By JEANNIE EMSER SCHULTZ
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series, in celebration of Cleveland’s iconic Palace Theatre’s 100th anniversary.
Cleveland’s excitement was palpable the night of November 6, 1922, as the city was thrust into the national spotlight. The final gem in the theater district’s crown of five entertainment venues was poised to celebrate its gala opening. American vaudeville impresario Edward F. Albee II had spared no expense for the opening of his (then-named) RKO Palace Theatre, the flagship of the B.F. Keith vaudeville chain. Of the five historic theaters, the Palace Theatre’s price tag would be the costliest at $3,500,000; it’s 21-story building featuring“ the largest electric sign in the world” circa 1922, heralded “B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville.”
The crème de la crème of Cleveland and New York society and celebrities arrived with gentlemen in top hats and tails, ladies in gowns and furs. As they filed into the Palace Lobby, their attention likely was drawn upward to five impressive Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers (replicas of ones at the Versailles Palace). Beneath their feet was another Czechoslovakian purchase…an elegant rug touted to be the “world’s largest carpet woven in one piece,” 60 feet by 40 feet. Gray with wine-colored roses, it contained 9,000,272 knots, all tied by hand. Silk damask that covered lobby walls boasted elegantly framed artwork worth, at that time, more than a half-million dollars. (The paintings would be auctioned off after WWII.)
Albee’s chosen architectural style for the venue was Imperial France, with the auditorium said to be designed after a Peking, China palace garden. (Albee was so hands-on during construction he made trips to the docks whenever a load of marble arrived from the same Italian quarries used by Michelangelo. He would don overalls and rubber boots before turning a hose on the stone blocks to coax out the marble’s colors and veins before choosing which blocks to use.)
Twin grand marble staircases flanked each end of the Grand Hall lobby sweeping up to the promenade level ringed by giant “marble” pillars. (The pillars were actually plaster, made to resemble Carrara marble via “scagliola,” a process using integrally colored gypsum and silk thread veining to resemble the marble which would have been too heavy for the building.) The ornamental bronze grillwork between pillars had come from Nuremberg, Germany. The Palace’s six “fireless” fireplaces featured coal baskets filled with chunks of amber glass called “cullet,” which glowed like burning coals when lit from beneath by a light bulb.
Searching for an item to showcase in the mezzanine alcove, a local antique dealer offered to sell Albee a giant 325-lb. blue urn from Sevres, France with the stipulation if Albee ever decided to sell it the dealer would have first option. (The dealer died in 1928 and Albee in 1930, so the now-priceless cobalt and brass Blue Urn still sits on its African Numidian marble base in that alcove. The factory which made the urn was bombed in WWI, but it is reputed the urn has a twin that resides in the Louvre.)
Opening night guests were deprived of any champagne toasts to this new venue, with Prohibition having been passed in 1920. Smoking was permitted, however, and although social restrictions were beginning to change, public smoking by ladies was still frowned upon (even though ads enticed women to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”). Palace Theatre management decided to buck the controversy by creating an elegantly appointed “Egyptian Smoking Room,” giving female guests a “proper place to smoke” away from disapproving eyes.
A special carriage entrance at the Grand Hall’s east end was described thusly in the opening night souvenir book: “Carriage call checks will be issued to patrons and their chauffeurs upon arrival. Chauffeur retains one check, owner another. When desiring to call your motor, present patron’s check to door attendant.” A specially designed electric carriage call device outdoors would then be flashed with the chauffeur’s pick-up number.
Entertainment on opening night starred “America’s favorite mimic” Elsie James; dance duo The Cansinos (which included the father of actress Rita Hayworth); several other smaller acts and a big band. (Ticket prices for the 3680 seats ranged from 30 cents to a whopping $1.65.)
While theatergoers were treated to first-class surroundings, the seven floors of dressing rooms and backstage spaces were equally elegant. In fact, The Three Stooges’ Mo Howard in his biography likened the backstage area to “a private club.” (Most backstage accommodations at that time were Spartan at best, hovels at worst.) Other backstage areas included a barber shop, beauty salon, children’s nursery, tailor shop; a tiled area for pets or animal acts and lounges with chess tables, pool table, playing cards, cigars, an ice machine and soft drinks.
But the innovation dear to the actor’s hearts was the Palace’s “drying room.” No clothes dryers in 1922, so acts traveling the vaudeville circuit were often forced to pack “wet undies.” The Palace, however, had created a one-of-a-kind room which had warm air continuously blown onto drying lines! No more wet underwear!
Although construction on the Palace had already begun in 1920, another theater impresario, Marcus Lowe, was about to build his next-door State Theatre with its entrance slated for 17th Street. But Lowe insisted his entrance and marquee must be on the on the more-traveled Euclid Avenue. (Lowe would be forced to create the world’s longest theater lobby to accomplish this as his State Theatre auditorium then had to be built behind the Palace!)
Reviews of Albee’s opulent new venue were positive, with even “The Saturday Evening Post” proclaiming “The Palace Theatre in Cleveland, which opened with much ceremony in 1922, is conceded to be one of the finest theatres in the United States, if not the world.”
Jeannie Emser Schultz, former Plain Dealer reporter and Sunday columnist, has worked as a Los Angeles entertainment publicist for TV shows, films and performers, including Bob Newhart, Debbie Reynolds and Frank Sinatra. When she moved back to Cleveland, she was employed as Belkin Productions’ Director of Marketing and PR and then the Front Row Theatre. Following the closing of the Front Row, she became Marketing/Publicity Manager for Playhouse Square concerts, speakers and special events. She is the author of “Playhouse Square: An Entertaining History.”