Preserving a Great Lady: At 95, the Cedar Lee Theater remains as essential as ever

For the last nine years, I’ve had the privilege of being the general manager of the Cedar Lee Theater. In these surreal times, I’ve discovered a deeper sense of what the theater means to me, and how it’s come to be part of my identity.

Cedar Lee general manager Elizabeth Waski. Contributed photo.

Cedar Lee general manager Elizabeth Waski. Contributed photo.

On December 25th 1925, the Cedar Lee Theater opened its doors for the first time. In the 95 years since, the theater has played hostess to countless celebrities, artists, filmmakers and directors. 

She gave birth to the Cleveland International Film Festival and has become the premiere venue in Cleveland for award-winning art house films, special screenings like The National Theatre and the Met Opera, and cult classics. Every year hundreds of thousands of guests walk through her front door, charmed by her vintage features and unique film selection. For the last nine years, I’ve had the privilege of being the general manager and caretaker of this Great Lady.  

If times were normal, the Cedar Lee would now be hosting a month-long holiday party. On the busiest days, staff stands by at the usher stand and concession while the box office warmly greets guests. The line of visitors would stretch out the door and down the street. Conversations mix and mingle to create the perfect background music in the lobby and the smell of popcorn would drift through the theater like a familiar perfume.  

When the last customer is seated and the auditorium doors close, silence descends over the lobby as hundreds of guests are magically whisked away to another place. It’s here where the “magic of the movies” happens. Strangers sitting side by side are transported to another time or place, experiencing different cultures and languages, new ideas and distant worlds. For a few short hours, they experience someone else’s life.       

At the end of those busy days, I love to stand in the empty theater, the floor strewn with popcorn and discarded ticket stubs. Sounds of the day start to fade away, and the Cedar Lee begins her much-deserved rest for the night. As she settles down, the shared experiences and emotions still linger in the air, and in the silence they rise up and are woven into the fabric that has been forming for decades. I wrap myself up in it, grateful to be a part of another successful day as I gather strength to do it all again tomorrow.  

Over the years, customers have told me what the Cedar Lee Theater has meant to them. They share stories of their childhood, far away in years but so close in their memories. They talk of first kisses stolen in the balcony and Saturdays spent with friends seeing film after film for pocket change. I can see them climbing the stairs of the older auditoriums and I hear their laughter. First dates, marriage proposals, and weddings have happened within her walls, and my small part in helping to plan the details stays with me. Through the Kids’ Film Series, young children will be able to say, “I saw my very first movie at the Cedar Lee Theater.”  

In those quiet times, I am also surrounded by my personal memories. Memories of sold-out “The Polar Express” shows and of the “Downton Abbey” Tea Party. Memories of quirky customer interactions and shenanigans of the younger staff. Memories of our dearly departed co-workers and of the love and support we were given in those terrible times. When my job gets difficult and the work and stress pile up, I remember those things. Woven too into that fabric, that tangible aura of experiences and emotions, are memories. They are warm and comforting. For nearly a decade it’s been those feeling that make my job worth doing.    

If things were the way they used to be and all was normal, we would be celebrating the Cedar Lee’s 95th anniversary this month. Speeches would be made, special movies would be shown, and once again, you could see a film for mere pocket change.   

But of course all things are not the way they used to be. There are no sold-out holiday crowds or hundreds of moviegoers lined up around the corner. There are no strangers sitting side by side and no hurried hugs in the lobby. There isn’t even a staff to stand at the ready. There is no anniversary celebration, no media coverage, no tribute to her historic greatness. The pandemic has disrupted all of it.  

Still, the Cedar Lee stands proud. Like every Great Lady, she’s strong and resilient. Through the Great Depression, World War II and 9/11, she has survived major disruptions, remaining as necessary to our patrons as ever. In these most recent dark and confusing times, when “normal” is anything but and the familiar seems so far away, she waits.  

And until the day we can welcome back the crowds, we gratefully welcome the familiar faces that have come back to visit.  They come to not feel so alone in the world, or to escape it entirely, if only for a few hours. They come to regain a small sense of normal and to inject a bit of routine back into their lives.  

I can’t tell you how many times someone has said “thank you” to us. For the efforts we put in to keep them safe, or just for remaining open. They thank us for hanging in there. Now, instead of guests telling me about their movie experiences of the past, they tell me what she means to them now. “This place, it’s my therapy,” one person told me. Another guest said, “this is my happy place. And it feels so good to be happy again.”  

In these surreal times, I’ve discovered a deeper sense of what the theater means to me, and how it’s come to be part of my identity. I didn’t realize how much until it was taken away in March, when we were forced to close. Being able to come back, and once more being her caretaker has renewed my sense of purpose. This graceful Great Lady is my sense of normal, my therapy. By helping to preserve her past and get her through the perilous present, I get to do my small part to help people get through to the other side.   

Until that time, new memories are being made and wonderful experiences are still being had. She has become a safe place to gather for families and friends. Couples will remember the anniversary they spent during the Pandemic of 2020. They will remember how they spent it together, watching their favorite film on the big screen. They will remember how through all the darkness and uncertainty of that time, they had light. And they will remember that they found it at the Cedar Lee Theater.

Elizabeth Waski grew up in Bedford and attended Kent State University. Since 2011, she has been the general manager of the Cedar Lee Theater. This is her first published essay.

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