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Upcoming Playhouse Square facelift to include colorful new marquees for principal theaters

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 10/11/2022 Steven Litt, cleveland.com
The GE Chandelier is the gateway to Cleveland’s theatre district where The Lion King musical showed at the State Theatre October 5, 2021. It was the first major Broadway touring show to return to Playhouse Square after theaters were shuttered in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. © John Kuntz, cleveland.com/cleveland.com/TNS The GE Chandelier is the gateway to Cleveland’s theatre district where The Lion King musical showed at the State Theatre October 5, 2021. It was the first major Broadway touring show to return to Playhouse Square after theaters were shuttered in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Playhouse Square is gearing up for its next big facelift, a $10 million-plus upgrade that will include replacing its aging, battered, and visually uncoordinated theater marquees.

Scheduled for completion by June 2023, the revamp will endow the city’s theater district with six new, gold-colored marquees glittering with programmable, multi-colored lighting fixtures.

Five of the district’s stages will get the largest and most eye-catching marquees: the Allen, Connor Palace, Mimi Ohio, Keybank State, and Hanna theaters.

A more modest new sign will be installed on the district’s Bulkley Building to create a new street presence for the smaller Helen and Outcalt theaters, located deep inside the building.

Gina Vernaci, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization that runs Playhouse Square, the second biggest unified theater complex in the nation after New York’s Lincoln Center, said the marquee project grew out of a nagging problem.

The State and Ohio theater marquees now extend so far out from their buildings that they’ve been grazed by buses and trucks on Euclid Avenue. “They have a kind of wrinkled nose, right at the front door,’’ Vernaci said of the dinged-up marquees. “That was our launching pad’' for the project to rethink all the marquees.

Crunch: Playhouse Square marquees extend so close to streets that they've had close encounters with buses and trucks. The district has plans to replace the battered, visually uncoordinated canopies with stylish new ones. © Steven Litt/cleveland.com/TNS Crunch: Playhouse Square marquees extend so close to streets that they've had close encounters with buses and trucks. The district has plans to replace the battered, visually uncoordinated canopies with stylish new ones.

The goal, she said, is not to recreate the historic marquees on the theaters, which were originally built starting in 1921 as silent movie palaces and vaudeville houses. Instead, she said, Playhouse Square is looking for ways to continue unifying and brightening the district as it marks its centennial this year.

Seeking curb appeal

“The experience begins at the sidewalk,’’ she said. “The marquees that are here presently are not the historical marquees; they are actually a series of mismatched canopies. They all served a purpose in their day, but now there’s a chance to pull all of that together with a unified vision.”

The marquee project represents another step in Playhouse Square’s evolution as the nonprofit organization that grew out of a civic, foundation, and government project to rescue the district’s theaters from destruction starting in the 1970s. Back then, theater owners were prepared to knock down the stages to create parking lots.

Playhouse Square today owns and manages six major buildings in the district through its real estate arm, which manages a total of 2.5 million square feet of office, retail, cultural, and manufacturing facilities across Greater Cleveland.

The organization reported expenses of $72.5 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022, with an income of $78.5 million, of which 34.4%, or $27 million, came from its real estate operations.

Properties managed by Playhouse Square outside the theater district include Cleveland’s Shaker Square shopping center, Judson Manor and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in University Circle.

Asserting downtown’s importance

Vernaci also described the marquee project as a way to reassert the importance of Playhouse Square, and Cleveland’s downtown, as regional focal points after disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

She likened the present moment to that of the original opening of Playhouse Square’s theaters following the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, which killed millions worldwide.

When the theaters first opened, “people were lined up around the block to get in to see shows and to be together,’’ she said, “because as a society that’s what we should be doing. We should be having shared experiences live and in-person, shoulder-to-shoulder, with audience members young and old, from all parts of the community. That is one of the ever-giving aspects of Playhouse Square.”

The theater district will begin a multi-stage process of seeking approval for the new marquees from the City Planning Commission later this month.

Seeking “dazzle”

The marquee project represents a continuation of “Dazzle the District,’’ a $16 million effort launched in 2014 that included four gateway arches at the edges of the theater district, a series of programmable digital kiosks, and the 20-foot-tall GE Chandelier suspended over the intersection of East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue.

The idea, then and now, was to find ways to make the vitality of Playhouse Square’s productions more visible along sidewalks in the theater district, which extends from East 12th to East 17th Street along Euclid Avenue, and which includes the Hanna Theatre on East 14th Street.

The new project will include updating the technology in the district’s outdoor displays, Vernaci said.

The new marquees are part of an overall concept developed originally by the Cleveland office of DLR Group, and carried out in detail by the Barnycz Group of Baltimore.

The design of the new marquees takes specific inspiration from the theaters located inside Playhouse Square’s 1920s office buildings.

Patterns outlined with individual lightbulbs on the underside of the marquee canopies borrow geometric patterns from the lobby ceilings inside the theaters.

The sides of the marquees, to be made of gold-painted aluminum and high-density urethane, playfully adapt other architectural features or motifs associated with each theater.

The Mimi Ohio marquee, for example, exploits a circular motif based on the letter “O.” The front of the marquee, facing Euclid Avenue, will feature a wavelike pattern of curved ribs radiating out from the round “O’' in the middle. The top side of the “O’' motif culminates in sunburst rays tipped with acanthus leaves.

The State Theatre marquee features a wavelike pattern of folds designed to evoke the theater’s big, red stage curtain.

All lighting fixtures will be LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, which consume far less electricity than traditional incandescent lights.

The $10.2 million budget for the new project does not include money for the Hanna Theatre marquee, which Playhouse Square is in the process of raising now. The goal, Vernaci said, is to complete the Hanna marquee in sync with the other new marquees next summer.

She declined to provide information on how much money has been raised so far or to describe any major gifts. But she said she’s confident Playhouse Square will carry out the project on time.

Vernaci, who succeeded Art Falco, Playhouse Square’s former president and CEO in 2019, will retire in 2023 to make way for her successor, Craig Hassall, who has led London’s Royal Albert Hall since 2017.

She sees the marquee project as a stylish handoff to Hassall.

“It gives me enormous pride to have been a part of this project, to have had a chance to play a role at Playhouse Square,’' she said. “It is a lovely setup for Craig to come in and take it forward.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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