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.

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