The State Theater at 1504 Central Avenue is slated for demolition to make way for the new FC Cincinnati Stadium in the West End. What follows is a brief history of this building. Built in 1915, it was first known as the Metropolitan Theater. A vaudeville theater at this time, the Metropolitan had a series of managers and lasted until the late 1930s. From the 1940s to the 1980s, the theater—then called the State Theater—was both a movie theater and a live music venue. Much of its entertainment was geared toward the African American community of the West End. In the 1990s, Lighthouse Youth Ministries bought the building and maintains it to this day.
The Metropolitan Theater, 1915-late 1930s
Built in 1915, it joined several other theaters that already existed in the West End. It was first called the Metropolitan Theater.[i]
It was built on top of several older buildings, most of them 3-stories with commercial first floors.
The Hamilton County Auditor lists Nicholas Longworth II (1869-1931)—as in, the Nicholas Longworth from the prominent Cincinnati Longworths; he was a lawyer who served as a congressman and later Speaker of the House—as the owner of the theater (or the plot of land on which the theater sat). After his death in 1931, his wife Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980)—as in, the Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt—owned it.
In these early years, the theater was a vaudeville and showed silent films. Later by the ‘30s, it also had wrestling (even women wrestlers!) and live music. Many of the Metropolitan’s managers from the 1910s to the 1930s were first- or second-generation immigrants—and many of them Jewish—who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s and settled in the West End (this trend would hold with the building’s transition to the State Theater). Their involvement in the theater speaks to the demographic makeup of the West End then—a very densely crowded working-class immigrant and increasingly African American neighborhood.
Some of its early managers were members of the Linch family, including Nathan Linch (1856-1938), his son Harry (1885-1971) and another Linch, Edward (presumably related).
Nathan Linch and his wife Deborah, born in 1856 and 1862, respectively, came to New York City as German Jewish immigrants in 1880. They wed in 1884 and had Harry the following year. The family migrated to Cincinnati, and Deborah gave birth to seven more children, two of whom died young. In Cincinnati, Nathan worked as a furniture dealer and by 1910 had his own second-hand furniture shop. Like many Jewish immigrant families, the Linchs lived in the West End of Cincinnati at this time, on Central Avenue and then on 8th Street. As a young adult, Harry chose law for his profession and became a successful attorney and real estate broker.[ii]
Clarence H. Brunemann (1898-1967)—future Hamilton County Auditor—also managed the theater in the ‘30s. Born in 1898 in Ohio to George and Rose Brunemann—both second-generation German immigrants—Clarence grew up in the West End on Laurel Street with his six siblings (one of his siblings died young). He sold office supplies for a living, so his tenure as the Metropolitan manager must have been some of the more interesting years of his life! (Interestingly, he later served as the Hamilton County Auditor from 1959 to 1966).[v]
In the rear of the theater building, the Parkway Theater Company first used the space for set designs and props. Later, in the 1930s, the William C. Miller Props company utilized the back space for its theater paraphernalia. William also helped to manage the Metropolitan. William (1882-1939) and his wife Carolina (Roedel) were involved with several other local theaters, including the Variety Theater in Over-the-Rhine (at Main and E. McMicken). [vi]
The State Theater, 1940s-80s
Unlisted in the 1939 city directory, the building emerged the following year as the State Theater.[vii]
Like its nearby competitor, the Regal Theater (at Clark and Linn Streets), the State Theater was both a movie theater and a live music venue. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Patterson Jackson and the Spencer Twins all played there. (Similarly, many famous acts—most of them African Americans—performed at the Regal: the Butterbeans and Susie (an African American musical and comedy duo), Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Butler, Stan Kenton (a white big band/jazz musician and band leader) and Lionel Hampton all played/performed there).[viii]
As many of the artists and acts performing at the State and Regal were African American, so too was the West End neighborhood. While the neighborhood had attracted many German and Eastern European immigrants in the late 1800s, by the early 1900s, most of the families and individuals that lived there were Black. Many had migrated up from the south during the Great Migration (early 1900s-World War II) looking for better employment (and just a better life) than the south offered.[viv]
The State Theater was not alone in providing entertainment for the neighborhood in the mid-20th century. The West End had several (eight at one point) theaters and was a hotbed of jazz music. One man recollected, “Growing up in Cincinnati’s West End it was almost impossible to grow up not listening to and loving jazz.” Jazz musician and composer Artie Matthews, who arrived in Cincinnati in 1916, introduced ragtime to the city and founded the Cosmopolitan School of Music on 9th Street for African Americans. The Cotton Club in the Sterling Hotel on Mound Street in the West End was a hotspot for this music (named after the NYC establishment); it was the only integrated nightclub in Cincinnati. Black bands stayed with local African American residents or would rent a room up in Walnut Hills at the Manse Hotel because no other hotels would serve them. Many “jazz greats” came out of the West End, including some who worked with Benny Goodman, Count Basie and later Jackie Wilson, among others. Sadie Birch was considered the “Sarah Vaughan of Cincinnati." There was also (later) Billie Brooks and Wilbert Longmire, just to name a few.[x]
Reflective of its neighborhood, the State Theater was a place purposefully for African Americans. It sought out Black employees and made a point of having events specifically for the Black community—supplying entertainment for World War II Black soldiers, for instance.
Especially by the 1960s into the late 20th century, it was known for playing Black-made and Black-centric movies as well as martial arts flicks. It screened films such as Uptight (1968), a movie about Black life in the late ‘60s in inner city Hough, Cleveland (check out some footage from the movie here) and later Penitentiary (1979), a film about an African American man falsely imprisoned. (The Regal also showed similar movies by the late 20th century).
Throughout its tenure as the State Theater, William Bein owned it. Born in 1900 in Ohio to recently-arrived Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary (Soloman and Mary), William grew up in the West End where his father repaired shoes for a living. As a young adult, he and his family moved to North Avondale. In one of his first jobs, he worked as a film operator for Samuel Sacks at the Strand Theater (originally the Gayety Burlesque Theater at 529 Walnut). He later worked in advertising for the movie industry (many of the Beins ended up in this industry). While he owned the State Theater, he also helped to run the Theater Poster & Supply Company & Sign Exchange with many of his siblings and family members.[xi]
After William died in 1980, his children Dolores (Rosenfeld) and Jack owned the building until ’83. In 1982, Gary Goldman, who owned the Regal Theater, became the manager of State briefly. (Gary—who came from a long line of family members involved in theater management—later ran the Esquire Theatre on Ludlow in the 1990s and became the president of Theater Management Group which today oversees many theaters, including the Esquire).[xii]
Sadly, in the late summer of 1983, the State Theater closed down. At the time, Goldman commented that the West End’s shrinking population resulted in low demand for the neighborhood’s movie theaters. Referring to the fact that he and Jack Bein, owner of State, were both trying to keep local theaters afloat in the early ‘80s, Gary said, “One of us would wind up with the movie but neither of us would make money. We were putting each other out of business.”[xiii]
Allison’s West End Theater
In January 1984, Frank Allison purchased the State Theater. Almost two years later, after much renovation work (a new roof, new carpet, upholstering and securing the seats, new paint), Frank Allison Jr., who had previously worked as a sales rep for Burger Beer, converted the theater into Allison’s West End Theater. The aim was to host a variety of shows as well as feature historic Black films, local boxing and wrestling and children’s programs. Frank also intended to work with the Black Film Makers Association to develop a chorus line for the theater.
The Allisons were long-standing West End residents. Born on Bett Street and raised on Cutter Street in the West End, Frank was a founding member of Everybody’s Credit Union at 801 Linn Street. Outside of his neighborhood, he was a jazz announcer for WZIP radio and served on various civil rights and civic organizations. He was the vice president of the local NAACP chapter; he was on the Martin Luther King Coalition, Evanston Community Council, Xavier Community Relations Committee and was among the Professional Credit Union Managers.[xiv]
Frank grew up going to the State Theater to see its movies and jazz shows. As an older man, he wanted to bring this kind of former glory back to the building and offer something to the neighborhood. “I thought about everything we had in the West End that was being closed or torn down. It’s time someone from the West End, who lived in the West End, do something to enhance the West End.”[xv]
(Here is a 1981 image of State.)
Despite these efforts, the State Theater did not take off. In the early ‘90s, the Cincinnati Central Credit Union acquired it due to “delinquent taxes and assessments” and sold it to the Lighthouse Ministries Worship Center.[xvi]
[i] 1915 Williams’ City Directory, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County; Allen J. Singer, Stepping out in Cincinnati: Queen City Entertainment 1900-1960 (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2005).
[ii] 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 Federal Censuses, Ancestry.com; FindaGrave.com.
[iii] Williams’ City Directories, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[iv] Williams’ City Directories, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County; FindaGrave.com.
[v] U.S. Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014; 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 Federal Censuses; Ohio, County Marriages, 1774-1993, Ohio Soldiers in World War I, 1917-1918, Ancestry.com; “Clarence Brunemann,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 4, 1967; 1930 Williams’ City Directory, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[vi] Williams’ City Directories; “William C. Miller,” Cincinnati Post, May 9, 1939, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[vii] 1939 and 1940 Williams’ City Directory, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[viii] Gayle Harden-Renfro, “Curtain up,” Cincinnati Post, August 23, 1985, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[viv] Zane Miller, Boss Cox’s Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1968); Zane Miller, Changing Plans for America’s Inner Cities: Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and Twentieth-Century Urbanism (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1998).
[x] Quoted in John W. Harshaw, Cincinnati’s West End: Through Our Eyes (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009), 103, 99-115.
[xi] 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 Federal Censuses; World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Ancestry.com.
[xii] Hamilton County Auditor; John Johnston, “They saved the Esquire—and a neighborhood,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 6, 2014.
[xiii] Steven Rosen, “Theater Audiences Shrinking,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 26, 1983; Gayle Harden-Renfro, “Hyde Park Theater faces end of show,” Cincinnati Post, September 30, 1983, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[xiv] Nick Miller and Nadine Louthan, “Local NAACP expects to tap new president,” Cincinnati Post, May 17, 1989, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[xv] Gayle Harden-Renfro, “Curtain up,” Cincinnati Post, August 23, 1985, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[xvi] Hamilton County Ownership Card and Conveyance Forms.