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Cleveland Play House alums recall memories before old theaters from Roaring '20s take final bow

The Cleveland Clinic recently announced plans to expand its footprint to the corner of East 85th Street and Euclid Avenue, which includes the demolition of a local landmark. A group of theater professionals is mourning this loss.

In a private Facebook group of alumni of the Cleveland Play House, one of the current topics of discussion focuses on the fate of the old Cleveland Play House building at 8500 Euclid Avenue. The company took its talents to Playhouse Square down the street in 2011.

The old, multi-tiered brick building with a faux castle tower and large dome in the middle of Midtown is slated for demolition by the Cleveland Clinic, which bought the property in 2009.

Cleveland Play House 8500 Euclid Ave
David Staruch
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Ideastream Public Media
The old Cleveland Play House at 8500 Euclid Ave. is set for demolition.

Angie Pohlman is a former company manager for the Play House from the 1980s. She runs the CPH alumni Facebook group with her husband Greg, a former carpenter at the Play House.

“There's a lot of sadness around it," she said. "The Cleveland Playhouse's original buildings, the Brooks and the Drury, which were built in the 1920s, were an important part not only of the theater scene in the country, but also a really big part of Cleveland's cultural history."

The old Cleveland Play House building housing the Brooks and Drury theaters opened in 1927 and is of the same generation as the Cleveland Museum of Art and Severance Hall.

It does not include Phillip Johnson’s domed construction built in the 1980s which simply doesn’t hold the same reverence.

The Brooks and the Drury theaters are where actors like Paul Newman and Joel Grey got their start as children.

Before she threatened the Land of Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton began her career treading the boards of the Drury and Brooks in the late ‘20s.

Retired actor and theater professor Wayne Turney was in the company during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“I remember the first time I went into the Cleveland Play House... I went in and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what a wonderful space this is.' And the Drury … the acoustics are nonpareil," Turney said. "You could go in there and with very little effort fill the room with sound. And visually, the sightlines were absolutely perfect. You didn't have to worry about, 'Oh, I have to stand this way at that certain place in order to be seen and heard.' You could act. You could play the scene and be assured that you would be seen and heard."

Drury Brooks.jpg
David Staruch
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Ideastream Public Media
The Drury Theatre (left) and the Brooks Theatre (right)

Alison Garrigan grew up in the old Play House complex as a teenager, after her parents, Jonathan and Jo Farwell, joined the company in 1973. Six years later she got married on the Drury stage.

"Every member of the company just took myself and my sister under their wing and they became family," Garrigan said.

She credits her experience at the Play House for her long career in local theater as an actor, costume designer, director and later the founder of the Talespinner Children’s Theatre.

“Well, the Brooks to me is what I call a sacred space. First of all, it was so intimate between the actors and the audience. It was the very first time I was ever on stage down there. I did my first youth theater production on that stage when we did 'Sleeping Beauty,' and it just was this beautiful little jewel box," Garrigan said. "And the Drury was just, it was like stepping into a familiar place, all that wood and the velvet, and it was just silent in there. So it was like going into a church.”

Jeffery Ullom is a professor of theater at Case Western Reserve University and author of “America’s First Regional Theatre: The Cleveland Play House and Its Search for a Home.”

He told Ideastream Public Media in 2011 the old space runs up against modern issues.

“For example, if you ever see a show in here, you hear the helicopters coming from life flight next door. You hear police sirens going by, and it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to soundproof this. And in doing so, you get all new walls and the Brooks would be a completely different theater,” Ullom said.

While some members of the CPH alumni group on Facebook are sad, many are resigned to the fact that father time caught up with this local landmark, as Wayne Turney explained.

“I understand, you know, and having just had my life extended by the Clinic with my bypass surgery, I am beholden to the Clinic. I wish that there had been a way that they could have found a different space nearby, so they could preserve maybe the Drury for special occasions," Turney said. "And well, we've lost one of those little oases, I think, in Cleveland. And that's a shame."

The Cleveland Clinic plans to demolish the old Cleveland Play House to make space to support the construction of a 1-million-square-foot Neurological Institute expected to open in 2026.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.