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'We've known you all of your life': Fans leave their memories on The Marx Theatre

Chalk writing covers the brick side of The Marx Theatre at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Molly and Mary give thanks for the great memories with mom. Amy and Charles give thanks for the many date nights they've spent there. An unsigned note says three generations of a family have visited over the past 50 years.

It's a bittersweet goodbye for The Marx as it wraps up its final show May 22. But theater lovers can expect a bigger, better experience by 2023.

"I suppose it's bittersweet for some of our audiences. We've made a lot of great memories here over the decades, and there's a great love and nostalgia for the space," Producing Artistic Director Blake Robison said. "But I am confident that when we bring this new theater online, people are going to be absolutely wowed and eager to create some new memories in the theater that their children and grandchildren will enjoy for the next couple generations."

He says the Robert S. Marx Theatre was constructed in 1968, adding more capacity to the Playhouse, which, at the time, only had the 225-seat Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre. The Marx added 626 seats and a stage large enough to scale-up productions. The Playhouse has even won two Tony's over the years — one Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2004 and another in 2007 for Best Revival of a Musical for its production of Company, a musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth.

But while the stage has served the community well, it wasn't built to last forever.

"Having been built in 1968, with no significant renovations or work done since that time, we determined that The Marx Theatre is the oldest unrenovated regional theater in the country," Robison said. "We do a great job of putting beautiful sets up on stage and the productions are always top notch. But what you can't see backstage is that it's all duct tape and pipe cleaners. We're hanging on by a thread."

That, combined with audiences' expectations for things like modern audio equipment and more legroom, prompted Playhouse officials to start thinking about building a new theater years ago. It had a bit of a false start in 2008, but the economic crisis at the time sidelined the project. Three to four years ago, Robinson says plans began in earnest to raise money for the new space.

During that time, more than 1,300 families, individuals, businesses and foundations donated to the cause. Moe and Jack Rouse are the lead donors. The new theatre will be called "Moe and Jack's Place — The Rouse Theatre."

It will feature a top notch audio system, a 65-foot space above the stage for a fly gallery to quickly change sets, a new lobby area, two rehearsal rooms, a costume shop, dressing rooms, a green room, and new spaces for crew. Audiences can also expect more leg room, a mid-level balcony known as a parterre, and a genuine balcony to bring people closer to the stage.

The Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre, which was renovated in 2019, and nearby Kaplan Lobby are staying put.

Looking to the past and the future

For longtime patron Ellen van der Horst, the memories of The Marx are plentiful. She was in the audience the night the Tony-winning play Company premiered.

"I'm a huge fan of musicals, so for me, one of the most memorable nights at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park was the opening of our production of the musical Company, which was a smash here and then transferred to Broadway where it won the Tony award. Nothing quite like that it my memory," she said.

She's supported the theater for over three decades and served as the president of the board of trustees for roughly two years.

Like Robison, she's grateful for all the fun times at The Marx Theatre. But she's looking forward to the future.

"Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is known for Broadway quality productions. We really are Cincinnati's National Theater, doing both classic works and exciting world premieres. The new theater complex — and especially Moe and Jack's place, the Rouse Theatre, the theater that will replace the Marx — will ensure that that continues for generations to come."

For those who want to catch the last performance at the Marx Theatre, School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play is in production until May 22.

The Playhouse plans to host three other productions throughout the city while construction is underway, skipping its annual A Christmas Carol production. The first play at Moe and Jack's Place will be the musical A Chorus Line, which opens March 23, 2023.

To see the messages fans and patrons have left on the wall of the about-to-be-demolished theater, click the photo at top.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.