Sunday, June 24th, 2018

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Ray Shepardson’s dream, vision brought theaters nationwide back to life


Those of us who have been around the block a time or two have many memories of going downtown to watch movies. That’s where we saw “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Singin’ in the Rain” (after which we danced in the middle of Euclid Ave. Honest!)

I don’t remember when the theaters were shut down but I do remember when they began to live again. As has often happened in this city, there were plans to tear them down and put in a parking lot, paving paradise just as Joni Mitchell sang. Can you really imagine that? Remember the Hippodrome? It’s a parking lot.

So anyway, this guy who worked for the Cleveland schools came along one day looking for a place to put on a show. He happened to stop into one of the derelict theaters — the State, I think. If you’ve seen any of the old pictures, you know what an incredible derelict state they were in: crumbling plaster, leaky roofs, you name it. They were a mess.

That young man was Ray Shepardson and out of that casual stop came the great movement to save Playhouse Square. Before they knew what had hit them, the movers and shakers of Cleveland were drawn into the vision that Ray had to restore the theaters and bring new life to downtown. Lainie Hadden and the Junior League came up with $25,000 that was the beginning of the millions and millions of dollars that have flowed into the Square.

He knew about “Jacques Brel” and said to Joe Garry, “This will be perfect for the Playhouse Square Cabaret. And Joe said,” You don’t HAVE a cabaret,” but we WILL.” Joe Garry was persuaded to bring “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” from Cleveland State University to the lobby of the State Theatre where a three-week run turned into two and a half years and people took pride in seeing it over and over again.

By the time the theaters were completely and magnificently restored, Ray had moved on and he ultimately oversaw the restoration of more than 40 theaters across the nation. Had you asked him, in those early days, he would have been the first to say he knew absolutely nothing about restoring theaters. And when he was last in Cleveland he said he never could have imagined all this — the glory that Playhouse Square has become.

“A small band of urban warriors” as Pudge Henkel said in his remarks, bought into Ray’s vision and helped him to turn that vision in to reality. After Jacques Brel there were more shows and an attempt to turn the old Hanna theater into a cabaret. I can see him on stage, dropping to his knees, begging us to tell our friends but only if we liked the show. We may not have all liked the show but we liked Ray.

The memorial service in June was, as Gina Vernaci said, “a family reunion for posterity.” Included in the crowd of more than 300 people were all three of his wives and his only child, Bill, whose emotional words wrapped up the program. I had met all three wives at once when they were sitting with Ray at a benefit. They all loved him but it is Nanette who has been with him for the past 19 years, living out his dreams.

All of the friends who attended the memorial had stories about Ray. Most of us had never known anyone like him and never will again. I was not involved in the early years and have only come to know the cast of characters in this great play of life since Currents became involved in what was going on in the city. I never interviewed Ray because he had left town by the time Currents came along but we eventually knew one another.

I think he had to be a genius although I hate to throw that word around loosely. But what else can you call a man who had enough vision to see that a theater could be restored, to figure out how to have it done and to draw people into the dream and convince them to part with their money. The next time you go down to see a show, look at those exquisite theaters and drink a toast to the man who had a dream and made it come alive. And you can thank the Cleveland Play House for the Allen Theater and Great Lakes Theater for the exquisite restoration of the Hanna. It’s an amazing place, our Playhouse Square, with its golden arches and its chandelier.

Ray loved show business and he loved saving the places for it to be seen and heard. They are in Detroit and Columbus and Chicago, among dozens of other cities where you might someday be viewing a Broadway show or a dance company. Look around at the woodwork and the ceilings and the colors, all the result of the vision of a farm boy from Washington State who had a dream. He made his dream a reality for the ages and there are few who can say that.

Said Joe Garry, “He lived his life on the front page of newspapers with his dream of saving theaters, teaching himself as he went along. His vision was the center of his life and he BECAME the expert. He didn’t just save them (the theaters), he re-invented them. We were in the presence of a giant and he will always be with us and his light will be on,”

There was a ghost light on stage that was turned on at the end of the celebration.


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