by Nathan Purdom
(Plain Press, January 2017) The beautiful marquee of the Variety Theater, recently lit up for the first time in years, is visible evidence of a brighter future for the Lorain Avenue neighborhood at West 118th Street.
Earlier generations of neighborhood residents, who visited the Variety in its heyday, saw vaudeville acts, Sunday 3-D monster matinees, world-record shattering metal shows, and wrestling events.
After a decade’s work by neighborhood organizations, development groups and Councilwoman Dona Brady, the resurgent Variety Theater is coming to life again with an entrepreneurial spirit and new found optimism.
The Variety Theater is the cornerstone of the Lorain Avenue Master Plan, commissioned by the Westown Development Corp. in 2008.
The plan seeks to re-establish the commercial district that flourished in the area until an economic downturn striking Cleveland in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The fate of the Lorain Master Plan is tightly connected with the 89-year-old theater complex.
“Grand as anything in Playhouse Square, and grander than many in Times Square,” said Councilwoman Brady, who has championed the return of the local theater complex. She believes that the Variety can be the distinctive catalyst necessary to drive dollars back into the neighborhood. She envisions the Variety as a mixed-use space whose beautifully stylish and intimate interior will lure local acts and small events, “from ballet to boxing, and weddings,” said Brady.
The old balcony will be reworked into a one screen cinema with lounge style recliners specializing in older movies meant for viewing on the large screen. Wizard of OZ, ET, musicals, and classic children’s movies will play at the Variety. Tray tables will be added to the recliners so patrons can order up food from the Tony George restaurant slated to open in the sprawling confines. The 13 outdated, efficiency apartments, making up the second story of the theater complex, will be converted into 10 larger, modern living spaces.
Brady has begun lining up local merchants for the new space. Parking, a long- standing problem of the Variety, will finally be solved with a large lot slated to open across the street. Valet will be available on event nights.
The groundwork for The Variety began in April of 1927 when several local theater firms from Mansfield, Akron and Cleveland, merged to create The Variety Amusement Co. that sought to expand in the Cleveland market and create an operations base.
Variety Amusement Co., owned locally by Sam Stecker, Meyer Fine, and Abe Kramer, purchased all the land between West 118th and West 119th on Lorain Avenue. They commissioned a local architect, Nicola Petti, to build the massive theater complex, naming it after their newly formed regional powerhouse. The Variety Theater complex was born.
Petti, who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy at the age of four, constructed the poured concrete and brick structure. The block-long two-story building included 10 connected storefronts and 12 apartments on the second floor. It cost $225,000 to complete.
The brick and gray concrete hid the Spanish Gothic-inspired interior decor into which Petti poured his enthusiasm. Rich, vivid yellows and reds juxtapose the cream white raised moldings. High stylized archways adorn either side of the mixed-use play house, and the ornate ceiling and fine woodworking appealing to Sunday services rather than a Paramount picture.
Other local theaters designed by Petti are the Cedar-Lee Theater at 2177 Lee Road and the LaSalle Theatre at 819 East 185th Street.
The Variety Theater had a single screen designed for a dual-purpose playhouse and movie theater. The original structure could host 1,900 Clevelanders, 1,550 on the floor level and another 350 on a second story balcony. An orchestra pit, now covered, lay just before the stage and a large single projection screen.
Three small dressing rooms were installed behind the stage to accommodate traveling vaudeville acts.
The lobby, as ornate as the theater itself, featured beautiful cut glass chandeliers and light fixtures that have survived intact.
Warner Brothers purchased the theater from Variety Amusement in 1929 and operated it until 1954. Local real estate developers, Edward and William Wargo of Wargo Realty, bought the Variety Theater from Warner Brothers for $500,000. The deal was one of the largest transactions involving theatrical property after the Great Depression and made headlines in local newspapers.
The Wargos had developed a regional theater division and looked to modernize and further expand their holdings.
Baby Boomer’s loved the neighborhood theater complex, and the Sunday matinees were the place to be. With 3-D films and the monster movie pandemic sweeping America in the 1950s, the Variety entered a golden age of sell-out, standing room only shows. In 1956 tickets cost 10 cents for kids, 25 cents for teens and 50 cents for adults, easily affordable for the neighborhood.
Gail Peterson grew up in Jefferson in the late 40’s and remembers the Variety as the “fancy” theater, with deep red carpet and polished brass railings. Sneaking off alone or accompanied by an older sibling, she would make her way down Lorain for an afternoon at the Variety. “My mom had me carry a copy of my birth certificate ‘cause I looked older and had trouble getting in for a dime,” said Peterson.
Plays performed at the Variety during the late golden years capitalized on recreations of favorite TV shows as live staged events.
From Second-Run to Heavy Metal
By the 1970’s, The Variety, like much of Cleveland, embarked on a slow and colorful decline. West Park, situated in the Jefferson neighborhood, was a 12.5 square mile city, and the last independent city to be annexed by Cleveland, losing its independence Jan. 1, 1923.
The Jefferson neighborhood’s population peaked in 1970 at 25,609. Manufacturing was on the decline, and the working-class neighborhood was in flight mode as Clevelanders sought to move south or west to follow the job trends. As job prospects dwindled, so did extra spending money. Large theaters, like Variety, became afterthoughts.
Russel Koz took over ownership of the Variety in 1976 at a time when many playhouses were falling victim to downturns, most becoming redeveloped or demolished. Koz liked the building, and though lacking training in the theater industry, he began showing second-run flicks throughout the late 1970’s and early 80’s.
Maintenance costs kept rising, and Koz began having trouble finding tenants and residents as well as attraction movie patrons. He lobbied the city to build a parking lot to no avail.
With limited options and dwindling funds, a desperate Koz opened the Variety up to a more musically focused and energetic audience. From July, 1984 to April, 1986, the old film house found new life as a concert venue.
The aging venue and gothic motif were a perfect fit for two developing rock genres: Punk and Heavy Metal. These two styles focused on heavy speed-laden rhythms and a refusal of contemporary American idealism. This rejection and disaffection resounded with the Cleveland youth and Koz partnered with local producers to capitalize on the trend, positioning Variety to become the edgiest concert venue in town.
In its two-year run, the Variety played host to R.E.M, INXS, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Metallica, Slayer and an infamous Motorhead concert. On Dec. 2 1984, Motorhead played at the packed Variety Theater. Midway through the aggressive set, Motorhead made history by reaching 130 decibels, which broke the volume mark previously held by the Who in 1976. The Variety paid the price for its bit in history when the old theater began to fall apart while they played. The crumbling ceiling began to break off and fall on the audience and during the final song, nervous management pulled the plug and Motorhead was left apologizing to stunned and likely deaf fans.
Crumbling ceilings and record-breaking noises made headlines in both the United Kingdom (Motorhead’s home country) and the United States. Sour relations developed between the small neighborhood community and the venue. Multiple noise complaints filed by residents against Koz closed the doors for good.
The last gasps of the Variety were varied and unsuccessful. The building was leased from Koz by the Freedom Academy, a conservative private school which was known for helping Cleveland families avoid public school desegregation, to be used for performances. The Freedom Academy let their buy option lapse in 1987. The last tenant was a wrestling gym known as the Cleveland Wrestleplex, which held local acts seeking to break into the wrestling entertainment industry which was booming at the time.
The Variety, stripped of its marquee, was sold by Koz’s wife to a local development group that rented out the storefronts and apartments but because of mounting disrepair and lack of funds, the theater has remained vacant since 1988.
Today’s neighborhood has a different vibe since the Variety shut its doors. The population decline has mostly subsided, and wages have stabilized. A rebound appears imminent, and the Variety plans assume its role as the neighborhood engine. Whether the Variety can serve the purpose of its new community and assume a vibrant leadership position remains to be seen.
Over 10 years of thought and passion have been poured into the vacant structure from Brady, Westtown Development, Friends of the Variety Theater and neighborhood residents.
Now it’s time to light the lights and enjoy the show.