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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Service As You Want It

Footprints disappear quickly in the desert. So too did thousands of theatres that once thrived in communities large and small. In many cases, audiences for them have passed on as well. In the end, it's as though they never existed. One such was Cleveland's New Lyceum Theatre, which isn't new anymore, nor in Cleveland. It had a grand re-opening on May 25, 1920, having been a legit landmark  rebranded now as a deluxe picture house. Owners said it beat anything save Broadway's Capital Theatre, and folks being less travelled then, who could argue? A.E. Ptak was president and general manager of the enterprise. I see such a name, clearly among biggest showmen of the era, at least in that territory, and wonder if family members have scrapbooks or even remember him. It's ninety-two years since the New Lyceum opened, after all.

A watchword then was palatial, at least among urban-rising theatres built like temples to the moving shadow. It was more about the experience of going than what you saw on screens. Common folk could enter for a quarter and be treated like landed gentry. That meant lots after a workday buffeted by management and streetcars. What sounds hoity-toity to us was music to them: There are excellently constructed and furnished retiring rooms for ladies, and maids will be in attendance. Who among moderns could define a "retiring room"? Is it the same as a "Ladies Boudoir Retreat," as cited in an ad for the Lyceum's Opening Day? And what of the Peacock Walk and Promenades? These, I'm informed, were opportunities to show (or show off) how well you've dressed to attend. I guess the only Peacock Walks left today are fashion runways, where the idea is to sell clothes on display. Are moviegoers even conscious of their appearance in theatres any more?

The Largest, Most Artistic, and Distinctive Playhouse Devoted to The Showing of Photoplays in Ohio was bold promise to Clevelanders who'd known luxury with movies, but not 2000 seat's worth, nor with running fountains or a $20,000 pipe organ (do you suppose that organ still exists?). Opera singers were promised. Imagine that in a movie house today. Yes, life was different then. Folks seemed to aspire to finer things, or at least  give an appearance of doing so. A New Lyceum was close as many got to high culture, and it fed pretension of those who sought to rise above the riff-raff. It was easier justifying a trip to what was still considered a lowly pastime if you could come back edified, if not by the movie, then at least for having heard classics rendered on the Wurlitzer or a snatch of aria performed onstage.

Onscreen was The Forbidden Woman with Clara Kimball Young, she the "Empress Of Emotion," along with Conway Tearle, "The Perfect Lover." I'd like seeing this, but I'll bet it's lost. 2000 Lyceum opening nighters got the pleasure, and to accompaniment of a symphony orchestra. They must have come away thinking Heaven had spread gates as of 5/25/20. I like how suppliers put messages in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer to wish the New Lyceum luck. Argus Enterprises was a nationwide vendor of screen/stage equipment, kept busy by contracts from theatre builders at a peak now that feature pictures and palace accommodation to show them took hold. The Standard Film Service Co. was a local exchange, eager to ID forthcoming The Lost City as a serial they distributed, ad placement hopeful that other Cleveland theatres would follow the New Lyceum's lead and book with Standard.

Here's an excerpt from then-coverage that intrigued me: The ventilating system is scientifically constructed and is of the latest type. Each morning the entire theatre will be flooded with hot water and dried with huge suction fans. To that I can but say ... wow. Sobering reminder if nothing else of how we take for granted  our central air. I have no recollection of being over-heated in a theatre, let alone chased out by fetid air. The Liberty was cooled by the time I began going in 1959, as were surrounding venues that advertised heavily to that effect. Imagine flooding your auditorium every day, then running fans just to freshen air for a night's performance. Smells must have lingered long, so imagine perfumes they spread as antidote. 2000 people amidst non-circulating air is not on my time travel want list.  Meat hanging in Chicago stockyards had it better. No wonder it was Windy City theatres that first offered air-conditioning. The Lyceum was on one hand a paradise, but on the other ... well, maybe a less said, the better.

So what became of the Lyceum? I consulted Cinema Treasures, always a first stop for such inquiry, but found little. A few blogs and historical sites mention it. Once a venue known for "family friendly entertainment," the Lyceum fell before the wrecking ball of a changed culture and became a porn house in the 70's, the neighborhood itself having yielded to a criminal element. That seems to have been the finish for most downtown theatres. From best I could determine, the Lyceum was torn down and a public library replaced it, so maybe rough edges are smoothed off the vicinity by now. More people have made serious study of defunct theatres in recent years, so chances are data is out there about the Lyceum and its history back to the 1800's and legit usage. I'd welcome further info from anyone who's dug deeper here.


Blogger Brother Herbert said...

A hot water bath on a daily basis? Hate to think what kind of mold and mildew nightmare that would've become after a while.

First thing that caught my eye in that last pic were the letters FU from the business next door which are clearly visible -- unintentional(?) social commentary about the sad state of the theatre?

12:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

1920 picturegoing did have its yucky aspects.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I love old theaters. I've been fortunate to frequent them my whole life. I grew up in Dolton, a south suburb of Chicago. The Dolton Theater was a mainstay for us growing up in the 1970s. Built originally as a nickelodeon, it didn't change much over the years with the exception of some seat expansions. They served up weekly double features when I went there in the 1960s and 1970s as a young boy. Count us as another family who didn't have air conditioning at home and we would go all throughout the summer (as long as it wasn't R rated) just to have a place to cool off in those often brutally hot Chicago summers. Alas, it is now a nightclub.

I now live in west suburban Downers Grove, IL, home to the wonderful Tivoli Theater, still in operation as an all purpose entertainment center. They show second run movies, and the former vaudeville stage still plays host to concerts, plays, ballets, corporate events, etc.

The Tivoli opened on Christmas Day in 1928, and was one of the first theaters built in the country wired with sound equipment. Called by local media "The Wonder Theater of Suburban Chicago", the first movie to play there was "Fazil" directed by Howard Hawks and starring Charles Farrel and Greta Nissen. I've seen copies of newspapers covering the event which shows lines around the block of people anxious to be there that first day. Or maybe a lot of Charles Farrel fans in Downers Grove.

The theater is an absolute jewel and the interior looks pretty much the same it did in 1928, barring numerous paint jobs over the years. I actually moved to Downers Grove to be close to the Tivoli, which makes many people roll their eyes, though I suspect Greenbriar Pictures Shows readers know where I'm coming from.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

John, not only is Clara Kimball Young's The Forbidden Woman NOT lost... it recently played not that far from Cleveland! Specifically, at Cinesation 2010:

Here's what I wrote about it at NitrateVille:
"FORBIDDEN WOMAN (**1/2) I don’t know if I’ve seen Clara Kimball Young (a big teens star who then steadily faded through the early 20s) before, so it’s a bit unfair to be introduced to her via one of the films made by her then-husband, Harry Garson, which evidently beached her starring career. The story and production values bespeak quality, but Garson’s idea of direction seems to be parking everybody attractively on the nice furniture, taking the steam out of what ought to have been a spicier story about a French actress who drives a hapless suitor to suicide and then flees incognito to rural upstate New York. (It doesn’t entirely help that the new beau she finds there is Conway Tearle, who always looks to me like Franklin Roosevelt.) That said, this grownup romance does have interest, and Young seems to have wit and a knowingness that would have served her well in tales of women of the world, so I’m curious to see more and better of her work. Kudos to Ben Model, who not only accompanied this with sensitivity and taste but, when his Miditzer program crashed, switched over to the adjacent piano with only a few seconds of silence in between!"

10:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Michael. I'm happy to know that this film still exists. Funny how some of us assume that any feature from 1920 would be lost --- nice to be proven wrong on this occasion, and hope there will be more such.

5:05 AM  

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