Joseph J. Garry, Jr.
2021 Robert P.Bergman Prize
When he was six, Joseph J. Garry, Jr. went with his mother to see Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun at a theater in Buffalo, New York, near the small town where they lived. He was enthralled from start to finish and refused to leave.
“Ethel Merman was brilliant, but it was the magic of seeing a woman sit on a carved-out, artificial horse that was more real than a horse could have been,” he remembers. “So the magic of theatre hit me that moment and has stayed with me all of my life.”
Joe attended Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. There, he met William Allman, head of the theater department, who became a mentor. Fortunately for Cleveland, while flirting with pursuing a law degree at Georgetown University after graduating in 1963, he won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship his senior year that could not be used for law school. Also fortunate was Allman’s recognition of something special in the young man, offering Joe his first job in theater when a director backed out of a Berea Summer Theatre show at the last minute.
“William not only changed my life, he gave me my life,” Joe says.
He went on to become a faculty member at Cleveland State University, where he created the theater program and taught for 30 years. He also created the Factory Theater on CSU’s campus, which quickly gained a reputation for presenting some of the most experimental and innovative productions in the Midwest. Today he is an emeritus professor.
In the early ‘70s, his mentor played another big role in Joe’s life. While trying to find a theater where he could direct a passion project, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Allman allowed him to produce it at the Berea Summer Theatre. The show was so popular it moved onto CSU where it ran for almost a year.
“On the last night of the last performance at Cleveland State, Ray Shepardson came to see the show,” Joe recalls. “He wanted to produce it.”
Shepardson, the visionary restoration expert scrambling to save Playhouse Square from the wrecking balls parked on Euclid Avenue, wanted Joe to direct the show in the lobby of the crumbling State Theater to bring audiences back to the theaters. Sensing something important in the offing, Joe’s mother invited Shepardson for breakfast. Joe said “yes,” and they opened the show three weeks later in April 1973.
“It was probably the greatest gift that was ever given to me to realize that if someone really believed in something strongly enough, it could happen,” Joe states. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent. Thousands and thousands of people have moved it forward. It was a cavalcade that all started with the Pied Piper, and he was magic.”
Originally planned to run for three weeks, Jacques Brel became the longest running show in Cleveland and Ohio history, selling out 550 shows for two-and-a-half years. Playhouse Square became the largest theater restoration project in the U.S. and now stands as the second largest contiguous theater complex in the country after Lincoln Center in New York.
“What Joe does in his skillful productions through his direction and his teaching is to touch all the points of human emotion which includes compassion, wonderful humor and fun, empathy, an extraordinary amount of sensitivity and energy,” says Oliver Henkel, who as a young Jones Day attorney delayed the city from giving permission for a curb cut for a parking lot which would have replaced the State and Ohio Theaters. “His gifts were all reflected in Jacques Brel and so many of his productions that were always particularly moving to audiences.”
Joe’s partner for life and many important theater productions was the late, great actor and theater artist David O. Frazier. The two shared a “profound relationship on a personal, professional, spiritual, creative level,” he says. They traveled the world together and worked with ancient, indigenous tribes to create shows in the Amazon, India, and French Polynesia. From 2000 to 2003, the couple hosted the Telly Award-winning TV program “Odysseys and Ovations” for PBS, traveling the world visiting foreign places and introducing viewers to exotic locations via the arts. During their diverse and colorful expeditions – including creating and producing shows for cruise ships for ten years – the two enjoyed sharing dinner with celebrities ranging from Audrey Hepburn to Peter Brook to Colin Powell.
As yet one more contribution to his beloved Playhouse Square, Joe is happy to be able to provide the “Broadway Buzz” series of pre-show presentations in the upper Allen Theater space for the Broadway Series of plays.
“With Broadway Buzz, the great gift I have is I’m there eight times a week,” enthuses Joe, who received The President’s Award for his role in saving Playhouse Square. “They’re doing things that we couldn’t have even dreamed would happen back in the day. That’s the magic!”