Joe Garry reflects on ‘Jacques Brel’ reviving Playhouse Square, 50 years later
Fifty years ago on April 18, 1973, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” opened in the lobby of the State Theatre – one of the few inhabitable parts of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square at that time. The two-week run blossomed into two years, which set the stage for a decade of work rehabbing the rundown Euclid Avenue facilities into the nation’s second-largest theater district.
On this 50th anniversary, the show’s director, Joe Garry, explains how French songs and Chinese food saved Playhouse Square in an interview.
Joe Garry: In the early 1970s, the city really shut down, and people proudly said that you could run a bowling ball down the street and it wouldn't interfere with anything. People were told that if they were driving down Euclid Avenue, they didn't have to stop at any of the stop signs or lights because people felt it was too dangerous.
[The theaters] hadn't been used in years. There was terrible water leakage from the roof [and] fires in the buildings, so they were a catastrophe. If you walked through them, you couldn't imagine that they could be saved. And that was the setting for the opening of the cabaret at Playhouse Square.
Ideastream Public Media’s Kabir Bhatia: The vision came from Ray Shepardson, a Cleveland schools employee who had scouted the theater district for possible meeting space.
Garry: [The State's lobby is] the longest theater lobby in the world, and to take this intimate little show and put it in this cavernous space seemed to be an outrageous idea. And as we were talking, Raymond said, “Well, I think it should be a cabaret and we'll put the audience [here].” And I said, “Fine, we'll put the stage up against the wall, halfway in the hallway, so that you could have audience on three sides, give more intimacy, since it would be played in the middle, but there are all kinds of acoustical problems.”
So he said, “Well, we're going to do it as a dinner theater.” And I said, “Well who have you got to be the chef?” And he said, “Well we have a little Chinese restaurant on the corner of E. 17th and Euclid and perhaps Paul Hahm will do this.” Well, Paul Hahm did. He was a wonderful man and, incidentally, he had great Chinese food.
But the absurdity of presenting a French revue in the longest lobby in the world and have it catered by a Chinese takeout restaurant seemed a bit of a stretch.
Garry: We had a press conference saying we were going to open and the press… wrote articles saying it was Playhouse Square’s last supper, since it was a dinner theater. It turned out not to be the last supper, but rather the resurrection of Playhouse.
Bhatia: The Belgian singer's theatrical songs have been covered by everyone, from David Bowie to Ray Charles. In 1968, the revue opened Off-Broadway. It eventually made its way to Cleveland, where you directed a production at Cleveland State University.
Garry: We were playing it in a 500-seat lecture hall. There was a stage, so we created a set and lighting on the stage. And on the final performance of the show, Ray Shepardson came to see it, and was blown away by it.
He sat next to my mother and she invited him to come for breakfast. And when I got home, my mother said, “Oh, by the way, we're having guests for breakfast: Ray Shepardson and his wife, [Cecilia]. And I said, “Oh my God, Raymond's crazy. You know, he's been after me to try and come up with something to do at Playhouse Square and he has no money and there's no way -- he has no staff. I mean, he's just sort of there with his wife and they both powerfully believe in saving the theaters, which I think is noble, but I couldn't see any way it would work.” So, he came for breakfast, and, by the end of breakfast, being the Pied Piper that he was, I agreed to do the show in the lobby of the State Theatre.
Bhatia: Shepherdson's work began in 1970, when he formed an association to save the theaters that were closing and slated to become parking lots.
Garry: It was so imminent that people could not come in the Euclid Avenue side of the theater because all of the cranes were there on the street. [They were] literally three weeks away from demolition. And, all the while, we were trying to do our opening night. We had to use the E. 17th Street entrance, the side entrance. [Audiences] had to go up a grand staircase. We had drinks in the upper balcony overlooking that magnificent room and then the audience would walk down the stairs and go to the tables and have dinner there.
To show you how dire it all was early on, there were prostitutes on the street. I went out, and I said, “Look, girls, I don't care what you do after the show but don't take our audience away before they get here.” So we shooed them away. Then the [mounted] police came… and so there were horse droppings everywhere on E. 17th Street. On opening night, I was out in the street sweeping horse droppings so that the audience didn't step in it when they walked into the theater. Ah, the life of show business.
Bhatia: But the glamorous life did slowly emerge as people came back to see “Jacques Brel” again and again, making stars of Cliff Bemis, Providence Hollander, Theresa Piteo and David Frazier, who would be your partner and eventual spouse until passing in 2016.
Garry: I really want to stress that the cast was so extraordinary, and they became Cleveland celebrities. People asked for their autographs. They were photographed every night. They were in the paper every day, and yet there was no ego ever involved in this. I mean, I feel so embarrassed to say it was part of the salvation of Playhouse Square – and, I might add, Cleveland - but none of these are words I've said. They've all been said in the press. We all just wanted to struggle so hard not to see these theaters destroyed. We swallowed the message that Ray Shepardson was giving, and we became his first great disciples. So, it was never about ego.
At the very beginning, there was literally no staff. We had to answer the phone, take tickets, we had to do everything. And then everyone worried every night that there'd be enough money to pay everyone so that we could do it again.
Bhatia: “Jacques Brel” ran for 522 performances, closing in June 1975, just a few months after a film version was released. By then, Garry, Shepardson and their team had already branched out to the Palace Theatre next door.
Garry: The State and the Palace were not connected. We wanted to do a show in the lobby of the Palace Theatre to showcase that. I directed it. It was called “The Rise and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.” We wanted to have a dinner theater there and sell liquor. But we would have had to get a separate liquor license, which we couldn't afford. So our first president, Oliver Henkel - who was a very distinguished lawyer and should not have been mixing with theatrical types - realized that if we cut a hole in the wall of the State lobby and connected it, we wouldn't need to have a second liquor license. So that's what we did.
When I was trying to sell the idea, a lot of wealthy ladies came, and I took them on a tour, showing them the beauty of the lobby. Pat Modell, who was married to [then-Cleveland Browns Owner] Art Modell, came and as I brought the ladies in, and I stood with my back to the grand staircase in that lobby telling them what my idea was, they all started laughing. And I thought, “I'm not saying anything funny. What are they laughing at?”
I turned around, and Raymond had rented the theater for the day to, I believe, Cosmopolitan magazine. [They] were doing the first nude photo shoot of a wedding. And so there was the bride, in a veil only, and there was a groom, only in a bow tie, at the top of the stairs. The ladies all did contribute to the next project, but I was never sure if it was because of my idea or the groom's bow tie.
Bhatia: To mark the 50th anniversary of “Jacques Brel,” Playhouse Square will unveil a plaque commemorating the many people who helped save the theaters on Euclid Avenue. But you would like to see more.
Garry: I would like to see one of the theaters named for Raymond Shepardson. Of course, Playhouse Square has to survive on grants and gifts and money, etc. But to me, beyond money, the theaters could not be there without Ray Shepardson. I don't believe that there is an appropriate monument in his honor. It's the last thing he would have asked for, but without Raymond and without his vision, none of this ever could have happened.
I do a program called “Broadway Buzz” before the Broadway series. So, I do eight lectures a week and we get very huge audiences that come to that. When I leave, I usually walk through the theaters and very often all the theaters are open and playing, and there’s thousands of people there. And I - you know everyone must think I'm insane - I just burst into tears because it reminds me of the fact that the only way we could have walked through those spaces before was to climb over debris and fallen ceiling and chipped floors. I'm just enormously proud. I mean, it took thousands and thousands of people and dedication and devotion over 50 years: everyone from the "red coats," who volunteer their services, to corporations that have given millions of dollars to restore, to the political figures who have helped to save these great spaces.
Learn more about the effort to save Playhouse Square with Ideastream’s Emmy-winning 2012 documentary, “Staging Success.”