Ray Shepardson, Cultural Catalyst


Rather than take credit for his accomplishments, Ray Shepardson prefers to list all of the other people who played a role in them. Still, virtually everyone else involved credits him with saving one of Cleveland’s major landmarks. In fact, he is now frequently and affectionately referred to as the "patron saint" of Playhouse Square.

“Success has many fathers, so you’ll hear that lots of people started that project,” says Elaine Hadden, former president of the Junior League of Cleveland and first president of Playhouse Square Association (PSA), the governing body of the theater complex. “Ray Shepardson started and saved Playhouse Square.” 
Constructed on Euclid Avenue between East 14th Street and East 17th Street during the 1920s, the four-theater complex is now the largest performing arts center in the United States outside New York City. 

Joe Garry, the venerable director of the inaugural and wildly successful PSA production, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris ,and former theater professor at Cleveland State University, who was intimately involved with the effort to save the historic complex, considers Shepardson “the Pied Piper.” “Raymond had this vision of the theaters being restored, and he wouldn’t tolerate anything short of it,” Garry recalls.

Thanks to Shepardson and his group of influential supportersfrom theater and media professionals to community activists and major philanthropists Playhouse Square was spared from demolition in the 1970s. After four decades of offering a diverse range of vaudeville acts, motion pictures, Broadway shows and other performances, the four theaters that comprise the complexthe Palace, State, Ohio, and Allenhad all closed by 1969.

William F. Miller’s May 25, 1972, front-page story in The Plain Dealer announcing the imminent demolition of the State and Ohio theaters galvanized the support of Lainie Hadden and the Junior League of Cleveland behind Shepardson. Hadden, Shepardson and other civic leader formed a nonprofit group to guide the restoration, operation and management of the theaters. The organization's first production, Jacques Brel, was scheduled for a three-week run when it opened on April 18, 1973. It entertained audiences for more than two years, becoming the longest running show in Cleveland’s history and laying the foundation for the wondrous resurrection of Playhouse Square Center.

By 1991, the Ohio, State and Palace theaters had been restored and were playing to 750,000 patrons a year. In November of 1994, the Allen Theater reopened. Today, Playhouse Square Center draws one million-plus attendees annually, employs more than 400 people and records annual revenues of more than $40 million.

“The history of Playhouse Square that is seldom mentioned,” Shepardson points out, “is that we produced more than 2,000 performances at the facility before it was fully restored.”

Although the rousing production of Jacques Brel performed in the then-dilapidated lobby of the State Theatre is most widely remembered, Shepardson also produced a Cole Porter review in the Palace Theatre, a Noel Coward show in Kennedy’s, a cabaret in the basement of the Ohio Theatre, and other hugely successful shows, such as Conversations with an Irish Rascal, El Grande De Coca Cola, All Night Strut and City Lights. He particularly enjoys recalling  the time his entire staff was mad at him because they had to work through the night to clean up the theater after a performance by the rock band Cheap Trick, so that the theater would be ready for a week-long run by Liza Minnelli opening the next evening.

Shepardson also likes to refer to some of the early refurbishments, when money was still pretty tight, as “pretend renovations.” These included do-it-yourself jobs executed by stars such as Mary Travers from the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who voluntarily lent a hand to spruce up the spaces before or after their performances. According to Shepardson, Travers helped paint the grand staircase in the State Theatre

Born and raised in Seattle, Shepardson came to Cleveland after earning his degree in anthropology from Seattle Pacific College. He left his job as a special assistant to Paul Briggs, superintendant of the Cleveland Public Schools, a father figure and mentor, because he was so disturbed by the thought of the great historical theaters being torn down. For Shepardson, such historic buildings represented an irreplaceable resource in their own right. He also believed in the revitalized theaters' power to transform what had become a declining section of dowtown Cleveland.

But why change a career in education for the field of historic theater preservation?

Shepardson says he took his inspiration from architect Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, whom Ray met while directing a visiting scholars program for the Cleveland schools. Shepardson recalls that Fuller advised him: "If you do something, do something big enough to make a difference.”

After catalyzing the rebirth of Playhouse Square, Shepardson left Cleveland in 1979 to take a similar position in Columbus, Ohio. He has since become a nationally acclaimed theater restoration guru and has consulted on more than 40 major projects in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Seattle, and St. Louis, among other cities. Taking a page from his Cleveland experience, he often helped his clients fill their old movie palaces with big-name stars and audiences eager to see them perform. The long list of entertainers he booked includes Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Bill Cosby and his personal favorites: Chita Rivera, Rosemary Clooney, Ann-Margret, and Johnny Mathis. 

One of Shepardson's most recent projects is the Grand Theatre in Wheaton, Illinois, a vaudeville and silent film facility that opened in1925. The theater's website provides an apt description of its restoration consultant's unique blend of talents: “Throughout his career, Shepardson’s success has been measured in terms of integrity to the cause, honesty to the process and his ability to balance the functional, technical and operational challenges of performing arts venues.”

Of course, being blessed with a great sense of humor and gregarious personality has helped Shepardson overcome many of the challenges that accompany historic preservation. “If you plan to die wealthy, you should not be a preservationist,” he quips. “I want to leave the world the way I came in, completely broke, and right now, I’m ahead of schedule.”

—Christopher Johnston


Cleveland Arts Prize
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