Moreland Theater Building, Cleveland Ohio

Date added: October 4, 2022 Categories: Ohio Theater

When the Moreland was built, and for many years, Cleveland was home to the world's second largest community of Hungarians, most of whomlived in the Buckeye neighborhood. Not only the theater but also the businesses in the Moreland building catered to the Hungarian community. Before World War II, every neighborhood had at least one movie theater, and they were as important to neighborhood life as churches and schools.

The Moreland Theater Building was built in 1927 on Buckeye Road at the corner of E. 119th Street. Real estate entrepreneur A. T. (Adolph) Wallach (1881-1959) was at the head of the Buckeye-E. 119th Street Company that built and owned the Moreland. Born in Austria, Wallach came to Cleveland in 1907. His real estate investments included both new buildings and old. Among his holdings was the Hoyt Block (1875) at W. 6th St. and St. Clair Avenue. His office was in the Society for Savings Building on Public Square. Braverman and Havermaet, architects, designed the building in the baroque style that was popular for theaters at that time. The theater was designed for both vaudeville and motion pictures. The below-stage area was equipped with an orchestra pit and organ chamber, which housed a $40,000 Kimball organ. There were three dressing rooms for stage performers. The plans show the auditorium seating capacity at 1,296, about average for a neighborhood theater at that time. In a press release for the new theater, the management boasted "the most modern system of indirect side lighting, air purifying systems, newest type of projection machines, in a fireproof booth, and every facility and resource to contribute to the complete enjoyment of its patrons." The air purifying system relied on two huge fans at each end of the theater's upper level. One of the fans is still in place, as are the ornate hanging lamps on the auditorium side walls, presumably part of the modern side lighting. In addition to the theater, the building contained four stores on the first floor, five office suites, and two residential apartments on the second floor. The construction cost of the building was reportedly $300,000.

The theater opened on January 12, 1928 with the film The Cat and the Canary; Larry Jean Fisher, "The Texas Organist," at the Kimball organ; and George Williams and his Music Box Merrymakers on stage. The Universal-Variety theater chain operated the theater. Programming for the Hungarian community began early on, with the Hungarian Elite Mixed Choir performing in March. The stores were fully occupied with (from east to west) Marshall Drug Company (11824), Fuller Cleaning & Dyeing Company (11818), Cort Shoes (11816), and Julius Goldman's men's furnishings (11810). By 1929, two physicians, a dentist, and a lawyer occupied the offices upstairs, and one of the apartments was leased. But the theater was already losing money, most likely due to competition from the Regent Theater, which was less than two blocks away and well-established in the business.

On October 1, 1929, Paul Gusdanovic acquired the lease for the Moreland Theater. Gusdanovic, a Croatian, was well established as a successful theater operator. At various times he had operated the Strand, Orpheum, Corlett, and Norwood theaters. In 1927 Gusdanovic acquired a partnership interest in the Regent Theater. After October 1, 1929, Gusdanovic operated the Moreland and Regent theaters jointly. The stock market crashed less than a month later. The Moreland Theater closed in December, then reopened showing Hungarian films, then closed again. In November 1930 the Moreland reopened with a new sound system and began showing talking films, but it closed again in 1931. During this time Hungarian community events and performances took place in the theater, including a speech by Count Michael Karolyi, president of the Hungarian Republic. In 1932 Gusdanovic renewed his lease on the Moreland Theater, agreeing to keep the theater open an average of two days a week between September and May. But Hollywood films were not the usual bill of fare at the Moreland. Instead, Gusdanovic showed Hungarian films and rented the theater for Hungarian shows and community events. From 1933 to 1935 the Magyar Szinhaz - Hungarian Theater - rented the theater, performing drama and light opera twice a week. The Buckeye neighborhood was a Democratic stronghold, and political meetings and rallies often took place at the Moreland. But these programs were not sufficient to make a profit for the theater. Gusdanovic would later testify that from October 1929 through the end of his lease in 1937 he lost $80,000. By comparison, during the same interval he lost $15,000 at the Regent Theater, which continued to show second-run Hollywood movies.

The onset of the Depression brought closings and turnover among the other tenants of the Moreland building, but by the mid-1930s the storefronts were again fully occupied. Marshall Drug remained at 11824, a dentist occupied 11818, S. C. Wagenman Paint Stores Company occupied 11816, and Louis Davis's dry goods store was at 11810. Davis Dry Goods would be a long-term tenant, remaining until 1960. The second-floor offices were more fully occupied than in 1929, with two dentists, two physicians, two lawyers, and M. M. Kallo, listed in the city directory as "baths." An architect lived in apartment A.

In October 1937 the G. & P. Amusement Company acquired the lease for the Moreland Theater. Samuel Greenberger and David Polster were partners in the company. Both were experienced movie theater operators who had emigrated from Hungary in 1921. They promoted their nationality in Szabadsdg, Cleveland's leading Hungarian newspaper: "We can say with pride, that the Hungarian businessmen of Buckeye Road have gained two new members." G. & P. introduced a radical change in Moreland Theater programming: daily double features of Hollywood movies. To this end they remodeled and redecorated the theater and installed a new RCA sound system. It is likely that the Art Moderne black glass facade was installed on the theater at this time. The Moreland Theater was now in direct competition with Gusdanovic's Regent, but a third competitor outshone them both. In 1937 the Colony Theater opened on Shaker Square with its elegant Art Moderne lobby, the newest equipment, and parking, which enabled it to attract moviegoers from outside its neighborhood. Second-run movies now went to the Colony, and the Moreland and Regent competed for third-run movies. The Regent had the advantage of established relationships with film distributors, and it appears that it often obtained the more desirable films. Nevertheless, through the late 1930s and 1940s the Moreland Theater showed Hollywood films as well as Hungarian films. The Moreland continued to host political rallies and meetings.

Although the Moreland Theater managed to stay open through 1949, it was losing money. In March 1949 G. & P. Amusement Company filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Gusdanovic; Cooperative Theaters of Ohio, which booked films for 140 Ohio theaters including the Regent; and four Hollywood film distributors. G. & P. alleged that Gusdanovic and the others conspired to ruin the Moreland, preventing the latter from competing fairly with the Regent for films and costing the Moreland $175,000 in lost revenues. The suit was still awaiting trial when the Moreland Theater closed for lack of business in March 1950. The trial began in September 1951, and a year later the court ruled against G. & P. Amusement Company, stating that there was no conspiracy against the Moreland Theater, only normal competition. The judge opined that the Buckeye neighborhood could not support two movie theaters in such close proximity, and that the Regent offered more to its customers. G. & P. appealed, but in 1954 the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision.

Meanwhile, the other businesses and professionals in the Moreland Theater Building fared better than the theater. In 1938 Alex Wolovits purchased the recently-opened Wolovits Jewelry at 11818 Buckeye from his cousin. Wolovits would remain there for more than three decades as the jeweler of choice on Buckeye. In 1942 the Red Cross Pharmacy moved from its previous location on lower Buckeye at E. 89th Street into the Marshall Drug space. A sign in the pharmacy window read "Magyar Patika," Hungarian pharmacy. The employees spoke Hungarian and sold European cures that included leeches. Wolovits Jewelry and Red Cross Pharmacy were anchors of the Buckeye business district, serving the thriving Hungarian community of the Buckeye neighborhood. After World War II, second generation Hungarian Americans started moving to the suburbs, but a new wave of immigrants came from Hungary, refugees from the war and from the new Soviet regime. Unlike the late nineteenth-century immigrants who were mostly laborers, the new immigrants were middle class, middle-aged, and well educated. They were very active in politics and in maintaining their homeland traditions. A third wave of Hungarian immigrants came to the neighborhood after the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. There was great public sympathy and support for the freedom fighters who revolted against the Soviets. This younger group of refugees tended to assimilate more rapidly than those who came after World War II.

By the early 1950s, the Moreland Theater had company in its failure, as many of Cleveland's older movie theaters closed. By 1952, movie theater attendance had dropped to fifty-four million a week from a peak of ninety million a week in 1946. Moviegoers tended to drive to newer theaters in the suburbs. The Moreland Theater reopened in the early 1950s, managed by A. T. Wallach and his son Edward, an attorney. But programming was sporadic, consisting mostly of Hungarian films or films of interest to the Hungarian community. For example, St. Margaret School's PTA sponsored a showing of Life and Miracles of Mother Cabrini, and St. Stephen's Sport Club showed a film on the 1954 world championship football (soccer) game. One lessee was decidedly not part of the Hungarian community, for a short period in 1954 the controversial Group 16 film club showed uncensored movies at the Moreland. The theater remained a venue for political meetings and rallies. In the late 1950s there were several programs honoring the Hungarian freedom fighters.

By 1960, however, events at the Moreland Theater were few and far between. In March 1960, eight-year-old Frank Hohn gave an organ recital to raise funds to buy books for Hungarian refugee children in Austria. A Hungarian poet spoke at the theater in February 1961. It appears that the Moreland Theater was closed in 1962. The Regent Theater closed that year and was demolished soon after. In 1963 three theater professionals determined to give new life to the Moreland Theater as a dinner theater for musical shows. Gerard Gentile, William Boehm, and Eugene Woods had experience at Musicarnival, Cain Park, and other Cleveland theater venues. Woods, the general manager, also operated nursing homes. They remodeled the Moreland auditorium, leveling the floor and adding a terraced area in the rear for tables and chairs, with theater seating in the front. Players Theater Cafe opened early in January 1964 with a musical variety show. For the next few months, Players presented condensed versions of such fare as Merry Widow, Mikado, and Maritza, a Hungarian operetta that Magyar Szinhaz had performed at the Moreland in the 1930s. But in April, Players closed, and in May, Woods became the center of a scandal over fraud and mismanagement of his nursing homes. Woods became a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for larceny. In October, new management opened a dinner theater called Playbill-East Theater. But in 1965 the theater was vacant again.

In July 1967 the theater reopened as a dance hall and cafe called the Beach Party Room. Sand was spread three inches thick on the auditorium floor, and artificial palm trees and tropical grasses were added to create the atmosphere of a California beach party. By October the sand had been removed, and the Second Shadow Lounge opened with a liquor bar, mezzanine restaurant, six thousand square-foot dance floor, and eight go-go girls on stage. Projection machines illuminated the room with psychedelic lights. In February 1968 state liquor agents raided the lounge for serving liquor after hours. In March, a fire reportedly gutted the lobby. The fire did not, however, destroy the original plaster decorations. By then the Buckeye neighborhood had changed substantially. As in all of Cleveland's ethnic neighborhoods, middle-class families left the old neighborhood and moved to the suburbs. Disinvestment followed the decrease in property values, and there was tension between the Hungarians who remained and the blacks who moved in. The neighborhood became unstable, and crime increased. The Red Cross Pharmacy was robbed in 1967 and closed in 1968; a Hadassah resale shop later moved into the space. In 1969 an attempted robbery of Wolovits Jewelry made front page headlines when police shot and killed two of the robbers. Alex Wolovits kept the store open until 1972, when he moved it to suburban South Euclid.

Nevertheless, there were efforts among both blacks and Hungarians to create a stable, integrated neighborhood. One organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the neighborhood was the Buckeye Neighborhood Nationality Civic Association. In June 1969 the association presented its first Buckeye improvement awards, including an award to Alex Marody for redecorating and reopening a Hungarian playhouse in the old Moreland Theater. The Deryne Szinhaz was named for a famous Hungarian actress. The fire damage was repaired, seats were installed again in the auditorium, and the walls were decorated with murals of Hungarian dancers in traditional costume. For the next few years Deryne Szinhaz presented a variety of performances by Hungarian artists under the auspices of the Hungarian Cultural Society. But in 1974 the theater was vacant again. The storefront where Wolovits had been was vacant, and there was only one tenant in the offices upstairs. Edward Wallach had signs made to make it appear that he had an office in the building, although he actually maintained his law office elsewhere. In 1975 the theater reopened for a short time as the Festival Theater, showing old movies and foreign films. That was the last effort to operate a theater in the Moreland.

In 1978, Edward Wallach sold the Moreland Theater Building to the Church of God in Christ. For nearly thirty years after that, the theater was used as a worship space. The church used some of the retail and office space for its activities and rented out the others. In 2007 the Buckeye Area Development Corporation (BADC) purchased the building. Founded in 1970, the BADC is a not-for-profit community development corporation serving the Buckeye-Woodland neighborhood. Among its projects was the rehabilitation of the historic Weizer Building across the street from the Moreland Theater. BADC plans to rehabilitate the Moreland as the Buckeye Cultural Center, which will be a catalyst for the revitalization of the Buckeye commercial corridor. Today the Buckeye neighborhood is predominantly African American, with only a handful of Hungarian households. At the Buckeye Cultural Center, BADC plans to celebrate the Hungarian heritage of the neighborhood as well as serve its current residents.

The Buckeye Neighborhood

The Buckeye neighborhood was typical of the ethnic enclaves that developed in Cleveland during the late nineteenth century. Hungarians began coming to Cleveland in substantial numbers in the 1870s. The first immigrants were mostly men and largely transient; they came to work in the factories, and many returned to Hungary. Some lived on Cleveland's west side, but the largest number lived on the east side, clustering in the vicinity of E. 79th Street south of Woodland Avenue. As the community grew, it expanded eastward along Buckeye Road. Hungarians opened stores, taverns, real estate agencies, and other businesses. They established churches, benevolent organizations, and cultural groups, such as St. Stephen's Dramatic Club and the Cleveland Hungarian Self-Culture Society. Cleveland's Hungarian population grew from 9,558 in 1900 to 43,134 in 1920. Following World War I, about half of the Hungarians in the U.S. returned to Hungary. In 1921 the U.S. government established immigration quotas, putting a stop to the back and forth migration between Hungary and the U.S. The Hungarians who stayed in Cleveland purchased homes and became U.S. citizens. The Hungarian business district along Buckeye Road expanded eastward beyond East Boulevard (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) all the way to E. 130th Street. Residential streets extended north and south from Buckeye. Seven Hungarian churches, eight clubhouses, and more than three hundred Hungarian-owned businesses served the community. Although the Buckeye neighborhood was overwhelmingly Hungarian, there were smaller numbers of other nationalities, mostly Czechs and Slovaks. By the late 1930s, about 40,000 people lived in the Buckeye neighborhood; about 35,000 of them were Hungarian.

Cleveland Theaters

The 1920s was the golden age of movie theaters, when theaters were built in record numbers, and picture palaces gave new meaning to the word opulent. Movies gained supremacy over vaudeville as the most popular form of theatrical entertainment. Older vaudeville theaters were converted to show motion pictures, and new theaters were equipped for both vaudeville and motion pictures or for motion pictures alone. In Cleveland, the grand Hippodrome (1907, demolished) on Euclid near Public Square was built for theater and opera, adding motion pictures later. The Stillman Theater (demolished) on Euclid at E. 12th Street was built in 1916 as Cleveland's first theater exclusively for motion pictures. The theater district developed at Playhouse Square in the early 1920s covered all of the theatrical bases. The Hanna and Ohio theaters were built in 1921 for legitimate theater; the Ohio was converted to movies the following year. The State, designed for movies and vaudeville, and the Allen, for movies exclusively, also opened in 1921. The Palace was built in 1922 for vaudeville, adding motion pictures four years later. These were Cleveland's picture palaces, ranging in size from one thousand to well over three thousand seats. These palatial theaters interpreted Roman, Renaissance, baroque, and neoclassical designs using exotic woods, marble, rich fabrics, and gilded and painted plaster adorned with murals, tapestries, and crystal chandeliers. Usually, these theaters were not freestanding but rather located within commercial and office buildings.

Like the downtown theaters, Cleveland's neighborhood theaters were often built for both vaudeville and motion pictures. They were smaller than most of the downtown theaters, with anywhere between five hundred and two thousand seats. Their lobbies and auditoriums were highly decorated in the same eclectic styles as the downtown picture palaces, although they were relatively restrained in comparison. Neighborhood theaters were located in commercial buildings that also contained stores, offices, and/or apartments. They were second-run theaters, new films opened first at the downtown theaters and then came to the neighborhood theaters, usually thirty-five days later. By the end of 1920, the Plain Dealer listed about sixty theaters showing "photo plays" in Cleveland's neighborhoods. One of these was the Regent Theater, built that year on Buckeye at E. 117th Street. By 1928, when the Moreland Theater opened, the newspaper movie theater listings were more selective, so it is not possible to compare numbers. It appears that some of the older theaters had closed, yet many new theaters had been built, including the Commodore, Garden, Granada, Imperial, Kinsman, LaSalle, Lyric, Mayfield, and Variety, to name just a few.