Thanks to this production-savvy preservationist, historic arts palaces in dozens of towns are once again drawing crowds.
Publication: American Theatre
Author: Johnston, Christopher
Date published: September 1, 2010
Color Copy of the Magazine Article can be purchased here.
Ray Shepardson Restoration Drama - ONE NIGHT IN 1985 AT THE WILSHIRE THEATRE in Los Angeles, Ray Shepardson was roaming backstage ac a Shirley MacLaine show. He was there to say hello to the venerable star of stage, screen and television who had won an Academy Award for Terms of Endearment the previous year.
Shepardson was living in Los Angeles while planning and supervising the $5-miIlion restoration of the 2,300-seat Wiltern Theatre. That night, he was "playing it big time," he explains, entertaining several major agents and all decked out in his best suir and tie, replacing his usual work garir. sweat pants and T-shirt or runner's warm-ups. He had even earned the nickname "The Towel" because of the omnipresent towel draped around his neck to sranch perspiration in the hot, dusty environs of dilapidated historic theatres that he's made a career of restoring.
Suddenly, a towel flew through che air and smacked Shepardson in the face. "Where'sjyoar towel, Shepardson:" MacLaine bellowed. Recalling the incident today. Shepardson simply says of his famous friend, who has performed at a number of the theatres he has refurbished, "What a great lady."
For the past four decades, Shepardson, 66, has traveled the U.S., sometimes working as a theatrical hooking agent, more frequently directing preservation efforts for nearly 40 historic vaudeville and movie theatres built primarily during the 1920s, from Atlanta to Seattle, Louisville to Los Angeles. Each year, roughly five milJion people attend films and live theatrical events in the opulently gilded pleasure palaces that he has returned to their original luster. While he has overseen a toral of $250 million in restoration, he estimates that it would cost more than $2.5 billion to reconstruct all of those buildings today.
Over the years, "The Towel" is iust one ot many monikers Shepardson has acquired. In fact, when you talk to people who know Raymond K. Shepardson in any of his capacities - as preservationist, restoration guru or producer - abundant colorí u] descriptions get tossed about like a performance artist's word salad: genius, visionary, lunarie, innovator, headache, divine madman.
"RAY LOVES THE THEATRE ITSELF- THE ARCHItecture, the bones - and he's very respectful of its history and its soul," says L. A. -based Rick Martelli, who has managed a number of acts Shepardson has booked, including David Copperfield and Shields & Yarnell. "But he also loves variety entertainment and live theatre."
A native of the Seattle area, where he grew up on a dairy farm, Shepardson caught the bug for producing while attending Seattle Pacific College. Raised in a deeply religious family - his grandmother was an authentic Holy Roller - he had originally contemplated studying to become a minister, because "church is such a highly theatrical setting that requires a lot of acting," he quips.
Instead, he chose to major in anthropology and became the college's first male social chairman. In ihis capacity, he scheduled the first secular programs on campus by booking a younifjohn Denver, or Je wish or Mormon members of the Seattle Symphony, for example, to perform at chapel assemblies.
A chance meeting with Paul Briggs, the superintendent of Cleveland Public Schools, let! ro Briggs hiring Shepardson as his special assistant, responsible for directing the system's Visiting Scholars Program. Whilesearching for venues, Shepardson stumbled upon four contiguous theatres buik in downtown Cleveland during the late teens und early 1920s-the Palace, Slate, Ohio ami Allen- that had all closed by 1969. These majestic movie palaces of a forgotten era, he discovered, were slated for demolition to make way far a parking lot.
Shepardson would have none of it. He implemented the advice of one of the visiting scholars, Buckminster Fuller: "If you do something, do something big enough to make a difference." He left his iob to save a rare collection of buildings designed by the premier movie-theatre architects of their day: Charles Howard Crane, John Eberson and Thomas W. Lamb.
In 1972, while the owners were completing their demolition studies, Shepardson was sneaking into the buildings illegally to tar the leaky roofs. Leading a grassroots publicity campaign and working behind the scenes to garner support from local community organizations and philanthropists, he was able to obtain an initial grant of $25,000 from the Junior League, which led to other major contributions and eventually to the acquisition of the property by Cuyahoga County.
"Success has many fathers, so you'll hear that lots of people started that project," reasons Elaine Haddon, former president of the Junior League of Cleveland and first president of PlayhouseSquare Association. "Ray Shepardson saved PlayhouseSquare."
Meanwhile, Shepardson perfected his producing acumen by presenting 200 to 300 performances a year over the course of seven years, sometimes in PlayhouscSquare's lobbies, sometimes on makeshift stages i n the shadow of scaffolding. At different points, he convinced performers such as Chita Rivera and Mary Travers to help paint, and once flew to New York to meet with Marvin Hamlisch and his mother to convince the redoubtable composer to perform two benefit concerts in Cleveland.
He also applied his evolving brand of talent-based programming ami value-driven marketing, sometimes offering free theatre or sel ling $2 tickets for high-profile acts. He developed another signature Shepardson tactic: Buy three shows, get three shows free. Offering a maximum number of performances, he reasoned, would generate maximum traffic now, which in turn would invigorate the neighborhood. Today, PlayhouseSquare Center, the country's largest performing arts center outside of New York, draws more than a million attendees and records revenues of more than $40 million annually. Although Shepardson no longer has an official role at the center, Market Value Productions, his wife Na nette 's company, has been hired by Cleveland State University to assist with current theatre projects in PlayfiouseSquare, including the remodeling of the Allen Theatre, which will become the new home of the Cleveland Play House in 2011. Shepardson's Cleveland-based design partner, Sonya Winner-Smith, will oversee the work.
"If you make a building economically viable, it's going to he there forever," Shepardson believes.
Restoring and reopening historic theatres also creates leverage for additional economic stimulus in that district, according to Virginia Van Steenberg, owner of the Majestic Building, which houses the 2,500-seat Majestic Theatre in San Antonio, Tex., which Shepardson helped restore as part of a $4.4-million project in the late '80s. Hut building stood on a block of downtown San Antonio that some impolitely compared to 1980s Beirut. With the restored theatre asan anchor, Van Steenberg developed two luxury apartment buildings with 20,000 square feet of retail space where there had been none. Since then, five-star hotels, office buildings, restaurants, a children's museum and a relocated historic saloon have also sprouted on the street.
SHEPARDSON LEFT CLEVELAND IN 1979 to consult on or implement the restoration of former movie palaces in Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and his hometown, where he guided the renovation of such major theatres as the 2, 800-seat Paramount. Growing up on a farm had instilled sonic carpentry skills, but Shepardson's ability to restore theatres came primarily by just doing it - and, as time went on, by working side by side with such experts as Anthony G. Heinsbergtdu, who died this past February. Shepardson befriended Heinsbergen in the 1980s while working on L.A.'s Wiltern T neutre; Heinsbergen was there to refurbish murals originally painted by his father.
By 1985, Shepardson's key chain bulged with keys to rive apartments; one in Los Angeles, while he worked on the Wiltern; one in Atlanta, while he consulted on the restoration of the 4,500-seat Fox Theatre; one in Pittsburgh, where he consulted on the 3,600-seat Syria Mosque venue: one in Chicago, where he helped raise $10 million in equity capital, supervised the restoration of the 3,800-seat Chicago Theatre ami served as general manager and executive producer; and one in St. Louis, Mo., where he spent several years consulting on the $2.3-million renovation of the 4,500-seat Fox Theatre.
To open the latter, he assembled a star trio - Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Count Basie - a lineup that sold out an entire week and stands as the most profitable show he's ever presented. Like MacLaine, Clooney became a good friend who supported what Shepardson was trying to accomplish. In a promotional video for San Antonio's Majestic, Clooncy said: "In Europe, I see Americans running from one wonderful edifice to another, and I rarely see this kind of restoration taken here lor an important pan of our history. Ray is the one who always comes through. He has wonderful taste. He has the dedication that can make it happen, and I'm a big fan of his."
"We definitely wanted to work with Ray, because he always did an exquisite job, taking care of every minor detail from acoustics and lighting down to the last glass jewel i n the ceiling," adds Allen Sviridoff, Clooney's manager for the last 23 years of her life, and currently a consultant to the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
In terms of individual achievements, Shepardson's pièce de résistance came in the immense challenge of restoring the 5,000-seat Fox Theatre in Detroit, an endeavor that lasted from 1983 to 1988. Built in 1928 by William Fox, president of Fox Films, it stood as the third-largest movie palace in the world, until the Roxy ;ind the Capitili theatres in New York were demolished. (Radio City Musiti hill wasnot bu iIt as a movie theatre.) Designed liy C. Howard Crane, the Fox boasted the largest theatre organ ever built for a movie house, a 2,000-pound chandelier ami the largest clear-span balcony in the world.
By 1983, however, the Fox operated as a venue for rock concerts. Shepardson and his creu walked into a building with severely damaged plaster, HYAC systems with dirt so deep "you could shovel it out nft.be ventilation ducts," torn and worn seals, more than 150 missing or destroyed light fixtures, approximately 300 windows und 350 doors with broken or missing stained-glass, plumbing problems, leaking roots and water damage.
But for Shepardson. that was just the prologue to preservation heaven. "They don't get any bigger or more complicated than that." he says. "But it doesn't get any more fun, either." He estimates a remarkable 90 percent of the original structure was saved as a result of the SK-milHon renovation. Aspart of a series of grand openers, Shepardson spearheaded "The Ultimate Event," a multi-day entertainment extravaganza starring Frank Sinatra, Liza Minndli and Sammy Davis Jr.
WHILE IT'S TYPICAL FOR SHEPARDson's buildings to win prestigious restoration awards, the Fox is one of only a few theatres in the country to be named a National Historic Landmark; San Antonio's Majestic is another. "His knowledge of these theatres is incredible," says Alan Margulies of AA1I Production and Management in Los Angeles. "When he finishes a building and you walk in, you feel like you're waiting hack into the 1920s."
During the restoration of the State in Minneapolis, however, the "lunatic" and "headache" labels raised their conjoined heads. Shepardson found himself UHM itti ng!y embroiled in a teacup tempest when the March 5, 1"%, edition of the Wallstreet Journal featured the front-page headline: "A Theater Restorer Razes No Buildings But Raises Hackles." An architect involved in the project had grown incensed when Shepardson dismissed her extensive research into the ltalianate character of the building with a classic quip: "Who cares what an Italian ate? Let's just keep the costs down."
"We've always tried to be as authentic as was reasonably possible, but there is a law of diminishing returns," Shepardson says now. reflecting on the pitfalls of" what he culls "hysterical preservation." "Frequently, there's a less expensive process to accomplish the same end results."
As for the confrontational style. Shepardson's collaborator Winner-Smith - a designer who has been involved in everyone of his projects and who also happens to be his ex-wile - says it's not uncommon to get in a toe-to-voe "discussion" with the 6'f " restorer. "Once Ray's made up his mind that he's doing something, there really isn't anything big enough to get in his way ,"she informs. "That's wonderful, because it inspires that same kind of passion and energy in his staff."
During the "golden decade of theatre restoration" of the 1HOs, Shepardson was the highest-paid theatre consultant in the country. Since then, the few remaining historic theatres have been either restored or torn down, so there isn't much work left for a preservationist. Occasionally a project still comes along that interests him - most recently, he is working with his sales-and-promotions-expert wife to restore the Wheaton Grand Theatre, a classic suburban movie palace in Wheaton. III.
For all oi the nuck towels he's cleaned a thousand times, the rewards, ultimately. ermi e troni saving these superb examples of a time when movies and theatre were the great equalizers. Whether patrons arrived by limousine or street car, whether they sat in box seats or the balcony, Shepardson points out that everyone could pay 35 cents to see the biggest stars of their era in movies or in live performances.
"I just can't believe how many of these buildings have survived that we were able to save in the '70s and '80s that are still topproducing theatres," he says. In fact, several of these theatres occasionally record Uo-millionper-week revenues in Variety, primarily from Broadway touring shows. Sparkling bottom lines, however, are not what Shepardson sees when he walks into one his restored masterpieces. "In the entertainment industry, the giitter of the crystal chandeliers is the only glitter that l-jsts," he umciwles.
Christopher Johnston is a freelance journalist, playwright and director in Cleveland, where his play, 4PORKALVPSE!, will premiere at convergence-continuum theatre in December.