John Hemsath provides an in-depth retrospective of the history and evolution of Cleveland's Playhouse Square. Beginning with Vaudeville and spanning through the ongoing renovations and present, most subjects that relate to the theater are touched upon. However, a majority of the discussion revolves around issues pertaining to restoration and revitalization of the various theaters.
Hemsath, John (interviewee)
Somich, Andreana (interviewer)
"John Hemsath Interview, 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 319003.
Andreana Somich [00:00:00] Thank you very much, alright and then, could you tell me where and when you were born?
John Hemsath [00:00:07] I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1946.
Andreana Somich [00:00:10] Do you recall going to Playhouse Square growing up?
John Hemsath [00:00:13] Yes. I have a vague memory of going to see Cinerama in the Palace Theater when I was a child, but I have a stronger memory in 1968 of going to the State Theater while I was in college to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I remember the movie had an intermission and I was late getting back for the second half of the movie because I was so enthralled with the lobby.
Andreana Somich [00:00:39] Cool. And then how long have you worked for Playhouse Square?
John Hemsath [00:00:41] Thirty-two years.
Andreana Somich [00:00:42] Thirty-two years. And what is, what's your position?
John Hemsath [00:00:44] I'm Director of Theater Operations.
Andreana Somich [00:00:47] How do you think the theater has changed since its reopening and renovation?
John Hemsath [00:00:52] Well, it's a radical change since the days when we sort of discovered it in 1970, '71. At that time, all of the theaters with the exception of the Hanna were closed and they were in derelict condition. They were about to be demolished. In fact, the State and Ohio came within just a couple of days of being demolished. So we've seen a transformation of the theaters from their derelict and abandoned state to now the second largest performing arts center in the United States.
Andreana Somich [00:01:24] Absolutely. Okay. What do you think made Playhouse Square a special place in the world of theater?
John Hemsath [00:01:28] Are you speaking universally or within the city of Cleveland?
Andreana Somich [00:01:32] In the city of Cleveland and universally.
John Hemsath [00:01:34] Well, within the city of Cleveland, Playhouse Square is the theater district and it became such in 1922 when all of the five theaters were completed. It continued to be the theater district throughout its life until 1968 and '69, when four of the five closed. Broadway continued to be presented in Playhouse Square throughout its life. We've just had a rejuvenation now with the renovation of the theaters and sort of a reaffirmation of the fact that we are the theater district. Universally, that is to say, within the United States, we are the second largest performing arts center behind Lincoln Center, New York, and we're rather well-known and respected for the way in which we've accomplished the regeneration of the theaters, using it as an economic engine for the revitalization of downtown.
Andreana Somich [00:02:32] I heard that the term rock 'n' roll was first used in Playhouse Square. Can you tell me a little about that?
John Hemsath [00:02:37] Well, I wasn't there at the time, but Alan Freed was the deejay who coined the phrase and he was working in what was then the Stouffer Building, which is today Idea Center, at 1375 Euclid, and the term rock 'n' roll, as you may know, has its derivation in the... African American roots, particularly in the blues and the music popular in that culture. And so he used it to describe what was at that moment a crossover type of entertainment.
Andreana Somich [00:03:22] Alright, and then how did you become involved in the effort to save the theaters from demolition in the 1970s?
John Hemsath [00:03:24] Well, coincidentally, I had just quit a job in New York City and returned to my home in Cleveland, and I read the headlines in the paper about the theaters being demolished. And I thought, well, that sounded pretty interesting. And a friend of mine introduced me to Ray Shepardson, who is the fellow who was spearheading the project at that time. And Ray and I talked and he offered me a job. And I was, I think, 26 years old at the time and not married. And I thought, well, this would be cool. I'll do this for a couple of years, then I'll get a real job. And, well, one thing led to another.
Andreana Somich [00:03:57] And then how did Ray Shepardson play a role in the effort to save the theaters?
John Hemsath [00:04:01] Well, he was the guy who envisioned the theaters as if not an entertainment center. He really wanted to save the theaters. That was... he fell in love with the architecture. And he felt that the way to save them would be to present shows in them, but also his original vision called for demolishing the Ohio Theater to make room for parking and the Ohio was in terrible condition. He would use the State Theater as a Spaghetti Warehouse type of restaurant and he would use the palace to present big name entertainment. In those days, Ray was a young man also. He was less than 30 years old. He had some support of the community, but not a huge financial backing. And that was his thought of how the theaters could make enough money to sustain themselves without any outside money coming in.
Andreana Somich [00:05:09] And then, what was Shepardson's vision... Oh, you already said that! Alright, and then I understand that George Voinovich played a role in getting funding for restoring Playhouse Square. Can you speak on this?
John Hemsath [00:05:19] Yes. George Voinovich has been a great supporter of Playhouse Square since its inception, and his first role was as a county commissioner. He was one of the three county commissioners who agreed to purchase the Loew's Building, which houses the State and Ohio Theaters. Had he not done so, the theaters would have been demolished and made into parking lots. But he and the other commissioners purchased the Loew's Building. They put juvenile court into the four-story office building in front, and then we operated the theaters behind. Later, as mayor of the city of Cleveland, while the city has not been strong financially, he gave us what support he could from the city to make it possible to do the things we did. And then subsequently, as governor of the state, he was responsible for seeing to it that we got capital money for the restoration. And most recently as senator, Senator Voinovich helped us to gain, oh, about a hundred thousand dollars to restore the four [James] Daugherty murals in the theater lobby of the State. So he's just been doing great by us.
Andreana Somich [00:06:34] Yes he has, definitely.
Mark Souther [00:06:36] Excuse me one second. One thing I want to just caution, just remember like in the middle, not to say mm-hmm.
Andreana Somich [00:06:40] Ok.
Mark Souther [00:06:40] Remember, it's one of the techniques we've discussed in class that's so easy to forget in an interview. But no problem.
Andreana Somich [00:06:49] Were there any models for restoring old theaters at Playhouse Square looked to?
John Hemsath [00:06:53] We did. We saw the Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh had been restored and our board of trustees looked at that project and they noticed that the area around Heinz Hall was being redeveloped. So the redevelopment of a theater spurs economic interest in the area. And they felt it was important to make sure that Playhouse Square, the entity Playhouse Square Foundation, participated in that rejuvenation economically of the area. So they went on a campaign of purchasing vacant or low occupancy buildings in the area in order to preserve them for future development and to ensure that there would not be sleazy development in the area, which would be a detriment to people coming in and enjoying it. There was at that time, though, in the early '70s and going into the '80s, the restoration of the theaters especially was just in its infancy and we were unaware of support companies that were available and have over the years become available to do that specialized work in the theater. So it took us a few years to get up to operating speed, but now there's like an industry of theater restoration throughout the country. And in fact, one of the largest architecture firms in Cleveland, Westlake Reed Leskosky, probably does more theater renovation than any other firm in the country. And they got their start at that business with Playhouse Square.
Andreana Somich [00:08:32] And then what color schemes did you consider for repainting the Ohio Theater?
John Hemsath [00:08:39] Well, the Ohio Theater, as it was originally painted in 1921, used greens and beiges, golds, ivory, colors like that. And we read that in newspaper clippings from the time. However, over the life of a theater, it gets repainted. And during 1964, there was a fire in the lobby of the Ohio Theater. In order to hide the smoke damage, the entire interior of the theater was spray-painted rather bright red. So we needed to try to get back to the original paint scheme. Unfortunately, the designer who was working for the architect at the time came up with a pattern of colors that we referred to as the "Fruit Loops." And this used those colors, which are in Fruit Loops cereals, and it was really inappropriate. And we said, "No, no, look, here.... Read these clippings." And then she came up with the Army scheme, which was a lot of deep greens and gray, and it really looked like camouflage. Well, by that time, it was too late. We had to get theater open. So off we went with that paint scheme. And it wasn't until, oh, ten years later that we were able to find the time and the money to repaint the theater properly. [Coughs] Excuse me.
Andreana Somich [00:09:57] What kind of interior art proved most challenging to conserve in the restoration?
John Hemsath [00:10:06] I suppose that, we were most challenged by restoring or replicating the plaster castings that were used to decorate the interior of the theater, which on the face of it is not a difficult process. It involves making molds, where plaster work exists that you want to replicate and then making castings of that. But there was such a huge volume of plaster that was destroyed that had to be replaced that that was probably the single most large job in the restoration process. There was one that was more intricate and that was replicating a plastering technique called scagliola in which pigment is placed into wet plaster to replicate marble, and in the Palace, on the auditorium side walls and also on the second level of the auditorium, the lobby, I should say, there's a lot of scagliola, which looks like marble, and most people assume it is marble. When we came into the theater in the '70s, this area of what we thought might be marble was actually a rather deep yellow and we couldn't understand why that was the case. And during restoration, we stripped off all that yellow stain and we found that the columns in the Palace and the side walls were marred with the natural dye of the jute backing that was used in the plaster was leaching out through the surface. And the reason why they put the ochre coloring on it was to hide that dye. So we had to dye it ourselves, but we used a more subtle color and then covered that in turn with polyurethane in order to give it a smooth finish. So that was a bit of a challenge, but pretty much invisible to the audience.
Andreana Somich [00:12:06] It sounds like a lot of work.
John Hemsath [00:12:07] It was a lot of work.
Andreana Somich [00:12:11] It was. I've heard that the Palace Theater once had great paintings that were auctioned off after World War II?
John Hemsath [00:12:16] Yes.
Andreana Somich [00:12:18] Do you know anything about this?
John Hemsath [00:12:18] That's as much as I know.
Andreana Somich [00:12:20] That's as much as you know, all right. And then did you have a favorite interior feature in one of the theaters that you felt personally invested in saving?
John Hemsath [00:12:30] I've had a chance to look at the photographs that were taken in the Palace Theater in 1922 when it first opened, and one of the things that I thought was really nifty on it was on the mezzanine level, which we call the promenade of the Palace... the lobby of the Palace... and there were Chinese fish bowls on stands in which were palms. I don't know whether in those days in the '20s, those palms were real or not. Maybe it was they were dried. I don't know. But in any case, all but two of those fish bowls are gone and the stands are gone. And of course, the palms are gone. And recently, I was able to find a little money and we replicated that look. We were able to buy old, not old, but Chinese fish bowls and the stands and now silk palms for them, so that the promenade level looks much like it does in 1922. It's something I'd wanted to do for nearly thirty years, but never thought we could accomplish.
Andreana Somich [00:13:36] So how did Playhouse Square sustain the restoration process, in terms of money?
John Hemsath [00:13:41] Well, the process of restoration took place over twenty years, and so it's... We went about it kind of like the way you eat an apple. One little bite at a time. We knew that the total cost for the first three theaters, the Palace, the Ohio and the State was going to be about $40 million. This money came in over time, half from the public sector, meaning the government, the county, the state, the feds and half from the private sector. Of the private sector, half came from individuals and the other half came from corporations and foundations. But the first theater renovated was the Ohio in 1982, and the Palace was not finished until 1988. So it was over that six-year period that we were able to get that money together. During that time, we did our best to keep the theaters open and operating, offering performances for the audience so that the general public would not lose sight of what was going on in Playhouse Square.
Andreana Somich [00:14:44] Can you tell me about the performance Jacques Brel and what role it played?
John Hemsath [00:14:47] Right, Jacques Brel was the sort of the first milestone that Playhouse Square passed. Prior to Brel opening on the 18th of April, 1973, we had presented eighteen shows in the Allen Theater. But during that time, the owners of the Loewe' Building, which included the Ohio and the State Theater, threatened the imminent demolition of the building. And it was at that time that we were able to negotiate a five-year lease with purchase option with those owners and moved into the State to do a show. And it was Ray's vision to use the lobby of the State, which is huge, as a performance space. And this was extraordinary thinking. I don't know where he got the idea, but it hadn't been done before anywhere, as far as I know. But we used that lobby, built a stage, set up tables and chairs for... a typical audience was 350. In the outer lobby, we set up tables for a buffet line and prepared food in a kitchen that was once a restaurant in the area... in the building. And Ray went to Joe Garry, who was a professor of drama at CSU who had directed this show, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, at Berea Summer Theater. Got rave reviews. He also did it at CSU campus. And Ray approached him, asking if he would be interested in presenting the show for three weeks in the lobby of the State Theater. Ray was going to call that the Playhouse Square Cabaret, and Joe, having nothing to lose, said, "OK, fine." So they put the show in and it was such a roaring success that it lasted for a little over two years. And that really allowed us to turn the corner. People began to come downtown again and to participate in this kind of entertainment. And the city fathers and other leaders thought, well, maybe this isn't such a crazy idea. Maybe these theaters can be saved. Maybe there is money to be made for the city of Cleveland here. And that's when people began to sit up and take notice of Playhouse Square.
Andreana Somich [00:17:08] Lot of information here. When did Playhouse Square show its first Broadway play or musical after the renovation?
John Hemsath [00:17:15] Prior to the renovation, the Hanna Theater was where Broadway touring shows were presented. And there was a fellow at that time after Milton Krantz, who was the manager of the Hanna Theater presented, but there was a fellow out of Washington, D.C., who had a company in Washington that presented Broadway, and in Cleveland, presented Broadway. We renovated the State Theater in 1984, particularly for the Cleveland Opera, the Cleveland Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera Company, which at that time was on tour. So the State Theater auditorium and stage were renovated. The stage was completely rebuilt. We tore down the old stage. As a matter of fact, that was probably the first time in the country where a parking lot had been destroyed to make a theater instead of the other way around. Well, the State Theater, when we renovated it, had a capacity of roughly 3100 seats. The Hanna Theater had a capacity of just under 1400 seats. So more than double the capacity of the Hanna. And the fellow who was presenting Broadway saw that and saw where his bread was buttered and left the Hanna and brought his shows to Playhouse Square. It was after a couple of years of his operating there that we were getting flak from his subscribers and they didn't really like the way they were being treated by this fella. And we said to him that we were going to buy him out. We would take over the operation, which we did. And we've been presenting Broadway ever since.
Andreana Somich [00:18:52] What role did the Allen Theater have in the 1980s and '90s?
John Hemsath [00:18:59] Well, for the Allen Theater, let's go back to the '70s. The theater was abandoned. It was closed in '68 or '69. Ray presented eighteen performances there over a year and a half period's time. After Ray... Belkin Productions presented rock and roll in there for quite a few years. And then the auditorium was leased out to an operation called Laserium, where they took out the theater seats on the main floor of the auditorium. They had an inflated dome in the auditorium. People sat in airliner seats around a laser projector in the middle of the room and listened to music and saw the laser projections on the ceiling. Today, this is dull stuff. But in those days, that was high tech. Well, as soon as that occurred, it kind of put the kibosh to using the auditorium for performances because the seats were gone. So the lobby was used as a series of restaurants. One was called the Lobby Restaurant. The other was called the old Allen Restaurant. Very clever names. They didn't last too long, but that's how the theater worked until the late '80s. The restaurants had closed, the theater couldn't be used for performances and it lay empty. The owner again, different owner, but he was going to take it down and use it for parking. And Playhouse Square Foundation was under a lot of pressure from folks in the city like the Cleveland Restoration Society to save it. Well, we had no use for it. We had the Palace, the State and the Ohio, and that was sufficient for our needs. But Phantom of the Opera came along in 1993, and Phantom of the Opera was the first of the mega-musicals. And we thought if this is gonna be a trend, that musicals would be in town for performances of eight weeks plus a week or two of load in and another week of loadout, we can't keep putting them in the State Theater because we have an obligation to our tenants there and we can't interrupt their seasons. So we thought, okay, now we have a reason for the Allen, and these mega-musicals can make enough money to sustain the theater even if we only did one a year. So with that in mind, we bought and renovated the Allen.
Andreana Somich [00:21:21] How about the Hanna Theater? Can you talk a little more about that one?
John Hemsath [00:21:27] Well, the Hanna was like an unexpected baby. The Hanna Building was being put up for sale by Don Grogan and his family. And we really wanted to control the Hanna Building first floor level because there we felt that we could do a good job of developing the street-level storefronts which had been vacant for so many years. And in fact, we began to make progress in that regard, after the purchase of the Hanna Building. But the purchase of the Hanna Building came with the Hanna Theater, which is in the Hanna Building annex. Not that we were looking for another theater, but there it was. And so we put in a cabaret show in the Hanna called Tony and Tina's Wedding, which was riotously successful, and that ran for a couple of years. And we have continued to follow that with cabaret shows to date. Right now, we're considering the possibility of using the Hanna Theater as the principal home for the Great Lakes Theater Festival. They would prefer a different type of theater, one with a thrust stage rather than the traditional proscenium stage in the Ohio. And they would prefer smaller capacity than the Ohio of 1000 seats. So that may happen, and that could be a new life for the Hanna Theater.
Andreana Somich [00:22:54] Are there any other future plans for any of these theaters that you know about?
John Hemsath [00:23:00] No.
Andreana Somich [00:23:02] Do you find the same type of people come to the theaters or do you think that theaters attract a vast array of audiences?
John Hemsath [00:23:08] I'm sorry, ask that again.
Andreana Somich [00:23:10] Do you think the same type of people come to the theaters or do you think that there is a vast array of audiences that come?
John Hemsath [00:23:17] Ok. We feel obliged to program the theaters for the entire community, and the community is pretty diverse. So there are certain things that appeal to one aspect of the community that will not appeal to another. Right now, Broadway is the hottest ticket. That's what most folks really want to see. Twenty years ago, it was big name entertainment. What we called Vegas entertainers, and they're not so hot right now. There's a new genre coming through of urban contemporary plays that are serving that audience. We also present a variety of dance programs, but recently we've not been successful in bringing in world class ballet. There just doesn't seem to be a sufficient audience to support that. So our programing has to go everywhere within the community and we see what works and what doesn't. Just as we have, we feel an obligation to provide a diverse entertainment for the community. We obviously have a charge to stay in business. The community doesn't want to see us close the theaters and waste all that money they gave us. So we can't afford to present forms of entertainment that are going to be so costly as to hurt us. And after four years of ballet, for example, we realized we just can't continue in that. But there will... there are always changes in the entertainment industry, many of which are brought about by new technology. And it's very difficult to predict what new technology is going to alter the theater that's been going to be presented twenty years from now.
Andreana Somich [00:25:03] When is the most successful time of the year for the Playhouse?
John Hemsath [00:25:07] All theater has its biggest season in the fall between, let's say, October and the end of December. Spring isn't bad either, but summer around here for us and the rest of the Rust Belt is pretty dismal in the theaters. We have a lot of competitions with barbecue, and boatings, and Blossom Music Center.
Andreana Somich [00:25:28] Is there something significant that you wish to add? And we're bought done.
Mark Souther [00:25:32] I'd like to throw in some things, but would you like to... Was there anything you would like to add before I ask a few questions?
John Hemsath [00:25:39] I don't think so.
Mark Souther [00:25:41] Okay, and actually, if you could continue to speak into the mic... It may seem awkward with me asking questions from the side, but I had a few questions as well, one of which came from the talk you gave at Western Reserve. I wondered if you could, for the benefit of the interview, say a little bit about 1920s and your sense of what made Cleveland's theater district special for the performers who came to town. I remember you commented on that.
John Hemsath [00:26:11] Are you thinking of The Three Stooges anecdote?
Mark Souther [00:26:19] I'm not recalling that one right now, I'm recalling just how the theater district was a place that they felt particularly welcome, and felt like they had... The behind the scenes aspects of it were...
John Hemsath [00:26:32] Ok.
Mark Souther [00:26:33] Really advantageous, and very well there.
John Hemsath [00:26:35] Ok. Let me lead into that with that anecdote. In the early '20s, Cleveland was the fifth largest city in the United States, just as Philadelphia is today. And when Playhouse Square was developed as the new entertainment center, or the theater district in Cleveland. The visionaries who developed this were the leaders in popular entertainment at the time. At that time, there was no radio. There was no television. Live entertainment was the equivalent of the major television networks of today. So the big forms of entertainment were burlesque and vaudeville and legitimate theater. And of those three, vaudeville was far and away the leader. It was the equivalent of Broadway on the road today. And the stars, so many of whom we met later in television and radio and movies, got their start in the vaudeville circuit. One of those groups were the Marx Brothers. Another was The Three Stooges. And Moe Howard wrote a book called Moe Howard and The Three Stooges, in which he said the life on the road as a vaudevillian was very difficult. They were on the road almost all the year. They were... Since they were performers, they were not welcome in the better hotels. They spent most of their day in the theater waiting to go on between movies. And backstage in the theaters is a pretty dismal place with the exception of the Palace Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, which at the time it was built was the finest theater in the country. And there were great amenities for the performers, including a nursery for the kids who travel with the show. This was 1922 and that was a real daycare center. Next to that, down the hall was a beauty parlor barbershop. One floor up was a billiard room, a game room. And in the loft above all of that was a little putting green because in the early '20s, miniature golf was very popular. On the other side of the Palace stage was seven floors of dressing rooms and every dressing room had its own private bathroom with the bath tub and shower. And in 1922, it exceeded today's minimum equity standards for dressing rooms. So the Palace was just a terrific place to play. And a lot of performers who played there had a wonderful time, in fact, not because of it, but coincidentally, George Burns and Gracie Allen were married in Cleveland while they were playing at the Palace.
Mark Souther [00:29:06] And some, as you move into the period where movies began to take over from the legitimate theater, vaudeville, things like that. What was the last theater to continue through that period with performances other than movies?
John Hemsath [00:29:28] I really can't answer that. I don't know enough about that part of their history. That change overtook... Do you want me to answer this one?
Mark Souther [00:29:37] Yeah.
John Hemsath [00:29:37] Well, I'll give you what I can, but it's not much. The change between live entertainment in the theaters to movies was very gradual and it was... it's a gray area because the movies came into the theaters shortly after they opened and they remain part of the bill affair throughout their lives until the late '60s. The Hanna Theater is best known for its presentation of bus and truck shows; vaudeville. I'm sorry, Broadway and shows of that ilk. But, the Hanna also showed movies at some point during its life. Meanwhile, the Allen Theater was built exclusively for movies, yet they did live shows as well. And the Palace was strictly vaudeville, but they added movies and the first talkies were at the Palace in 1927. This live stage shows continued. The vaudeville died out pretty much in the '30s, but then followed the big band era. And there were always live shows of one kind or another until we got into the rock and roll era and big name entertainment and now Broadway. So the transition was sort of slow and I don't think you can set one date or draw a line where live entertainment stopped and movies started. But by 1968, in fact, by 1960, all of the theaters, with the exception of the Hanna, were only showing movies.
Mark Souther [00:31:08] What about the street life on Euclid Avenue during the 1960s? What's your recollection prior to the restoration of the theaters? What type of street life--when I say street life, I'm referring specifically actually to storefronts. What sort of uses were along Euclid Avenue that you recall?
John Hemsath [00:31:28] When I was growing up and I was in college at the time the theaters closed so I can recall in high school, a big date was going to see a movie in the Palace Theater and then going across the street to Boukair's restaurant, which was a fabulous ice cream parlor. And that was considered the hot date for high school kids at those... At that time, first-run movies were only shown in the downtown theaters. They weren't shown in the neighborhood theaters until they had already run their course downtown. So there was a lot of reason to go to Playhouse Square to see a movie, to have something to eat, and it was also a destination for shopping. Halle's department store was there. Sterling Lindner Davis was across the street from Halle's. So there was retail, there was entertainment, and of course, the office buildings were filled. So it was a very bustling place up until the theaters closed in the late '60s.
Mark Souther [00:32:30] Moving forward some, one of the things I first noticed when I moved to Cleveland was Star Plaza and how it has the ticket kiosk and the jumbotrons on the buildings surrounding it. Can you talk a little bit about the design aspect, not the design aspects alone, but the history of the plan to create Star Plaza?
John Hemsath [00:32:54] I wish I could remember the name of the architectural firm. Wood was a name in there, but I just don't know enough about that. But ignoring that for a bit. When Playhouse Square Foundation noticed that despite the fact that the theaters were being restored and a million people a year were coming to see shows in the theaters, the storefronts and the office buildings in the area of Playhouse Square was just not being redeveloped the way we had hoped it would. And we decided at that time that we needed the help of the city and urban planning. And we engaged a firm out of Boston to come in, have a look at Playhouse Square, and make recommendations for how it might be improved. One of the suggestions f
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