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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cleveland Theater Historian Weldon Carpenter Keeps the Past Alive

Posted By on Thu, May 15, 2014 at 10:56 AM

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Weldon Carpenter has thousands of photos of Cleveland theaters from over the years - going back to the early 20th century. His Lakewood home is decorated with memorabilia from long ago. He's seen the initial rise (through his historical research), the fall (through his preservation work alongside Ray Shepardson) and the subsequent and brilliant rise of Playhouse Square as it stands today (through his steady and tight-knit relationship with the district). All of it.

"There was just so much. It was wonderful," he says, sifting through memories.

Carpenter grew up in rural Ashland, where he discovered at a young age that there was a derelict opera house inside the city's library. A theater! It was wonderful, he says, recalling the wonder of his find. From there, his life turned inexorably toward the thrill of theaters - their history, their architecture, the people who populate them.

(Click hear to see photos from Carpenter's collection)

After an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, he was contacted by a gentleman named Ray Shepardson, an ebullient fellow working tirelessly to get Playhouse Square back to vivid life. Carpenter took a stroll with him through some of Cleveland's theaters - "No chandeliers, no furniture, no box seats. Terrible dressing rooms. But the lobby was just gorgeous," he says - and decided right then to move to Cleveland and get involved.

Despite Shepardson staring down a Herculean task - revitalizing Playhouse Square! - Carpenter flung his support behind the young man and joined the crusade. He lived with Shepardson for a month before moving into the Allen Theatre (for two years), the State Theatre (two more years) and the Palace Theatre (another two years). He got paid $40 per week when memberships were selling, which wasn't all that often. But everything started happening with greater and greater urgency over time. This was all happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He says that in 1973 they opened Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living Paris, which ran for two and a half years (it was only planned to run for two weeks). Almost a decade later, Stompin' at the State opened in the lobby of the State Theatre. It was an all-original production that feature Scott Martin songs still heard around town today. Carpenter says there was never an empty seat at those shows.

He credits those performances as the beginnings of all modern Playhouse Square success. And he looks back at all the work Shepardson put into saving the city's theaters. That was his life in those days. The work - all the blood and sweat that went into it all - was the only thing that really mattered. Without Shepardson's zeal, there would be no Playhouse Square, and the memories of the past would not ring so sweetly.

From Playhouse Square leaders, on the passing of Shepardson in April:

His powers of persuasion convinced others that the theaters were an irreplaceable resource. Following a grueling seven-year run of presenting 200-300 performances each year before the theaters were fully restored, Shepardson went on to play starring roles in theater restoration projects in Columbus, Detroit and St. Louis, and has consulted on more than 35 major restoration projects all over the country.

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