September 2008 Issue
Another Opening, Another Show
Cleveland’s storied Hanna Theatre is rejuvenated for a new tenant: the Great Lakes Theater Festival.
Look again. You just might catch a glimpse of them waiting in the wings: Katharine Hepburn listening for her cue to enter in “The Philadelphia Story”; Bela Lugosi preparing to make his mark in “Dracula”; Humphrey Bogart breathing deeply before taking a comedic turn for “Saturday’s Children.”
These star-studded moments in Cleveland history belong to the Hanna Theatre, renowned for the shows that have graced its stage over the past 87 years.
This month, another chapter will be added to the playbill when the Hanna becomes the new home of the Great Lakes Theater Festival. To prepare for the troupe’s arrival, the theater received a $15 million facelift that took nine months to finish. Renovations included whittling down the 1,500-seat venue to the more intimate number of 550; building a thrust stage that allows the audience to view the action from three sides; and adding a lounge area –– complete with bar –– to provide a welcoming spot for pre- and post-show libation and meet-and-greets with actors.
But although a new act is about to begin, a significant portion of the past remains to be embraced, says John Hemsath, director of theater operations for PlayhouseSquare, the second-largest performing arts complex in the country, of which the Hanna is a part.
“We don’t want to lose sight of whatever historic fabric in the Hanna we can keep,” Hemsath says. He points with pride to the chandeliers, the arch bearing the name of famous playwrights and the intricate steel-and-glass doors –– all fixtures since the theater opened in March 1921.
“We’re mixing restoration, renovation and preservation,” he adds. “Incorporating the old with the new.”
Built by Daniel Rhodes Hanna as a memorial to his father, Marcus Hanna, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1898 until his death in 1904, the theater enjoyed a storied reputation for providing quality productions rivaling those on Broadway. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II selected the Hanna as the site for the world premiere of their musical “Me and Juliet” in 1953. “We like Cleveland as a show town,” the duo explained, adding that the success of “South Pacific” there spearheaded their wish to return. The ’70s ushered in the cast of the rock musical “Hair.” With its anti-war themes and nude scene, the play was steeped in controversy –– so much so that a bomb went off outside the theater prior to the final performance of the show’s seven-week run. (No one was hurt. Only the lobby’s plate-glass window and marquee were damaged.)
Bob Taylor, Great Lakes Theater Festival’s executive director, is well aware of the history surrounding him.
“You know it in your head that all these greats have played here,” he says, as the company prepares for the opening of its 47th season. “There’s an energy in the Hanna that tells us this is meant to be.”
Did You Know?
Gala first-nighters at the Hanna were unable to toast the new theater’s opening with anything alcoholic, since Prohibition had gone into effect on January 16, 1920. It would take until December 5, 1933, before PlayhouseSquare patrons could purchase cocktails there.
The back of the Hanna’s 38-by-38-foot stage curtain became a veritable Who’s Who in Theater, boasting signatures of performers who played there. Famous people who left their John Hancock include Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers, Carol Channing, Helen Hayes, Al Jolson, Jane Powell, George Hamilton, Don Ameche and Mary Martin. (The curtain has been saved for posterity in the Cleveland State University archives.)
While mostly thought of as venue for legitimate theater, the Hanna has featured various films during its lifetime. One such movie was the Cleveland premiere of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” screened on March 18, 1941, to benefit British War Relief.
Yul Brynner’s contract always stated that his dressing room must be painted brown –– and so it was, for his 1974 Hanna run in Michel LeGrand’s “Odyssey.”
— Compiled by Jeannie Emser Schultz, co-author of PlayhouseSquare: An Entertaining History (1810 to the 21st Century) and John Vacha, author of From Broadway to Cleveland, A History of the Hanna Theatre (Kent State University Press).