The Musicarnival Collection is a hidden relic of Cleveland's rich arts culture, consisting of the collected papers of the Musicarnival tent theatre company that operated in Warrensville Heights from 1954 to 1975. This theatre company, run by local weatherman John Price, produced top-notch performances of hit Broadway plays and operettas, and later hosted concerts and shows for top entertainers such as The Who, George Carlin, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Tom Jones, and many other greats. Over its two-decade long career, the Musicarnival company's professionalism, technical and theatrical expertise, and straight-shooting business practices earned this little theatre company from Cleveland national respect and acclaim.
During the 1950s, tent theaters were a common enough sight. However, Mr. Price, a fan of theatre who often visited shows at such places, was aware of the low quality of many productions. Believing that he could do it better, he sought the advice of a relative, lawyer Bob Bishop III, and the two started planning for their own theatre company: Musicarnival. On Wednesday, February 17th, 1954, the first advertisements for the summer season of Musicarnival appeared in Cleveland papers, and preparations for the theatre were well underway.
The tent that Musicarnival called home was a versatile work of architecture in its own right. Designed by Cleveland architect Robert A. Little, the circus-like structure was anything but a tent. Supported by a large steel tripod, the tent was far sturdier than any tent, and sturdier that some ordinary buildings, as theatergoers found out in August, 1962, when the "tent" survived a near-miss by a tornado during a performance while surrounding barns were destroyed. Though some of the tent fabric was torn away in places, the structure suffered no significant damage, and the 2,000 theatergoers in attendance were unharmed. It was not until the downpour that followed, which poured through the rips caused by the tornado, that the show had to be cancelled, the one and only time in the history of the theatre that it was so inconvenienced.
Further, the design of the tent allowed for an intimate atmosphere for attendees who, seated in its 18 rows around a center stage, were never more than 50 feet from the action. Other features of the tent allowed for quick costume and scene changes, with set pieces being lowered from above, and even for the inclusion of a diving pool during performances of "Wish You Were Here." For the 1972 performance of Olympic Gold-Medalist skater Peggy Fleming, the stage was flooded and turned into a skating rink for a mid-August show, a truly massive technical undertaking successfully pulled off by the Musicarnival staff and crew.
From 1954, with its debut performance of "Oklahoma!," into the 1970s the Musicarnival's main focus was on producing plays, musicals, and operettas. The theatre met with such initial success that it opened a second location in West Palm Beach, Florida, where it performed winter shows. Though Musicarnival relied upon a seasoned cast of regulars, especially in its early years, the company also managed to attract big names from Broadway for many of its shows. As time went on, Musicarnival harnessed some of their power and prestige within the theatre community to educate aspiring young actors, actresses and crew-members, having experienced performers and theatre technicians speak to students and interns as they gained experience working for Musicarnival.
From 1965 to the end of its career, Musicarnival shifted its focus to producing variety shows and hosting big name acts, as attendance at theatrical productions decreased. It was at that time that big-name musical acts like The Who and Tom Jones came to Musicarnival, along with "Ann Corio's This Was Burlesque," a vaudeville-burlesque revival show and lasting favorite with Musicarnival audiences.
To view this and other unique collections, please visit the Literature Department located on the 2nd floor of the Main Library.