Mark J. Price

The Ohio Theater had more twists and turns than a Saturday matinee serial.

Located on the southern edge of Cuyahoga Falls, the two-story, brick landmark stood for more than 70 years, changing names, owners and functions as effortlessly as an actor changing costumes.

Its big premiere almost didn’t occur.

The Akron-Falls Amusement Co. created a ruckus when it announced plans in October 1935 to build a 1,000-seat theater on State Road just north of the High Level Bridge.

Prohibition characters

Attorney A.J. Bianchi, who made a career out of defending bootleggers and gamblers in the 1930s, served as the company’s president. His partners included Anthony and Sam Comeriato, who had well-publicized difficulties complying with the laws of Prohibition.

Residents worried

Cuyahoga Falls citizens quickly voiced their concerns.

“Residents of the neighborhood are not convinced that it isn’t a nightclub instead of a theater that is contemplated, and the planning commission has asked to see more detailed plans before the permit is granted,” Cuyahoga Falls Building Inspector Mark Yoder announced.

The company silenced critics by hiring Akron general engineer John W. Egan to design and construct one of the classiest neighborhood theaters in Summit County.

Over gulch

It was built over a rocky gulch, a miniature version of the nearby Gorge between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. Egan solved the problem by having Deluca Construction Co. drive 58 fluted-steel piling shells filled with concrete to support a 21,560-square-foot theater.

The building at 1554 State Road was erected in 66 days despite a bitterly cold winter, and cost $100,000 to complete (about $1.67 million today). The Bellows Claude Neon Co. installed a vertical “OHIO” sign with rose-colored letters over an opalescent marquee.

Newspaper ads hailed the Ohio as “The Theater Beautiful” and “The Theater Ladies Will Adore.”

Manager lured

The owners lured Ernie Austgen, manager of Loew’s Theater in downtown Akron, to guide the Ohio. Austgen had been in the business since childhood when the Colonial Theater hired him to strike wooden blocks to simulate horse hoofs in silent films.

Austgen praised the Ohio Theater’s advanced technology in sound and projection, and promised that visitors would enjoy “the utmost comfort.” For example, the ladies’ lounge was a triple suite featuring vanity, smoking and sitting rooms.

Uniformed attendants welcomed patrons to a 2-acre parking lot with space for 500 auto­mobiles. “Why worry about parking your car?” the theater advertised. “We have plenty of free parking — right on our own theater grounds!”

A long, narrow lobby led into the theater, which was decked out in red and gold carpeting. The auditorium featured 1,000 deluxe seats in red leather and velour.

“The auditorium’s walls are pastel shades of orange and green set off by orange and gold drapes,” the Akron Times-Press reported. “When the auditorium is darkening, a rose and blue lighting system is brought into play.”

Double feature

The movie house opened in February 1936 with a double feature of Dance Band, a musical romance, and Forced Landing, an airplane thriller. A Mickey Mouse cartoon was among the featurettes.

Daily matinees cost 10 cents for children and 15 cents for adults. Evening shows, including midnight movies, cost 25 cents, and were for adults only.

“Capacity audiences greeted the new Ohio Theater’s opening program Saturday night,” the Beacon Journal reported. “Its lobby lined with floral tributes expressing good wishes of business houses and friends, the new playhouse won universal admiration.”

That was the beginning. The theater attracted crowds for more than a decade, but attendance dropped dramatically in the late 1940s with the growing popularity of television.

In 1952, Akron-Falls Amusement Co. leased the Ohio Theater to the Washington Theater Circuit, which also owned the State and Falls theaters in town. New manager Henrietta Kunkel devoted the screen to foreign films and art-house pictures. The experiment lasted only a few months.

Competition

As television continued to take its toll, the theater enjoyed an unexpected revival.

The Rev. Rex Humbard, pastor of Calvary Temple in West Akron, was looking for a new building because his congregation had outgrown the former Copley Theater. He told his wife, Maude Aimee, that he thought the State Road building was an ideal location.

“Then Maude Aimee visited the Ohio Theater for the first time,” Humbard recalled in his autobiography. “She was dazzled by the possibilities. Her sharp artistic eye took in various features of the auditorium that could be remodeled or redecorated to our advantage. She pressed her hand against a wall of the theater, closed her eyes, and prayed, ‘God, if this is the building You’ve picked out for us, help us to get it!’ ”

Humbard signed a deal in February 1953 to buy the building for $140,000. He announced that Calvary Temple would reopen there on Easter Sunday, April 5.

“We are buying this property on State Road and are here to stay,” Humbard said.

Church remodeling

A team of volunteers spent a month remodeling the building, working on carpentry, plumbing, painting and wiring. A crew installed a 42-foot sign featuring a red-and-green cross in front of the building.

“When I finally walked into the new Calvary Temple auditorium, I couldn’t speak,” Humbard wrote. “The transformation was thrilling. I walked down the aisle with tears in my eyes. A new pulpit stood on the stage.”

The church opened on Easter to capacity crowds. Humbard rented 22 city buses to transport worshippers. Within a year, more than 1 million people were watching from home.

Akron’s WAKR-TV began airing live TV broadcasts of Calvary Temple services, followed by Cleveland’s WXEL. The show spread from West Virginia to Pennsylvania, and eventually was beamed into living rooms across the continent, appearing on nearly 400 TV stations in 91 languages.

Move north

After five years, though, the congregation left the cramped theater for a new home 2 miles north. In 1958, Humbard built the 5,000-seat, $4 million Cathedral of Tomorrow at State Road and Portage Trail.

The theater reopened in 1959 as a home for Showcase Musical Productions, which staged Guys and Dolls, Kismet and Pajama Game before folding. In 1961, the theater served as the home of a Shakespeare festival. Among the thespians was a teenage John Lithgow.

Over the next two decades, the building housed the restaurants Embers II, Headliner, Chickenfest and Barnaby’s. In 1985, it debuted as Hilarities comedy club. Tim Allen, Dennis Miller, Jimmie Walker and Gabe Kaplan were among the comics who performed there.

Fire is end

It was no laughing matter, though, when a $1 million fire decimated the club in 2004, forcing the business to move to 1757 State Road, where it later was renamed the Funny Stop.

After languishing for three years, the charred building was demolished in 2007. Today, the State Road site is an empty lot between Sunrise Senior Living and Monro Muffler.

From drama to comedy, the Ohio Theater saw it all — until it reached ... the end.

Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.