40 years ago, a spark helps Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare find its way back to the lights (Plain Dealer 2/5/2010)

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

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View full size The State Theatre’s marquee lights cast a glow on Euclid Avenue.

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.

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View full sizeRay

Shepardson sits in the shell of the Wheaton Grand Theater in Wheaton, Ill., on Thursday. Shepardson is planning on renovating this theater. He is credited with saving Playhouse Square.

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.

Forty years ago today, on Feb. 5, 1970, Shepardson launched downtown’s renaissance by initiating its first and arguably most successful restoration project: PlayhouseSquare.

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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The man who saved Cleveland’s theaters: Oliver “Pudge” Henkel

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer July 27, 2013

The link is here


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The man who saved Cleveland’s theaters: Brent Larkin

Brent Larkin, The Plain DealerBy Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer 
on July 27, 2013 at 10:00 PM

henkel.jpgOliver “Pudge” Henkel, right, chief government relations officer at the Cleveland Clinic, during an editorial board meeting in January at The Plain Dealer. The woman is unidentified. 

The wrecking ball was ready. Two of PlayhouseSquare’s grandest theaters were coming down.

That sense of fait accompli was captured in the headline that seemed to scream out in agony at the top of The Plain Dealer’s May 25, 1972, front page:

“Ohio and State Theaters to be Razed.”

A few days later, a young Jones Day lawyer attended a City Hall hearing where developers expected to be granted a permit to turn the theaters into a giant parking lot.

Oliver “Pudge” Henkel argued that city officials should delay awarding the developers a curb cut — a break in the Euclid Avenue curb that would allow cars to cross the sidewalk into the parking lot.

Henkel prevailed. He bought time.

And we all know how this story ends.

Every single one of those theaters — the State, Ohio, Palace, Hanna and Allen — has been preserved and restored.

Today, more than 40 years since Henkel delayed approval of that curb cut,PlayhouseSquare has grown to become the nation’s largest performing arts center outside of New York City. And it is, without question, downtown’s most precious asset.

The campaign to save those theaters produced many heroes. Over time, all have been given their due.

But PlayhouseSquare’s greatest champion was Ray Shepardson, the public school employee who conceived and executed the theater-saving strategy.

Shepardson now lives in Chicago. When I asked him last week about Henkel’s role in what happened, he put it this way:

“If it wasn’t for Pudge, those theaters wouldn’t be there. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind they would be parking lots. Pudge got involved — and he stayed involved through thick and thin. And he did it for Cleveland.”

In September, the 76-year-old Henkel will retire as chief external affairs officer of the Cleveland Clinic, a job he took on at the behest of his longtime friend, Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove.

In a career in Cleveland that has lasted just short of a half century, Henkel’s fingerprints can be found on a long list of worthy causes.

Civic life in this city has always been blessed with lots of talented and committed people. What often set Henkel apart was his winning personality and concern for others.

I first met him in 1970 when, as a councilman in Warrensville Heights, he was perhaps that suburb’s leading advocate of tolerance at a time when integration was rattling city neighborhoods and the school system.

Henkel grew up in Mansfield, earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and spent three years in the Navy. He then returned to Yale for law school, earning tuition money by playing semi-pro football.

In 1964, Henkel came to Cleveland, where he would spend most of his professional life at the law firms of Jones Day and Thompson Hine.

At Yale, Henkel became good friends with Gary Hart. After law school, Henkel moved to Cleveland, while Hart went to Washington, beginning a career in politics that 20 years later would bring him within striking distance of the presidency.

Hart and Henkel remained close, and their families often traveled together. In 1980, flying home from vacation in St. Bart’s, Hart, by then a senator from Colorado, told Henkel he might run for president in 1984.

Three years later, Hart named Henkel his campaign manager. The late Tom Brazaitis and I covered the entire 1984 campaign for this newspaper. But it was just a few weeks ago that I asked Hart something that had begged to be asked nearly 30 years earlier.

Why did he name a novice to run a complicated national campaign for the world’s most important office?

“Because Pudge is a natural-born leader,” said Hart. “He has superb skills at managing people, and people respect and admire him. Pudge played a key role in that campaign.”

Six years later, Henkel put some of that experience to good use as chairman of the winning “sin tax” campaign to build Gateway.

Henkel was 69 when Cosgrove hired him to run the government affairs operation of one of the world’s largest, most prestigious hospitals. Cosgrove told me Henkel’s “integrity, his political connections and his complete dedication to Cleveland and its people” made him “a terrific choice for the job.”

Henkel and his wife, Sally — herself the owner of a lengthy and impressive resume for her work in a variety of important television positions and later as a communications consultant — have three children. His retirement plans include traveling, reading and spending time with Sally.

And Henkel said he’d scale back some of his civic and nonprofit involvement because, “I don’t want to be in a position of blocking younger people from important leadership roles, remembering well that I had those opportunities as a young person in Cleveland and it opened up wonderful vistas for me.”

Vistas that he made the most of, and that made Cleveland a better place. 

Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.