Saturday, March 22, 2008

From Broadway to Cleveland, a history of the Hanna Theatre

Just back from two days of the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair with more books than I currently have room for on my shelves. Time to do some spring book weeding!

Not all my purchases were antiquarian in nature. NOBS (Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society) invites local book-related non-profits to display their wares at the annual Akron Fair. Both Kent State and the University of Akron publish books that should be of interest to both local and national readers.

This year, I pounced upon From Broadway to Cleveland - A History of the Hanna Theatre by John Vacha, published by The Kent State University Press in 2007.

Built in 1921, this venerable theatre was a major venue for touring productions featuring the greatest stars of the American stage for decades. Glancing through Appendix B: A Gallery of Hanna Ghosts, one can only marvel at the vast array of performances available to Cleveland playgoers: Ethel and John Barrymore, George M. Cohan, Maurice Evans, Ruth Gordon, Uta Hagen, Helen Hayes, Bert Laher, Eva Le Gallienne, The Marx Brothers, Basil Rathbone, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Orson Welles, Ed Wynn and so many more are documented in this book.

Mae West brought her infamous stage production with the title of Sex to Cleveland in 1930. This was the play for which West was arrested for public indecency in NYC. (She eventually served ten days in a workhouse, making the most of her time there for publicity purposes!) A Cleveland Press reviewer is quoted in the book: "West and her love scenes go plenty far, causing spectators to go har, har....She plays a Merry Magdalen whom fate decrees must make of her love affairs a complete bust. It's a great thing for smokers, stag parties and so , but we'd rather see an honest-to-gosh straight burlesque show."

The Hanna also featured some of America's greatest black thespians, including Bert Williams, Ethel Waters, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt and James Earl Jones. In the case of Bert Williams, his 1922 weekend appearance in Under the Bamboo Tree proved to be his last full stand. Following Cleveland, the show moved to Detroit where he collapsed on stage and died of heart failure at the age of only 46. A brilliant Vaudevillian who sang, danced and was known for his mastery of comedic pantomime, Williams spent his life performing as a black man in black face makeup. It is difficult to imagine the indignity of being forced to perform as a caricature of one's own race. From all accounts, Williams managed to transcend the imprisoning conventions of his time and reached out to audiences of all colors and beliefs.

This book is a rich trove of theatre history as is the Hanna Theatre, which stands to this day. In recent years it has been home to cabaret type shows rather than straight theatre. It is now undergoing major renovations and is to house The Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Although I don't believe in ghosts, I can imagine that all those great actors of old would approve of this theatre's return to legitimacy and the great classical playwrights whose names are listed above the proscenium: Ibsen, Aeschylus, Victor Hugo, Sheridan, Shakespere, Euripides, Moliere, Calderon, Goldoni, Goethe!

1 comment:

Mae West NYC said...

Interesting bit on MAE WEST. Thank you. Come up and see Mae - -