Highland Theater

826 West Market Street,
Akron, OH 44313

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Highland Theater

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The Highland Theater was opened on March 31, 1938 with Humphrey Bogart in “Swing Your Lady”. Seating was provided for 1,700. It was the home of stage and screen entertainment for decades until it fell into disrepair and disuse.

In 2000, the theater was rescued and restored and is now a popular art house and concert venue for this collegiate Ohio town.

As part of restoration, the Highland Theatre’s interior was gutted and replaced with a new auditorium that paid homage to the old movie house’s Art Deco past. The theater now has an expanded stage and a greatly enhanced sound and lighting system.

Contributed by Ross Melnick

Recent comments (view all 16 comments)

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on February 12, 2007 at 2:57 pm

“Hollywood Premiere: Akron’s Highland Theater earned glowing reviews after 1938 debut.

Source: Akron Beacon Journal-Byline: Mark J. Price

Four giant floodlights swept the night sky over Highland Square. The 4,000-watt beacons were so bright that aviators had to be warned not to mistake the signals for Akron’s airport.

Loudspeakers crackled with excitement as moviegoers lined up at the ticket booth beneath the glowing marquee on West Market Street. Beauty queens greeted guests at the front entrance, while uniformed ushers directed patrons to the auditorium and balcony.

The Hollywood premiere of the Highland Theater was a smashing success in 1938.

“Akron, and West Hill particularly, should be proud of its beautiful new theater,” Akron Mayor Lee D. Schroy told a sold-out crowd on opening night. “We must admire and respect the confidence displayed by its owners in building and opening the new Highland in a period of trying times. It is this same spirit that has carried Akron through difficult days in the past and will do it again in the future.”

The “amazingly modern” theater at 826 W. Market St. cost $300,000 to build — more than $4 million in today’s dollars.

Initially, two theaters were proposed. Developers announced plans in 1937 for competing buildings — the Akron Theater, east of South Highland Avenue, and the Highland Theater, west of South Highland.

Cleveland’s Monogram Realty Co., backer of the Highland, had done its homework, though, and selected a site that had been rezoned for business. The second theater never was built.

Highland work began in March 1937 under the direction of the Wallace Construction Co. of Akron. Company founder Lew Wallace and sons Don, Blaine Sr. and Lyn Wallace led a team of more than 150 laborers.

Blaine Wallace, 77, of Green vividly recalls helping his father, uncles and grandfather during the theater’s construction.

“I remember my grandfather teaching me just exactly how concrete is supposed to be mixed, and, boy, he was particular,” Wallace said. “Sometimes I would count the shovels of sand that these guys were mixing in certain batches.”

The kid collected $5 a week for doing odd jobs: picking up cement sacks, cleaning up boards, making wooden ladders.

He remembers watching laborers climb the scaffolding while carrying bricks in triangle-shaped hods attached to poles.

“I think there were about 40 bricks they would load in this hod, and they would climb this ladder with these bricks on their shoulders,” he said. “I tell you, those guys really worked when they built that place.”

The foyer and ground floor were completed, but construction was halted for seven weeks when a strike closed a Newton Falls mill that supplied steel.

Akron resident Charles Yost, 78, who grew up on West Hill, remembers taking a sneak preview as the Highland was built during the Great Depression. “I lived down on Rhodes Avenue then,” he said. “We came up one time and walked on the steel beams in the structure of the theater, and I think someone threw us out, and we never came back.”

Until the theater opened.

Yost belonged to the “Highland Square Boys,” a group of West Akron friends who liked to hang out at drugstores, restaurants and shops on the block.

They soon had a new place to visit. The Highland, which promised “every luxury, comfort and convenience,” was nearing completion. “The new Highland Theater is exquisitely intimate, amazingly modern, homelike, comfortable, luxurious, specially constructed for the perfect presentation of talking pictures,” the company advertised.

Manager Harry Brown Jr. announced a gala party for the grand opening March 31, 1938. The event had all the glitter of a Hollywood premiere, including floodlights and beauty queens.

Swing Your Lady, “a musical farce of wrestling and hillbilly song and romance,” was the first movie ever shown on the Highland’s Super Simplex projector. The film starred Humphrey Bogart and featured a newcomer named Ronald Reagan.

Tickets cost 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Shows were at 7 and 9 p.m.

A new landmark

Although the movie wasn’t so hot, the theater won glowing reviews. Highland Square had a new landmark.

“Oh, it was like magic,” said Akron resident Bill Fesler, 78, a “Highland Square Boy” from Corson Avenue. “The movies changed every Thursday and Sunday. It was a new feature. Sometimes a double feature.”

Under theater owner Edward J. Rabb, the management made a deal with the boys: They could get in free if they behaved like gentlemen, kept quiet and occasionally helped with light chores.

“If we were hanging around the drugstore and the manager of the theater needed something done, he’d just call us over,” Yost recalled. “Change the marquee, change bulbs or do something like that.”

The Highland Square Boys had a reserved section in the back right corner near the men’s lavatory. The kids were so good that the section was moved to the front left corner, Fesler said.

“We went twice a week and saw the movies for free,” Yost said.

Saturday matinees

Copley Township resident Vi Brown, 79, who grew up on Jefferson Avenue in West Akron, remembers walking to the theater on Saturdays.

“The movie was continuous,” she said. “You could walk in, and maybe it was the middle of the movie, so you’d watch the end, and then you would watch the whole thing through again.”

The feature presentation included a newsreel, cartoon and serial installment.

“I recall the Lone Ranger serial,” she said. “Every Saturday they showed a chapter, and you would see the horse jumping off the cliff with the Lone Ranger on it, and then it would stop in midair, and you would have to come back the next week to see whether he lived or not.”

The theater’s first 10 years — before the arrival of television in every home — were a golden era. West Hill children packed the Highland every weekend.

“It was there at the age of 14 or 15 that I got my first kiss. Don’t ask me who it was,” said Brown with a laugh. “I can’t remember.”

Fesler said the theater was always in excellent condition. It had a romantic air, dark and dignified, with carpets and drapes.

“It was an elegant theater,” he said. “It was like going downtown, but closer to home.”

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the Highland Theater’s opening. It remains to be seen whether the event will be a celebration or a wake.

The building’s future was thrown into doubt this month when owner Ted Bare took out a permit to demolish the theater.

Highland Square activists are working on a business plan to save the building and have asked the city for more time.

Blaine Wallace, whose family built the theater, hopes the landmark will stay. “I have really good memories of Highland Square,” he said. “I sort of feel that anything that’s lasted 70 years should be a historic place.”

His reasons are also personal.

Wallace remembers when he and his father climbed a ladder in 1938 as the theater neared completion. Just above the marquee, laborers were finishing the coping stone, the top layer of masonry wall that prevents water from seeping into bricks.

“He wrote on a piece of paper my name and address and the date,” Wallace said. “And he put down some mortar, and put this note right on top of the mortar, and he laid the coping stone right on top of that.”

An 8-year-old boy’s name will be a part of the theater as long as the building stands.

“It’s up there someplace,” Wallace said".

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on April 26, 2007 at 8:40 am

Here is a photo of the Highland Theater.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on May 11, 2007 at 7:50 am

Another 2007 photo of the Highland Theater can be seen here.

rlvjr on July 10, 2007 at 10:12 pm

The #1 thing movie historic movie theatres need to survive and thrive is to have access to the most popular movies (which are usually available only to the multiplexes). When we were in Akron last month, the #1 movie in America was “Pirates #3” which took in more money than the other 9 top ten movies put together. Pirates #3 was playing at the Highland, but our time in Akron was limited and I can’t report first hand how that went. Lately the Disney Company has been open minded about booking their first runs into the single screen theatres. Pirates 3 also played the best single screen houses in Baltimore (Senator), Washington, DC (Uptown), New York(Zeigfeld) and Los Angeles (El Capitan); perhaps others as well.

cinscope on December 29, 2007 at 7:05 pm

Here is a picture of the Highland’s marquee taken in 1987:

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on April 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm

This is a shot of the marquee from 2002.

spectrum on December 14, 2010 at 2:52 pm

The Theatre’s website “highlandtheatre.com) is down, but they are still showing 1st run movies as of December 2010 – the phone # at top should still be good.

Tinseltoes on August 31, 2012 at 8:27 am

Auditorium pictured in 1939 at bottom of this page: Boxoffice

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