The fear of an invisible enemy stalked all of humanity during the 1918 flu pandemic, and Akron was not spared. Only after killing between 25 and 50 million people worldwide did the enemy seem to disappear, but the fear still lingered for years among residents as many businesses, especially those in the entertainment and service industry, struggled to survive.
In 1919, an Akron dance hall owner named L. Oscar Beck had an idea: he commissioned the building of a 3,000-seat theater along with 30 stores and restaurants, a project he called the “Hippodrome.” The project was bankrupt by 1921, leaving only one building, which still stands today as the main entrance to the Akron Civic Theatre, located on King James Way (South Main Street) in downtown Akron. In 1925, Marcus Loew purchased the “Hippodrome” and some surrounding land during a sheriff’s auction for $143,000, or about $2.1 million in today’s dollars. He then hired John Eberson to design the Akron Loew’s Theatre.
Life was hard in the early 1900s; the top three killers were pneumonia or influenza, tuberculosis (TB) and gastrointestinal infections. Fear was still in the air with a badly damaged economy, and entertainment was probably not the top priority for the masses. The 1918 flu pandemic, unlike other viruses, went after 20- to 40-year-olds, and about 52 million people of that generation also died in combat during World War I.
During the 1918 flu pandemic, closed spaces were avoided to limit the spread of the virus. At the time, sunlight and open-air were used effectively in fighting off TB and the flu. I’m sure that fear of the invisible enemy shaped and molded a generation even before the Great Depression. Much like today, the artists and musicians took a financial hit, as well as theaters and other places of entertainment. This left many wondering how to gain the public’s trust and fill those seats again to restart the economy.
Eberson designed two average theaters between the years of 1911 and 1915, and after the flu pandemic, he came up with a visionary idea for a new kind of theater experience. He called it an atmospheric design with elaborate architectural elements, ornamentation and open ceilings with projected clouds and stars to evoke a feeling of being outdoors. Eberson began to experiment with this style in 1921 and then went on to build over 100 atmospheric theaters across dozens of states, with a majority being designed and built during the 1920s. Only 16 remain today, and Northeast Ohio is home to two: The Akron Civic Theatre (The Akron Loew’s Theatre) and the Palace Theatre (in Canton).
Did Eberson figure out a psychological design to get the audience back into the theaters, which helped push the later ’20s boom? Eberson’s theaters encouraged people to witness his fantastic outdoor designs personally, while paying to watch a show. Each theater had its own unique theme. The Akron Civic Theatre is designed to resemble a night in a Moorish garden along with an atmospheric dome. the Palace Theatre in Canton has a garden-themed auditorium with a ceiling resembling a transition from night to day with a splattering of stars. Atmospheric designs, with unique but comforting elements, brought people to the theaters to watch the evolution of the Hollywood film industry through the 1920s with sound effects, talkies, and feature-length films.
Fast-forward 100 years to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. How will the fear of an invisible enemy along with thousands and possibly millions of nationwide deaths affect the entertainment industry today? The Akron Civic Theatre was born out of the 1918 flu pandemic and will survive the 2020 pandemic. I sat down via Skype with Howard Parr, the executive director of the Akron Civic Theatre, to discuss the theater’s past, present and future. To start, they are currently offering a weekly program called LiveVirturally, a live virtual performance of national, regional and local talent. Parr said he feels it’s important that during these times of isolation to still share a communal live experience through the virtual gateway of the Internet.
The Akron Civic Theatre closed in 2001 for a $19 million renovation, which included installation of new bathrooms and a curtain, and a cleanup of the garden-like interior, among other updates. Unfortunately, the project renovation fell about $6 million short, leaving a distinct line showing where the cleaning and restoration stopped. The Civic has raised the funds needed and will complete the cleaning and restoration sometime in the fall of 2020, as the money was raised pre-pandemic. Construction for a smaller and more intimate location in the adjacent building is being completed and will also be used for live broadcasts in the future. The outside bricks will get a new look, with two massive murals on the backside walls facing Lock-3 and the walls facing Lock-4. To top off the renovation, a large-screen exterior video wall will face Lock-3, which will be revealed in summer 2021.
The $42 million Bowery Project, which will remove the blighted buildings adjacent to the Akron Civic Theatre, is underway and presently has tenants living in the remodeled Landmark Building, which now holds 92 apartments. A grocery store and various other retail stores are coming but will most likely hold off until the roads are completed on Main Street in Akron and after the COVID-19 restrictions are eased. A little over 100 years later and everything has come full circle, as downtown Akron will finally have something like the original “Hippodrome” idea envisioned by Beck back in 1919, now happening on King James Way in 2020.
Link to full interview with Howard Parr of The Akron Civic Theatre
Around Akron with Blue Green is broadcast on PBS Western Reserve. https://westernreservepublicmedia.org/around-akron-with-blue-green.htm
Be sure to check out the May 2020 episode of Around Akron with Blue Green for a segment on The Akron Civic Theatre and Howard Parr.
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