Paradise Auditorium was a prominent concert and event venue that opened in 1947 in the former Carpenter’s Union Hall at 2226 East 55th Street. For a short time in the early 1930s, a Harlem-style venue called the Cotton Club operated there. Later in the decade it became the Elks Hall and continued to host big events ranging from concerts to boxing. As Paradise Auditorium, it lasted into the 1960s.
The Cotton Club first opened in September of 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression. The nightclub emulated its namesakes in Chicago and New York and established “a real Harlem flavor.” The venue mostly hosted musical performances where guests could eat, dance, and socialize. The low cost of the shows was important, with one patron pointing out that they didn’t need to “pawn the family jewels or mortgage the old homestead” to have an enjoyable night at the Cotton Club. The club also hosted Boots Lavana, a well-known female impersonator, which would now be considered a drag performance. The opening of the nightclub also provided much needed jobs for more than 80 African Americans. Despite the high hopes that the community had for the venue, the Cotton Club closed its doors in early February of 1935, less than five months after first opening.
After the closure of the Cotton Club, the venue transitioned into a new era under the name Elks Hall, which mostly served as a sports venue for amateur boxing and basketball. In the period of Jim Crow and segregation, it was important for black communities to have a venue to host games for all black leagues. Elks Hall also benefited the community, as shown through the boxing match held in 1939 where proceeds of the show went to providing milk for impoverished families with children. Up until 1939, the venue mostly hosted sports games with occasional community events. After 1939, however, no more sporting events were being advertised for Elks Hall. It is unclear whether the venue closed for a short time or simply stopped hosting events, but either way it was likely due to the ongoing WWII.
Starting in 1948, the venue experienced its final iteration as it was renamed to Paradise Auditorium, which hosted a wide range of events including concerts, sports games, religious meetings, and community gatherings. Paradise Auditorium remained true to its previous variations by centering the community and providing affordable entertainment for all, while also providing a location for counterculture ideas to be spread. That same year, the Cleveland Casabas, an all-black professional basketball team, signed a contract with Paradise Auditorium to play all 13 home games at their venue. This contract was negotiated by the teams coach Willie Smith, who previously worked with the New York Renaissance and Canton Cushites. The deal presented a win-win situation, with the newly formed team receiving a consistent venue to play at and the auditorium gaining revenue and exposure.
A fascinating story that intersects with Paradise Auditorium comes from the life of Paul Robeson, a performer, musician, and political activist who heavily criticized Jim Crow laws and advocated for a free and fair society for all people. Robeson’s outspoken criticisms of the U.S. government and the tensions heightening against communism at the end of WWII led the FBI to view Robeson with suspicion, fearing that the goal of his radical views was to spread communism across America. In 1948, he was summoned to testify before Congress in regard to a new bill that would essentially ban the Communist Party. Robeson argued that America’s treatment of black people was no different than how fascists like Nazi Germany treated their marginalized groups. He also pointed out that he was treated with the most respect when visiting Moscow, claiming that he was being treated with the kindness that a human deserves for the first time in his life. Ultimately, Robeson was not in support of the Soviet Union, but instead he wanted to end the oppression that came with Jim Crow in America. As historian Gerald Horne put it, “The essence of Robeson’s lifework—and the heart of his socialist credo—was his fervent belief that humanity was one, all marching— albeit at different speeds—to the same goal.”
Robeson’s first speech at Paradise Auditorium was scheduled for Friday, October 7th, 1949 at 8 pm. Admission was only 30 cents, and the top of the advertisement promoting the speech read: “Hear the Voice That Rings Out Against Discrimination, Lynching, Unemployment, Police Violence.” This event garnered so much attention (and criticism) that special police squad cars were requested to patrol around the area of the venue during the performance. The Community Relations Board, who made the police support request, said that Robeson had a “right to speak in the city without being molested or attacked.” As it turned out, police patrols were the right call, because Robeson amassed a crowd of 1,500 people who packed into the venue and around 2,000 more people who crowded outside. Notably, the crowd was interracial and represented all ages from young to old, displaying that Robeson’s ideologies resonated with a variety of people. Robeson’s 25-minute speech discussed Jim Crow and how it suppressed black Americans’ ability to thrive in this country. He affirmed his commitment to American democracy but also pointed out that he did not face the same censorship of his views in Europe as in America, saying that he never saw any communist or socialist being put on trial in Europe for politically disagreeing with the government.
After the success of this first visit, Robeson returned to Paradise Auditorium in 1952 for a concert sponsored by the Negro Labor Council. For $1.20 or $1.80, patrons could see Robeson perform with his pianist Lawrence Brown, with part of the proceeds going to the United Freedom Fund. The newspaper promoting the event also mentioned that Robeson was restricted from traveling outside of the United States and banned from many concert venues across the country for his outspoken views about labor rights and Jim Crow laws. Over 600 people attended this performance to hear him perform classic songs such as “Water Boy” and “Old Man River.” While other concert venues across the nation were prohibiting Robeson from performing, Paradise Auditorium not only embraced, but sponsored a man known for his communist ideologies in the midst of the Cold War. Robeson may be only one man that interacted with the venue, but his story reflects the music, ideas, and activism that thrived in the diverse and accepting environment of Paradise Auditorium.
Paradise Auditorium saw the peak of its popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the number of events being hosted starting to trail off by the end of the 50s. In 1957, the venue transitioned, at least partially, into a church when Prosperity Church moved to the second floor and began hosting Sunday services in the venue. By the 1970s, the address was associated with the Eagles’ Nest Social Recreation Center, which held local community events, like plays, pageants, and sports games, but no record of scheduled events exists in the newspapers after 1985. After nearly five decades of being a functioning community space, 2226 East 55th Street stood in disrepair, having served its community dutifully. Ironically, only in its decline did the building draw any discussion of its appearance, including mention of the chartreuse paint peeling off its ceiling. No modern building currently stands at the historical address, although it is unclear when or why the building was torn down.
- Booker, Simeon, J. “Central Areas Peaceful, Serene as Paul Robeson Declares War on Major Interests for Holding Negroes Down.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Oct 15, 1949.
- Chas. “COTTON CLUB CLOSED; MAY RE-OPEN SOON: 80 EMPLOYEES OUT OF JOBS WHEN NIGHT SPOT CLOSES.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Feb 09, 1935.
- “Community Jazz Workshop Lands in Eagle’s Nest.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio). December 7, 1979: 153. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.
- “Communists Sponsor History Week Exhibit.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Feb 14, 1948.
- “THE COTTON CLUB.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Sep 22, 1934.
- “Display Ad 15 — no Title.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Oct 08, 1949.
- “Display Ad 22 — no Title,” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Sep 20, 1958.
- Fell, Naomi. “Nai’s Potpourri.” Call and Post (1962-1982), Jul 19, 1975, City edition.
- Harris, Robert L. Jr. and Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939. (Columbia University Press, 2008).
- Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. (Temple University Press, 1990).
- Horne, Gerald. Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. (London: Pluto Press, 2016).
- “Jesse Owens’ Detroit Olympians to Play here Sunday.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Dec 18, 1948.
- “Labor Council Presents Paul Robeson in Concert.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), May 03, 1952.
- Lee, C. E. “Night Clubs: COTTON CLUB.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Dec 01, 1934.
- “McClendon, Maiden Upset in Bouts at Paradise Auditorium.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Dec 04, 1948.
- “Milk Fund Boxing show at Elks Hall, June 2: PROCEEDS OF SHOW WILL BE USED TO BUY MILK FOR POOR CHILDREN OF THE COMMUNITY Five Top Notch Bouts Listed-Fann and Greshan and White Versus Pershing Headline Card.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Jun 15, 1939.
- “Nearly 600 Hear Paul Robeson in Concert.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), May 10, 1952.
- “New show at Cotton Club.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Jan 19, 1935.
- “Other 1 — no Title.” Call and Post (1982-). Sep 26, 1985.
- “Paradise (Old Elks Hall) Comes to Life again as Basketball Center.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Dec 03, 1949.
- Roberts, Michael D. “Stokes: Workers Forced to Boost Locher’s Fund.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio). Oct 30, 1965: 1. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.
- Shakarian, Pietro A. “Mayakovsky in Cleveland.” Cleveland Historical.
- “Special Police Details to Patrol Vicinity of Robeson Meeting Friday.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Oct 08, 1949.
- “A Trifle Bewildered: Robeson, Showing Signs of Fatigue, Explains Ideology to Reporters.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Oct 15, 1949.
- “Willie Smith Leads Cleveland Casabas.” Cleveland Call and Post (1934-1962), Dec 04, 1948.