Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare Theaters Set Stage for World's Largest Theater Restoration Project

Posted on: April 29th, 2013 by Guest Writer 4 Comments

By Linda Feagler, senior editor of Ohio Magazine

Ohio Auditorium restored. Credit: PlayhouseSquare Archives
Ohio Auditorium restored

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.

The Grand Lobby of the State Theater as it appeared in the 1920s. Credit: PlayhouseSquare Archives
The Grand Lobby of the State Theatre as it appeared in the 1920s

“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.”

How the State lobby was set up for the first production of "Jacques Brel." Credit: PlayhouseSquare Archives
How the State lobby was set up for the first production of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"

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.

The restored State lobby, with the James Daugherty murals that adorn the State Theatre lobby inspired Ray Shepardson to save four of Cleveland's historic playhouses. Credit: PlayhouseSquare Archives
The restored State Theatre lobby, adorned with the James Daugherty murals that inspired Ray Shepardson.

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.”

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Local Preservationists, Revitalization

4 Responses

  1. James Chirgotis

    April 30, 2013

    ASBURY PARK — Residents and business owners are breathing a sigh of relief that Convention Hall will reopen this summer, after the city resolved a showdown with its waterfront developer that threatened to mothball the iconic complex.

    Meanwhile, city officials now say they are confident that developer Madison Marquette will submit plans to them by mid-June for sprinklers in the complex, something that has been a bone of contention between the developer and city for years and that recently threatened to doom Convention Hall’s summer season and that of the 11 seasonal businesses that operate within it.
    City officials struck a deal with developer Madison Marquette on Wednesday, for the second time extending a deadline to present plans to install sprinklers in the Convention Hall complex.
    Under the deal, Madison Marquette must have plans to install the sprinklers to the city by June15. Under time lines spelled out in a court order entered into last year, the developer would have to start work on installing the sprinkler system around Sept. 30, according to city Manager Terence Reidy.
    In the meanwhile, the complex, consisting of Convention Hall, the Paramount Theatre and the Grand Arcade will be open, and the city’s fire official can order the complex to come under a fire watch any time he deems it appropriate, such as for concerts and other events that would draw a big crowd.
    With a fire watch, city fire personnel would be on hand to ensure there are no fire hazards and that points of egress are clear and exit signs marked, explained the city’s fire official, Garrett M. Giberson.
    In the event of a fire or emergency, the fire personnel would see to the orderly evacuation of the building, he said. The fire personnel would be paid for by the developer or the promoter of an event, not by city taxpayers, he said.
    (Page 2 of 4)
    “The taxpayers do not incur any of the expenses due to the fire watch in place at the Convention Hall, Giberson said.
    “”I think it’s a good solution,” Reidy said.“It allows the full boardwalk to be open, and it keeps the people safe.”
    Businesswoman Marilyn Schlossbach, who owns Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, was relieved to hear Convention Hall will be opened this summer.
    “I think that’s awesome, especially post-Sandy,” Schlossbach said. “”With everything the businesses are going through, trying to get back to normal, any help anyone can give would be wonderful. Convention Hall is an iconic location in Asbury Park. To shut that down, with the economic challenges we’re facing with the storm, would be horrible, not just to the boardwalk, but to everyone.”
    To Israel Wilson, a Neptune resident who frequents Asbury Park, leaving Convention Hall mothballed would be like placing a big hole in the middle of the city.
    “If Convention Hall doesn’t open by the time the weather breaks, it’s going to be a tremendous loss of capital for the boardwalk because that’s the main events center,” Wilson said. “Convention Hall is a centerpiece of the boardwalk, so if that’s closed down, then it’s going to be an eyesore, generally.”
    When Madison Marquette failed to present plans for a sprinkler system by its previous deadline of March 21, it told the city the project was too expensive and threatened to keep the complex closed.
    Realizing the importance of the complex to the city’s tourist industry and its small businesses, the city’s engineer and fire officials worked with the developer tirelessly in recent weeks to identify ways to cut the cost of the sprinkler system almost in half, from an original price tag of about $1 million to about $500,000 to $600,000, without jeopardizing safety, said Mayor Ed Johnson. The city is committed to supporting any application by the developer to obtain state or specialized funding for the sprinklers, he said.
    “We both took a step back and caught our breath and realized that the overriding interest was to make sure the Convention Hall was safe, but also open for the businesses depending on it for the summer,” Johnson said.

    (Page 3 of 4)
    Attempts to reach Madison Marquette officials for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful. But city Manager Terence Reidy said he is confident the developer this time will meet its deadline to submit the sprinkler plans.
    “I’m confident, having been at the table with Madison Marquette, that they will have their plans in by that date,” Reidy said. “It’s not just one of these wink and a nods. They’ve hired a firm to do this. That firm has been on site. I’m confident that we will have plans on June 15, and then we’ll go from there.”
    After New Jersey and many other states upgraded their fire codes after a fatal nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2006, Madison Marquette signed an agreement in 2007 saying it would comply with the new fire code by Dec. 1, 2011. When it missed that deadline, the city took Madison Marquette to court. Under a court order signed in September, the developer had until March 21 to submit plans for the sprinklers, but it was able to obtain extensions under a legal concept known as force majeure, which means an event or effect that can neither be anticipated nor controlled. In this case, Madison Marquette was eligible for the extension because of superstorm Sandy, city officials explained.
    Once the developer has submitted the sprinkler plans and the city reviews and approves them, it has 45 days to solicit a contractor and another 45 days to get the work underway, Reidy explained. City officials are expecting the work to get started around Sept. 30, he said.
    Still to be worked out is a dispute over control of the waterfront parking near Convention Hall. That will be the subject of the City Council’s May 1 meeting. Another developer owns the parking lots, but the city has control over their use and last year terminated an agreement that granted Madison Marquette the 600 parking spots.
    Reidy said he doesn’t expect the city to cede to Madison Marquette’s demands for control of the parking spots.
    “Absolutely not,” he said. “”It’s not their land. They have no rights to it.”

    (Page 4 of 4)
    Meanwhile, Reidy said he knows of several events scheduled at Convention Hall in June — two dance troupe performances and the high school art show.
    But one Jersey-Shore concert promoter said he is wary to book shows, uncertain if Madison Marquette will begin work on the sprinklers by Sept. 30, as required.
    “It’s difficult to book theater shows because the (shows) that are available now are for at least four, five, six months out,” said promoter Tony Pallagrosi.
    Because of the uncertainty of the situation, Pallagrosi had previously moved his July 27 Happy Together show, featuring Flo and Eddie from the Turtles, from the Paramount to the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. He booked his July 20 Hot Tuna with special guest Leon Russell show at the State Theatre in New Brunswick instead of the Paramount.
    “There’s no guarantee these buildings will be open past the summer,” Pallagrosi said. “I’m holding a date for the Saturday night Light of Day main event at the Count Basie.”
    The Light of Day music festival, a Parkinson’s disease fundraiser, has been held in Asbury Park in January over the last few years. The festival has become a celebration of the city’s music scene, and Bruce Springsteen often appears at the main event, which has been previously held at the Paramount. The rest of the Light of Day events would remain in Asbury Park next year if the Saturday main event is held in Red Bank, Pallagrosi said.
    “I love Asbury Park and I’d love for the buildings to be up and operating at 110 percent of their capabilities,” Pallagrosi said. ‘It’s just the uncertainty that makes it difficult.”

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  3. Sarah Carlson

    May 2, 2013

    Thank you for this enlightening and positive story. It’s a great lesson for new directors of historic theaters (myself included) who find themselves in the same spot Ray was in long ago. “Good luck” is often heard, and a pat on the shoulder. But the story tells itself, and touches many. Way to go, Ray – thank you for laying groundwork and setting examples that show that enthusiasm and creativity can go a long way. Congratulations!

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