“We had to get the building.”

Patrick Colvin, a board member of the Friends of the Historic Variety Theatre and the board president of Westown Community Development Corporation, talks with gusto about a pet project that he’s helped to spearhead for the better part of this century: the restoration of the historic Variety Theatre complex on Cleveland’s west side. He talks like a dreamer, a pipe-dream visionary who wants to bring something back to life that’s been dead since the latter half of the Reagan administration.  But, after five minutes of hearing him speak of city ordinances, roof replacement estimates, 20-amp circuits, and community foundation comparisons, you know that this dreamer is not your run-of-the-mill, wide-eyed windmill chaser.  He has a passion and, more importantly, a real-world plan to see that this dream may actually become a reality.

No detail is too small.  When writing this story he made sure that I properly credited the investors behind the original 1927 project.  They too, seemingly, are an important part of the still-unfolding story of the Variety Theatre, even if they’ve all been dead, much like the complex itself, for many, many years.

After navigating through bank liens and ownership deeds and a host of other issues, the foundation was granted their wish. The building was theirs. And, as a starting point, that’s where the theatre’s newest chapter  began. The question the overjoyed stewards now had to ask themselves was, of course, “Now what?”

For decades, many communities have seen old, abandoned buildings as eye sores and have done little to protect the valuable architectural, historical and cultural jewels that helped to define large industrial cities in their heydays.  Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, the second largest playhouse district in the country, is such an example.  Very nearly facing the wrecking ball in the 1970s, Cleveland visionary Ray Shepardson spearheaded an effort to save what he saw as a regional treasure.  Now, forty-plus years later, the Playhouse complex is recognized as an object lesson in what community activism and forward-thinking people can do for their cities.  What almost became a parking lot now boasts an astounding one million visitors each year that file into the restored Palace, State, Ohio, Allen and Hanna Theaters to catch a play or concert.

The Variety saw life as a vaudeville/movie house, a concert venue, a “haunted” theater, a charter school, and most recently as a wrestling arena.  It has been shuttered since the 1990s and a lack of heating or air conditioning has taken a toll on this grand old dame.  Colvin, a very passionate advocate of this space, led me on a three-hour tour of the building, which spans an entire city block between West 118th and West 119th streets; its perimeter ringed with both apartments and retail storefronts.

The Variety opened in 1927, just as silent movies were being ushered out in favor of the new-fangled “fad” of talking pictures.  She survived and thrived, actually, during the Great Depression when a nickel’s admission could lead you away from the harsh economic realities of the times to a Busby Berkeley musical or the forbidding tropical climes of Kong’s Skull Island.

Built by a cabal of local investors, Sam Stecker, Meyer Fine and Abe Kramer, and designed by noted Northeast Ohio architect Nicola Petti, who designed several movie palaces of the Roaring Twenties, the nineteen hundred-seat theater opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1927 with a showing of “It” girl Clara Bow’s Hula.

Purchased by Warner Brothers in 1929, the theatre became part of the “vertical integration” Hollywood system until the Supreme Court broke up their monopoly they had over the movie industry.  This 1954 SCOTUS decision forced the studios to make a decision to come into compliance with their verdict: they chose to keep production and distribution under their aegis and cast off the theater chains that they had owned since the early days of motion pictures. At that point, the Variety was sold to private interests.

Through the 1960s and early ‘70s, the economics surrounding both the Variety Theatre and the movie industry affected the theater’s attendance.  As multiplexes sprung up in the suburbs and the advent of three and four-screen venues pulled patrons away from the one giant-screen Variety, the owners decided the venue would be more useful as a second run movie theater.  By the 1980s and the raging popularity of home video, interest waned in the theater as a movie house altogether.  Like the Detroit Theater in Lakewood and other theaters up and down Lorain Avenue, its mammoth screen dimmed forever.

In the mid 1980s it became a concert venue which, for a quiet middle class neighborhood, didn’t sit well for some of the residents surrounding the old theater. Bands such as Missing Persons, REM, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Metallica, and probably most famously, Motorhead, played the venue.  December of 1984 saw Lemmy’s band take the stage and play what was, up to that time, the loudest concert ever recorded.  It became so intense that the ceiling plaster cracked and partially rained down on the audience.  Neighbors a half block away took out old mono tape recorders on their front porch and recorded the 130+ decibel concert.  In December.  Through closed doors.  To many music fans that plaster-shredding moment is what inked the theater into the annals of music history.

Needless to say, the Variety-as-concert-venue didn’t last too long. A court injuction ended live music at the theater in 1986.  The mono tape recordings were admitted as evidence and, well, that was it.

As I climbed through the bowels of the old theater we stopped in the projection booth at this mountain top of a building.  Sitting dormant since the 1980s was the remaining film projector, its mammoth body taking up a good amount of real estate in the projection booth.  A thick layer of dust lay over it and the cutting board where the projectionist would splice together the films before showing them.  Haphazardly strewn on the floor were various shards of paper that the projectionists left for each other; one such note had the faded penciled-in running time for E.T., the Extraterrestrial, the biggest hit of 1982.  Most of the thick black paint that had covered the exterior windows had long since peeled off, allowing copious amounts of white light to penetrate this long, narrow room. That, of course, lay in stark opposition to what a union projectionist would have been used to during his long shifts in this catacomb, changing film reels and making sure the projectors were perfectly timed.  A very small water closet housing a toilet, hiding in the corner, stands as a testament to the importance the projectionist played in the success of the movie-going experience grind.  Much like a prisoner in solitary, he was literally locked inside until the end of his shift.

I peeked out through the little window where the arc lamp would throw an image about four hundred feet to the screen at the front of the theater. As I glanced from corner to corner, an impressive one hundred and fifty feet wide, I imagined what this place must have been like on a busy Saturday as a thousand children sat impatiently waiting for the first of a double-feature to start up the afternoon’s festivities. Or what Motorhead must have sounded like as the ceiling cracked and crumbled under the audible weight of Lemmy’s amps.

Colvin shined his flashlight as we walked back down the steep stairs from the projection room to the balcony, its seats still waiting for patrons that, hopefully, will grace the gigantic theater once again.  “The Variety has always changed,” said Colvin.  “But there’s always been a variety of entertainment; that’s one of the reasons why the building is still here.”

Growing up in nearby Lakewood, Colvin has fond memories of the theater.  When I asked him why he took up this mantel, his response was simple and to the point:  “Because I care.” He relayed a story of how on a Super Bowl Sunday a few years ago a water emergency cropped up at the complex.  Knowing that it would be next to impossible to get a contractor to come to the rescue during America’s holiest sports Sunday, he was able to get the assistance of a friend and make the system whole again.  On another occasion (Memorial Day weekend of course), he had to enlist the assistance of his brother to repair the work of vandals that had ripped down a door to gain access to the defenseless structure.  Ten hours and a few hundred dollars of his own money later, Colvin had repaired the damage and made sure that a solid security system would keep the “curious” away from his home away from home.

Most of the auditorium seating has been removed.  As both a charter school and then a wrestling arena the seating was a nuisance.  The wide concrete floor now spreads out across the better part of the venue and the old plaster-based Spanish gothic wall ornamentation has practically melted off the walls.  Years of water damage has given the whole interior a musty, dank smell.  On the Lorain Avenue-facing wall much of the plaster is missing, the brick innards of the wall exposed.  Of the nineteen-hundred seats that originally inhabited the complex, about 165 of them still exist in the back of the theater. The balcony’s seating, however, has remained fairly intact, as removing and carrying the large metal, leather-upholstered seats down thirty-eight unlit steps seemed to be too much of a chore for someone in the theater’s recent past.

As we walk from the stage to the rear of the theater Colvin acts as tour guide; his passion for the project emanates from deep within his rat-a-tat delivery.  He is clearly a man on a mission; although the building looks run down and beyond the pale, he knows that salvation is within reach.  The water damage is merely one of a dozen things that must be fixed…and nothing short of Armageddon is going to stop him and the myriad of volunteers that Colvin works with to maintain this structure.

If the task of restoring this complex seems daunting Colvin reassures me that there is a master plan in motion.  First, the roof must be repaired to stop the continual onslaught of rainwater and snowmelt from further damaging the structure.  Once the building envelope has been sealed, restoration and renovation of the apartments and storefronts are the first priority so they may be rented to provide a consistent revenue stream.

While rock concerts and the dream of a fully-operational nineteen-hundred seat theater aren’t realistic (after all, there are neighbors who remember the Motorhead debacle and Colvin’s team has reassured them that a repeat of the window-rattling 1984 gig will never happen again), the Friends’ plans for a mixed-use complex are what drive the project forward.  Colvin sees stage plays, musicals and large-screen showings of classic films as a staple of the theater’s offerings.  Wedding receptions and private events would help to fill the calendar when Casablanca isn’t beaming towards a new state-of-the-art silver screen.

“I would love to see All About Eve playing here,” Colvin said.  “Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would be incredible; to see them at their delicious, dirty best.” Colvin said that films like Gone With The Wind would be an attraction that would draw people back to this old theater.  The Friends are working with several parties including Councilwoman Dona Brady, Westown Community Development Corporation, Detroit Shoreway Development Corporation and The Project Group as well as Marous Brothers Construction; the hope is to have a Cleveland-based restaurateur open in a portion of the space.

A restaurant component along with other retailers will enhance the entertainment experience, thereby allowing patrons to grab a bite prior to or along with enjoying a film or play.

We’ll see what time has in store for this endeavor.  If the project, much like a steam engine, was run solely on Colvin’s enthusiasm then the Variety Theatre would be up and running yesterday.  The first deadline is June of this year, when the massive 2,280-LED bulb, brand new “blade” style marquee, in all its 1927-era glory, will be installed on the front of the building.  At that point, the world will be put on notice that this grand old theatre is being resurrected from the dead.

And Patrick Colvin will see a long-gestating dream, finally, spring from his imagination into something much more real.

 

-Brian Lumley

 

Interested in helping out?

Check out and LIKE their page “The Friends of The Historic Variety Theatre” on Facebook.

Tax-deductible charitable donations to help renovate the theater complex may be sent to:

The Friends of the Historic Variety Theatre

c/o Westown Community Development Corporation (CDC)

10313 Lorain Avenue

Cleveland, Ohio

44111