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Ray Shepardson—Deemed By Many As Savior Of Playhouse Square—Has Died

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at 3:19 PM

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A screen capture of Ray Shepardson, from WVIZ's 'Staging Success' documentary.

One of the people who was a spark in the revival of theatre in downtown Cleveland and helped save the buildings now known as “Playhouse Square,” has died at the age of 70. Ideastream’s Brian Bull reports on the legacy of preservationist and civic activist Ray Shepardson:

You wouldn’t know looking at Playhouse Square today, but in the early 1970s, the vibrant, multiple marquees were dark, the seats empty…the State and Ohio theaters shuttered. 

Ray Shepardson, at the time, was an educator hunting for a new meeting place for the Cleveland Board of Education.  He chanced upon a row of abandoned, derelict vaudeville houses and movie theaters in the downtown area. 

The wrecking ball was at the door but Shepardson saw something worth preserving.  He talked about it the WVIZ documentary, “Staging Success.”

“The thing that always baffled me is how anyone could walk into those buildings and think they weren’t worth saving.  The problem was: what in the hell do you do with three huge theaters and one 11-1200 seater?  It was nuts.  So I tried to figure out how you use these theaters and what can you do besides theater?”

Thus began the effort by Shepardson and many others to save and completely restore the theatre district - an effort that has helped tourism and commerce for the Greater Cleveland area ever since.

Shepardson enlisted the help of a young local attorney, Oliver “Pudge” Henkel.  Just in the nick of time, Henkel got a delay in the demolition.

As part of his campaign to revitalize the arts scene, Shepardson had to produce shows in the old, crumbling theaters until they were fully-restored.

The first show was ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,’ which turned into a great success.  In the documentary, “Staging Success”, Shepardson recollects how the production exceeded his hopes.

“We were going to do it for a couple weeks, two or three weeks, and we ended up…two year run.  If ‘Jacques Brel’ hadn’t been a huge hit, I don’t know what in the hell I would’ve done.  How is it that the first hit that you produce actually becomes the longest-running show in Cleveland history, and puts Cleveland along with two other cities as shows that ran longer than a year.  And if it didn’t work, it would’nt have worked.”

Shepardson produced 200-300 shows a year, while wooing partners and investors.

Playhouse Square President and CEO Art Falco says in a statement that Shepardson was a true visionary, and that without his engaging personality and determination, Playhouse Square would not be in existence today. 

Falco goes on to say, those efforts kept the economic clout of theater alive in downtown Cleveland, and are keeping tourism and commerce alive in an area once described as a “ghost town.”

No confirmed details are known about Shepardson’s death, except that he died in Wheaton, Illinois where he was living.  A memorial service will be announced later. 

The lights tonight at Playhouse Square will again be dimmed….in observance of Ray Shepardson’s passing. 

(This is a compilation of three separate reports filed today by ideastream’s Brian Bull, more coverage tonight and tomorrow morning.)

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Arts and Culture, Economy, Community/Human Interest

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