Historic Cleveland Theaters are Getting New Life 

In 1927, two years before his death, Italian-born architect Nicola Petti designed two Cleveland theaters that would become neighborhood anchors in their respective communities on the east and west sides. In 2016, 89 years later, both are being reborn.

Thanks to significant city and state historic tax credits, grant contributions and the will of community leaders, both the Variety Theater on West 117th Street and the LaSalle Theatre on East 185th Street will soon be in operation once again, though in new and mixed-use forms. Both buildings' facades are reminders of a lost time, and reminders of Petti's contributions to Cleveland's architectural landscape -- Petti designed 10 theaters across the region, including the Cedar-Lee.

The LaSalle is currently under construction. After Cleveland City Council officially authorized the city's contribution of $645,000 last week, most of the $4.1-million funding puzzle has now been secured. Northeast Shores Executive Director Brian Friedman told Scene that there's still some money to be raised, but he's hopeful to attract investors with facility naming opportunities -- $100,000 for the lobby, $100,000 for the marquee, etc.

Construction is expected to be completed in May 2017. It will become the LaSalle Arts & Media Center: the new home theater for Villa Angela St. Joseph high school; a performance space with high-tech recording capabilities; and a wedding venue, with catering service and 425 seats.

Friedman told Cleveland City Council on a tour of the facility this summer that the flexible facility would be modern, but would still retain historic flourishes, even with the rehab's comparatively modest budget -- the decorative plasterwork of the proscenium arch, for example.

The east side theater, which once boasted an auditorium of 1,500 seats, was the heart of bustling Collinwood back in its heydey. And as Waterloo has re-emerged as an arts district in recent years, thanks in large part to the Beachland Ballroom and new galleries and community programs for visual artists, Friedman said Northeast Shores has turned its focus to the East 185th Street Corridor.

"We're really excited that we've been able to find a large makers contingent in the neighborhood," he said. "East 185th will have a Makers focus -- the slogan is 'Made in Collinwood.' So the LaSalle will certainly host community events, but at its core it's a video and production facility, which walks hand in hand with the arts and production that happens in the neighborhood."

The project is estimated to create 27 jobs and $1.4 million in economic impact.

On the west side, Petti's Variety Theater is also on the cusp of major renovations. Though the Variety is much earlier in its renovation trajectory -- still in the design and planning phases -- like the LaSalle, the goal is for it to become a mixed-use facility.

Rose Zitiello, Executive Director of Westown Community Development Corporation, said that in November the project will learn whether or not it will receive state New Market tax credits, an incentive tied to prospective jobs. Zitiello estimated that the new Variety complex will generate 100 equivalent full-time positions, which will include employees at as many as 10 retail tenants and a yet-to-be-conceptualized Tony George restaurant on the theater's first floor. (George is the local restaurateur behind Barley House and Harry Buffalo).

With New Market tax credits included, the Variety will be the recipient of roughly $7.5 million in tax credits in all. Zitiello said the goal is to use that funding to leverage further contributions. The project is estimated to cost $15 million in total.

Though Zitiello said the theatre is in surprisingly good condition given its age and its use in the 1970s and 1980s as a raucous concert hall, one of the reasons the renovations will be so expensive is because of the complex's size.

"It's literally a city block," Zitiello said, of the 20,000-square-foot facility. "But its deterioration is nothing compared to what the Capitol or Cleveland Public Theatre was like."

In addition to the restaurant and retail on the first floor -- Westown CDC will also be a tenant -- the 400 second-floor balcony seats will be preserved for a movie theater space. The aim will not be to compete with mainstream theaters showing Hollywood fare, but to screen classics, family films and special programs for the community.

In both the LaSalle and the Variety, portions of the second floor will be converted into apartments, or existing units will be updated.

Saturday, Cleveland Councilwoman Dona Brady hosted a block party to celebrate the upcoming renovations at the Variety, the next of  which will be stabilizing the roof. This has been a pet project of Brady's since she was first sworn into office in 1999. Though the total renovation could take at least two years, funding has been secured (and electricity costs provided by FirstEnergy) to light up the marquee, an exact replica of the blade-style 28-foot original that beckoned moviegoers back in the 1920s and 1930s and was damaged by a tornado in 1953

"The marquee is the first step," said Brady, in a statement before the block party. "We have a ways to go, but this first step is drawing excitement from throughout the community. I'm confident we'll pull this project together."

Brady confirmed that she, Mayor Frank Jackson and Council President Kevin Kelley would be "dancing in the streets," to the tunes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin impersonators, who took the stage Saturday evening.

After the lights blinked on, glittering in the dusk, the musicians sang a Cleveland rendition of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" beneath the marquee while onlookers' happy faces gleamed in the light.

The light did not quite reach Lakeview Cemetery, where architect Nicola Petti is buried, but his ghost was surely smiling too.



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