From its opening date in 1926 the Cla-Zel Theater was in continuous operation as a single screen movie house, the oldest in Ohio, until 2004. This iconic building of the 20th century in Bowling Green still features the original marquee and has provided an entertainment venue for nearly 100 years at 129 North Main Street.
The Classical Revival theater was designed by architect Jack Raney and built in 1926 for Clark and Hazel Young, replacing an earlier open-air theater at the same location. Across the street was the original Lyric Theater (122-124 N. Main St.) built in 1900, one of several theaters in the same block, including The Peoples’ (156 N. Main until 1918 ), and the Everybody’s (114 N. Main until 1922). The Del-Mar (originally the BG Opera House built in 1889, then renamed The Chidester – see Historic Building of the Month article in November 2022 for more details about these former buildings) was located at 165-169 S. Main – now a parking lot. The Del-Mar was destroyed by fire on September 29, 1926, shortly after the Cla-Zel opened.
Clark Young had experience operating most of these theaters alone, until 1916 when he married Hazel Keeler of Haskins. These other theater venues hosted live companies of vaudeville entertainers, Charleston dance contests, and famous actors in plays. Admissions for these shows at the time ranged from 15 to 35 cents.
In the era of silent films, the Cla-Zel was built by S.P. Stewart and Son for $150,000. The fire-proof building was uniquely named for the new owners, Clark and Hazel, in a contest. The building housed a large Marr and Colton theater pipe organ built in Warsaw, NY, to accompany the moving pictures. These silent films were called “one reelers”, lasting about 15 minutes. Then the operator would change the reel, while merchant advertising slides were shown, or instructions such as “Ladies Remove Your Hats”, “No Smoking”, or “One Moment Please” graced the screen. Finally, after 10 or more minutes, the next reel would be ready to go.
When the Cla-Zel opened for movies to a capacity crowd on April 21, 1926, ticket prices were 5 and 10 cents, with 5 cent matinees on Saturday. The children of the former Children’s Home (541 West Wooster Street – see Historic Building of the Month article from last month to read more about the former Children’s Home) were admitted for free, much to their delight.
In February 1930, the Cla-Zel installed a new Western Electric sound system, and only talking pictures were screened thereafter. As the first “Talkies” were recorded on discs, an attachment was placed on the projector and the sound was wired to speakers behind the movie screen. Often, the sound and pictures were not in sync, contributing to amusement, confusion, and in many cases, frustration. Later, the sound track was added to the edge of the film, keeping the sound and action in sync with Vitaphone and Movietone, “the world’s best in reproduction systems”.
Clark and Hazel operated the Cla-Zel until 1940, when the building was leased to Schine Theaters. However, this lease was cancelled by order of the Federal Court due to a violation of a previous order by Mr. Schine. The lease was reassigned to Mr. Carl Schwyn of Cygnet, and was co-operated with Mr. Jack Armstrong for several years. Mr. Armstrong bought out Mr. Schwyn’s interest and organized the Armstrong Theater Circuit. In 1960, he purchased the Cla-Zel Theater, and also the Portage Drive-In. Cinema 1 and 2 opened in the Stadium Plaza in 1970 on East Wooster Street, now renamed the Greenwood Centre. The Youngs retired from the theater business in 1944, but lived in Bowling Green for the rest of their years.
Until the late 1990’s, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was screened every Thursday night. In 2008, the Cla-Zel was purchased and remodeled with a full bar and dance floor, as a night club and special event venue. Ammar Mufleh oversaw the restoration of the Cla-Zel's well-known marquee and refinishing of its original wood ticket booth and glass-paneled lobby doors. Inside, decorative plaster molding on the ceiling has been replicated, and a stairway ascends to the balcony. Six original chandeliers, rumored to be Tiffany, hang gracefully from the ceiling.
The stage and screen are still front and center, along with a collection of film reels, dating back to Charlie Chaplin films. The ticket window is also operable, outside of the beautiful lobby area.
BGSU students for decades were regular visitors to the Cla-Zel and have fond memories of the local theater and club experience. I fondly remember standing in line with my daughters to see the first release of Titanic in December 1997, with much anticipation.
Hopefully, the Cla-Zel can continue to be an important historic building in the downtown, where many have had fond memories, whether it being watching an old movie, listening to musicians, or attending a special event.
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(Written by Jan Knape, Friend of the Bowling Green Historic Preservation Commission)