Magic Makeover 

Randall Park Mall takes a shot at recovering its lost glory.

Before the basketball star and the balloons, before the marauding kids, the "near-riot," the belligerent Easter bunny, and angry Santa's elf, there was the shrimp -- 1,200 pounds of the stuff. There was also crab and turkey, crepes filled with chicken and spinach, and trees trimmed with melon and cheese. And there was the guest of honor, Dina Merrill, the va-va-voom star of stage and screen.

Thus Edward J. DeBartolo, Youngstown shopping center magnate, introduced Randall Park Mall to Cleveland on a summer night in 1976. The 5,000 guests at the opening party, The Plain Dealer gushed, "were offered champagne as they entered the door" and, this being the '70s, "harder stuff farther in."

The hard stuff would indeed be farther in, and further ahead. In the years following its heady opening, Randall Park Mall came to be known for a lot of things, but crepes and champagne were not among them. Plagued by bad press and an unsavory rap for everything from auto thefts to menacing teenagers, by the late 1980s and early '90s, Randall was either forgotten or dismissed by shoppers who had fled to glitzier surroundings.

All that is supposed to change with last week's opening of the new 12-screen Magic Johnson Theatres, the most conspicuous element in an ambitious plan to remake the mall into a family-friendly shopping and entertainment destination. The question is whether the new reality can trump Randall Park's lingering reputation. As Johnson told the crowd of potential moviegoers at the theater's grand opening last Thursday: "We've done our part. Now it's time to do your part."

Robert Rosenthal, president of the company that owns and operates two stores in Randall Park, Next Urban Gear and Music and Next Kids, has no doubt that the theaters will have a significant effect on the mall. "I think it's credibility," he says. "It's an image thing for Randall Mall. It changes the mindset."

When it opened, Randall Park was the largest mall in the world, with 2.2 million square feet of floor space, five department stores, 200 specialty shops, and 9,000 parking spots. It was, opined The Plain Dealer, "a place of exceptional convenience and beauty," the "jewel" of the DeBartolo empire.

But Randall has had its share of problems since. By the mid-1980s, the mall had become a popular gathering spot for teenagers. In 1987, eight juveniles were arrested after a jewelry shop window was smashed and some of the merchandise stolen. In the ensuing melee, a group of 150 teenagers ran through the mall after they mistook a popped balloon for a gunshot. Some merchants pulled down their security gates and didn't reopen for the day.

In response, the mall instituted a policy of banning anyone under 18 on Saturdays if they weren't accompanied by an adult.

The policy was rescinded in 1991, but security issues surfaced again in November 1992, when six people were arrested after about 200 people mixed it up with 50 police officers outside the mall. The racially charged incident erupted after three security guards, two of whom were white, exchanged words with three teenagers, all of whom were black, as they ordered them out of the shopping center.

Mall officials, store owners, and security guards uniformly say that such incidents were blown out of proportion and somehow stuck to Randall Park, while similar blemishes never scarred other area shopping malls. "We know the history," says Randall Park Marketing Director Dana Olden, who acknowledges the mall has to work harder to attract customers. "They come in, and it's "I didn't expect it to be like this.'"

Randall has also been plagued by some curious bad luck over the years. The Club, for instance, the ubiquitous anti-car-theft device, was invented by Aurora's Charles Johnson after his father-in-law's car was stolen -- at Randall Park Mall.

Then there's the mall's strange history with holiday icons. In 1991, North Randall police were called to investigate an altercation involving the Easter Bunny and one of his helpers. The rabbit, apparently unhappy with the pace of a picture-taking episode, approached his helper and "bumped her with his head and hit [her] with his ears." The helper, in turn, shoved the bunny, who was also accosted by the helper's boyfriend. A year later, Randall Park's freaky holiday juju reared its ugly head once again when a local woman sued Holiday Mall Productions, which ran the Santa operation at the mall, claiming that one of St. Nick's helpers attacked her after a heated exchange over her child's picture.

There was no such behavior at the grand opening of the Magic Johnson Theatres last Thursday, where public officials and corporate types all heralded a new era for the mall. "You are witnessing the transformation of Randall Park Mall's image," declared Bob Barker, vice president of development for Simon Properties Group, the current owner of the mall.

But a significant transformation was under way before the theaters opened. According to mall officials, Randall Park's occupancy rate is now 92 percent, up from 69 percent two years ago. This year alone, the mall has added 16 new stores. In addition to the theater, a food court is scheduled to open this month that will eventually include six restaurants.

Next Urban Gear's Rosenthal gives much of the credit for the mall's comeback to Simon Properties Group, the Indianapolis-based commercial real-estate behemoth that swallowed the DeBartolo company several years ago. He decided to open his second Next Urban Gear store at Randall Park, he says, because "they had a plan. They had an idea of what they had to do to be successful."

One critical part of that plan was getting Jeepers!, an indoor amusement center, targeted at 2- to 12-year-olds, that has been expanding all over the country since it was founded three years ago. Like Magic Johnson Theatres, Jeepers!, which opened in Randall Park in November 1998, has targeted shopping areas that have been underserved for family entertainment.

"When you have that family-oriented atmosphere and things for people to do, they stay here longer," notes Steven Diamond, manager of Diamond's Men's shop. "The longer they stay, the better potential there is for them to spend money."

And spending money, of course, is the sine qua non of a shopping mall. The marauding kids, the thefts, and belligerent bunnies and elves are no match for consumer dollars. With the new glitter of Magic Johnson's theater, maybe it's only a matter of time before Randall Park returns to its former glory.

Standing by for the celebration at the concession stand: popcorn shrimp.

Andrew Putz can be reached at aputz@clevescene.com. Walter Novak

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