Filed Under Entertainment

Cinema / Lake / Esquire Theater

How a Lost Theater Contributed to Playhouse Square

The Cinema Theater opened its doors to Euclid Avenue at East 17th Street on October 14, 1928. The movie house offered the “best of second-run pictures,” and audiences on that first night were shown “The Patent Leather Kid” starring Richard Barthelmess. The theater featured a Wurlitzer organ with seating for 1,000, and was “decorated in a blue and gold color scheme, with an indirect system of ceiling and wall lights.” Only two years later, the theater experienced its first of many reinventions when it was purchased by Warner Brothers and closed for renovations on November 18, 1930.

Warner’s Lake Theater reopened on Christmas Day 1930, but the commitment of Warner Brothers to the Lake Theater would only last a few years. In 1933, the production company took over the much larger Hippodrome Theater on Euclid Avenue, reopening that venue on November 21st with a glamorous “Hollywood Premiere” of “The World Changes” starring Paul Muni. Warner’s presence at the Hippodrome meant the programming at the Lake Theater would return to “a collection of B movies, move-overs and reissues.”

The building changed hands again in 1948, reopening as the 701-seat Esquire Theater under the local ownership of Community Circuit Theaters. The premiere featured Frank Borzage’s “Moonrise.” The 1948 renovation added a neon-lighted marquee, upholstered seats, updated sound and video equipment, and a beige, turquoise, and rose color scheme. Operating for only three years, the cash-strapped Esquire closed without ceremony on May 28, 1951, after showing “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.”

Ironically, the building’s next use was as a television studio, as the introduction of the television medium led to mass closings of movie palaces around the country. WXEL converted the old theater into a television studio with an audience capacity of 300, and on September 13, 1952, the station dedicated Studio D as part of a million dollar downtown expansion project. WXEL would later become WJW-TV, which broadcast from the former theater until 1975 when it moved to a new location at 5800 South Marginal Road.

The WJW building was almost lost in April 1972, when a man entered a fabric store next door at 1706 Euclid and poured gasoline on the floor, yelling “I’m going to burn this place down and there’s another guy on the roof.” The man then entered WJW, and again doused the carpeting and furniture with gasoline. Two WJW security guards subdued the would-be arsonist as he attempted to set a match to his spill.

The old Cinema/Lake/Esquire Theater was not the only Euclid Avenue movie house to be threatened in the spring of 1972. The State and Ohio theaters were scheduled for demolition in May of that year, during a time when the Playhouse Square Association was working to preserve them along with the nearby Allen and Palace theaters. The former would be saved by a grant from the Junior League of Cleveland one week later, and the Playhouse Square Association led by Ray Shepardson would begin to steward the theaters through decades of preservation and redevelopment. The Playhouse Square Association had to make careful choices about where to invest resources and capital, and the building at 1630 on the south side of Euclid was never a restoration priority, perhaps because the original theater had been so thoroughly reconstructed into a television studio, or because it quickly fell into disrepair after WJW vacated in 1975.

In 1976 the Gund Foundation donated the building to the Downtown Cleveland Corp., which planned to tear it down and extend East 17th Street as a one-way southbound artery, according to the plans for a Euclid Avenue pedestrian mall proposed by the architect Lawrence Halprin of San Francisco. In 1978, the Playhouse Square Association opposed the proposal to demolish the old building and extend East 17th Street south to Prospect Avenue, but not because they wished to save and restore the theater. The Association preferred extending East 18th Street into a loop road that would partially encircle the proposed Euclid Avenue pedestrian mall. The Downtown Cleveland Corp. quickly went out of business, and the building was returned to the Gund Foundation. The building was finally demolished in 1985, and East 17th was extended to Prospect decades later as part of the reconstruction of Euclid Avenue.

Playhouse Square did briefly own the building. In 1981, the Gund Foundation awarded the association a $500,000 grant plus the deed to the old theater to support an effort to raise $3.5 million in private matching funds and qualify for a federal historic preservation grant. In 1982, Playhouse Square resold the building to T.W. Grogan Co. for $270,000, with proceeds from the sale used to pay down debt that remained from the theater restoration efforts in the 1970s. The sale of the building to Grogan Co. was an ironic sacrifice of a 1920s movie house, done in order to support the theaters on the north side of the block. Through these property transfers, the old Cinema/Lake/Esquire Theater provides an early example of how Playhouse Square has financed its continuing development over the past forty years.

Today the Playhouse Square Foundation is a major landowner throughout Northeast Ohio, with a diverse portfolio of investments totaling over 1 million square feet of space, including most of the properties along Euclid Avenue between East 13th and East 17th. The Foundation reinvests profits from real estate into the restoration and preservation of the district’s theaters. The block on the south side of Euclid that once lost the theater has become a significant source of income for the continuing operation of the north side of the street, with the Hanna Building being a major anchor of the Foundation’s real estate holdings. In 1999, the Playhouse Square Foundation purchased the 16-story limestone building along with the Hanna Theater, adjacent parking lots, and the rest of the block bound by Euclid and Prospect Avenues, East 14th Street and what would become the East 17th Street extension. The Foundation considered the existing apartment and commercial buildings, as well as the vacant lot where the Cinema/Lake/Warner Theater once stood, as an opportunity to further develop real estate and underwrite as a “working endowment” the financial security of the theaters on the north side of the Euclid.

In 2020 the site that once housed the old theater will return to use when the Lumen Building opens. The 34 story apartment tower will be the Playhouse Square Foundation’s most ambitious use of real estate to support the greater performing arts district. When construction began on the tower in 2018, remnants of the old theater were unearthed. Excavators discovered underground heating oil tanks, spread footers, and the foundations of a building that is believed to have been the demolished theater. While the old Cinema/Lake/Esquire Theater was not able to be saved during the preservation of Playhouse Square, the site of this once forgotten theater will be making an important contribution to the ongoing restoration, reconstruction, and financial stability of Cleveland’s historic theater district.

Images

1630 Euclid after being renovated by WXEL/WJW. 1630 Euclid Avenue is identified by the white cupola on top of the building. In this undated photo, taken from the B.F. Keith Building, a parade makes its way down Euclid. When 1630 was renovated prior to the tenancy of WXEL and WJW, an attempt was made to reconstruct the facade in the likeness of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Note the presence of a broadcast antenna on top the building. Source: Courtesy of Ruth Flannery at the Playhouse Square archives. Creator: David M. Thun from Associated Photos.
Ingagi: The Film of a Thousand Wonders. Ingagi was "one of the biggest hoaxes in the history of the movies," and played at the Cinema Theater in 1930, under contract to be an "exclusive first-run engagement as long as the film grossed more than $2,500 per week." The racist film documented "a search for gorilla worshipers in Africa" and "the Cinema's management turned the theater entrance and lobby into a miniature jungle." The authenticity of the film became a controversy when, among other discoveries, "the movie's star gorilla sued Congo Films for his unpaid salary." As the public realized that the gorilla was actually a man in a gorilla suit, a national investigation revealed further fraud related to the filming, casting, and production of Ingagi. A judge would rule "that a fake film could not invalidate a legitimate contract. As long as customers continued to purchase more than $2,500 per week in tickets, the court forced the Cinema to continue the film's embarrassing run." Source: Photo caption is a summary from Alan F. Dutka, Historic Movie Theaters of Downtown Cleveland (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2016), 179-181. The advertisement appeared in the Plain Dealer, June 30, 1930, page 21.
An open letter to Cleveland. Warner's Lake Theater opened on Christmas Day 1930 as "a veritable bandbox." The occasion was announced the day before in a published letter to city manager Daniel E. Morgan, in which Warner Brothers took "cognizance of the healthy trinity" of "Responsibility, Development, and Happiness" in Cleveland and offered the Lake Theater as its first contribution to the "further attainment of these ideas and ideals." Warner Brothers pledged further innovations to the city of Cleveland, beginning with the "convenience" of playing the same movie simultaneously at the company's three local cinemas: the Lake Theater in Playhouse Square, the Uptown Theater at St. Clair and East 106th Street, and the Variety Theater at Lorain Avenue and West 118th Street. Source: Plain Dealer, December 24, 1930, page 16.
Warner's Lake Marquee at night. The theater's marquee at night in 1932, advertising The Beauty and the Boss starring Marian Marsh and David Manners. The theater's location in Playhouse Square is revealed by the appearance of the Allen Theater marquee. Source: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8163/photos/235286
Playhouse Square from the east in 1933. Warner's Lake is pictured with it's marquee, and the location of the theater in Playhouse Square is revealed. Warner's Lake operated as the sixth theater in Playhouse Square from 1928 until 1951. Across the street, the Palace Theater had recently made movies, as opposed to Vaudeville, their main attraction. Source: https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/press/id/1240/rec/1
Warner's Lake Marquee 1932. The theater's marquee in 1932, advertising The Crowd Roars staring James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Source: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8163/photos/233822
The lobby of Warner's Lake Theater. Men in tuxedos shake hands as a band stands ready to play during the premiere of The Crowd Roars. Source: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8163/photos/233821
Warner's Lake marquee in 1947.  The Westerner starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan advertised on the marquee of Warner's Lake in 1947. Note the original facade of the building. The vertical marquee pictured in 1933 appears to have been removed. Throughout the 1940s, the theater programmed second run movies, after the Warner Brothers company invested in the larger Hippodrome Theater as its primary downtown movie house. Source: Frank Dutton.
Esquire Theater Marquee. The neon lighted marquee of the Esquire theater is shown in this undated photo. The theater operated as the Esquire for only three years, from 1948 until 1951, when the building was repurposed as studios for WXEL and later WJW at the dawn of the television era. Source: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8163/photos/102293
Esquire Theater ticket window. The Esquire's ticket window, in a photo published in the Cleveland Press on January 26, 1949, with the caption Eight times Robert Chatterton has been to see The Red Shoes at the Esquire Theater and here he is shown at the box office, where Ticket Seller Marian Maschke (once a "Follies" girl) hands him one more pasteboard. Source: Special Collections, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.
WJW Studios in 1965. The building hosted both WJW-TV Channel 8 and WJW Radio 850 AM. Source: https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/structure/id/458
WJW's teen dance show "Bandstand" in 1959. The building was converted from a movie theater to a television studio in 1952. Note the ornate column on the back wall of the room, pictured above and left of the "Exit" sign. Similar architectural details can be found in the surviving theaters of Playhouse Square. Source: https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/press/id/2409/rec/1
A view from Euclid and East 17th Street. The old theater and television studio at 1630 Euclid Avenue is identified by its white cupola and facade, architectural homages to Independence Hall. The Hanna Building is the largest on the block. 1630 would be torn down in 1985 and East 17th Street would eventually be extended through the lot to Prospect Avenue. The buildings between 1630 and the Hanna Building have since been demolished and the corner of Euclid and East 17th is being reconstructed as the 34 story Lumen Building, owned by Playhouse Square. Source: Courtesy of Ruth Flannery at the Playhouse Square Archives.
Center Repertory Theater advertisement. The Center Repertory Theater was the last performing arts tenant of the building before its demolition, operating for two years in the late 1970s after WJW had vacated. The theater production company ceased operations by 1979. Source: Courtesy of Frank Dutton Creator: Advertisement published in the Plain Dealer, October 15, 1978.
The Lumen Building under construction. Playhouse Square is currently building a 34 story residential tower adjacent to the site of the old theater. The location of the Lumen in Playhouse Square is revealed by its relation to the B.F. Keith building (pictured right). Income from the new building will support the operations of the remaining theaters. In this way, the site of the demolished Cinema / Lake / Esquire theater is making a contribution to the theater district. Creator: J. Mark Souther

Location

1630 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH 44115 | The site of the theater is now East 17th Street between Euclid and Prospect Avenues.

Metadata

Nathanael Meranda, “Cinema / Lake / Esquire Theater,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 28, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/895.