Ornate medallions and clouds decorate the Allen’s ceiling.

The Allen’s original theater marquee at 1407 Euclid Ave.

By Jeannie Emser Schultz
It was a spectacle in itself: thousands of people in a seemingly never-ending line snaking down Euclid Avenue, waiting in near-freezing weather to see…a black and white silent movie! But an unexpected “April Fool’s joke” was poised to befall those queuing Clevelanders.
The date was April 1, 1921, a gala premiere of Cleveland’s newest elegant $1.9 million dollar movie “palace,” built by Toronto brothers Jules and Jay Allen. The Allen was the fourth new theater to open in an amazingly brief 55 days, joining newly-built neighbors, the State, Ohio and Hanna theaters in the area that would become known as Playhouse Square.
By the Allen’s opening, Prohibition had closed city bars, and the mayor had shuttered all gambling houses. The economic boom sweeping the country found Clevelanders hungry for entertainment, so they looked to the burgeoning moving picture industry as 25 million people nationwide flocked daily to see extravaganzas by Cecil B. DeMille, slapstick from the Keystone Kops and syrupy Mary Pickford romances.
Gala turns April fools
As trumpets heralded the Allen’s opening celebration, Clevelanders inched their way up to the ornate Allen ticket kiosk, money in hand, to pay 50 cents for an adult ticket, 25 cents for a child’s admission. (Matinees would run 30 & 17 cents respectively.)
But that opening night turned into an April Fool’s joke for some patrons. Even with the Allen’s sizeable 3,080-seat capacity, the venue filled so quickly many patrons had to be turned away.The Allen manager found it necessary to apologize the next day for the venue’s inability to seat the overflowing crowd by placing ads in all three(!) Cleveland newspapers(Cleveland News, Cleveland Press and Plain Dealer).
Those 3000-plus moviegoers fortunate enough to gain admittance walked a ceremonial red carpet up an impressive 133-ft. long entrance designed to recreate the Versailles Palace’s famous Hall of Mirrors. Upon reaching the Allen’s dramatic Great Rotunda (its arched dome recreating elements from Rome’s Villa Madama), patrons were greeted by a colonnade of 16 towering Corinthian columns encircling a large fountain. The Rotunda was illuminated by a dazzling chandelier hanging 33 feet overhead.
To the right and left of the Rotunda were two lounges open to the theater proper so moviegoers could still view the screen and hear the accompanying orchestra. To the right was a chic ladies Tea Room, and to the left a Men’s Lounge where gentlemen could smoke. (Circa 1921, however, it was deemed “unseemly” for ladies to smoke in public, which is why when the Palace opened a year later it would feature an “Egyptian Smoking Room” where ladies could puff away free from judging eyes.).
Once inside the auditorium, Allen first-nighters viewed ornate ceiling murals and large faux windows rising from balustraded balconies on either side of the theater. Special lighting effects allowed the auditorium to be flooded with any intensity of colored illumination to enhance the black and white films: a night scene augmented by blue lighting, a raging fire on screen reinforced with scarlet lighting for an incendiary atmosphere and yellow lighting for daytime scenes.
The impressive inaugural program was introduced by tunes from a $40,000 Kimball organ built specifically for the venue. The audience stood to sing the national anthem, played by the 35-piece Phil Spitalny Allen Premier Concert Orchestra. (Because this was the era of “silent” films, the orchestra played continuously throughout the film, thus treating audiences to both a movie and concert experience!)
Next came Allenette, “a compendium of news events, educational and scenic pastels.” The Hallroom Boys comedy followed, and finally the feature film “The Greatest Love” starring Vera Gordon. At the film’s end, patrons were invited to festively kick up their heels with informal dancing in the Rotunda. The evening was a smashing success for the Allen Brothers, but they would head up this plush movie palace for only a year, relinquishing management to the Loew’s theater chain in 1922.
Closure begins new incarnations
The Allen continued as a movie theater until its 1968 closure. Playhouse Square’s eventual savior, Ray Shepardson, and local concert promoters, brothers Jules and Mike Belkin would step up to utilize the venue for concerts including such then-fledgling acts as the BeeGees, a 1971 Grateful Dead concert and Bruce Springsteen (in his first Cleveland theater concert opening for Wishbone Ash in ’74.)
One such Belkin concert nearly turned the Allen into a flaming Phoenix. Headlined by The New York Dolls rock band (performing in drag led by singer Buster Pointdexter, aka David Johansen), their opener was a new-to-the-scene rock act called…KISS! KISS would nearly burn down the Allen when one of Gene Simmons’ onstage torches caught fire to fringe decorating the drummer’s platform. The fire soon encircled drummer Peter Criss (who continued to play, seemingly undeterred by the flames licking at his drum kit!)
A stagehand ultimately grabbed a fire extinguisher and, with a cloud of smoke, quashed the blaze, much to the surprise of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley… oblivious to the burgeoning flames as they performed with their backs to the fire. The audience jumped to their feet and cheered wildly, assuming the conflagration was all part of the usual outrageous KISS antics!
In 1977-’78 the Allen was repurposed as a Laserium, a multi-colored light show set to music and projected on a dome that enveloped the lower auditorium. Following Laserium, the Allen’s next incarnations would be as restaurants: the Old Allen Restaurant (’77-’79) andThe Lobby Restaurant (’80-’82).
As with Playhouse Square’s four other historic venues, the Allen was rescued from the wrecking ball, and in ‘93 would return to present the long-running cabaret shows “Forever Plaid” and “Sheer Madness” (both performed as plaster fell during shows in the once-elegant auditorium now rife with years of neglect).
A more intensive 1998 restoration added a sorely needed Stage House and dressing rooms so Broadway productions could also be presented (the original design never needed a backstage as a movie-only venue).But in 2009 yet another renovation was on the horizon as Playhouse Square announced the Cleveland Play House and Cleveland State University’s Theater Department had agreed to move their productions to the Allen.
But a $38 million renovation would be required to redesign the Allen’s expansive auditorium into the more intimate 500-plus proscenium space Cleveland Play House needed. Beginning with its 2011 move from its former 86th Street complex, the Cleveland Play House is now a resident company of Playhouse Square, making the Allen’s lower auditorium home.
So what became of the Allen’s balcony? The space was converted to a separate 750-seat theater space, currently the location of the KeyBank Broadway Series’ popular pre-show Broadway Buzz talks hosted by Professor Joe Garry.
Jeannie Emser Schultz is the author of “Playhouse Square: An Entertaining History” (published in 2000).