The dazzling theater district's renaissance and rise
By Annie Zaleski
Today, culture vultures flock to Cleveland's Playhouse Square for any number of things, including Broadway musicals, thought-provoking plays, dance performances and the Tri-C JazzFest.
In fact, the strength and popularity of the KeyBank Broadway Series has helped the organization amass the largest subscription base in the country.
When Art Falco joined Playhouse Square in 1985, however, things were quite different.
The district's opulent theaters — which originally opened in the 1920s — had spent the 1970s dark, and were almost in danger of being razed.
However, in the early 1980s, these spaces begin to spring back to life.
The Ohio Theatre and State Theatre had been refurbished and rejuvinated, and Falco was hired during the early stages of a capital campaign to renovate the Palace Theatre (now known as Connor Palace).
Today, Playhouse Square is a vibrant entertainment district bringing world-class art to Cleveland.
For example, the just-announced 2017-2018 Broadway series includes the local debut of the musical sensation "Hamilton"; the kickoff of the national tour for the smash "Waitress"; and dramatic play "The Humans," which won four Tony Awards (including "Best Play") in 2016.
Falco, who's now the President and CEO of Playhouse Square, shared how Playhouse Square has become such a thriving institution and epicenter of the community.
How did the city view Playhouse Square when you joined the organization? What was the perception back then?
There was a positive perception, but there were still some naysayers as to whether Playhouse [Square] would be a success long term. And I would say that feeling, or opinion, changed in the 1985-1986 season. We were able to draw attendance of almost 600,000 people, because we had a long-running cabaret show in one of our spaces. And we then announced that year that we outdrew the Cleveland Browns. All of a sudden, there was instant credibility. I would say we haven't looked back.
How was Playhouse Square able to use that momentum, and build on it, to keep growing?
Playhouse Square has always been an organization that is looking for opportunities. And so then over the next 25 years, we actually either renovated or created new performance spaces, to the point today where we have five fine resident companies: The Great Lakes Theater, Cleveland Play House, Cleveland State's Department of Theater, Dance Cleveland and Tri-C with their Jazz Fest.
And with these now 10 performance spaces—we are the largest performing arts center outside of New York's Lincoln Center—it's always been about opportunities, really taking a look at areas where we can excel.
Back in the early 1920s, what made Cleveland such a natural choice to have all these wonderful, opulent theaters opening up?
In the early '20s, Cleveland was the fifth-largest city in the country and experiencing some great wealth. That is the reason that many of these theaters opened — some for legitimate theater, some were vaudeville houses and some were silent picture houses. And there were upwards of four million people that would inhabit these theaters on an annual basis.
As Playhouse Square has been looking to grow, what nods to this time are you incorporating? Why is it so important to preserve that history?
One of the aspects of our mission is to use the performing arts as an economic development generator. And so the fact that we're able to draw attendance of roughly one million people every year, generating over 60 million dollars for the local economy with about twelve hundred curtains, encourages more tourism, certainly to Cleveland, creating more jobs.
And so that is really the reason that Playhouse Square, I would say, exists. I mean, clearly a quality of life is very important, but we always have seen ourselves as an economic development tool.
The Depression was tough on the theaters, and it was a long, slow decline after. And then in the late '60s, early '70s, everything sort of collapsed. Why is that? Was it just the changing times? What was the confluence of reasons to explain why things got to the low point?
Well, I would say after World War II, as more people were moving to the suburbs, and as cities were starting a decline, it became, essentially, where the sidewalks would roll up after five o'clock because no one was staying downtown.
And that was true certainly of Cleveland, but it was also true of many other cities around the country. There were many other historic theaters that were torn down in other cities.
Fortunately, with Playhouse Square in Cleveland, we were able to save a number of these spaces and theaters, in order to to do the renovations. So we really are very, very fortunate. But it had to do with suburbanization.
And now, on a positive note, more people want to move back to the city. The younger people want to live in the city, and they want to experience everything that cities have to offer. And clearly in Cleveland — I would like to say we're a large small town, because we have all of the great assets of any other major city.
It strikes me that there was such a grassroots, DIY mindset and organization coming to save the theaters. That was very scrappy. It seemed very Cleveland.
You're right. In fact, that's a great description of Playhouse Square, because it's an organization that's had this can-do attitude, from the trustees all the way to the staff. And where many in the past thought it was foolish to think that people would actually come back Downtown, or that you could renovate these theaters into the beauty of which they once experienced, [it's] because of this attitude of just continuing to move forward that's one of the strong reasons for our success.
Looking ahead, what is on the horizon for Playhouse Square in the coming years that patrons might notice or see?
One is clearly what you see on the stages. But second is our community engagement and education. We started three new programs in the last year, one being more sensory-friendly programming, as more individuals are on the autism spectrum. [Another] one is called Disney Musicals in Schools, and that is working with middle school students where they do not have any type of musical theater program in their schools. We have another program called the Dazzle Awards, which is is a high school musical theater awards program similar to the Tony Awards.
We continue to look at further development in the neighborhood. We are working on a large, mixed-use project which would include apartments in the district and additional parking. So, essentially, an apartment tower of market-rate housing, as well as taking a look at other parts of our campus to continue to move the district forward.