Richard Oberlin, Director, Cleveland Play House, 1929–1987


In January 1971, the Cleveland Play House was in a state of crisis. Its artistic director had resigned in mid-season, following a disastrous revival of Lysistrata. The nation’s oldest regional theatre needed a new leader who could stop the flow of red ink and restore the company’s reputation for first-rate theater.

The trustees turned to Richard Oberlin, a Play House veteran of 16 years' standing whose credits included public relations, acting and directing. Oberlin had worked under the theater's legendary artistic directors, Frederic McConnell and K. Elmo Lowe, whose tenures streteched from 1921 to 1969. "Obie" knew both the company and the community.

Over the next few years, Oberlin would resolve the financial crisis and guide the Play House to new heights. Almost immediately, the Ford Foundation helped with a $225,000 cash reserve grant. He accepted the renewable four-year loan, repayable annually, and began a 14-year campaign to maintain a balanced budget. Oberlin performed effectively in boardrooms, earning impressive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cleveland Foundation and countless other sources.

Five years into Oberlin’s tenure, the Play House boasted 12,000 subscribers. A staff of 130 produced a 12-play season and an impressive array of community and educational programming. One innovation that attracted new audiences was the popular Quintessence series that brought in such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Clare Bloom and Joshua Logan. Play House alumni like Margaret Hamilton, Maeve McGuire and Ray Walston also performed during Obie's tenure.

The Play House had long been housed in multiple performance and administrative spaces, spread over several city blocks. Oberlin was charged with consolidating the entire operation under one roof at Euclid Avenue and East 77th Street, the site of the main stage and the Play House Club.

In 1980, the Play House purchased the neighboring Sears building, acquiring space for its design and production facilities. Three years later, the Play House unveiled its new complex, complete with a new main theater, rotunda and art gallery designed by the internationally renowned architect Philip Johnson. (It was the Cleveland native's first significant hometown commission.) Another part of Oberlin’s mission was now complete.

But, for this artistic director, what appeared on the stage was aparamount. Oberlin offered new works that became instant legends in Cleveland. His 1975 premiere of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s First Monday in October, starring Melvyn Douglas and Jean Arthur, sold out before the play opened. That same season brought the premiere of Lee Kalcheim’s The Prague Spring. Oberlin himself played the role of Alexander Dubcek, the Czech leader who thought he could reform the Communist regime. The production won national recognition.

By 1985, the area’s 16 percent unemployment rate and the company’s staggering construction debt had precipitated budgetary woes. Oberlin resigned his post that year to allow for new leadership and new solutions. He returned to his first love, the stage. He continued to performed until weeks before his death in January 1987.

Friends believe "Obie's" most lasting legacy came from his generosity of spirit. Those who apprenticed under him were always urged to take on new responsibilities and discover undreamed-of potential. Many management trainees went on to emulate his leadership style when they got their own theaters, according to Shirley Oberlin, Obie's widow, who continued to hear from her late husband's mentees until her own death.

Shirley took pride in the fact that Richard never made excuses when something went wrong. The ongoing battle of the bottom line simply encouraged him to work harder.

—Faye Sholiton


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