Birth of an Icon

The train arrived at Union Station in time for breakfast.

And the city was waiting. Hundreds of Clevelanders gathered at the old depot in a light drizzle and wet snow to welcome the film stars who had arrived for the festivities.

Yes, the station was run-down, even a bit embarrassing, considering the glitzy guests. But it was February 1921, and designs for the Van Sweringen brothers’ new terminal hadn’t been created yet. (Read that story and others you’ve probably never heard before, here.)

Still, the opening of the Loew’s State was going to be the grandest premiere of a new film theater to date. More movie stars and industry moguls had come to town than had ever gathered for such an event.

Marcus Loew was here, of course. A showman who had faith in the early “moving pictures,” he had taken a shabby penny arcade in Cincinnati and parlayed it into the largest chain of vaudeville and movie theaters in the world.

Short, with a thick moustache and thin comb-over, he appeared far less glamorous than the 22 screen stars decked out in furs and diamonds he brought to town for the three-day junket.

Hope Hampton, who’d made her screen debut in 1920 in A Modern Salome, wore a fur cape, a spring hat of light colors and eight diamond and emerald bracelets (seven on one arm and one on the other).

Bert Lytell, who starred as the supposedly reformed safecracker in 1920’s Alias Jimmy Valentine, ordered a pedestrian ham, eggs, toast and coffee as admirers mounted the train station vestibule to get a glimpse.

“Gee, but I’d like to shake hands with you,” one fan told Dorothy Phillips, who sported a blue serge suit trimmed in Hercules braid.

“And I with you,” she replied.

With breakfast finished, the actors made their way to cars marked with their names for the short trip to city hall. Headed by the Al Sirat Grotto band, the group called out to fans along the route. Lew Cody, oft seen in his film roles smoking a cigarette in a foot-long holder, had passed out all his smokes by the time he’d reached city hall.

There, Mayor W. S. Fitzgerald presented Loew with the key to the city. “We’re mighty glad to have you with us,” he said.

Then there was a luncheon with the Rotary Club. It had delayed its weekly meeting to host the entertainers, who were introduced to the crowd. The Kiwanis Club had even organized a tour of the city, from Rockefeller and Gordon parks to Lake Shore Boulevard, Shaker Lakes, Edgewater Park and the Clifton Club.

But the main event would be the gala at Loew’s State, the formal opening of the city’s new theater district, which would see five new theaters debut in the weeks and months ahead.

When the stars arrived at Euclid and East 14th Street for the 7 p.m. opening, a 50-foot-high electric sign, one of the biggest in the Midwest, greeted them.

And that was just the beginning. Designed by Thomas W. Lamb, Loew’s State spared no expense, costing between $1 million and $2 million.

Decked in ivory and gold with high wainscoting of beautifully veined marble, the grand 45-by-180-foot lobby was the largest in the world. Eight huge walnut columns with gold caps marked the space, which included four murals by former camouflage artist James H. Daugherty. The theater, in café au lait gold with touches of Italian red and blue, offered twice as many ticket windows as usual to help ease the long wait patrons often endured.

Wallpaper in one of the ladies’ rooms was made up of 300 colors, specially designed by 300 French artists who were each given one color and one strip.

By 8:30 p.m., the stars were on hand and the stage (yes, even that was special, capable of holding the largest vaudeville or legitimate act) was set.

And with all the ceremony out of the way, the monstrous curtain, accented with specially ordered gold fringe, rose on Polly With a Past and the future of PlayhouseSquare.
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