Mimi Ohio Theatre

Cleveland, Ohio | C.1921

Photo Credit: Accidentally Wes Anderson

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The show must go on! Part of an ambitious project to establish an entertainment-driven downtown in Cleveland, the Mimi Ohio Theatre has survived fire, poor remodeling, and was nearly demolished to make way for a… parking lot. But don’t cue Joni Mitchell just yet! Thanks to the efforts of a rag-tag group of preservationists, it is now a shining star of the largest playhouse district in the USA outside of New York City. 

The Ohio Theatre and its sister playhouse, the State Theatre, were opened as twins in 1921 on a single lot, resulting in some unique construction with lobbies and grand rooms fitting together like Tetris blocks. While other theaters in the district were designed for moving pictures, the 1,300+ seat Ohio was intended to host the greatest hits coming from Broadway. Unfortunately, the performance space didn’t catch on with Cleveland patrons, and the Ohio was soon transformed into a supper club. Renamed the “Mayfair Casino”, the Italian decor was replaced with Art Deco furnishings, as owners scrambled to license it a full-fledged casino, but their big bet went bust as City Hall struck down the gambling legislation.

The theater changed hands once again and became a movie house welcoming patrons to enjoy ‘talkies’ until the 1960s, but the Ohio’s new digs were not a box office hit. Audiences once again began to dwindle, and an unfortunate fire badly damaged the historic lobby in 1964. The Ohio shut its doors to the public indefinitely. 

Luckily, the next 7 years would contain the same rousing drama of a musical’s entr’acte. The Ohio and its old sister theater were nearly demolished not once, but twice, in favor of hot pavement. But thanks to public outcry and a small but determined team of preservationists, the Playhouse Square Association entered stage left to save the day. The organization resolved to buy up all of the aging theaters within the 4-block radius, including our protagonist Ohio, with the intention of restoring the Playhouse Square District back to its halcyon days – and boy was that a massive undertaking. 

The humble heroes revitalized each theater one by one, raising millions of dollars to make sure Cleveland’s grand palaces would see another generation. While its refurbished hallway was arguably simpler than the first iteration, the Ohio was able to coerce patrons back to the box office in the early 1980s for theatrical performances – though this would not be the final act.

The crowds were returning, but there was a desire to bring back the Mimi Ohio Theatre’s long, decadent lobby to its original state—a layout that hadn’t existed since the 1930s. In 2015, almost a century since the building’s original construction, the architecturally awesome DLR Group was entrusted to fully restore the Ohio’s lobby to its grand palatial conception. Consulting limited archival photos, paint samples from the walls, and remnants of plaster decoration that survived the fire, DLR Group’s design team was able to recreate the fabled lobby, all the way down to original paint colors and exquisite ornamentation. Bravo!

Once again featuring neoclassical murals and decoration, the Ohio’s lobby is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Cleveland’s citizenry, as it could have been “postmodern” asphalt instead.  While it may not have made it as a casino, this latest gamble appears to have paid off quite handsomely.  

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