By Linda Feagler, senior editor of Ohio Magazine
Critics called him crazy.
Even well-wishers who offered Ray Shepardson sincere support couldn’t believe the school administrator’s crusade to preserve four historic theaters in Cleveland, Ohio, could possibly succeed.
But it did -- and then some.
Today, Shepardson’s once improbable effort is Cleveland’s crown jewel: His rescue not only initiated the world’s largest theater restoration project (totaling some $100 million), it transformed that quartet of crumbling venues into a revitalized PlayhouseSquare, one of the largest performing-arts complexes in the country (second only to New York’s Lincoln Center).
The Palace, the State, the Ohio, the Allen -- the city’s residents can effortlessly recite the names of the four former vaudeville, movie, and theater houses, their legendary local status accented by their 90th anniversary this year.
However, even for longtime arts lovers, the tale of the fresh-faced college graduate who saved the structures never gets old.
It was February 1970 when Ray Shepardson, a 26-year-old newly employed by the city’s public-school system, wandered into the vacant State Theatre in search of a spot to hold teachers’ meetings. Once upon a time, this place made downtown shine: The State and its sister theaters were beacons of revelry on Euclid Avenue for more than four decades, their bright marquees luring Clevelanders to a mix of traveling entertainers and captivating films.
But as people sought entertainment closer to their suburban homes, the stage lights were extinguished. By the time young Shepardson perused the State that frigid February day -- walking past unsightly water stains and piles of debris -- the theaters had become eyesores slated for demolition.
Still, he saw what could be.
“I was absolutely blown away,” Shepardson says today, recalling details such as the intricate, Art Deco murals that Modernist painter James Daugherty designed for the lobby in 1921. “I couldn’t figure out why in the hell people who could have done something about the theaters, didn’t do so before they deteriorated.”
Just a few days later, his awe for the venues was validated: Emblazoned on the cover of that week’s issue of Life magazine was one of Daugherty’s murals from the State Theatre, “Spirit of the Cinema -- America,” used to illustrate a story about hard times in Hollywood.
Shepardson quit his job and began a battle to save the playhouses.
“I thought it would be a cinch,” he remembers, shaking his head. “I mean, who would not want to use these buildings? I thought all I’d have to do is point this out, and everybody would say, ‘Wow! Of course!’
“Not so,” he adds. “The response was, ‘Who is this nut case?’”
Shepardson wasn’t dissuaded. “Even though we thought his idea was ridiculous at first, Ray was like a breath of fresh air,” recalls Lainie Hadden, who served as president of the Junior League of Cleveland in the early 1970s and, inspired by the young man, led a $25,000 fundraising campaign for preservation. “Downtown needed help. It needed people to have less disdain for it and start to love it.”
Shepardson spruced up the Allen Theatre’s stage for special events, and formed a Playhouse Square Association, selling lifetime memberships for $120. Within the first year, 400 people pledged their support.
“It was,” he explains, “an experiment of sorts to see if people would actually venture downtown, especially on the weekend, to see shows.”
The answer was a resounding yes. More than 2,800 patrons braved a November 1971 snowstorm to attend a sold-out concert by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra -- a nonstop stream of traffic down Euclid Avenue that continued for 17 other acts that followed over the next six months.
But the efforts weren’t enough to completely silence the death knell. Shepardson needed a show with staying power to stave off the wrecking ball for good.
“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” a musical revue of songs made famous by the Belgian troubadour, was being staged down the street at Cleveland State University. Shepardson asked the director, Joe Garry, to bring the production to the State lobby.
“I thought the idea was madness,” recalls Garry, a retired professor. “But when we met the next morning, I realized it was no longer a matter of 'we should do it.' It was a matter of 'we will do it.'”
Garry, along with Shepardson, the “Brel” cast, and dozens of volunteers, transformed the State Theatre lobby into an intimate cabaret spotlighting the musical’s brilliance. They applied for a liquor license, built a makeshift kitchen, laid down $2-a-yard carpeting for acoustics, repaired and polished chandeliers, and took reservations over the phone. Each $7.75 ticket included a buffet dinner and bottle of wine served tableside.
“Brel” was a smash. The projected three-week run stretched into a two-and-a-half year engagement. Success begat success, and the restoration began in earnest.
“When we started, we were operating by our shirttails,” recalls PlayhouseSquare board member Oliver C. Henkel, Jr. “So, we put together a committee of local business leaders who explored how we could make Playhouse Square pay for itself.”
Preservationists also formed public and private partnerships to help raise funds.
In 1982, the Ohio Theatre reopened; over the next 16 years, the others followed. Today, each theater is a leading lady with her own distinctive beauty. In addition to Daugherty’s murals in the State, other exquisite focal points include the Palace’s quintet of dazzling Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers illuminating a pair of marble staircases; and the Ohio’s celestial ceiling of fiber optic, twinkling stars.
But the show isn’t over. Throughout the last two decades, a dozen restaurants, a hotel, and apartments have been added to the mix of trendy destinations that now comprise the PlayhouseSquare theater district.
Meanwhile, Ray Shepardson has become one of the country’s foremost theater preservationists, helping breathe new life into more than 35 historic playhouses across the nation.
“I never dreamed these theaters would become a premier arts center,” Shepardson reflects. “I couldn’t be prouder about the major impact they’ve had on Cleveland.”