Two months before the Iroquois fire, another Chicago
theater received the scrutiny of Chicago authorities
not given to the Iroquois. The
old 7th Regiment armory at 700 Wabash, on the
southeast corner of Wabash and Hubbard (today's
was being remodeled to become a vaudeville house
named after it's owner, William S. "Billy" Cleveland
(1860-1923), a former manager of minstrel troupes.*
It became a focus during the city council's graft
investigation as a result of a building contractor's
Battle of Gettysburg in the
The structure had been built to house panoramic
exhibitions, beginning with father and son Henri
and Paul Philippoteaux's painting of the battle of
According to panorama scholar Gene Meier,
Philippoteaux's painting was produced in Belgium and
installed in October 1883. It was refurbished a
decade later for the 1893 Columbian Exposition when
owned by the Chicago Fire Cyclorama company, H. H.
Gross president & mgr. Much appreciation to panorama
scholar Gene Meier for helping me with this
information. There were two cycloramas at the corner
of Wabash and Hubbard (Balbo). One became a transfer
company to house horses, the other a theater.
Remodeling at Cleveland's Theater was interrupted in
mid-October 1903 when the
City Council's graft investigation revealed that
Timothy O'Shea accepted a bribe. The proscenium
wall construction employed a process patented by
O'Shea rather than following city code as to
thickness and materials. Chicago contractor
Milton B. Bushnell testified before the city council
graft committee. He reported the theater's owner and
architect, Billy Cleveland and Oscar Cobb, said the
only way the theater would be allowed to open was if
they purchased O'Shea's construction method and
hired alderman William Mavor's construction company.
Mavor and soon-to-be-former municipal deputy
commissioner O'Shea hotly denied the accusation.
Mavor's denial was more persuasive. O'Shea claimed
contractor Bushnell was violating O'Shea's patents
and employing dishonest and shoddy methods. At least
one Chicago contractor testified that Chicago
building permits were available for $5-10. O'Shea
resigned to form the O'Shea Fireproofing
Mayor: fix it or close it. Again
ordered the Cleveland to re-do its proscenium wall
to bring it into compliance.
The Cleveland's remodeling
was completed and the theater reopened at the end of
October 1903. On December 30,
1903 while Mr.
Bluebeard was playing at the Iroquois,
Winchester was at Cleveland's.
Five days after the Iroquois
on January 4, 1904, the Cleveland was closed
by the mayor along with thirty-four other Chicago theaters
found non compliant with the city's old theater ordinance. The proscenium wall was only
one of the Cleveland's problems.
Billy Cleveland: I'm outta
In subsequent years John
Barrymore would make his debut in a small role at
the Cleveland, and Will Rogers would debut there as
well, but Billy Cleveland would not be around to
enjoy the theater's good years. Perhaps feeling
battered by Chicago politics, his theater having
been kept shuttered for five weeks while the
ordinance was rewritten, Cleveland left Chicago at
the end of 1904 to set up a talent agency in NYC.
Cleveland had begun his career in 1882 as a
lithographer for a minstrel company. By 1887 he
became a manager for Haverly's Minstrels (as had
Iroquois Theater manager Will
and soon operated his own minstrel companies.
According to a September 1895 issue of the Cincinnati
Billy's fortunes for the prior decade had been up
and down. In 1890 his three minstrel companies were
on tour and his net worth was nearly a
quarter-million dollars. He contracted typhoid fever
and was ill off and on for over a year, deeply in
debt. By 1893 he was again profitable, campaigning
two troupes, the Quadruple
New and Great
but struggled to repay his outstanding debts. He was
said to be near bankruptcy in 1901, so he may not
have exaggerated when he told the Chicago ordinance
committee that closing the theater was ruining him.
(I felt sorrier for him before reading quotes of his
remarks in conjunction with his dealings with the
city that revealed a fellow who may have brought
problems upon himself.)