A Legacy Saved: Awakening of the Dead

A Legacy Saved by Caleb Pirtle III
The Setting: Cleveland, Ohio
The Saved: Playhouse Square
The Savior: The Playhouse Square Association
Playhouse Square


Awakening of the Dead

Who should get the credit?  Maybe it should go to a Cleveland public school employee named Raymond K. Shepardson. Then again, it might not have been possible without good old Jacques Brel. Common sense doubted it was possible at all.

What’s dead in Cleveland stays dead. That’s the way it’s always been.

When the roaring twenties roared wildly through the streets of the city, Cleveland envisioned itself as one of the nation’s great entertainment centers. Why not? Within a ridiculously short period of nineteen months, five theaters were opened alongside Euclid Avenue between E. 14th and E. 17th Streets.

They were grand. They were opulent. They were called the Allen, Ohio, State and Palace Theaters, all facing north on Euclid, with the Hanna, wedged into the Hanna Office Building across the street. The whole area at night was caught in the crossbeams of spotlights and neon lights, and Cleveland called it Playhouse Square. It was all glitz, glitter, and glamour both outside and inside venues that featured legitimate theater, silent movies, and vaudeville.

The Great Depression hit hard. Movies were cheaper than legitimate theater or even vaudeville, so a gaudy era dimmed with motion pictures flickering on its silver screens. The end of World War II tolled the death knell for Playhouse Square. A downtown population made a mad dash to the suburbs, and television was even cheaper than movies.

The lights faded, then went black in the theaters. They had all been opened in a furious rush of nineteen months. Within only fourteen months, four of them were dark, and the decrepit old Hanna would struggle for another two decades before finally giving up the ghost. The opulence was stained and tainted. What hurt most, however, was that the theaters were empty, derelicts left to die with no one around to mourn their passing.

A fire broke out in the Ohio. Vandals struck time and again. The theaters began to crumble with age and neglect. The reckless ripped away their pride and dignity. They had been forgotten and doomed.

Here came Raymond K. Shephardson. In 1972, he heard that the theaters, all five of them, had been condemned and were standing in the way of the wrecking ball. It was too much for him to take. It was too much for Cleveland to lose.

He formed the non-profit Playhouse Square Association. Members rolled up their collective sleeves and went to war. They promptly raised the money necessary to acquire long-term leases on the Place, Ohio, and State Theaters, then decided in ’73 to buck the odds and hold a musical revue in the State’s semi-restored lobby, which meant it had been cleaned up and washed down with soap, water, and a few buckets of paint.

Here came old Jacques Brel.  He was a stranger in town.

The musical Revue that ushered theater back to Euclid Street was entitled Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and the association was holding its breath and praying that the production would survive for at least three weeks.

That would give them hope.

Good old Jacques Brel hung around for two years. No performance in Ohio had ever run longer. Cleveland obviously did want the sounds and music of good theater back downtown after all, and the Playhouse Square Association was off and running. It would, in time, become the Playhouse Square Foundation and raise $40 million. Restoration began on a grand scale.

Playhouse Square has become the world’s largest theater restoration project and is recognized as the country’s largest performing arts center outside of New York. Only the Lincoln Center is bigger. All five theaters have been restored to their original grandeur, and they are surrounded by fine restaurants and luxury hotels. The derelict has a new tux, a polished pair of shoes, and someplace to go.

It is the place to go.

It only happened for one reason. During the early 1970s, Raymond K. Shepardson chanced to meet up with Jacque Brel on a deserted little street. One was smitten with raw determination. The other had a song. It became a storied partnership, the kind that’s only made in Cleveland.

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