THE VARIETY THEATER
11815 Lorain Avenue
By Gary Swilik
Memories of the Variety Theater by visitors to this site.
The Variety Theater, at 11815 Lorain Avenue, was built in 1927 by Sam Stecker, Meyer Fine, and Abe Kramer who also owned the Uptown Theater on St. Clair Avenue. Both theaters were built at the same time for a combined cost of two-million dollars! At least if you believe the press releases. The Cuyahoga County Auditor's records list the construction cost of the Variety at $225,000, which is still quite a chunk of change in 1927 dollars and might not include all the interior furnishings.
The theater could originally hold an audience of 1900 persons with 1550 seats on the ground floor and another 350 seats on the second floor balcony. The huge arched ceiling was ornamented with raised plaster. A cut-glass chandelier and light fixtures decorated the lobby and foyer. The orchestra pit (now hidden under an extended stage) and the three backstage dressing rooms were built to accommodate early vaudeville performances in addition to films.
Interestingly, the main auditorium and screen are at right angles to the lobby. When you walk in the main entrance under the marquee on Lorain Avenue you must turn to your right, beyond the lobby, to be facing the screen.
For its time the Variety was considered one of Cleveland's finest theaters but the complex also includes ten stores and twelve apartment suites on the second level. In its prime, with the storefronts housing bakers, grocers, and clothing stores, its apartments home to dozens of residents, and films and live entertainment on its stage, the Variety Building was more like a small city!
In 1929 the original builders sold the theater to Warner Brothers, who operated it until 1954, when it was sold to local realtors Edward and William Wargo for $500,000. For much of the theater's best days, from the 1950's to the 70's, we're not certain who owned the theater and would appreciate hearing from anyone who has details for that period.
During the fifties and early sixties the Variety was immensely popular with West Park baby-boomers who flocked to the Sunday matinees. It was a Sunday ritual - get up, race downstairs, bring in the Plain Dealer and turn to the movie pages to see what the 2 p.m. matinee was at the Variety. Most often it was two hokey, black and white "monster movies."
One double-bill this author recalls was THE GIANT GILA MONSTER and THE KILLER SHREWS! The thrill as the spooky music kicked in and those garish titles flashed up on the huge screen at the Variety! Would this be the film that really was as scary as the music sounded? Could you take it without ducking behind the seat or, worse, losing it completely and running out?
Today's young audiences, raised on special effects unimaginable during the fifties, probably laugh at the idea of running out in the middle of a film. But I remember one of my chums bursting into tears and running for the Variety lobby during CONQUEST OF SPACE as the pull of gravity warped the faces of the crewmen during a rocket launch! And the aforementioned KILLER SHREWS so traumatized another buddy he spent the entire film hiding in the men's room. Incidentally, in those days the Variety restrooms were filled with clouds of cigarette smoke and a trip to the bathroom was an exercise in breath control!
Former West Parker Alan Toth, now of Crestline, Ohio, remembers working “there as an usher in 1955-56. Lots of interesting items in the back and behind stage. I remember when the marquee was bent over and had to be torn down after a tornado hit the area. My boss's name was Shelly and he always wore a brown suit. Nice guy.”
(The damaged marquee Alan refers to once ran vertically up the front of the building, as shown in our photo.)
The Variety's huge balcony was off limits during matinees, blocked by a velvet rope and a "balcony closed sign." Plush red carpeting covered the stairway which wound enticingly around a corner and out-of-sight to the mysterious wonders of the unseen upper level. Understandably the management didn't want messy snacks, or clumsy kids, falling onto the heads of the audience below.
One wonderful day, however, the theater so filled with young movie-lovers the balcony was opened to provide more seating. The stampede to be among the lucky kids to finally reach the hallowed-ground of the balcony shocked even the jaded Variety management team, who gave up all attempts at control and scrambled to simply stay out of the way.
When a monster wasn't on the screen, it was easy to let your attention drift from the film to the incredible interior of the Variety itself. The cathedral-like ceiling had big oval-shaped recesses gently lit with hidden lighting which cast the whole interior in a colored glow. And way up in the curving corners of the ceiling on either side of the massive screen were two barred openings which looked just like prison cells, the interior black as pitch and the bars bathed in a red glow. I bet lots of West Parkers recall wondering what lay in the dark behind those bars!
Spending Sunday afternoon at the Variety was not an expensive proposition. Ticket prices were "children under 12 twenty-five cents, juniors 13 to 17 fifty-cents, and adults 75 cents." Not that most sane adults ever attended the madhouse matinees! They dropped off the kids and picked them up when it was over.
Regular popcorn in square cardboard boxes was twelve-cents. These boxes could be folded flat and thrown at the screen like wobbly Frisbees. At times so many of these missiles were airborne it looked like a flock of birds in front of the screen, the ushers racing around frantically trying to locate and eject the troublemakers launching them.
"Butter popcorn" in big round, waxed cardboard cups was expensive for a kid - twenty-five cents! Far too expensive to share with a crowd of buddies! The usual procedure was to say you were going to the restroom, sneak up and buy butter-popcorn, sit away from your friends until you'd eaten it all, and return innocently to your original seat.
Just west of the theater out on Lorain Avenue, an alleyway led into the Variety building complex. For young boys milling about after a matinee this alley was irresistible. Where did it lead?
Many a brave lad crept down that alley to find out but invariably a tall, old man would appear out of no where and chase you out, his booming voice warning of dire consequences should you return. This omnipresent guardian of the alley has been identified by Alan Toth.
“The old man,” Alan explains, “was the husband of the lady who sold tickets out front in the box office. He was tall and skinny and smoked a pipe. They lived in an apartment above the complex. Wilbur and Margaret Hahn. Margaret liked me and used to slip me pop corn and passes when Shelly (the boss) was not around. I would come in a little early and help her set up the refreshment stand. Margaret was Shelly's right hand person but if she did not like you, well look out!”
Berti Witt, who has operated the Radio and TV Home repair shop in the Variety Building since 1961, also confirms it was Wilbur Hahn who kept the alley next to his shop free of trespassers.
The Variety often staged live events along with the regular films. On December 27, 1951, for instance, Clarabell the Clown, of the Howdy Doody Show, appeared live on stage “direct from your television screen to this theater!”
During the last gasp of the old "live ghost shows" in the sixties the Variety hosted a number of "shock shows on stage." Garish ads promised "the living dead sit next to you, monsters grab girls from the audience" and live appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, mad doctors, and monster apes! It's almost impossible to describe these shows to those who never experienced them but they involved live magicians, extras running down the aisles in cheap masks, audience stooges pretending their seats were electrified, and lots of nothing but a dark theater with kids screaming their brains out!
Those afternoons were fun but the Variety stayed open long past the era of Sunday matinees due to the efforts of Russell and Arleen Koz. (Rhymes with "rose.")
By 1976, The Variety had fallen victim to the same changing demographics that were eliminating big city theaters all over the country. Closed but still grand, the theater caught the eye of Russell Koz.
"Russell liked the building," explains Arleen of her late husband who passed away in 1988. "He had no background in theater. He just wanted to improve it and turn it into something."
"We couldn't get first-run films but since the projector was still there my husband began showing movies again," says Arleen. Indeed this author recalls seeing James Bond films there at bargain prices in the 1980's.
Through the efforts of the Koz Family, the Variety enjoyed a re-birth in the 70's and 80's, first showing second-run films, "midnight movies," and later hosting rock concerts. Mr. Koz also worked hard to maintain the building and keep the stores and apartments rented.
"He even tried to work out a deal with the city to provide more room for parking but was never able to get it done," says Arleen. The absence of any parking lot at all is, of course, one of the theater's biggest hurdles.
Later, when films were no longer profitable, a number of rock bands, some well-known such as the Johnny Rivers Band, performed on the huge Variety stage. "The Belkin Brothers used to book our theater for concerts," says Arleen. "We had audiences but never made that much on the films or the concerts either, though the promoters did. The place was so costly to run."
Apparently some rows of seat nearest to the stage were removed at this time to make more room for the concerts.
Arleen, with the help of her sons, maintained the theater for ten years after her husband's death although it was closed and rarely used in the later years. "I tried to keep it as long as I could," says Arleen, "but it just took too much money."
In 1998 the theater was sold to a company called Ridge Road Properties, headed by a gentleman Arleen felt had the same interests as her husband. However, in 2002 the theater was sold again to the current owner, Jjam Man Inc., a company headed by an active local businessman who, by all reports, feels strongly about saving the Variety.
The Variety is still there, a faded shadow of its former self. The author managed to peak inside during the late 90's and the once-striking interior appeared to have faded to a uniform pale gray, looking like it had been closed for decades. The old ticket booth which stood in front of the theater is gone and the once-dazzling marquee is shorn of all decoration. Restoration is hampered because the Variety was built with no parking lot at all, depending on local audiences who walked or took streetcars. As long as it stands, there is hope the last great West Park theater can still be saved.
An effort is currently underway to restore the Variety Theater to its full glory and open it for use to the public. The Westown Community Development Corporation has formed a restoration committee which is studying the best way to proceed. As part of their effort they offered the public a rare chance to tour the Variety on Saturday, April 8th, 2006.
The author got to see the inside of the Variety for the first time in nearly twenty years!
Although the condition of some parts of the interior is sad to see for one who remembers the Variety's better days, the first and overall reaction is one of awe at the tremendous size of this theater! And experts say the basic structure and the roof are in good shape.
The Variety is a treasure that could never be replaced if lost. They truly do not build them like this anymore!
If you are a member of a group that might enjoy exploring the Variety in return for a donation to the restoration effort, or just want to help, contact Gretchen Moore at Westown Community Development Corporation to see if this can be arranged.
Gretchen Moore, 216-941-9262; Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: In the early 1980's, the Variety Theater "became home to a number of heavy metal/hardcore shows. St. Valentine's Records did their showcase there, as did other concert promoters, until the plaster was literally shaken off the ceiling, closing it to concerts for good." (Source: Item at Cleveland.com/music) Among the many bands that played at the Variety are R.E.M. (1984) and Metallica (1985). Stevie Ray Vaughn played the Variety in 1984.
The Variety Theater is a Designated Cleveland Landmark.
It is reported by http://www.forgottenoh.com/Counties/Cuyahoga/varietytheater.html ( as well as others) to be haunted by a figure in white.
Links to other sites about the Variety Theater: www.cinematreasures.com.
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Charles C. Chaney