelbaum clearly wanted Clevelanders to identify the new theater with a luxurious place of the past as well as with one of the city's early admired elites.

While the new addition to the Statler Hotel was designed by George B. Post & Sons, the same architects who designed the beautiful Cleveland Trust bank building on the corner of East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, the Stillman Theater itself was designed primarily by Thomas W. Lamb, an architect noted for the beautiful theaters he built in American cities in the early twentieth century. As designed, the new theater could comfortably seat 1,800 patrons, with 1,200 in the main auditorium and 600 more in the balcony above. It was so elegant that one architectural critic compared it favorably to the remodeled Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London, the Scala Regia of the Vatican, and the Strand Theater in New York City. In addition to its elegance, the new theater had an innovative type of satin movie screen, which was set at the rear of the theater's stage, and an orchestra pit directly in front of the stage, all designed to improve the visual and auditory experiences of the audience. The Stillman Theater, which local author Alan Dutka called Cleveland's "first true movie palace," opened in September 1916 with a showing of Snow White, a silent film produced in Cleveland and filmed at the estate of H. A. Tremaine on Fairmount Boulevard in Cleveland Heights, and at other area locations, using local actors.

Despite its beauty and elegance, and its innovative theater improvements, the Stillman Theater did not get off to a good start financially. After struggling with low attendance figures for two years, Mandelbaum, in 1918, sold the theater to Marcus Loew who reduced prices, advertised better, and brought higher quality films to the theater. Under his ownership, the Stillman Theater soon became one of Cleveland's most popular entertainment places, and was especially noted over the years for premiering almost all of the greatest movies of the first half of the twentieth century that came to Cleveland, including the first "talking" movie, The Jazz Singer, in 1928, and the blockbuster Gone with the Wind in 1940. On August 10, 1936, it featured the first newsreel showing here of the historic track performances of Clevelander Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Munich, Germany, just one day after the hometown hero won his fourth gold medal there.

Shortly after purchasing the Stillman Theater, Marcus Loew began undertaking efforts to consolidate movie houses across the United States, including in Cleveland, his Midwest headquarters. In 1919, he entered into an arrangement here with the owners of four other theaters, and formed a corporation called Loew's Ohio Theaters, Inc. Among the theaters that became part of the new corporation were the Upper and Lower Mall Theaters near Public Square and the Alhambra Theater on Euclid Avenue, near East 105th Street, which were owned, in part, by Joseph Laronge, also the owner of a real estate company in Cleveland. Laronge became Loew's vice-president in the new corporation. At this time, some of Cleveland's grandest entertainment places, including the Alhambra Theater and the Elysium, a popular ice skating rink owned by the Humphrey family, were located in the East 105th Street-Euclid Avenue neighborhood, an area which was then often referred to as Cleveland's second downtown. Loew had his eye on that neighborhood in 1919, when the press reported his intention to build Cleveland's largest movie theater there. However, and very possibly at the urging of Joseph Laronge, Loew the following year announced his intention to instead build his large theater on upper Euclid Avenue near East 14th Street, just several blocks from his Stillman Theater. Loew's revised plan led to the founding of Playhouse Square a year later when the 3,446-seat State Theater opened. And the rest, as people are apt to say, is history.

While most Clevelanders today do not even remember the Stillman Theater, much less engage in debate over whether its opening in 1916 led inexorably to the establishment of Playhouse Square on upper Euclid Avenue, it was clearly a Playhouse Square theater from the early 1920s on, was advertised as such, and remained so until it closed in 1963. Had it been located just a block or so to the east, away from the Statler Hotel and closer to where the other Playhouse Square theaters were located, perhaps it could have been, like those others, saved by Ray Shepardson in the 1970s. However, its location next to a hotel with expansion plans doomed it. Even before the last showing of the last movie at the Stillman Theater--the epic historical drama, Lawrence of Arabia, rumors were circulating in Cleveland that it was going to be razed so that the Statler could build a parking garage on the site. This came as a shock to many Clevelanders including Plain Dealer movie critic W. Ward Marsh, who reported the rumor in his June 9, 1963 column. After sharing his personal memories of the theater, Marsh encouraged people who, like himself, did not want to see the theater torn down to "keep their fingers crossed" and just maybe the parking garage wouldn't come "for a long time." Unfortunately for Marsh and other lovers of the Stillman Theater, his suggested finger-crossing didn't work, and the theater was torn down the following year.