Another visit to Akron

Akron’s been on my mind lately, as I’ve been there more in the past two weeks than I have in years. Okay, only twice, but still.

Last week my husband and I went to a concert (Wilco, in case you were wondering) at the Akron Civic Theater, which is truly one of the oddest looking buildings I think I’ve ever been in.

Strangely enough, given that my dad grew up in Akron and my grandmother lived there almost her entire adult life, I had never been there before.  It was originally envisioned as “the Hippodrome,” a 3,000 seat movie theater with an arcade full of shops and restaurants. It was designed in 1919 by L. Oscar Beck, an Akron dance hall owner. Construction began and the lobby was built, but the project was bankrupt by 1921. In 1925, the abandoned lobby and adjacent land along the Ohio and Erie Canals were purchased by Marcus Loew–who founded the Loew’s theater chain and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios–and designed by architect John Eberson.

The theater was completed in 1929, two years after Loew’s death. Its interior was fashioned after a Moorish castle featuring Mediterranean decor, including medieval carvings, European antiques and Italian alabaster sculptures. Eberson also designed the theater to be “atmospheric,” featuring twinkling starlit skies (seriously, it’s wild–this picture of mine doesn’t do it justice at all) and drifting clouds.

Proscenium arch, Akron Civic Theater

I had never seen or heard of an atmospheric theater before, so being the nerd that I am I needed to do some digging. The Akron Civic is one of the largest remaining examples of atmospheric theaters in the US. It was nearly destroyed in the 1960s, but for the enterprising persistence of a group of Akron matrons, who saved the theater from destruction and insured its continued success. (Ironically, they did so in part by selling popcorn, the smoke and grease from which so blackened the walls that the theater underwent a $19 million cleaning and renovation in 2001. Or at least that’s what the guy selling beer(and no popcorn) told us.)

John Eberson was born in Romania in 1875 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1901. He developed the atmospheric design, and by the end of his career had designed anywhere from 100 to 1,200 theaters, depending on which website you choose, all over the world. Usually designed with European themes, Eberson’s theaters featured large sky-blue ceilings with twinkling stars and clouds, and facades on either side. You can almost imagine you are in a courtyard in some ancient European city. Almost. We really weren’t sure what the fake Christmas trees along the top were doing in a Moorish castle.

Left facade, Akron Civic Theater

It’s curious that so many of his theaters are in Ohio, and some in relatively small towns as well. Eberson designed the Colony Theater in Shaker Heights, which is now Shaker Square Cinemas (a slightly bizarre art deco space), as well as theaters in Marion, Canton, Bellefontaine (the only one with a Dutch motif and working windmills), Bryan, Celina, Norwalk. Perhaps it is because he built his first theater, the Jewel, in Hamilton, Ohio, and started his own architectural firm in Hamilton.

Have you ever been in an “atmospheric” theater? What did you think?

In addition to the links embedded above, check out these sites for more information and some great pictures:
There are some wonderful examples of Eberson’s work at this interesting blog about, of all things, ornamental plaster.

9 Replies to “Another visit to Akron”

  1. The Civic is an institution in Akron, complete with a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that rises out of the orchestra pit for shows, then descends back to its regular place in the pit. As an Akron kid, I went on field trips there, including such things as the Akron Symphony Orchestra, as well as a memorable trip with our neighbors’ family (then the County Sheriff) to see the B&B Ringling Bros. circus – yep, elephants on that stage, and a motorcycle act overhead – all in the 1960s. It has been rescued more than once by private and public partnerships, and is considered the Jewel on Main Street. Obviously what you saw on your trip was just holiday season decorations for Christmas and such, and while the theater space itself is gloriously gaudy in every sort of good way (and, yes, the ceiling’s stars and clouds are a wonder, even 80 years on), the lobby and staircases, and the adjacent hallways, are all wonders unto themselves. It was built specifically movies in the silent film days – thus the organ – but it has been routinely re-adapted over time, with the rear of the house (stage/backstage/supports) all part of that $19 million renovation. Popcorn grease? Not a chance – Akron was a heavily industrial town as the Rubber Capital of the World in the Civic’s first heyday, with Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone and General all operating huge plants within just a couple of miles of the Civic, so what it accumulated was just the product of a heavy industrial base, with the Civic sitting near the bottom of the bowl, topographically, and likely a profound lack of maintenance for decades on end. It is kept remarkably busy between concerts, ballets, shows and even – yes – movies on occasion, and is well-loved by the entire community at large, and will be anchoring a just-announced renaissance of the block between the Civic and Bowery Street, to include shops, restaurants, offices and condominiums and apartments. BTW, it was a Loew’s Theater into the 1960s, when the community came together, purchased it from its then owner, and in a boast of civic pride, it was renamed the Civic Theater.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing more of the Civic’s history! It’s hard to imagine elephants on the stage, I have to say. πŸ™‚ I can’t believe I never went there when I was a kid, since my grandparents lived in Akron.

  2. It’s one of those things you just can’t forget – that and the motorcycles balancing on wires strung over the audience. For a kid who was 5 or 6 at the time, it was pretty remarkable stuff. The Civic’s next-phase of restoration is in the lobby area – and they intentionally left off right at the staircase into the theater to show the restored versus the non-restored wall panels. This link will provide a pretty telling tale of where things were, and where’s they’re headed:

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