Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why is the Albee Gone?

After looking at the pictures from the Albee Theater from my last blog post, I just had to know more about the story. I went to our wonderful Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for answers in the newspaper archives. What follows are articles from before the Albee was built to after its demolition. It's a lot of reading, but it gives answers to those who want to know just why the Albee it's no longer with us.
1904-1930 Sanborn Insurance Map, Click to enlarge - Source

Cincinnati Times-Star September 1, 1925
“FINEST THEATER IN THE WORLD” FOR CINCINNATI
That Is the Word That Comes From New York.
NEGOTIATIONS CONCLUDED
Office and Commercial Buildings Along With Movie Palace
By J. M. Allison
NEW YORK, N.Y. – September 1
The long pending negotiations looking to the acquirement by the Keith Albee interests and their allies of what has been known as the Famous Players Lasky theater site on Fifth and on Vine streets in Cincinnati, were brought to a definite and final conclusion yesterday at a meeting at which E. F. Albee, Ben L. Heldingsfeld and representatives of the Famous Players Lasky organization effected the transfer of the property to a special corporation of which Mr. Albee is president and Mr. Heldingsfeld is secretary.
Because of the close and intimate connection and the friendly relations existing between the parties, it had been practically assured for some weeks that this deal would be made. In fact, Rapp & Rapp, the Chicago architects, are well along with their work of preparing the plans for a theater to be erected on this site which will cost a million and one-half dollars.
 To those who know that his means, it is enough to say that it will be an Albee theater. That is, it will have all the magnificent and artistic beauty of the Albee theaters in Brooklyn and Cleveland, which are distinctive as the finest theatrical structures in the world. The realty was taken over on a basis of nearly $2,000,000, so the total investment will be $3,500,000, and Cincinnati will have the finest moving picture house in the world.
Though the theater will be used, for some time as least, for the showing of Greater Moving pictures, it will have a full stage with complete equipment, all necessary dressing rooms and the same marvelous backstage arrangement, which exist at present only in the two Albee theaters already built. The individuals and companies interested in the project are: Mr. Albee, personally; the B.F. Keith Connecticut company, Senator John T. Harris of Pittsburgh, I. Libson and Ben I. Heldingsfeld of Cincinnati, Edwin J. Lauder of the Keith organization, Senator J. Henry Walters and former Congressman J. L. Rhinock.
The work of wrecking the present building will begin as soon as the plans are completed and the theater will be finished in 1926. The plot on which the theater is to be constructed has a frontage of 120 feet on Vine street, below Fifth (the old Stag hotel location), and runs back 200 feet to an alley. It also has a frontage of 46 ½ feet on Fifth street and here the main entrance of the theater will be located.
There will be a large commercial building on Vine street and also an office building over the entrance on Fifth street. The theater will be very large, but its exact seating capacity can not be given until the architects have finished their work. The negotiations for the sale of the property were made and completed through Walter S. Schmidt of the F. A. Schmidt Company of Cincinnati.
Sheraton-Gibson Hotel with the Albee Theater to the right, present day US Bank - Source
Cincinnati Post and Times-Star, May 26, 1960
Hotel Seeks to Buy Albee
by Si Cornell
The Sheraton Corp. wants to buy the RKO Albee Theater and turn it into a convention hall, which would be connected with the corporation’s Sheraton-Gibson. The rear of the Gibson and the side of the Albee are separated only by the narrow Carew place. If the sales goes through, plans are to connect the hotel and theater by ramps on upper stories.
Negotiations have been going on for five months. RKO’s asking price for the theater isn’t known, but estimates place it anywhere from $2 million on up. If the hotel does buy the theater, some interior changes would be made so that huge banquets could be held there as well as conventions.
Cincinnati Post and Times-Star, May 26, 1960
Cincinnati Post, October 13, 1974
The Albee war: an urban love story
by Richard Gibeau
The Albee Theater, dark and brooding behind its boarded-up doors, is a central figure in love story that will be playing tomorrow before the City Planning Commisson.
Another is Frances Vitali, a slight, gentle woman who, in her self-effecting way, has challenged City Council, planners, developers and assorted movers and shakers. The commission’s hearing on the Albee’s qualifications to be protected as a Listed Property comes after an almost three-year sequence of events. It all began in January 1972 with the revelation that Unit, Inc., newly transplanted from Dallas, planned to erect a high-rise office building with shopping arcade at the southeast corner of Fifth and Vine streets.
The Albee, the Wiggins building and other property in the quarter-block segment fronting on Fifth and Vine would be razed. With that new, Mrs. Vitali took the first tentative steps from the relative obscurity of the Colonial Laundry that she and her husband Americo operate in Corryville. She began collecting signatures on a petition protesting the destruction of the Albee, hoping for 300 names registered in opposition to this thing they call “progess”. She got 340 names and sent them to then Mayor Thomas Luken with a letter saying it was “only the beginning of our fight to save the Albee Theater. “We love our city and must share in its remaking,” she wrote.
Other opposition to the project soon emerged, although few, if any, talked so unabashedly and articulately in terms of love for the city as Mrs. Vitali. The Cincinnati Chapter of the American Institute of Architects quickly moved to the fore, joined by the local chapters of landscape architects and planners and by many in the University of Cincinnati community. Their protests focused on Fountain Square plaza in terms of traffic congestion and what the overwhelming scale of a 50-story building would do to the sunlit character of the plaza.
So the plans of B.W. Morris, chairman of Unit, apparently collapsed temporarily. Morris later indicated, though never publicly, that his plans had been revived and expanded. He acquired an option to purchase the Sheraton-Gibson, in addition to options on the Albee and the other properties. Plans were prepared for a development fronting the entire length of Fifth from Vine to Walnut, although not rising to the height of the original tower.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Vitali and others sharing her convictions formed the Save the Albee Committee and struggled on in the effort to win support in City Hall. The preservationist movement won an opening when the listed property ordinance, providing limited protection for properties of historical or architectural value, was adopted by City Council in April, 1973. In September, the Miami Purchase Assn. requested inclusion of the Albee as a listed property. That request has been reinforced by a series of letter endorsements, secured by Save the Albee, from Gov. John Gilligan, Charles Sawyer, Cincinnati lawyer and philanthropist, J. Ralph Corbett, Walter C. Langsam, president emeritus of UC, and others.
With those letters in hand, Mrs. Vitali will represent Save the Albee tomorrow before the Planning Commission in the latest round of a 34-month fight that has made her name a City Hall byword.
She sat on Fountain Square Plaza yesterday and talked about her experiences and the merits of preserving the Albee, not as a monument, but as a vital cultural instrument.
The turning point in the Albee campaign came earlier this year, she said, when Mr. and Mrs. John Strader of Clifton became honorary co-chairpersons and a brochure stating the case for the albee was prepared. The brochure documents the unique qualities of the Albee designated as a national landmark in 1972. But it also argues for a new life for the Albee, as part of an office/hotel complex, connected to the Skywalk system. Incentive zoning considerations are proposed to enable a developer to include the Albee in a Fountain Square development with minimal financial burden.
The case presented in the brochure “has brought a lot of response from citizens and very little from City Hall,” Mrs. Vitali said. “City Council has hurt our city. If just three years ago when this project started, they said, ‘Look, the Albee is a vital part of our city’, then the developer knows that he has to work with.” She is dismayed that so many in decision-making roles seem to know little about the Albee, seeing it only as an out-of-fate movie house now boarded up. “When you talk to the people who have to make this judgment, they have never been in the Albee Theater, so how can they make this judgment?” she said. “Why doesn’t the city start on this? Why do they leave all those loose ends hanging there?”
Mrs. Vitali speaks nostalgically of the Albee as a part of her youth, but she also is filled with the ferment of ideas of what it can be in the future. “We’re calling out project Theater on the Square. It should be going on all season long.” She sees it as a house for opera, ballet, brown-bag performances at midday, tourist attractions, Christmas programs, school graduations, educational programs for youth in the daytime, profit-making in the evening, “the theater could really be an art gallery in itself.”
“To me this theater has so many uses that you can’t even begin to count them.”
Much of her discussion of the Albee’s possibilities is in terms of its potential for young people. “When I started this, to me it was a very emotional thing because I remembered the Albee in its heyday, but now I see its value for bringing life back to the square.” “I’m only working on this actually because I think of the youth of tomorrow. I know what this meant for me,” she said.
If the Albee’s proponents are successful in their quest for Listed Property status tomorrow, Mrs. Vitali said they are counting on steps by the city administration to save the theater. “We would like to help. We would like to make it feasible for the developer to incorporate it in his plans, whatever they are,” she said.
View from the Albee Stage - Source
Champions Of Albee Get Some Bad News; Council Can’t Help
Cincinnati Enquirer, November 16, 1974
Advocates of preserving the Albee Theater as an historic landmark under the city’s “listed property” controls got a double doses of sad news at the Cincinnati City Planning Commission meeting.
First, Morton Rabkin, assistant city solicitor, held in an opinion that the Commission has sole authority to designated landmarks for preservation, under the City Charter. City Council, Rabkin said, is unable to override the commission or initiate legislation in this area.
Last week, the commission refused by a 3-3 tie to recommend to council that the Albee be protected as a “listed property.” The proponents, asking what they could do, were told by Councilman Charles P. Taft they could ask a member of council to introduce an ordinance to make the theater a “listed property.”
Rabkin Friday submitted to the commission a formal opinion stating council could not preserve property as a landmark without first getting a recommendation from the commission.
City Manager E. Robert Turner provided the second bit of bad news for the Save-the-Albee group. He was not on hand for last week’s commission vote on making the Albee a “listed property.” But Friday he said that had he been at the prior meeting, he would have cast a negative vote, as had been speculated in the Enquirer. That would have made the vote 4-3 against.
But while council might not be able to initiate an ordinance to make the Albee a “listed property,” it is nevertheless inquiring in that connection as a result of a motion and resolution at Thursday’s meeting by Councilman David Mann. The motion, referred to the city manager and Planning Commission, asks them to report how making the theater a “listed property” would jeopardize redevelopment of the surrounding half block, as charged by opponents of Albee preservation.
The resolution which was adopted urges owners of the Albee to permit members of council and the commission to tour the building to aid them with a decision. The Planning Commission authorized a $25,000 contract with the Miami Purchase Association for a survey and ranking of Cincinnati’s historic sites and building. The information will aid the commission in reviewing National Register nominations, listed property and other requests for preservation of landmarks, it was explained. …
Cincinnati Enquirer, September 18, 1976
Cincinnati Enquirer, September 18, 1976
Fans Gather For Last Look
by Barbara Murphy, Enquirer Reporter
Old and young roamed about aimlessly. Some wanted mementoes of a place once packed for stag shows, others just wanted to take a last look at what some consider to be one of the world’s most beautiful pieces of architecture and design.
“All the people here want a piece of the theater,” said Clem Long, president, National Content Liquidators, which is handling the sale of all the contents in the 50-year-old movie palace. The Albee had some of its glamour intact Friday. Price tags hung from almost all items, and empty spaces dotted the auditorium where some of the theater seats had been picked up and sold. Hundreds of theater seats were bought for about $20, balcony seats sold for $15.
“I bought three prisms,” said a Pleasant Ridge woman. She was not sure what she would do with them, but she added she was sad to see the loss of the theater. The single-cut glass prisms, taken from the chandeliers, were selling for up to $10. A Western Hills resident carried away three white milk-glass letters selling for $3 apiece. “I just wanted to get my initials,” she said. “I have strong feeling about the closing of the theater,” she added.
Just about every article was tagged and ready to sell. The electrically raised orchestra pit was selling for $1000, and the stage drape for $350. An $150 settee was outside of the auditorium and downstairs in the lounges $350 Louis XIV chairs waited to be bought. Bannisters, lamps, chandeliers, paneling, fountains, even toilets and sinks are all in line to be sold. Drew Diamond, cashier for National Content Liquidators said that many articles had been sold by Friday afternoon. “A lot of small items are going real good,” he said.
As Cincinnatians fingered the artifacts, many felt indifferent yet many felt disappointed. Mrs. Thomas L. Eckert, Kenwood, was looking for some of the eight inch milk-glass letters to decorate the side of their barn with. “I thought it was worthwhile to come and see the Albee again,” she said. Mrs. Eckert, originally from Australia, said that the Albee reminded her of Europe. Caroline Wellage, actress, has plans to decorate a wall of her home with the glass letters. She also plans to add the years 1927-1976 in glass, to commemorate the Albee’s 50 years of life. “It breaks my heart,” she said about the theater closing.
“I wish I weren’t here,” said writer J.J. Todd. “Sitting in one of the boxes reminds me of what our kids will miss,” he said. “This shouldn’t be able to happen. Progress is one thing, but heritage is another,” he added. “They could have saved it if they wanted to,” said Jeff Fecon, sixth year architecture student at the University of Cincinnati. “Any city can build new buildings,” he said. “It would have been no problem to restore, but it will cost $3 million to tear down. The main goal is not really save the Albee, but to bring back life to downtown Cincinnati. This liquidation sale cheapens everything. It’s a shame to know that money and power rule, and not people,” he said.
John Bassette and his wife were browsing through some of the lounges. Bassette feels that the loss of the theater is tragic. “I’ve studied it but there is no other feasible way to keep it. It’s in a lot worse shape than I thought.” Mervin Clark, Walnut Hills, came in to get a last look at the building. “People cannot grasp the detail that was put into these plaster casts,” he said. Karl Topie, retired cellist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was on the Albee stage the night it opened in December of 1927. “It’s terrible to see it go,” said Topie. “It’s the most beautiful theater ever built.” Matt Macleid, Walnut Hills, tried to add a little humor to the idea of tearing down structures. “Europe has wars,” he said. “But we’ve got urban renewal.”
Fountain Square Hotel, east side of Vine between 4th and 5th Streets - Source
Cincinnati Post, December 17, 1976
City buys Albee Theater
by Ellen Schmitz
The City of Cincinnati has bought the Albee Theater on Fifth Street from the RKO-Stanley Warner Theaters, Inc., of New York for $2 Million.
The Albee and the Fountain Square Hotel, which was part of the purchase deal, are the first portions of the Fifth Street block to be purchased by the city for the Fountain Square South development. Richard Melfi, head of the city’s real estate division, said yesterday that he expects to have a contract on the other properties. If the city cannot reach agreement with the other property owners on a purchase price by the end of the year, Melfi said, he hopes to have the matters in court by the end of the year.
The city expects to spend a total of about $7 million for purchasing the parcels on the Fifth Street block between Vine and Walnut Streets. Another $700,000 is expected to be spent on demolition of the old structures, which is scheduled to begin on March 1.
Many citizens tried in vain to prevent the city from tearing down the old theater. But the city and the developer, the John W. Galbreath Co. of Columbus, said it was not feasible to include the Albee in the plans for the $60 million office-hotel-retail complex.
The joint development agreement between the city and Galbreath requires the city to acquire and clear the property and to build a three level underground garage. Nell Surber, director of the city’s department of development, said the city portion of the development will cost about $6 million (not including acquisition and demolition costs). She explained that the underground construction will being next summer and that the office-hotel-retail complex should be completed by the end of 1979.

Source
The Death Of The Albee
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 19, 1977
Management billed it the world’s finest theater. Gloria Swanson, Harold Lloyd and Norma Talmadge were amount the movie greats to wire best wishes. And Clara Bow, the “It Girl,” starred in “Get Your Man” to open the ornate theatrical palace – the E.F. Albee – on Christmas Eve, 1927.
That was a great year for the movies. Talking pictures had made their debut. The Wall Street crash was still months away. The ‘20’s were still roaring and no more so than in the rush to motion picture houses. Thus was the temp as Albee owners received the telegrams and unloaded the flowers that flowed their way on the eve of Christmas Eve.
“Cincinnati attains world’s leadership in another important field through the new E.F. Albee theater which opens today at 11a.n.,” trumpeted an advertisement in The Enquirer that December 24. Tickets for 4000 seats were advertised at prices ranging from 35 cents in the balcony to 75 cents in boxes. And the “Albertina Rasch Girls” were among the opening stage acts.
The Albee, of course, was more than a film theater. Live entertainment thrived on its stage. Actors talked enthusiastically of the elevator that took them to their dressing room – a “first” for the Albee (performers had long complained of having to walk up long flights of stairs to dressing rooms in American theaters). Moreover, the new Cincinnati cinema also boasted a pool for aquatic acts.
Actors and actresses who graced its stage read like a “Who’s Who” of entertainment. Fred Astaire and Grace Hayes, mother of Peter Lind Hayes, were there. So were Smith and Dale, the original “Sunshine Boys,” and Ray Henderson, pianist-author of such greats as “Sonny Boy,” “Birth of the Blues,” and “Sunnyside Up,” Jackie Gleason, Ben Burnie and Jack Benny were among stars there.
The Albee did its World War II bit with what must have been one of the nation’s top star-studded bond sales. It came as no surprise, then, when it went on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The shower of shows, the Albee, itself, was a showpiece of the first order.
Victim now of the wrecker’s ball, it will be missed. But if indeed the Albee had to die (its last movie, “Big Bad Mama” in 1974, apparently was one of its worst), all signs suggest Fountain Square South – the marvel set for its place – will mark a Cincinnati advance more notable, even, than the one which excited the city that long-ago December day.
Ohio Theater, Columbus, Ohio - Source
Ohio Theater Has Familiar Surroundings
Cincinnati Enquirer, November 19, 1978
by Paul Lugannani, Enquirer Travel Editor
It is not surprising that a lifelong Cincinnatian should have the I’ve-been-here-before feeling when he, for the first time, steps through the heavy, ornate brass doors of Ohio’s official theater in Columbus.
It is called Ohio Theater and is located directly south and across the street from the Capitol building. The feeling of familiarity is bona fide. Those beautiful doors once graced Cincinnati’s late, lamented Albee Theater, which was zapped from Fountain Square in the name of progress. Additionally, inside near the doors are two heavy brass “ticket posts” in which ticket-takers place stubs. Those, too, came from the Albee. There is more. In the upstairs foyer are two ornate, wrought-iron benches with brilliant red velvet seats – also from Cincinnati’s historical showhouse.
“All of those things came here from Cincinnati after the last showing at the Albee,” explained Don Streibig, the busy and vigorous manager of the Columbus theater. “You might add, too, that I also came from Cincinnati – Western Hills High School, Class of 1944.”
Streibig was happy to report that Ohio Theater, unlike the ill-fated Albee, barely escaped the same ball of destruction in the name of urban renewal. Columbus city planners had designs on the property as the site for building the new 28-story State Office Building.  Fortunately, for theater-lovers, a strong Columbus Association for the Performing Arts won a long battle for preservation.
Streibig cheerfully conducted a tour of the fully renovated “luxurious palace of splendor.” Being a person who cannot pass a drinking fountain, I stopped at an ornate porcelain one mounted in a wall of the second-floor foyer. “Oh, yes,” Streibig chimed in, “that came from the Albee, too.” That gave me a funny feeling because I recalled I had taken many drinks from that same fountain over past years in the Albee.
“Let’s sit down here and talk a bit,” the manager suggested, indicating seats in the rear of the house. The seats in the loge were all new, thickly cushioned and covered with brilliant red velour. “We also added an inch more space between the rows for greater convenience of theatergoers,” Streibig noted. Seating capacity of the house is 2837, he said.
Looking around the vast interior, I again sensed the similarity between it and the old Albee. Bas relief floor-to-ceiling, triumphal arches stand over the forward box seats. Overhead is a vaulted ornate ceiling. And gold leaf gives a lustrous background throughout. Red and yellow curtain are graciously draped over the wide stage, with an organ visible on the left side.
Streibig proudly recalled that former President Gerald Ford and entertainer Bob Hope headed the celebrities list last December 3 at the theater’s golden jubilee anniversary. Ford presented a plaque from the U.S. Department of the Interior designating the building a National Historical Landmark. At that time, also, the Ohio Legislature passed a joint resolution proclaiming the edifice the Official Ohio Theater. The plaque now is mounted on the front of the building. …
So magnificent is the restoration of the Ohio that renovators of other old theaters around the country use the Columbus experience as an example, Streibig said with pride. …

Author's Note - The Ohio Theater in Columbus has a wonderful summer movie schedule. I got to enjoy "Gone With The Wind" last summer on a big screen in a classic theater. It is something to experience and worth the trip. Here is this summer's line-up:  2012 CAPA Summer Movie Series. It would be wonderful if a local theater such as the Emery or the Taft could do something similar in Cincinnati.

1 comment:

  1. My Grandmother went to the liquidation sale, and saved several of the crystals from the main chandler. We have used them as Christmas ornaments every year on our tree.

    ReplyDelete