William Bullock opened Cleveland’s first movie theater, the American, on Superior Avenue in 1904, playing his part in the city’s rapidly changing neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1890s, retail arcades, office buildings, hotels, and theaters increasingly displaced downtown When William Bullock rushed from Superior Avenue to the burning school in Collinwood . . . he traveled from a land of bright lights and sometimes scandalous entertainments to the heart of urban-industrial tragedy.residential areas, pushing them toward the city’s periphery. Extended trolley lines also encouraged the first steps toward suburbanization. Even Cleveland’s wealthiest inhabitants on Euclid Avenue’s “Millionaires’ Row” felt the encroachment; they battled plans to run trolley tracks down their tree-lined boulevard, but ultimately lost the fight. By 1908, impoverished immigrants and laborers dominated many of Cleveland’s inner-city residential areas, and suburbanites traveled downtown for work, shopping, and night life.
Bullock ran a precarious business in the heart of a raucous entertainment district, near playhouses, hotels, saloons, pool halls, cigar shops, and multi-story department stores. Three doors from the American, The Hollenden, Cleveland’s largest and most luxurious hotel, rose ten stories, dominating the block. It was, according to one promotional booklet, “the largest, best built, and best furnished North Side of Superior Avenue, c. 1910. CPL. Across the street from Bullock’s theater: the Rausch & Lang Showroom, a pool hall, the Silberg saloon, a cafe, the Cleveland Artificial Limb Co., and the Colonial Theater. Storefront signs, billboards, and brand names appear everywhere, scaling to the tops of buildings. At night, they illuminated the streets and sky.hotel in this country outside of New York and Chicago.” Politicians, industrialists, salesmen, and couples taking urban vacations mixed in the marble lobby and paneled bars. A massive patio restaurant extended from the second floor, looming twelve feet over the sidewalk all the way to the curb. The Colonial, one of Cleveland’s largest and newest playhouses, stood across the street from Bullock’s makeshift cinema. A few doors from the Colonial, Rausch and Lang sold high-end electric cars. Penney’s saloon offered an extravagantly furnished watering hole. An array of smaller shops—a jeweler, a drug store, a candy store—filled other storefronts.
The neighborhood offered illicit pleasures, too. Cleveland’s theater and red-light districts bordered each other and, to some extent, intertwined. When plays ended and saloons closed their doors on Superior Avenue, nearby brothels sold liquor and sex all night long. While technically illegal, prostitution flourished in vice districts throughout the United States. In part, authorities understood these districts as efforts to contain vice by limiting it to concentrated areas, but the brothels also made lucrative payoffs to police and politicians. If New York had Times Square with its theaters, stores, cabarets, saloons, and nearby brothels, Cleveland had its own much smaller but still rowdy version, mixing commercial amusement and sometimes brutal sexual exploitation. A space for unapologetic consumer desires of all kinds, Bullock’s neighborhood catered both to women shoppers and the appetites of so-called “sporting men”—gamblers, drinkers, and those pushing indulgence beyond the boundaries of Victorian sexual propriety.
When William Bullock rushed from Superior Avenue to the burning school in Collinwood, he covered much more than the seven miles separating the two. He traveled from a land of bright lights and sometimes scandalous entertainments to the heart of urban-industrial tragedy. And when he made the trip back, he brought that tragedy with him, an exclusive offering for eager consumers.