The night the Palace Theatre opened, Nov. 6, 1922, the entertainers almost didn't matter. Not the mimic, the acrobats or the minstrels. Not the Spanish dancers, the comedians or the orchestra. The star at the B.F. Keith Palace Theatre, as it was known back then, was the place itself. The "Most Magnificent Theatre in the World," trumpeted the ads and the evening's program. After seeing it, no one in Cleveland's political or newspaper circles was inclined to argue.
Not even the debut of the State, Ohio, Allen and Hanna theaters in PlayhouseSquare the year before had prepared Clevelanders for this: The Palace's lobby, its walls and two sweeping staircases made of white marble, its floor covered with a hand-woven 67-foot-long gray carpet decorated with roses, illuminated by five crystal chandeliers imported from Czechoslovakia. On the rich, raspberry-shaded wall fabrics hung modern paintings by European artists, including a forest scene by Corot and a Poussin pastoral. An enormous blue vase from Sèvres, France, stood on a staircase landing just above the lobby's mezzanine, its cap 8 feet from the floor, its handles made of gleaming bronze, its base a caramel-colored marble from Tunisia.
"In this Cleveland playhouse we beat the world," wrote Plain Dealer theater critic William F. McDermott. "A lavishness, a disregard of money and a care and taste have gone into it that make the theater unique among show places."
Edward F. Albee, head of the Keith circuit of vaudeville theaters, had built the Palace at the then-extravagant cost of $3.5 million. He called it his company's crowning achievement and dedicated it to the memory of his late boss, Benjamin Franklin Keith, the father of American vaudeville. Above the theater, atop the 21-story Keith office building, shone the world's largest electrical sign: "B.F. Keith Vaudeville," it read, beckoning atop Cleveland's nighttime skyline.
The audience shouted out for Albee during the opening ceremonies. But he had spent his whole career backstage. So he merely smiled from his private box and left the thanks and superlatives to Mayor Fred Kohler, Chamber of Commerce president Newton D. Baker and Gov. Harry L. Davis.
The Palace reminded the Cleveland News' Archie Bell of the throne rooms of European monarchs, but the drama critic offered much more measured words about the evening's show. Impressed with the acrobats and balancers who opened the program and the comic "colored dancers" who followed, Bell found singer Grace Hayes disappointing, too nervous to inject personality into her songs. Headliner Elsie Janis, America's most prominent mimic, annoyed Bell by performing too much of her old act about World War I, during which she'd entertained American troops in France and England. The crowd liked Janis better, perhaps because they knew she'd loudly celebrated her Ohio roots while touring France, perhaps because her imitations of celebrities such as Ziegfield Follies star Fanny Brice were so spot-on.
Brice herself played the Palace a month later, on Christmas. Bob Hope got his start there, and comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen were married there in 1926. But the opening night program's many pages celebrating the glory of vaudeville seem ironic today because the Palace's opening represented one of the last great moments in the genre's history. The novelty of movies and radio soon displaced vaudeville's formulas. The Palace showed its first movie, the John Ford silent film The Iron Horse, in 1925. Renamed the RKO Palace, it hosted the greatest singers and band leaders of the '30s and '40s, from Frank Sinatra to Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Laid low as TV surpassed movies and suburbs surpassed downtown, the Palace closed from 1969 to 1973, but it survived to enjoy a complete restoration in 1988.
The giant blue Sèvres vase still stands where it always has. It's long been claimed that the Louvre owns duplicates, though no one has confirmed. Even in PlayhouseSquare's dark days of the early '70s, when other theater artifacts were stolen, the vase didn't budge. At 325 pounds, no one could move it.
Today, the paintings are long gone; one hangs at the Dayton Art Institute, and another sold for $190,000 at a French auction in 2006. But today's theatergoers would never notice any grandeur missing. The restored auditorium looks much as it did in 1922, its ceiling decorated with plaster friezes and gold leaf. New damasks on the walls sport the same warm shade of red Albee chose. The lower level boxes, loges and balcony curve gracefully to give the 2,800-seat theater the intimacy that Bell noted on opening night. The lobby boasts the only original chandeliers in any PlayhouseSquare theater.
Standing on the second floor above the lobby, Jeannie Emser Schultz, who leads special tours of PlayhouseSquare, reveals the one expense Albee spared. The second-floor pillars aren't really marble. They're plaster, with a faux-marble finish called scagliola. But the marble on the first floor is real.
"When Edward Albee was building this theater, he was very, very picky," she says. Albee went down to a ship docked at the port of Cleveland to select the pieces of imported Italian marble.
This January, PlayhouseSquare begins celebrating its 90th anniversary. Even though the other theaters debuted in 1921, the festivities were delayed a bit to include the Palace, the square's most exquisite theater. Emser Schultz marvels at the construction scene of 90 years ago: five theaters going up within two years. "I wish they had filmed back then," she says. "I would love to have seen it."
Severance Hall / 1931 / Architects Walker and Weeks had to balance good acoustics, architectural harmony with the Cleveland Museum of Art and John L. Severance's desire to memorialize his wife. So the Cleveland Orchestra's home boasts a classical exterior, art moderne foyer and an auditorium with modern and classical touches. 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
Cleveland Masonic and Performance Arts Center / 1919 / The Cleveland Orchestra played here in the 1920s, before Severance Hall was built. The avant-garde Kokoon Club threw wild masquerade balls here. Now the red brick building's spare, intimate auditorium hosts ballet performances, lectures and, since 2010, the occasional rock concert. 3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
Lorain Palace Theatre / 1928 / It's claimed that Lorain's Palace was the first Ohio theater to show talking movies. Today, the theater's Italian Renaissance interior still dazzles. The chandelier and restored Wurlitzer organ are 83-year-old originals. 617 Broadway Ave., Lorain