in Cleveland: The Rise of a Regional Theater Center. By John
Vacha. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2001. 264 pp.
Paper. $29.95, ISBN 0-87338-697-3.)
Vacha has written about fine and performing arts for a variety of
scholarly and popular history publications and was an associate
editor of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History/Dictionary of
Showtime in Cleveland traces the evolution of "legitimate"
theater (live spoken drama) as part of the city's cultural history.
The work is a chronological narrative with chapters representing
distinct eras in the development of Cleveland theater history. It
is not a scholarly history, but a rich narrative account interspersed
with photographs and illustrations.
scant surviving evidence, Vacha's story begins with local amateur
dramatic productions and visits by a few traveling professional
actors in Cleveland's pre-canal early 1820s. Linkage with the Ohio
canal system and increased Lake Erie travel late in the 1820s led
to the town's first significant population growth and an audience
base stable enough for the first ventures into the theater business.
Cleveland's earliest theaters were simple frame structures built
or adapted to be home bases for stock companies touring a circuit
made possible by the expansion of lake traffic. Entrepreneurs like
John Ellsler came to the city with touring companies during this
period, decided there was sufficient audience support for dramatic
troupes to stage productions in their own home buildings, and spent
one or more seasons attempting to succeed in the theater business
without touring. However, those few stock companies that lasted
beyond their first seasons found that economic survival depended
on a mix of touring and stock productions.
relates facets of Cleveland's nineteenth century evolution as a
city -- surges in population and infusions of ethnic cultures, economic
successes and failures, the growing popularity of public entertainment
genres (including theater), and sometimes resistance to such entertainment
by churches, newspapers, and prominent civic leaders -- to the proliferation
of theaters and shifting of "entertainment" districts
geographically within the city. Between the 1830s and 1890s stock
companies came and went, depending upon the vagaries of the local
and national economy, competition from other entertainment venues,
and varying support from local groups and individuals. Cleveland's
stock companies also produced nationally notable actors such as
Ellsler's daughter, Effie Ellsler, and Clara Morris, whose career
stretched into the silent film era. Theater history in the latter
part of the century was dominated by the economic and social involvement
of prominent local citizens like Mark Hanna and Henry Wick. Meanwhile,
resident stock companies declined, giving way to more lavish productions
by professional touring (or "combination") companies featuring
more polished performances and spectacular sets.
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