While the Valentine Theatre is a spectacular building with its own colorful story to tell, the backstory of how the building was saved from the wrecking ball is a lesson in community action.
The story begins when the Toledo Cultural Arts Center (TCAC) was formed in 1970 to support local performing arts groups with the goal of establishing a permanent house for local performers in Toledo. TCAC’s initial members were nominated from various local arts groups. Once the TCAC was formed, the group began searching for a venue that could hold about 1,000 people. They first looked at an existing theater at the Toledo Zoo and then interest turned to the construction of a small theatre next to the Stranahan Theatre in south Toledo. At that time, the thought was building a new theatre would be less expensive than rehabbing an old one. But as things worked out, there wasn't enough space on the Stranahan property to accommodate another theatre building.
In the 1980’s, the TCAC turned its attention downtown and began focusing on Burt’s Theatre on Jefferson Avenue and Ontario Street. Burt’s Theatre was the inspiration for the Kenny Rogers' song Lucille. It is a beautiful Venetian style theatre designed by George Mills. In the mid 1980’s, drawings were completed on behalf of the TCAC and they included a sky-bridge connecting Burt’s Theatre with the Pythian Castle. At the same time the TCAC was evaluating Burt’s Theater, a group of area business leaders and the city of Toledo introduced the SeaGate Master Plan for revitalizing downtown. Unfortunately, the master plan included a new bus line that excluded Burt’s Theatre from its route. Consequently, Burt’s Theatre was eliminated as a possible home for the TCAC.
Another result of the city’s new master plan was the design and construction of a government center building on Jackson Street in Toledo. This new building became home to local government and allowed Lucas County to move its offices out of 410 Adams Street, the building that adjoined the Valentine Theatre and served as City Hall and the Willard Motor Hotel in the past. Soon after this announcement, WGTE, a local public broadcaster also moved out of the Valentine building and a city task force recommended demolition of the building in 1983. However, the community would not allow the Valentine to go away quietly.
So what motivated citizens of Toledo to rally around a nearly 100-year-old abandoned theatre in a part of downtown that had been forgotten for decades? Besides the fact the Valentine is an architecturally significant building, the theatre's storied past was certainly a contributing factor.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Valentine Theatre is one of Toledo's most colorful landmarks. The theater was commissioned by a young millionaire, George Ketcham, in honor of his late father, Valentine, and designed in the Chicago School architectural style by E.O. Fallis.
The land upon which the Valentine Theatre was built was the site of the Ketcham family homestead. There is a legend that Valentine traded a gilded chariot, which he took in trade for a grocery debt, in exchange for the deed to the property, and that he cleared the land himself. Before the Civil War era, the commercial heart of Toledo was to the south on the Middle Grounds, around the area where the Oliver House still stands; the St. Clair-Adams neighborhood was residential and lightly developed.
After financing the project on his own, the crimson curtains of George Ketcham's Valentine Theatre first went up on Christmas night, 1895. The crowd was so large its architect refused to allow his family to sit under his pioneering cantilever balcony because of fears it might collapse under the weight of the large opening night crowd. Fallis sat under the balcony on his own like a captain ready to go down with his ship—should anything happen. Opening night was one to remember. The demand for tickets was so great they were auctioned off weeks before the premier. Mr. Fred J. Reynolds bought the first box for $250, two-thirds of the annual income of the workers who cleaned the Valentine. Opening night featured a production of Rip Van Winkle—staring the veteran actor, Joseph Jefferson.
“When George H. Ketcham arose from his box in the new Valentine theatre last night, in response to repeated calls from the house, and modestly gave the credit for the new theatre to Toledo workmen and Toledo artisans, it was a fitting climax to two years of unremitting toil on the part of that gentleman, for the purpose of giving this city a theatre of which its people might well be proud.
At this moment the sight was one for gods and men. The theatre, rapturously beautiful in itself, was filled with the flower of Toledo. The harmonies of color of the amphitheater were only heightened by the many beautiful costumes of the ladies, sobered by the evening dress of the gentlemen. Over the whole scene an exquisite pale white light was thrown, enhancing the beauty of the house and lending added charm to the loveliness of the ladies present.” Toledo Blade Thursday Evening, December 26, 1895
Over the course of its first two decades, the Valentine brought to Toledo an impressive array of theatrical and musical talent. All of the most famous stars of the period played Toledo's new venue—most several times during the legitimate theatre period. Sarah Bernhardt, Julia Marlowe, Maude Adams, Mrs. Fisk and John Drew all played the Valentine. Four Barrymore's of two generations played here, as did George M. Cohan, ballerina Anna Pavlova and tenor Enrico Caruso. When John Phillips Sousa came to town, he played the Valentine.
Great orators graced the stage as well, including Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and the great free thinker, Robert Ingersoll. By the early years of the twentieth century, the Valentine opened up its stage to less traditional acts. Harry Houdini played here in 1906 and an exhibition basketball game was held on its stage in 1912. The underdog Toledo Overlands beat the Detroit Athletics, 47 to 37.
As 20th century entertainment technology developed, the Valentine began to transform. In 1914, projection facilities were added for silent movies and in 1918, Loews took over the lease and it became Loew’s Valentine Theatre. In 1942, a major rehab designed by the renowned Chicago architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp converted the Victorian theatre to an Art Deco/Oriental styled auditorium. Eventually, the rise of television and the flight of retail from downtown Toledo diminished the Valentine's popularity as a movie theatre and the doors were closed in 1972.
With such a storied history, various cultural and civic groups organized as the Friends of the Valentine to save the theater from destruction once the city of Toledo announced its intent. They used the community's memory of the destruction of downtown Toledo's Paramount Theatre in 1965 to energize their campaign. Within months of the Valentine's demolition announcement, Toledo’s city council voted to save the theatre. Subsequently, TCAC joined the Friends of the Valentine to seek funding to save the building and open a permanent home for local performing arts in Toledo. But once again, the downtown master plan went in a different direction. This time the downtown planning group recommended Toledo's old steam plant for the new home of the TCAC. Fortunately for the Friends of the Valentine, after a six-month feasibility study, it became clear through architectural drawings the steam plant had significant site line issues. So, once more, the Valentine Theatre became the central focus of the TCAC. As a result, after more than a decade of work, TCAC, and the Friends of the Valentine, successfully rallied support from the State of Ohio and a $28 million state-funded renovation of the building was unveiled on October 9, 1999. This magnificent renovation, coupled with the 1993 re-use of the hotel/office portion for senior housing, saved George Ketcham's dream.
Today, thanks to the efforts of the TCAC board of trustees and many members of the Toledo community, more than half a million people have attended hundreds of international, national, and local presentations at the theatre since its re-opening. The Valentine has also been utilized by more than 40 performing arts groups including the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, Toledo Opera, Toledo Ballet, Ballet Theatre of Toledo, Toledo Jazz Orchestra, Toledo School for the Arts, Central Catholic High School, St. John’s Jesuit High School, and Toledo Symphony Orchestra.