Remembering Ray Shepardson: Playhouse Square savior hailed as a visionary (Plain Dealer 6/24/14)

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By Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer
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on June 24, 2014 at 9:09 PM, updated June 26, 2014 at 8:01 PM

CLEVELAND, Ohio — That a man who devoted himself to bringing life to dilapidated theaters and forgotten corners of American cities took his own life in April at the age of 70 is a tragic irony worthy of the stage.

But the memorial for preservationist and visionary Ray Shepardson at the State Theatre was hardly a tragic affair. It had the joy, passion and emotional realness of a truly great performance. A nutshell review? On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Playhouse Square put on a helluva show for a great showman.

Before the program began, some 300 people hugged and reminisced in the State lobby, the very spot where Shepardson and a group of “urban warriors” — as Oliver “Pudge” Henkel, one of the architects of the revitalization of Playhouse Square dubbed them — made history by putting on a play.

“Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” a musical revue featuring songs by Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, opened in 1973. It was Shepardson’s brainchild, a scheme to keep the wrecking ball at bay, the one that was scheduled to turn the State and the Ohio, glorious theatrical “temples,” as he called them, into a parking lot.

Shepardson hoped the cabaret would last a few weeks; it did that and more, clocking a remarkable 522 performances over two and a half years, the longest-running musical in Cleveland history.

Suddenly audiences were flooding downtown, a place people boasted they hadn’t visited in 15 to 20 years, recalled Elaine “Lainie” Hadden, then the incoming president of the Junior League of Cleveland and an early convert to Shepardson’s impossible dream: to save the State, the Ohio and other grand theaters in Playhouse Square from demolition and rescue a once-bustling part of the city from rats and ruin.

“There is a story here,” said Art Falco, president and CEO of Playhouse Square. “And the story is, one person can make a difference. And that person is Ray.”

On the State Theatre stage, Falco and other speakers sat at red-draped cabaret tables — an homage to the ones Shepardson jammed into the lobby to accommodate crowds of up to 400 clamoring to see that little revue. They took the podium one by one to share memories of Shepardson, a farm kid from Seattle who came to Northeast Ohio to work as an administrator for Cleveland schools. Looking for a venue for a meeting, he stumbled onto the showplaces gone to seed.

Henkel, then a young Jones Day lawyer who convinced Cleveland city officials to forestall demolition plans, remembered his old friend as a master of ingenuity. To cool actors dissolving in pools of sweat in the un-air-conditioned State lobby in the summer of ’73, Shepardson strategically positioned buckets of dry ice in the cavernous space and hit them with fans to create a chilly, do-it-yourself breeze.

In raucous, heartfelt tale after tale, friends and colleagues used words like “genius,” “colossus” and “giant” to describe Shepardson and the legacy he left Cleveland and other towns.

Without formal training in the arts, architecture or urban planning, he carved out a specialty, becoming “the world expert on theater restoration,” said close friend and theater director Joe Garry, traveling the country “like Johnny Appleseed,” rescuing 40 theaters across the United States.

“He really was teaching himself as he went along,” said Garry, the former Cleveland State University professor whom Shepardson tapped to direct “Jacques Brel.”

“Ray,” he added, gave up a good job at Cleveland schools to pursue his quixotic vision, “living off the popcorn sales in the lobby.”

He wasn’t a Byronic dreamer but a hands-on doer, shoving pots and pans under leaks in the State Theatre roof to preserve the plaster.

Others recalling the audacious and unstoppable Sherpardson were former Plain Dealer columnist Dick Feagler — “he isn’t gone, and he ain’t never gonna be gone, unless they turn this place into a parking lot,” a shooting offense quipped the newspaper legend — and Dennis Kucinich, via video.

“Though he’s stepped off the stage of life,” Kucinich said, “the applause for him will continue for years to come.”

Though the speeches were moving, none was more poignant than the last, delivered by Bill Shepardson, Ray’s son.

He fought tears and struggled to talk as family pictures flashed behind him on a massive screen: Bill as a boy on his father’s lap; Bill, all grown up and sitting at a bar, Ray beside him, pursing his lips in an exaggerated kiss, about to lay a smacker on his son.

Ray didn’t just bring the magic of theater to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and a host of other metropolises where he salvaged old vaudeville halls and grand movie palaces. He took his boy to shows at the places he saved. Bill hung out backstage with Bill Cosby. Marie Osmond once serenaded him in front of a sold-out house.

“I thought every kid got to explore abandoned theaters and climb scaffolding 100 feet in the air.”

He asked that those gathered remember his father not with a moment of silence but with cheers. As he left the lights of the podium, the crowd leaped to its feet and roared.


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