Final story in a three-part series in celebration of the Palace Theatre’s 100th anniversary.
By JEANNIE EMSER SCHULTZ
By 1969 Playhouse Square’s Palace Theatre (as well as the State, Ohio and Allen) had been boarded up as people flocked to the new suburban cineplexes for their movie experience. The saying was “on a Saturday night in downtown Cleveland you could roll a bowling ball down Euclid Avenue and not hit anything!”
But the theaters’ renaissance was in the wings Feb. 5, 1970, as Ray Shepardson, a 26-year-old Education Department employee, was ushered through the now-deteriorating theater complex in search of a meeting space. (Shepardson would later note he arrived looking for a meeting space and left with an epiphany: someone had to save those exquisite historic venues from the wrecking ball.)
Shepardson successfully lobbied Cleveland’s movers and shakers to form Playhouse Square Association and raise renovation funds. Junior League president Lainie Hadden was one of his most ardent supporters…famously telling League members: “Ladies, we sleep with some of the most powerful men in Cleveland: our husbands. Get them to pull out their checkbooks!” (She also formed a cadre of volunteers to help scrub the theaters.)
As the theaters’ restoration commenced, most of the auditoriums were hardly fit for use, so their lobbies would instead host shows to fiscally augment renovation donations. (The lobbies would also be available to rent for private functions.) In ’82 the cause received yet another boost from the Junior League as it utilized the venue’s seven floors of dressing rooms for its annual Hope House benefit project. The League granted $100,000 along with a $350,000 donation by former Cleveland-based Diamond Shamrock Corp. Area interior designers created spectacular makeovers of the dressing rooms, with many of the decorators leaving their rooms intact as a donation to Playhouse Square.
Finally, by April 30, 1988, as it had been on its opening Nov. 6, 1921, the Palace was again poised to welcome guests with a gala benefit starring singer Dionne Warwick and songwriter Burt Bacharach. (“The Plain Dealer” reported the Palace’s re-opening was “one of the great Lazarus acts in America” and that the benefit gala netted “the largest sum raised by a single benefit to that point in Cleveland history!”)
The Palace was once again grand, albeit with a few updates like wall-to-wall lobby carpeting replacing the original “world’s largest carpet woven in one piece with 9,000,272 knots all hand tied.” When the Playhouse Square theaters closed in the late Sixties, many of their decorative accents, like chandeliers, were either sold off or stolen. Luckily the Palace’s original Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers remained, although its $500,000 lobby art collection had been auctioned off.
A plan to replace that artwork began when Playhouse Square commissioned Cleveland artist Kathleen McKennato to paint a large full-length portrait of Engelbert Humperdinck as the first in an Entertainer of the Year series. The impressive portrait in its ornate frame hung on the landing of one of the Palace’s grand staircases, until the series plan was scrapped.The portrait was then presented to Engelbert, who displayed it above the mantel in his famous Holmby Hills home (once owned by Jayne Mansfield).
Fast forward to the Palace’s 80th birthday. As part of the celebration, Playhouse Square called on a local bakery to recreate the ambitious three-tiered anniversary cake that actor Danny Kaye had ceremoniously sliced to celebrate the venue’s 25th anniversary. This time singer Robert Goulet (appearing at the Palace in “South Pacific”) was tapped for the cutting honors.
While its beginning had been strictly vaudeville, the Palace was now presenting all genres of entertainment including a speakers series boasting such names as film’s Gregory Peck, opera’s Beverly Sills, First Lady Barbara Bush and Secretary of State General Colin Powell. (Powell endeared himself to the backstage staff when asked for his autograph. As he signed his name, he offered a sheepish smile and said, “I have to admit, when I’m asked for my autograph, I feel kinda like I’m Mick Jagger!)
By its 93rd birthday, yet another name change was on the horizon for the venue. It had begun its journey as “B.F. Keith’s Palace” before changing hands as the“RKO Palace” to then simply being the “Palace Theatre.” In 2014 the theater was renamed the Connor Palace in recognition of the Connor Family Foundation which had kicked off Playhouse Square’s $100 million capital campaign with a generous donation of $9 million.
Next year the venue and its Playhouse Square sister theaters, will benefit from a $10 million-plus facelift, receiving colorful new marquees. Like its original 1922 “largest electric sign in the world heralding B.F. Keith’s Vaudeville”…this new signage will welcome the Connor Palace’s next generation of theatergoers as the venerable survivor embarks on its 101st year… and beyond.