Among the victims of FC Cincinnati construction in the West End is a distinctive yet decrepit theater most recently occupied as a worship center by Lighthouse Ministries. Known for decades as the State Theater, this old auditorium is among the few reminders of the West End’s long history as the heart of Cincinnati’s Jewish community.
Under the name State Theater, the structure at Fifteenth Street and Central Avenue is legendary as a venue for jazz and vaudeville in addition to decades of films. It is little remembered that this theater was originally constructed as a cultural center for Cincinnati’s Jewish residents. FC Cincinnati’s new complex will occupy a substantial footprint in what was known 100 years ago as Cincinnati’s Jewish ghetto.
The northern West End wasn’t even the Queen City’s first Jewish ghetto. The Cincinnati Post [23 June 1911] described how a census by the Jewish Settlement tracked a northward migration around the beginning of the Twentieth Century:
“The census, the result of which is announced in the annual report of the Settlement, shows that the ghetto has moved from the West End to upper Central-av. The boundaries of the old district were West Fifth-av., West Court-st., Central-av. and Linn-st. The new district is bounded by Liberty-st., West Court-st., Central-av. and Linn-st.”
In other words, the original Jewish enclave in Cincinnati was located south of Court Street in the West End, while the post-1900 ghetto occupied the West End north of Court Street up to Liberty. Most inhabitants of this “new” ghetto had roots in Poland and Russia. The mostly German inhabitants of the “old” ghetto had moved to hilltop neighborhoods by the end of the 1800s.
According to Zane Miller’s definitive “Boss Cox’s Cincinnati,” the hilltop German Jews looked with disdain on the newly arrived immigrants in the upper West End:
“The coming of the Russian immigrants forced German Jews to look down from the Hilltops and introduced them to the seamy side of life in the Basin. The spectacle aroused their disgust, sympathy, and horror.”
Cincinnati rabbis had to chastise their German congregations who employed offensive epithets such as “kike” to describe the new Russian-Polish residents of the West End.
Despite the Hilltop opprobrium, Cincinnati’s ghetto was a thriving community. The Jewish Settlement, which served as the headquarters for the “new” ghetto, was located on Clinton Street—a now-obliterated avenue on which Stargel Stadium (itself slated for demolition) was built. According to the Jewish Settlement, nearly 1,400 of Cincinnati’s 2,000 Jewish households were located west of Central Avenue between Court and Liberty, served by six synagogues and a variety of literary, social, and political clubs. The Hebrew Union College was located in the West End from 1880 to 1910 at 724 West Sixth Street.
To serve this West End population, plans for a new theater were announced in 1913. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [28 September 1913]:
“The theater, to cost about $60,000, exclusive of the land, will be of the motion-picture type, but will serve a new purpose in that field, since its owners intend bringing to Cincinnati Jewish plays. The site for the improvement is in the heart of Cincinnati’s Ghetto, and it is planned to make the theater a sort of Jewish social center, working in conjunction with the Jewish Settlement, located in the same neighborhood.”
Architect for the theater was John Zettel, who also designed the Hyde Park Square fountain. Coordinating the project’s finances and overseeing construction was Harry Linch, a prominent Jewish attorney in Cincinnati.
The land on which the theater was built was owned by a syndicate headed by Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and scion of the family who gave us the Taft Museum. Longworth also owned some lots around the corner on Providence Street and donated them to the Jewish Settlement for construction of some tennis courts. Boris D. Bogen, Settlement superintendent, was delighted, according to the Cincinnati Post [29 April 1912]:
“Our Ghetto families have enough of books and education. In the aggregate, they probably excel in intellectual culture the residents of any other section of the city, even the section in which the very rich live. But they have so little physical exercise.”
To encourage exercise, the Settlement installed a roof-top garden where young people could play in fresh air and got a swimming pool constructed in the area. But the Settlement also promoted classes in English and civics to support “benevolent assimilation,” according to Superintendent Bogen, who made no secret that his ultimate goal was to dissolve the ghetto. To a large extent, he was successful.
Within a few years of opening night, the changing audience of the Metropolitan Theater demonstrated the evolution of the West End neighborhood. Among the first films screened at the Metropolitan was “The Melting Pot,” a cinematic adaptation of Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play about Russian pogroms and Jewish assimilation in the United States. Through classified ads, the theater reached out to amateur performers in the neighborhood. Vaudeville acts included Irving White, billed as “That Jewish Boy.”
While catering to a Jewish audience, the theater worked closely with the Settlement to promote patriotism and assimilation. A Liberty Loan Parade to support the American effort in World War I marched from the Settlement to the Metropolitan Theater. The theater held contests for children singing patriotic songs.
But it was clear that assimilation was draining the Yiddish-speaking population out of the West End. The Metropolitan needed to attract non-Jewish audiences almost from the time it opened its doors. It showed risqué fare like the 1914 Italian silent “Salambo” and controversial “issue” movies like the birth-control-themed “Unborn.” By the mid-1920s, the Linch family was no longer managing the theater. References to Cincinnati’s Jewish ghetto became rarer and rarer in the newspapers.
Another page in the history of the West End had turned.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.