Thursday, April 18, 2013

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

The cast (l-r) David O. Frazier, Providence Hollander, musical director David Gooding,Terry Piteo and Cliff Bemis. 

Remembering Brel...

Late winter of 1973 saw preparations of turning the grand lobby of the State Theatre into the Playhouse Square Cabaret. We worked day and night on that project. My friend Russ Richards and I spent several weeks stripping black paint off the marble baseboards in the outer lobby. The dark musty space had become a beehive of activity almost over night. Director Joseph Garry and Smitty planned the stage, Smitty making a model out of cardboard and drinking straws. I wonder what ever happened to that?  Over the course of about a week Smitty had put together a stage using all sorts of odds and ends salvaged from the theatres. The base of the stage was made from the framework of the Cinerama screen, the part against the wall was a platform that was used in Trans-Generation 70, a society party which was the last event held in the State, in January 1970.  Smitty and I spent a frigid Sunday nailing the rest of the stage together, the hammering echoing throught the cavernous lobby.  The stairs that lead up to it were strong enough to support a tank. Over the course of several nights Kevin and Poe had shined the big brass railings on the lobby’s grand stairs. I also remember stripping white paint and rewiring brass wall sconces that were in the outer lobby. I think I spent about a week in the old candy room under the right grand staircase doing that. There was quite the transformation of the lobby in those few weeks.  On a Sunday afternoon new chandeliers arrived. They’d been purchased from the Commodore Perry Hotel in Toledo.

Smitty and I spent several days atop scaffolding in the lobby, vacuuming out dirt and dust from the cove lighting trough just below the ceiling. We also figured out why a strip of lighting didn’t work. A mouse had chewed through the wires, shorting out about five feet of lights. To economize on light bulbs, we replaced every other bulb in the trough. My first television appearance was rolling the scaffold across the lobby behind a Ray Shepardson TV interview. An amusing side note was when famed TV commenter, Dorothy Fuldheim blurbed our show, but said it was at the Hippodrome.

Once the stage was ready rehearsals began, “Marathon”, “Marieke” , “Carousel” and the rest of the songs which would be forever tattooed on all our brains would ring out in the huge lobby as work went on. Passersby on the street would look in through the front doors, wondering what was going on in the long vacant State Theatre.

In retrospect, this all came together rather quickly, probably in about six weeks, but at the time it seemed to go on forever. Work intensified as the opening date drew near, Russell and I would be there every day after school, and all day on Saturdays and Sundays, until close to midnight. Soon opening day arrived, Wednesday, April 18th the doors opened as we hurriedly rushed about. We had skipped school that day, helping to hoist a chandelier into place at the back of the State auditorium. Patrons would park for free in the Playhouse Square garage, and enter through the back of the auditorium and linger for pre-show cocktails, before heading down to the lobby for a buffet, and the show. I vividly recall running a mop across the floor as some of the first patrons arrived. Among the first to arrive was our English teacher, who asked “why weren’t you guys in class today?” Russell and I feebly responded “ uh, we were sick.” Soon the show went on.

The cast Terry Piteo, Cliff Bemis, David O. Frazier and Providence Hollander received a rousing ovation at the end of the show. The show was only supposed to run for about a month, but when the reviews hit the papers on Friday, April 20, it became a runaway hit. It seemed almost unbelievable when the 100th performance was held on September 15th 1973. On October 31st there was a big party when Brel became the longest running show in Cleveland history. By the summer of 1974 it seemed like Brel would go on forever, but all good things must end, and Brel finally closed in June 1975, after 522 performances. A Marathon indeed!

All photos by William Gesten/Foto Arts Inc. Brel ad from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 11, 1975. Parts of this post were adapted from an earlier post in October 2010.

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