In the years following World War I, a real estate broker named Joseph Laronge set out to transform a section of downtown Cleveland into a rich entertainment district, complete with fine shops, restaurants, and many theaters. Today, he is credited as the father of Playhouse Square. Among these theaters were the Upper and Lower Mall, an innovative two-story duplex theater located between Euclid and Superior Avenues and named for the Mall, the civic plaza and grouped public buildings across Superior. Owned and operated by the Loew’s theater chain for most of its existence, the Mall Theaters played an integral role in establishing the multiplex theater concept, which the film industry relies on today.
According to a 1932 article in The Plain Dealer, the idea for the Upper and Lower Mall was developed in 1914 after a lawyer, Fred Desberg, became involved in the entertainment business through one of his clients, Mark Greenbaum, who owned a theater on the East Side. Greenbaum was presented with the opportunity to take over the Alhambra Theater, also located on Euclid Avenue, and invited Fred Desburg, along with one Ed P. Strong, to be partners in this decision. A few years later, the Mall Theaters were built, and Joseph Laronge was brought on as a financial connection. Laronge’s vision for Euclid Avenue could only be realized with the help of his partner, Marcus Loew. Loew, after overcoming serious financial struggles in the 1880s, had begun to make a name for himself in the theater scene, opening several nickelodeons in New York and Cincinnati by 1903. The success of these first theaters led to the founding of Loew’s Ohio Theaters Inc. in 1904, spearheaded by Loew and Joseph Laronge.
In 1916, the Upper and Lower Mall Theaters were built at 310 Superior Avenue but later used the address 303 Euclid Avenue, presumably for its greater cachet. Designed by Edward Richardson and Arthur Yost, the layout of these auditoriums was quite clever, with one situated directly above the other. They occupied what had previously been a large section of empty space between Euclid and Superior Avenues. Due to a change in elevation between the two streets (approximately eleven feet), entering on the Euclid side would take patrons to the Upper Mall, and the Superior side to the Lower. The lower auditorium seated 600, and included a small passageway to function as the theaters’ lobby. A stairway could be taken to the upper auditorium, which seated 750 and included a balcony.
Though the unique design of the theaters was new to Cleveland, whether or not the Mall was the nation’s first multiplex theater has been a point of some contention. In 1921, The Plain Dealer published an article boldly referring to the Mall as the only duplex theater in the world. However, Detroit boasted its own Duplex Theater as the first ever built in the US, which is recorded to have opened in 1915, a year before the Mall Theaters' completion. The Detroit theater featured two side-by-side auditoriums, but despite its novelty closed in 1922 after a seven-year run. Even closer to home, though, was the Oxford Theater on Ontario Street, which opened in either 1912 or 1913. The Oxford was essentially one large auditorium split in half by a fireproof curtain, with a screen on each side. It is possible that the Oxford Theater was responsible for introducing the duplex theater concept not only to Cleveland, but to the entire country. However, neither the Detroit Duplex Theater nor the Oxford utilized the double-decker architectural design of the Upper and Lower Mall.
Following impressive changes to the theater district in downtown Cleveland during the 1910s and ’20s, The Mall Theaters were within walking distance of several shops and restaurants, meaning that one could enjoy a meal or shopping trip before seeing a film. According to a map included in Eric Johanessen’s From Town to Tower, the Upper Mall shared a block with Rosenblum’s Clothing in the 1920s, next door on Euclid Avenue. The store was opened in 1910 by Cleveland native Max Rosenblum, and was associated with a luxury atmosphere and easy credit for its customers. On the Superior side of the theaters stood Weber’s Restaurant, a popular eatery known especially for its decor at the time. The three-story establishment is recorded as having oak-paneled interior and charming stained-glass windows.
Both of the Mall Theaters were closed on August 31, 1960. The last movies to be shown in the Lower Mall were The Naked Road and The Prime Time, and the Upper Mall concluded its life of film with Man on a String and The Young Land. The Upper Mall would be replaced by nearly ten thousand square feet of office space, to be used for the Women’s Federal Savings and Loan Office, and the Lower Mall would be converted into a parking garage for the Sohio headquarters building. As for Marcus Loew, his chain of theaters proved to be one of the most successful in the country (and perhaps the world) at the time, owning movie houses across 23 states, as well as in Canada, England, and Chile. However, his theaters amounted to only a fraction of his success. In April 1924, Loew founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, which dominated the film industry from 1924 to 1954. Until 1948, film studios had complete ownership over the distribution of their films, meaning that MGM’s films ran almost exclusively in Loew’s own theaters. This period marked incredible wealth for Marcus Loew. He was associated with MGM until 1959, when he left the company due to the long lasting effects of United States v. Paramount Studios, Inc., a Supreme Court ruling that affected studios’ rights to own their own theaters and methods of distribution.