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Cleveland's Theater of the Mind

I’m having a delightful Saturday night at Cleveland’s Palace Theatre, even though there’s nothing on stage but a single-bulb floor lamp, burning like a star front and center. I peek around the curtain from a front-row seat, studying the complex web of ropes and weights that operate the scenery. I stare up at rows of lights that help transform the place on any given night from Swan Lake to the Paris opera house to an AC/DC show. Gradually, I twist in my seat, taking in the intricate millwork, colorful paint, red seats and crystal chandeliers that fill the hall.

Even in the silence, I feel the drama that’s seeped into the walls of the place since it opened in 1922. The air practically hums with potential, delivering the same jolt that sports fans seek when they show up hours before a ball game to meditate on the empty green field and imagine the cheers to come. 

And it feels all the more poignant inside the Palace because the place came so close to being a parking lot. Several glorious theaters arose in the ’20s in a part of Cleveland known as Playhouse Square. Crowds lined up around the block to see movies, vaudeville shows and what arts people call “legitimate theater.” Back then, Cleveland was America’s fifth-largest city; world-class theater was an essential cosmopolitan amenity. But by the late ’60s, most of Cleveland had fled to the burbs to live and to watch movies in cinemas close to the mall and paper-wrapped burgers.

The theaters of Playhouse Square, like an outdated steam engine in a kids’ picture book, were forgotten. Four of the square's five theaters closed in a 14-month span. Water seeped in, punching holes in the roof and peeling the plaster. One day a wrecking ball rumbled in and parked across the street, winding up to give two of the theaters the final blow, right around the time pollution set Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River on fire.

But through a series of court battles and public-private partnerships, Cleveland visionaries saved Playhouse Square, handing writers like me easy metaphors about Cleveland’s renaissance. Today, PlayhouseSquare (so modern that it’s now one word) represents America’s largest theater complex outside New York. Seven theaters cluster together, with some even sharing a stage wall. (That aspect required a little additional insulation work when ballet patrons encountered a bit of unpleasant musical overlap from AC/DC one night.) More than 1 million theatergoers come each year for touring musicals, comedy acts and productions from local university theater departments. PlayhouseSquare has even built a new theater of about 350 seats on what used to be—wait for it—a parking lot.

Outside the theaters, PlayhouseSquare just hung the world’s largest outdoor chandelier over an intersection, creating a glittering portal to the theater district. It’s certain to become irresistible for selfie-savvy visitors. And for a lot of reasons, that’s more than anybody could have envisioned for PlayhouseSquare in the dark days of 1968.

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