The Agora is a legendary rock and roll music hall whose history is well known. Most accounts of the Agora’s history rightly point out its start as the Metropolitan Theatre in 1913 and its nearly three-decade run in the 1950s-70s as the home of radio stations WHK and WMMS before becoming Hank LoConti’s proving ground for rock bands on the rise. But behind the ornate facade at 5000* Euclid Avenue is another, little-known story that has faded from memory. For a brief period starting in October 1944, the Metropolitan Theatre was a rare—and likely the first—African American leisure venue on Euclid Avenue.
Just six months earlier, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had covered the debut of “a new era of stage-and-flesh shows for the theater,” ending eleven years as a movie house. Mrs. Horace Allen was the guest of honor at the new opening. She sat in the same box where she had sat 31 years earlier at the original opening night after she had sold her “Millionaires’ Row” mansion for the theater’s construction. The new stage venture must have proven a challenge because by summer, the theater was under new management with a brief resumption of movies.
Then, on September 30, 1944, the Call & Post announced, “Metropolitan Inaugurates New Policy; To Present Outstanding Negro Artists.” Swing and emerging R&B bandleader Lucky Millinder and his band performed at the plush, newly reappointed, and newly air-conditioned “Met” a few days later. The theater continued to bring a steady stream of national and regional musical acts for the next 26 weeks, but it struggled to turn a profit. High booking costs and a snowy winter that reduced attendance forced an end to Black stage entertainment while the theater regrouped. From February to May 1945, the Plain Dealer ran occasional ads for movies at the Metropolitan Theatre.
In June the theater hired a new manager, Ted Blackmon, who had long experience managing entertainment (including at the famed Mason’s Farm). Blackmon announced a “Should the Met Reopen?” contest with several prizes to encourage public input. Fortified with ideas in nearly 150 contestants’ entries, Blackmon’s Met announced “An All-Sepia Show and Musical Revue with a Top-Flight Band – – And All-Star Vaudeville Acts – And Selected Movies!” The theater sought, in Blackmon’s words, to serve “people of all races” with “programs which will appeal to all of the people—all of the time.”
On June 22, the Met reopened with the Peters Sisters (who had performed with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway), the Edwards Sisters (who had toured with Tommy Dorsey), and other acts such as a dancer/drummer/jump artist and novelty dancers. Key to the business model was a crowd-pleasing combination of Harlem-style live entertainment and movies that would trim production costs and boost attendance. But despite Blackmon’s efforts, the Met continued to struggle and by October had turned to hosting boxing matches. After December 1945, it disappeared entirely from Call & Post coverage and started to appear again solely as a movie theater with ads in the Plain Dealer.
The Metropolitan Theatre’s two brief runs as a venue that extended a warm welcome to Black patrons may have been exceptional, but its mere presence and seeming lack of racial discord contrasts notably with the experience of later entertainment operators farther out Euclid Avenue near East 105th Street. By the time Ted Miclau turned a former Chinese restaurant into the Harlem-style Towne Casino in 1951, the city’s East Side was on the eve of a period of rising racial tensions as African Americans began to patronize the “second downtown” in that area.
* The theater’s original address was 5012 Euclid Avenue.
- “Congratulate Manager of Met Theatre.” Call & Post. July 7, 1945.
- Display Ad 11 – No Title. Call & Post. June 16, 1945.
- Display Ad 15 – No Title. Call & Post. June 2, 1945.
- Display Ad 20 – No Title. Call & Post. October 6, 1945.
- “Lucky Millinder Band Opens at ‘Met’ Friday.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. October 1, 1944.
- “Metropolitan Inaugurates New Policy; To Present Outstanding Negro Artists.” Call & Post. September 30, 1944.
- ”Metropolitan Theatre Folds; Dance Promoters to Carry On.” Call & Post. February 24, 1945.
- Myers, Marc. “The Peters Sisters.” JazzFM91. jazz.fm/the-peters-sisters/.
- Pullen, Glenn C. “‘Met’ Launches Harlem Music Shows June 22.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. June 13, 1945.
- Pullen, Glenn C. “Swinging Down the Avenue; Theater to Salute Woman Who Baptized It.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. April 20, 1944.
- “Ted Blackmon Wades Through Contest Mail.” Call & Post. June 9, 1945.
- “The Cleveland Agora: A Rock & Roll Proving Ground.” Cleveland Historical. clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/1.
- Williams, Bob. “Met Theatre Opening Is Success, Public Hails Innovations, Tells Manager Blackmon To ‘Go Ahead.’” Call & Post. June 30, 1945.