The man who helped launch a development renaissance in downtown Cleveland four decades ago has died. ideastream’s David C. Barnett has this appreciation of Playhouse Square founder Ray Shepardson.
The usually flashy theater marquees along Playhouse Square were dimmed in tribute to Ray Shepardson, last night. Shepardson always described himself as a 26-year-old farm kid from Seattle who came to Cleveland in 1968. He was widely credited with having sparked a grassroots movement, two years later, that saved these former vaudeville and movie palaces from a plan to level them into parking lots. Friend and attorney Oliver Henkel says Shepardson was working for the Cleveland school district at the time and looking for an unusual spot to hold recruitment meetings for prospective teachers. That’s when he first set foot in the shuttered theaters.
OLIVER HENKEL: He was looking for ways to make Cleveland a more interesting city for those that he was trying to recruit. And this was true for law firms. I was with Jones Day at the time and one of the things that we were very concerned about was our ability to recruit young lawyers out of law school to Cleveland, because at that moment in time, there wasn’t that much in downtown Cleveland that was exciting to younger people
In a 2012 ideastream-produced documentary on the story of Playhouse Square, Shepardson recalled those early days.
RAY SHEPARDSON: The thing that always baffled me is how anyone could walk into those buildings, and think they weren’t worth saving. So, I tried to figure out how you use these theaters, and what else can you do besides theater?
He began a fundraising campaign, making a successful pitch to the Junior League of Cleveland. Former League president Lainie Hadden says she was skeptical, at first, but Shepardson was relentless.
LAINIE HADDEN: He would tell people what Playhouse Square could be. And, slowly but surely, the League came to believe that it could happen.
And they voted to back what was originally called the Playhouse Square Association to the tune of $25,000.
LAINIE HADDEN: When they really began to roll was when Jacques Brel opened there.
MUSIC: Jaques Brel UP & UNDER
Shepardson had fallen in love with a Cleveland State University production of the songs of composer Jacques Brel. He invited director Joe Garry to stage the show in the lobby of the State Theater. Former director of Theater Operations John Hemsath says those early days were spent dodging rats on the floors and plaster falling from the ceilings.
JOHN HEMSATH: It was just an awful mess. I can recall being up in the attic with bus pans, trying to collect water as it was dripping through the ceiling.
But, the show which was scheduled to run for only two-and-a-half weeks, ended up pulling in crowds for two-and-a-half years. Today, Playhouse Square is home to nine renovated stages and has grown into the country’s second biggest performing arts center --- topped only by Lincoln Center in New York. John Hemsath says Shepardson eventually left town to pursue theater rehabilitation projects in other cities
JOHN HEMSATH: He didn’t have the corporate background necessary to create the company and the business organization that Playhouse Square eventually became, in order to become successful, but if it weren’t for Ray, those theaters would be parking lots today
In a few weeks, Playhouse Square will be hosting a lighting ceremony for a huge outdoor chandelier, suspended over the intersection of East 14th and Euclid. This ornamental lighting device will hang as a symbol of the theaters below that were nearly destroyed, over 40 years ago. Lainie Hadden says many people were ultimately responsible for saving those theaters, but it was Ray Shepardson’s idea.
LAINIE HADDEN: It’s so hard to believe that the man who lit that torch is gone.