CPH poised to dump its theater

Five years ago, in a two-part analysis saluting the long overdue departure of Peter Hackett as the Cleveland Play House's chief, I painfully reckoned up the myriad failings of his decade-long regime, along with those of the equally ruinous eight-year administration of his predecessor, Josephine Abady.

In doing so, however, I strove to lay the essential blame for the quarter-century degradation of Cleveland's most storied theatrical institution squarely where it so rightly belonged — on the utter mismanagement of the CPH board of directors and advisory council. At that time, this august band consisted of 110 [!] worthies whose sole talents for overseeing an artistic enterprise were presumably successful business careers or family wealth. A staffer back then said of this congregation: "There are some good, dedicated people among them. Still, except as interested patrons, not one of them has any real artistic experience or background."

Despite its alarming lack of expertise, the board, with much self-congratulatory fanfare, hired successive artistic directors — and, worse, consistently and self-righteously supported their manifest calamities — whose inept productions went from pretentious twaddle to trivial commercial pap, and, in the 20-year process, diminished to a shameful degree whatever lingering reputation the theater had retained.

But by far the overweening overseers' most disastrous transgression came earlier when, in 1983, they decided to pay vainglorious tribute to their exalted eminence as fat-cat poobahs of the local arts scene by commissioning world-class architect Philip Johnson to design a monumental, totally superfluous playhouse to add to CPH's perfectly sufficient pair of the Drury and Brooks theaters, and, more importantly, to provide edificial testament to the board's pharaonic magnificence.

Johnson slyly scammed these provincial hicks with the Bolton, a street peddler's knockoff of his New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, with barnlike dimensions that created both acoustic and financial miseries. What this ludicrously ostentatious expansion really did, however, was to put CPH in permanent peril of foreclosure by establishing an annual overhead cost that Abady cited in her day as "$1 million just to open the doors." Thus was born a white elephant so mammoth that it deserved the elevated designation of albino pachyderm.

By Hackett's midterm, increasing desperation called for the hatching of pipe-dream schemes to sell the property to public corporations or the city, or rent out the complex's theaters as a kind of bush-league PlayhouseSquare Center — suggestions that all prompted zero takers. Then the beleaguered boss devised the crafty plot to attempt a merger with the troubled Great Lakes Theater Festival, gobble up its assets and donors by subsequently voting it out of existence, and say bye-bye to its own onerous Babar by settling into the ill-used but eminently desirable Hanna — something GLTF instead accomplished after successfully resisting the takeover.

Now, with the recent announcement of an all-but-done deal between PlayhouseSquare, CPH and Cleveland State University for the latter two organizations to become joint tenants of a reconfigured Allen Theatre in the near future, it seems the pachyderm will finally trudge off to its ancestral graveyard.

Amid the ballyhooed and understandable jubilation attending the deal, there are a few nagging caveats. The sole restored PlayhouseSquare theater specifically designed for movie exhibition — minus any consideration for live productions — the Allen, as presently constituted, is a shoebox that seats thousands, and activities on its stage often seem as intimately accessible as the light from Antares. It'll take more than simply reducing the number of chairs in the projected 550-seat portion that CPH will occupy to eliminate this problem.

A second question is the possibility that the venerable Play House, a theater fixture here for more than 90 years — if a frequently shaky one — might lose its specific identity as just one more component in PlayhouseSquare's multifarious array of presentations. It's a concern allied to the effect of the move on CPH's true-bluest patrons, who have a visceral connection to the historic, near-familial location between Euclid and Carnegie. Will they have any emotional need to follow the parade a few miles down our main drag to the gaudy bright lights around 14th Street?

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