Our Art Theater: The Cleveland Playhouse and the Visual Arts, 1915-1924


This Fall, Cleveland begins a yearlong celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of its much beloved regional theater, The Cleveland Play House. Participating in this landmark event, 78th Street Studios and ARTneo will exhibit art, posters, programs and sundry ephemera from the Play House’s earliest years. In 1915 a group of Cleveland men and women formed the Play House Company for the purpose of establishing an art theater to encourage native art in all its forms by presenting dramatic performances, musicales, dances and art exhibitions. The group consisted of actors, artists, musicians, writers, dancers, stagehands and teachers of children. Their purpose was to afford a medium through which ability and imagination could find expression in the creation of beauty.

From its beginnings, the Play House prospered well beyond what the original group of artists and craftsmen could have imagined. Perhaps this was due to the group’s revival of neglected forms of dramatic art, such as the marionette, the silhouette play, the miracle play and drama in verse. Two of the very first plays put on in 1916 were a marionette performance of Maurice Maerterlinck’s The Death of Tintagiles and a shadowgraph of the Brother’s Grimm fairy tale Forty At One Blow. Or perhaps, it was due to the introduction of theater in the round, modern stage lighting as well as the presentation of plays that had never been produced before and indeed were deemed by many impossible to actually produce. Alfred Kreymborg’s poem-mime plays on the 1919 season program were experimental works that combined free verse with music. Kreymborg’s goal was to treat the characters of the plot as he might have handled a trio of instruments in a sonata movement.

Whichever innovation had the greatest impact, The Play House’s success certainly resided foremost in the spirit of discovery and of creativity central to its guiding principle. Together this amateur troop of artists created a home where local artists would find encouragement and where the entire population of the city would have an opportunity for self-discovery

What is frequently not appreciated today is the close relationship that existed at the time between the theatrical performers and the region’s artists, musicians and dancers. For example, under the auspices of the Play House, members of Cleveland’s various ethnic groups presented their native music and dances. The Royal Hungarian Orchestra was among the first, performing a selection of folk music accompanied by the local Hungarian children from Cleveland schools. In the following months, soloists also held classical recitals of works by Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky while painters such as William Zorach, Charles Burchfield, Henry Keller and August Biehle exhibited a range of ultramodern paintings.

In 1917, the Play House held a formal opening of its recently remodeled theater at the corner of 72nd Street and Cedar Avenue. The painter Carl Broemel took on the task of decorating the theater in an ultramodern style. For Clevelanders of the time, the effect was wildly colorful and exciting. “Everywhere the eye was met with color- a veritable riot of color…Throughout the little playhouse there is an atmosphere of joyousness, almost of an exuberant gaiety.” Other artists, such as William Sommer and Michael DeSantis, were actively involved in set design and costumes at the same time. A corps de ballet led by Mlle. Gali de Mamay and M. Thaddeaus Loboyko, both former members of the Imperial Russian Ballet, danced to works by Rubenstein and Paderewski as well as participated in stage productions.

The group’s efforts extended well beyond the confines of the theater stage. In June of 1918, led by Raymond O’Neil, art director of the Play House, the cast designed costumes and staging for a spectacle in Wade Park celebrating Flag Day. And throughout the war years, artists and performers participated in civic spectacles to raise funds for bond drives, War Relief and the Red Cross. Business and artistic objectives often intertwined, with the artists regularly creating posters and advertisements for the Automobile Show, the Flower Show and Industrial Exhibitions.

The exhibition, Our Art Theater, will be held on the second floor galleries of 78th street studios from October 2, 2015 thru January 2, 2016. In partnership with ARTneo, the Cleveland Public Library and Case Western Reserve University Kelvin Smith Library the exhibition will draw on an extensive collection of art, posters, photographs and early theater programs. The show is curated by Christopher Richards and Lawrence Waldman. The exhibit is in conjunction with a major exhibition of the theatrical history of The Cleveland Play House, “100 Seasons”, currently on view at the Main Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

Our Art Theater: Oct. 2 2015 – January 2, 2016 at ArtNeo

100 Seasons, through December, 2015 at Cleveland Public Library


1300 West 78th Street

Cleveland, Ohio 44102



Cleveland Public Library

325 Superior Ave

Cleveland, OH 44114