40 years ago, a spark helps Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare find its way back to the lights
Published: Friday, February 05, 2010, 4:00 AM Updated: Friday, February 05, 2010, 1:45 PM
Sometimes it takes a lunatic.
Sometimes it takes a self-described “career professional giant pain in the butt.”
Sometimes, in other words, it takes a Ray Shepardson.
He’s the visionary who doesn’t take “no,” even back when the odds of saving a historic piece of Cleveland were slimmer than the flagpole atop the tower that symbolized the prevailing prognosis: Terminal.
He did it with an act so simple and so unheralded that there will be no parade down Euclid Avenue to mark it. In fact, executives at Cleveland’s theater district were unaware of the day’s significance.
As a functionary working for the Cleveland public schools, the mutton-chopped Shepardson was in search of a makeshift lecture hall that Thursday. He wangled a set of keys from a real-estate agent, the first of many to think the guy was nuts.
Shepardson — who called himself “a 26-year-old farm boy from rural Washington state” — unlocked the future by unlocking the doors of the State Theatre, a 1921 vaudeville house situated among three other 1920s venues along the desolation row that was Euclid Avenue.
It had been stripped of its Greek, Roman and Baroque filigrees in preparation for its demolition. But Shepardson, a former Mercedes salesman with no experience in theater or historic preservation, was impressed.
“I was in awe,” Shepardson, now 66, said from Wheaton, Ill., where he has been trying for five years to restore another historic theater.
Four decades later, PlayhouseSquare is home to eight theaters, whose 10,750 seats attract 1 million visitors to more than 1,000 events a year, making it the nation’s largest performing-arts center outside New York City.
With an annual operating budget of $60 million — surpassing the better-endowed Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Museum of Art — PlayhouseSquare broke the mold for performing-arts centers, establishing a model copied by the like-minded from Japan to New Jersey.
The nonprofit organization now encompasses a public-broadcasting studio/arts education center, a 205-room hotel and more than 1.6 million square feet of office and retail space housing 3,000 employees.
More important, PlayhouseSquare’s success paved the way for the rest of Cleveland’s efforts to restore the city core to its former glory, said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
“The Warehouse District, the Tower City project, Gateway, the Flats, the East Fourth Street district — they all followed PlayhouseSquare,” said Ziegler, who consulted on the early phases of the PlayhouseSquare project.
“The economic muscle and very creative thinking behind PlayhouseSquare was unheard of until it came along. And it has lasted. These theaters haven’t gone bankrupt.”
Rather than going bankrupt, PlayhouseSquare earns 90 percent of its operating budget — almost twice the norm for nonprofit cultural organizations, which usually depend more on contributions — and is one of the leading stops for national touring Broadway shows.
The credit belongs to a long list of people — volunteers who worked for free, businessmen who put up money, a newspaper reporter named Bill Miller who championed the cause, and theater and preservation professionals who took over the project from Shepardson in 1979.
But Shepardson was “the spark,” said Lainie Hadden, who as president of the Junior League in 1972 came up with $25,000 to stop the wrecking balls threatening the Loew’s Building, which houses the State and Ohio theaters.
“When I first met Ray and heard his pitch, I said: ‘Mr. Shepardson, you are out of your mind. Nothing can be done for downtown Cleveland. It’s too far gone,’ ” Hadden said. “But eventually the spark caught in me.”
Shepardson said his “Ah-ha!” moment took place a few weeks after discovering the State. He was getting a haircut and pulled open the fold-out cover of the Feb. 27, 1970, Life magazine, which included a photograph of a mural in the State Theatre lobby.
The story was about the demise of old Hollywood, but marquee lights in Shepardson’s head went on. He made an abrupt career U-turn, established a nonprofit organization and started peddling an idea that would change the city for good.
Cleveland was a town in a tailspin in 1970, 3 1/2 years after the Hough riots touched off a stampede for the exit doors to the suburbs and seven months after a river burned a brand on Cleveland’s image. Shepardson bucked the trend and gained access to the theaters.
“The real-estate company gave me a lease, I think, so they could watch me fall flat on my behind, which I did several times,” Shepardson said. “I nearly died one day on a ladder stringing up a banner outside the theater when the wind picked it up, and me with it.”
Then he set about sprucing up the theaters and soliciting others to help, including Hadden.
“The place was full of rats and smelled terrible,” Hadden said. “He was literally cleaning out Cleveland’s Augean stables.”
His efforts won the attention of a young politician named Dennis Kucinich. Later, as the boy mayor, Kucinich fought the City Council over $3.1 million slated to be used in a renewed effort to tear down PlayhouseSquare.
Kucinich won and in 1978 had the money transferred to Cuyahoga County to help purchase and renovate the Loew’s Building.
“That was a huge fight,” Kucinich said. “But I was determined not to let that money be used to reduce those jewels to a parking lot.”
Shepardson gathered a staff of 10 or 12 people who shared his crazy dream. One of them was John Hemsath, who joined PlayhouseSquare in 1975 and is now its director of theater operations.
“I met Ray in a coffee shop just to hear what he had to say, and I walked out with the job of running the group sales office and the special-events department,” Hemsath recalled.
“But he didn’t have money to pay me, so he gave me the coat-check concession. I was Johnny Coat-Check and made my way earning tips. But that was OK. The whole place was surviving on popcorn and beer sales, and nobody was getting paid, including Ray.”
Shepardson’s key decision was to start producing shows before campaigning for major renovations. He had to prove that suburbanites would come downtown.
He booked acts like Lena Horne, Red Skelton, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan and the Beach Boys, charging $2 a ticket.
“We called it ‘Ray’s House of Has-Beens,’ ” said one former Shepardson colleague who asked not to be identified. “But it worked.”
Sometimes even the performers — including Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary and Broadway legend Chita Rivera — grabbed paintbrushes and climbed ladders to help out.
And Shepardson started a series of popular cabaret shows, most prominently “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which ran for more than two years.
Shepardson left the project before the first theater to be renovated — the Ohio — reopened, in 1982. But he has left his mark: True to Shepardson’s “make it up as we go along” plan, PlayhouseSquare continues to reinvent itself.
In 2008, Great Lakes Theater Festival renovated the Hanna Theatre into a new home.
Construction is scheduled to start next fall to transform the Allen Theatre into the new home of the Cleveland Play House and Cleveland State University’s drama department.
Other ideas on the drawing board, said PlayhouseSquare President Art Falco, include a major retail initiative and two residential projects.
Meanwhile, Shepardson has mounted a theater-restoration campaign across America with a resume that includes the 5,000-seat Fox in downtown Detroit.
And he’s still crazy — and still visionary — after all these years.
“His vision is in Technicolor, instead of the studies that are done in black and white and have no power to move anyone,” Hadden said. “While others tear down, Ray thinks on the big screen.
“Some people call that visionary. But I looked that up, and it said visionaries chase rainbows and mirages. He chases something substantial. Ray is a divine madman who had the charisma to save downtown Cleveland when nobody else would.”
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