Weldon Carpenter has thousands of photos of Cleveland theaters from over the years, going way back to the early 20th century and to distant corners of imagination. 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 revival 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.
And the memories have been buzzing faster and harder in these weeks following Ray Shepardson's April suicide in Chicago. The news of his death shook the Midwest theater world and reminded many local chandelier-oglers that a great deal of work had to take place for Playhouse Square to become the icon it is today.
Shepardson didn't care for the chandelier anyway, Carpenter says. The Lakewood man is now wrestling with a bit of a legacy-related matter: How will his friend be remembered in Cleveland?
In May, The Plain Dealer published a five-part series titled "Death of a Salesman," which lassoed the man's death into a sensitive conversation about suicide awareness and, elsewhere, irked Carpenter for two reasons: a) the "salesman" moniker was a cheap headline trick that skewed any memory of the real Shepardson, and b) the paper never bothered to reach out to Carpenter, who had been working alongside the man on his incredible restoration adventure for so many years.
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.
His journey began in Columbus, where preservation work on the Ohio and Palace theaters became a full-time job that landed him some notoriety among the business.
After an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show in 1969, 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 couldn't believe what he was seeing. The decay. The beauty. The awe-inspiring history of it all.
"I returned to Columbus and couldn't stop thinking about the glorious theaters," he says. Carpenter 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 picked up $40 per week when Playhouse Square Association memberships were selling, which wasn't all that often. But everything started happening with greater and greater urgency over time. This was all taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some days were quieter than others, while some days Carpenter had to fend off looters curious about what might be found inside these creepy old theaters. But every day was busy and optimistic.
He says that in 1973 they opened Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which ran for two-and-a-half years (it was only planned to run for two weeks). Along the way, Carpenter pitched in on nearly every front at the State Theater. Nightly, he shined the brass of the lobby and promised enchantment to the performance's thousands of guests. Almost a decade later, Stompin' at the State opened in the lobby of the State Theatre. It was an all-original production that featured 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. It was a slow build, one founded on hard work behind the scenes and a public enthusiasm that grew with time.
Carpenter looks back with a wistful eye 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.
Upon Shepardson's passing in April, the fine folks at Playhouse Square wrote:
"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."