Remembering Cleveland's Front Row Theater

Ralph DiMatteo Culture History

Front Row Theater Logo

My day job takes me by the Home Depot on Wilson Mills Rd. in Highland Heights at least twice a week. Pretty much every time the same thought pops into my head: How many people that drive by here as often as me or even frequent the Home Depot realize that on this very site once stood a truly magnificent 3,200 seat entertainment venue, the Front Row Theater.

Opened by none other than Mr. Sammy Davis Jr. on July 5, 1974, the Front Row was a magical place to see a show. The seating was circular, but there were no blind spots or hindered sightlines as the stage itself slowly rotated, giving everyone in the audience an equal opportunity to enjoy performances, speeches, or even high school graduations.

I myself enjoyed performances by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and Jay Leno, and over the years the list of performers that graced the rotating stage included Luther Vandross, The Jackson 5, Mel Torme, Joan Rivers, Tom Jones, The Four  Tops, Cher, Marlene Dietrich, Miles Davis, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Anka, Stephen Stills, Fats Domino, and even Victor Borge. There are obviously so many more, but what I tried to do was grab a variety of names to see not only the talent that appeared but the wide diversity of appeal that drew people to the Front Row. In other words, there were very few duds of shows.

Want more proof? How about professional wrestling matches and the crowd they drew that otherwise may never have thought about visiting the Front Row. Perhaps a lecture by former President Gerald Ford or the fact that the Michael Stanley Band ended their time together in their hometown with 12 sold-out performances that carried through the holiday season in 1986 to right after the New Year of 1987.

Gerald Ford Front Row Theatre

Most significant, and sad at the same time, was that just two days after his performance at the Front Row, Roy Orbison passed away from a sudden heart attack.

Hindsight being 20/20, the final script for the Front Row was written when the revitalization of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square was completed, and the Front Row merged with the Playhouse Square Foundation in 1993. When the capacity of the Palace, State and Ohio Theatres is considered, it's not hard to see that if the Front Row continued to operate a mere 20 miles or so away, that Playhouse Square and the Front Row would have been in competition for the same performers or acts.

If any thought was ever given to finding a way to coexist with Playhouse Square, there is no record of it that we could come by. Ultimately, it probably just came down to the fact that the valuable piece of real estate on Wilson Mills just east of I-271 would better serve the area as a nice shopping plaza and even a few restaurants.

So, the next time you are in this particular Home Depot, try walking to the center of the store and closing your eyes, and listening very closely. Maybe, just maybe, you'll hear Kenny Rogers telling you when it's time to “hold 'em and when to fold 'em” or Neil Sedaka singing about the simple pleasure of “laughter in the rain." Let us know what or who you hear.

More Northeast Ohio Theater History

(Photo credit: The Cleveland Press Collection)

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