Second article in a three-part series in celebration of the Palace Theatre’s 100th anniversary.
By JEAN EMSER SCHULTZ
Following its star-studded Nov. 6,1922 gala opening, B.F. Keith’s Palace Theatre would continue on to host a Who’s Who of vaudeville entertainers, treating audiences to performances by the great Harry Houdini, Fanny Brice, Mae West, Fred Astaire, Sophie Tucker, the Zeigfield Follies, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Comedy duo George and Gracie were actually married by a Cleveland Justice of the Peace January 7, 1926 during their Palace booking. (Playhouse Square’s archive includes a copy of their marriage license, listing George under his given name, Nathan Birnbaum.) George’s older brother and his family came up from Akron to celebrate with the pair, after which the newlyweds retreated to the Statler Hotel to start their honeymoon.
George reported that at 2 a.m. the phone rang. It was fellow comedian Jack Benny calling from Omaha. Recognizing his voice, George cut him off with, “Send up two orders of ham and eggs,” and hung up. Ten minutes later Benny called back. This time George said, “You forgot the ketchup!” Not long after, there came a knock at the door. A waiter, trying to keep a straight face announced, “Ham and eggs, complements of Mr. Jack Benny from Omaha.” As George liked to tell it, after they ate that breakfast Gracie said, “George, this was the high point of the night!”
Despite the continuing popularity of vaudeville, its reign was about to be challenged by the novelty of films and radio. Thus, by 1925 Palace management bowed to the public trend, adding films to their vaudeville line-up. (John Ford’s silent epic on the building of the Trans-Continental Railroad, “The Iron Horse,” would be the first movie offering with tickets priced at 25 cents.)
Renamed the RKO Palace, by the 1930s and ‘40s, the venue was hosting the crème de la crème of current entertainers like Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, “The Voice” Frank Sinatra, and Cleveland’s favorite son Bob Hope, whose stand-up routine included jokes about growing up in his hometown.
When the Palace and other four Playhouse Square historic theaters had opened in 1921-22 there were no champagne toasts to the occasion…Prohibition was in full swing. Fast forward to December 5, 1933, when Ohio would be one of three states to begin Prohibition’s repeal process, thus paving the way for two bars to be added to the Palace.
In 1937, a former Plain Dealer newspaper carrier from Mansfield, OH was making his fourth Palace appearance in a review when the manager suggested the kid take his talent to Hollywood for a screen test. The comedian confessed he didn’t have the “means” to buy a train ticket. But Palace manager Kenneth “Means” believed in the young man’s talent and loaned him train fare. The following year the “kid”—Richard “Red” Skelton—had appeared in his first Hollywood movie. And the rest, as they say….
When the Palace celebrated its 25th anniversary with a stage show by actor Danny Kaye, Cleveland’s Westside Kaase’s Bakery would be called on to design and bake an impressive three-layer cake which Kaye would have the honor of cutting. (To celebrate the venue’s 80th anniversary, Playhouse Square commissioned the former Tops Grocery Bakery on Chagrin Blvd. to recreate that 25th anniversary cake. Singer Robert Goulet, starring at the venue in “South Pacific,” would accept the cutting honors.)
Enter the 1950s…exit vaudeville…which is irrevocably dead, leading the Palace to present only films until management opts to introduce the theater to its next incarnation. Cinerama, which had debuted in 1952 (although it wouldn’t premiere at the Palace until Nov. 14, 1956) would require a major venue renovation to accommodate this new three-screen-wide movie innovation, requiring three projectors and an updated sound system. The Palace’s side boxes and 1800 seats would need removal to present “This Is Cinerama.”
By March of 1969, only the Hanna and Palace Theatres remained in operation at Playhouse Square as the Allen, State and Ohio venues closed. But July 20, 1969 the death knoll also rang for the Palace. During a showing of the disaster film, “Krakatoa East of Java,” the air-conditioning failed, forcing the venue’s closing. That closing, however, was afforded only a footnote in the day’s news, eclipsed by a monumental global event: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had made the first landing on the moon!