If you ever noticed what looks like an old movie theater on Copley Road and didn’t know the story behind it, well, I have some fun Akron trivia for you!
The original operation in the Art Deco style building was the Copley Theater, a short-lived venture that opened in 1947. The new theater boasted air conditioning, a marble foyer, and a neon marquee. Neon lights also illuminated the glass brick set above the front entrance. Its grand opening event featured two showings of the Bette Davis and Claude Rains melodrama Deception.
The theater suffered from regular turnover of management and stopped showing films in September 1952. For a time, it was rented to Alpha Rex Emmanuel Humbard, better known as Rex Humbard. He and his family broadcast their Pentacostal programming every Saturday night until 1953.
Humbard is famous locally for founding the Cathedral of Tomorrow. He also constructed Cuyahoga Falls’ highest and most unique landmark, a never-completed rotating tower restaurant that is visible for miles around.
After the Humbards’ departure, the theater became home to Akron’s first and only television station, WAKR-TV. That’s right, kids, Akron used to have a television station! The station was founded by S. Bernard Berk and started broadcasting from the First National Tower downtown on July 16, 1953. It moved into its official home at the former theater that fall.
WAKR-TV was an ABC affiliate and broadcast to the ultra-high frequency (UHF) Channel 49. Thanks to its ABC affiliation, it secured the rights to about 275 films. It also hosted local news. Its first remote broadcast was of Akron’s Sesquicentennial Parade. From its home at Copley Road, it broadcast the news, children’s programming, talk shows, and cooking shows.
Many of WAKR Radio’s announcers made the switch to TV. For unknown reasons, it was decided that meteorologist Jo Anne Ybarra needed to wear a bathing suit for her segment, while her male colleagues were able to keep the dress code from their radio days.
One of the most popular shows was The Professor Jack Show, a children’s entertainment show that filmed in front of a live studio audience. Professor Jack was Jack Bennett, a Buchtel High School and University of Akron graduate. His regular guests were children, often representing Girl Scout or Boy Scout troops. He also hosted Jungle Larry, an animal act from Chippewa Lake Park in Medina County.
In 1965, the station began transmitting in color and broadcasting University of Akron football and basketball games. In 1967, it switched over to Channel 23. Programming continued to be locally focused with such shows as Sports View and Civic Forum of the Air. The station broadcast in a 60-mile radius around Akron. Many Cleveland news anchors received their training at WAKR-TV including recognizable names Eric Mansfield and Mark Nolan. Former CNN Newsroom host Carol Costello got her start at WAKR-TV too.
In an effort to clarify its identity from Cleveland ABC affiliate WEWS, WAKR-TV changed its call letters to WAKC in 1986. In 1993, ValueVision bought the station. Three years after that, Paxson Communication purchased it. The new owners immediately dropped all local programming, ended the station’s ABC affiliation, and moved the operation to Warrensville Heights. That marked the official end of Akron’s one and only TV station.
The former theater and TV studio passed to a new owner in 1997, Good Shepherd Baptist Church. The church moved to a new location on South Hawkins Avenue around 2015.
Today, 853 Copley Road is for sale. It is in a severe state of disrepair. The Howard Hanna listing states, “Don’t miss this opportunity to rehab this historic building (former WAKR [TV] station) or demo the building and build to suit… Sold as is, building needs lots of work. Much of the value is in the land.”
While that may be true in the real estate context, there is more value to 853 Copley Rd. than the land. The old theater that hosted regional celebrities and brought local TV to almost a million Akron area homes is an important landmark of Northeast Ohio’s media heritage.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist and a photographer. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses. She encourages everyone to keep on wearing masks and washing hands!