by David C. Barnett
Ray Shepardson helped spark the turnaround of a downtown theater district left for dead forty years ago. The comeback of Playhouse Square has been cited as a national model for historic preservation.
Shepardson led an apprehensive Joe Garry to the chained-up doors of a theater, one summer in the early 1970s. Shepardson had enticed the young stage director to come see a potential performance space. But, it wasn’t what Garry had expected.
"There was total dilapidation," he winces at the memory. "You could smell the mold and you could smell the decay. But, you could still feel the grandness of this space."
Ray Shepardson gave many such tours in his zeal to save four, shuttered 1920’s-era movie palaces that were slated to be plowed into parking lots in Cleveland’s old Playhouse Square district. Shepardson would later recall for a TV reporter that the landlord eventually locked him out, but that didn’t stop him.
"I was sneaking around, illegally entering the buildings, fixing the roof, while they were doing demolition studies," he chuckles. "It was that close, it really was that close."
The brakes were finally put on the bulldozers after Shepardson convinced Joe Garry to stage a cabaret show, in one of the dilapidated theater lobbies, based on the music of Belgian singer and songwriter Jacques Brel. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was slated for a two-and-a-half-week run, but ended up playing for two-and-a-half years. John Hemsath was part of a crew of 20Somethings that Shepardson recruited to help keep a series of low-budget productions running on the stages, under the banner of the Playhouse Square Association. Hemsath says, Shepardson had his own way of doing business.
"Ray was strong on personality, but he didn’t have a background in corporate structure. So, a lot of his management techniques were operating from the seat of his pants."
The Plain Dealer's Steven Litt says Shepardson eventually left Cleveland to pursue preservation projects in other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Los Angeles. "What Ray Shepardson started here helped launch a national movement of theater restoration. He was involved in more than 30 theater restoration projects around the country."
The four theaters that Shepardson helped save forty years ago, have grown into ten stages that attract a million visitors to downtown Cleveland every year. And the Playhouse Square Foundation, as it’s now called, has become a real estate behemoth, buying up properties in the six-block theater neighborhood, and using the proceeds to help fund theater operations. Steven Litt says that’s a formula that few performing arts centers have been able to match.
"Playhouse Square is nationally recognized as an extremely successful economic model, as a great example of the regenerative power of the arts in American cities."
And while that model hasn’t worked everywhere, Cleveland capped its success with the lighting of a newly-installed, 20-foot-high, four-ton outdoor chandelier, meant to mirror the lighting fixtures in the restored theater lobbies, nearby. But, Ray Shepardson wasn’t there to see it. He took his life, in April 2014, by jumping off a parking garage near the historic Paramount theater in Aurora, Illinois. The Chicago Tribune quoted his suicide note as saying, “You will always remember the shows you will see at the Paramount. Memories are everything."
"You know, he gave his life to saving theaters," says Joe Garry. "And here is Playhouse Square, aside from the Chicago Theater, aside from the Fox Theater in Detroit --- here they are, thriving, and energizing the city. This was his message."