From The Vault: Grand Albee Theater was a downtown treasure for 50 years

Posted at 6:54 AM, Feb 25, 2016
and last updated 2020-01-25 13:48:42-05

CINCINNATI – For all of Cincinnati's architectural treasures – Music Hall and Union Terminal included – the Albee Theater may have been the grandest.

Karl Topie, retired cellist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was on the Albee stage when it opened on Christmas Eve, 1927. And he was there for the liquidation sale 50 years later, before the wrecker's ball turned it into dust.

"It's terrible to see it go," he said. "It's the most beautiful theater ever built."

That's what the original owners called it: the most magnificent theater in the world. It was certainly as opulent as any.

Outside, beckoning visitors through its double brass doors, was a majestic, two-story marble façade. Younger generations don't have to imagine how that looked. Many see it whenever they come downtown, hanging on the Duke Energy Convention Center, at the side entrance at Fifth and Plum.

The five-story main lobby had  lavish white Vermont marble walls, two grand marble staircases, six etched-border mirrors and a two-story stained-glass  window. The three-story grand lobby was lit by nine brass and crystal chandeliers.

The ceilings were decorated with lavish rococo plasterwork accented in gold. Bet your home doesn't have that.

The five-story, 4,000-seat auditorium had a proscenium arch, Corinthian columns and red swag drapery.

It was a theater fit for a king and it cost a king's ransom - $4 million. Besides being one of the largest moving picture houses in the world, it had a full stage for live entertainment and hosted such greats as Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason and Ben Burnie, a renowned jazz violinist and bandleader.

Besides the façade, other theater treasures were also preserved. The Wurlitzer organ was moved to the Emery Theater on Walnut Street, then to the Music Hall Ballroom. Other pieces went to Music Hall, too. The brass doors went to the Ohio Theater in Columbus, along with some ornate, wrought-iron benches with red-velvet seats and even a porcelain drinking fountain.  Nostalgic theater lovers took home hundreds of seats for $15 to $20 apiece or bought prisms from the  chandeliers for $10 each.

While Columbus preservationists won their battle to save the Ohio Theater from downtown redevelopment, a handful of Cincinnatians who formed a group called Save The Albee could not.

The head of that group, Frances Vitali, operated a laundry in Corryville with her husband. The first threat came in 1972 when a Dallas group announced plans to buy the property at Fifth and Vine and build a 50-story office building and shopping arcade. Fearing that the tower would block out the sun – or at least keep Fountain Square in the dark much of the day – Vitali and others pulled together and rebuffed  the threat.

But City Hall, city planners and developers were determined to rebuild the area around Fountain Square into a Central Business District.  Other downtown theaters had already closed, unable to compete with the multiplex movie theaters springing up in the suburbs. The Albee's days were numbered.

Vitali made a final appeal. She proposed a "Theater on the Square" concept open all year for the opera, ballet, touring shows, school graduations and youth programs.

"I see its value for bringing life back to the square," she said, and at the time, the square needed it. "I'm only working on this because I think of the youth of tomorrow."

But Vitali couldn't block progress – or the bulldozers. In 1976, city council voted to tear down Fifth Street between Vine and Walnut for the Westin Hotel and Fountain Square South project.

The Albee was demolished in March, 1977 and that would be the end of the story, except for the marble façade. The city, which bought the building for $2 million so it could tear it down, didn't have a use for the façade, and nobody else wanted it. So the city took it apart and stuck it away in storage for three years.

When the three-year contract was up, the city moved it to a highway maintenance lot under the Brent Spence Bridge in Queensgate. Six years passed, and the facade was no worse for no wear. It  finally found a home at the Convention Center in 1986, soon to be joined by the Union Terminal murals getting evicted from CVG.