Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Playhouse Square: The Summer of '72

By the beginning of the summer of 1972 things weren't looking all that bright for the future of the Playhouse Square area. The announcement that the Loew Building, along with the State and Ohio would be razed sent the remaining tenants looking for new spaces. Cleveland Recording went to 1900 Euclid; David Lee Modeling went elsewhere as did the Kuban Art Studio and a Great Lakes seafaring organization. The only tenant that stayed until the end of the year was the Arthur Murray dance studio on the second floor.

Sometime in early June 1972 there was a nationalities festival at the Allen, don’t really remember much about it but it was on a Saturday. A few weeks later there was a gospel music show produced by James Bullard.  I remember James was a pretty good guy, one Saturday afternoon Smitty’s car stalled out in the middle of Euclid Avenue, almost in front of the Allen. James was there finalizing details of his show, but came out to help. Smitty had an old Pontiac convertible, and the brakes locked up on it. We pushed the car down Euclid, 13th and down Dodge Court to behind the Allen. Tough work since the wheels wouldn’t turn, they just skidded along the street.

On the morning of the gospel show, James came by early with an electric piano he wanted to drop off. Union regulations prohibit anyone other than a stagehand from placing anything on the stage. I called Ray on the phone, and he told me, “what the hell, let him put it on the front of the stage.”  About an hour later Tom Yanhert, stage manager of IATSE Local 27, and Phil Phusal, business agent of Teamsters Local 406 came storming into the office. Tommy face always had a bit of a reddish complexion, but this morning it was like an over ripe tomato, and they were both spewing a lot of profanities at me. I was 15 and wasn’t going to take any crap from them, so I yelled right back at them.  Eventually Ray showed up and defused the situation, and the show went off without a hitch. After the show when it was getting time to lock up, I went to start locking the front doors, a girl was waiting for a ride and I was starting to tell her I would leave a set of doors open for her but she whipped out a knife and said “get the fuck away from me.”  And I was like “OK” and walked back towards the lobby, when I turned around she was gone, so I went back and locked up.
(Rear of the State auditorium, photo by William Gesten/Foto Arts Inc.)
During this time we were also doing some work in the State, primarily removing leaded glass exit signs for safe keeping. We had something of a contentious relationship with the Milcap people in the Bulkley Building, and suspected they were removing items of value to sell to local antique shops. One Sunday morning I was returning from Royal Castle and spotted an exit door open on 17th Street, and went to investigate. Inside there was a lot of copper wire bundled up inside the door. I called up Ray and we ended up loading it into his trunk. Later we found this was pulled from the electric feed into the Cinerama booth in the State. Exit signs were also disappearing at this time, so we removed all of them from the State and Ohio towards the end of June.

Sometime early that summer we had a problem with unauthorized parking behind the Allen. Smitty put a no parking note on the offending car. Later that evening Ray walked in with the note, the back of which said "The Allen sucks and so do you." Smitty's next move was to chain the car to the wall with a note telling the owner how to get his car freed. That was the end of that problem.

By early July we were starting to do some roof work on the State and Ohio, primarily just to keep things from getting worse. We’d have to go to the Bulkley Building every morning and get the keys from Helen.  That was always a dreadful experience; Helen would mock us and tell us the theatres would be torn down. Even years later  she was often rude, but not above asking for a couple of comps for a show. Eventually Ray had copies of the keys made and we didn’t deal much with Helen afterwards. I would often see her on Monday mornings when I get my copy of Variety at the Bulkley Building newsstand.

We spent a couple weeks working to box in the large hole on the roof of the Ohio, it ws on the house left side, right near the stagehouse, near a drain. Smitty and I were a bit leery of getting too close to the opening, but Ray went right to the edge and jumped up and down on it.  We boxed it in with 2x4’s and sheets of plywood and covered it with roofing material, coating everything liberally with roofing tar. It wasn’t perfect and it still leaked, but at least water wasn’t pouring though it anymore. We also did some patching on other parts of the roofs on both the State and Ohio. This was around the time in which I’ll always remember Ray and Ceil playing badminton on the Allen stage. During this time I had an office on the mezzanine of the Allen, on the house right side. By late mornings the vents from the Colonnade Cafeteria in the Bulkley Building would spew their exhaust into the alleyway next to the Allen, making it unpleasant to be in the office with the window open. 
In the midst of all of this was the Uriah Heep concert on Friday July 28, 1972 at the Allen. White Trash (the Apple Records group) was supposed to open. People were calling and asking “is that Edgar Winter’s White Trash?”  “No it’s not.” White Trash were in some sort of barroom brawl in Chicago, and drummer Bobby Ramirez was killed, less than a week before the show so they were unable to appear. Damnation, the local group also appeared. For some reason the usual group we used as ushers were unavailable, so we scrounged up some people, I went and bought two dozen flashlights at the Playhouse Square Woolworth store. That bunch of ushers were the worst, most of them quickly vanished into the crowd once the doors opened. At the end of the night only about 2-3 of the flashlights were returned. The Allen had no working air conditioning, and it was hotter than hell in there. It was a rowdy night, one of the torchlights on the east mezzanine was smashed by some bozo. Smitty and I tackled some guy who was about to toss one of those big brass poles over the side of the mezzanine.  The show was briefly stopped when a bunch of people climbed into one of the false boxes on the house right side. One of the more amusing incidents was a group of people climbing a vertical ladder alongside the stage that lead to the roof, when the top guy peeked over the top and saw a policeman there, he jumped down a rung causing a chain reaction, along with a few bruised fingers. We had to make a beer run to the Convenient Food Mart on 13th. Smitty had to pay a $10 deposit to use one of their little shopping carts, which I quickly returned. The stagehands were all drinking pretty heavily that night, although it was against their regulations.

Not long after this the stagehands used the Allen for a Sunday morning union meeting. They broke into our ice cream freezer and stole all our ice cream. They eventually paid for it.  We also had what amounted to a company picnic with Ray, Ceil, Smitty, Vera Lynn, and myself. Burt LeGrande was lagging in signing up new members and wasn’t invited.

Following the Uriah Heep concert the next major event was a tennis party for the Junior League, which was in conjunction with the Cleveland Classic tennis match in August. For about two weeks we worked full tilt on this event. We used the stage as a dance floor, much to the consternation of Local 27. Smitty and I boxed in part of the alleyway between the Allen and the Stoufer Building with 2x4’s and heavy plastic. This was used as a cooking area for Paul Hom whom Smitty knew. Two bands were hired, Woodsmoke with M. Melinda Myer and Trevor Guys and Doll, a famous local society group. The event was held on Saturday, August 12 and was a rousing success; this was a pivotal moment in which the Junior League started to lobby on our behalf. The fruits of this event would be apparent in the months and years ahead.

A few days after this, Tuesday, August 15, was a benefit for the NAACP in which a film, Melinda was shown to the upper class of Cleveland’s black society.  A few days later this film would open at the Hippodrome down the street.

Around this time the contents of the International Trade and Fair Company were liquidated in the Palace. Their entire stock was auctioned off; Smitty and I were paid to help remove it from the Palace. This is what opened the door for us to start using the Palace lobby for private parties.

Right after this was the War – Bar-Kays concert. I forget who promoted this, but it was someone from out of town. We handled ticket sales and distribution. We traveled around town dropping off blocks of tickets to various record stores, and later picked them up. This was somewhat of an infamous show when we found the ticket seller, in the box office, and the ticket taker, both union people, were palming tickets and reselling them. I learned how to do a house count that night, and found there were over 2,000 people there, but only about 600 tickets were actually sold. I don’t think that promoter ever did another show in Cleveland. 

One of the more unusual shows came the weekend of Friday, August 25, through Sunday August 27, 1972; The Beatles Away With Words was a multi-media extravaganza. A few weeks before this a man named Howard Ragland came into the Allen, asking about rental availability. We were sort of skeptical of this guy in a cowboy hat with the southwestern accent as he boasted of sellouts across the country. But when showtime rolled around, mobs swarmed the box office. There were three shows a day, at 8, 10 and midnight on Friday and Saturday, and at 4, 8 and 10 PM on Sunday, all nine were sold out. The show itself consisted of a 360 degree sound system, with the sound set at the maximum level. 26 film projectors and a wall of slide projectors bombarded the film screen with 6,000 slides. The show opened with a brief montage of rock and roll before the Beatles, then a quick Beatlemania segment, before heading into the much longer later Beatle era. Dick Wooten in the Cleveland Press didn’t care much for it, but the crowd did seem to enjoy it. A couple days before the show, when it was time to put the show up on the marquee, Ray was insistent that the Beatles, should be spelled Beetles, and it stayed that way all weekend, I seem to recall Jane Scott poking fun at us in her column. Ragland and his associate, whose name I can’t recall, were sort of shady individuals. On Saturday night they got a few counterfeit $20 dollar bills, which they passed at a local restaurant. That Sunday night after the last show I went with Ray and Ceil to the Roost and Ranch at 9th and Carnegie for a late night feast after a hectic weekend. By Monday morning, the promoters had left town and the phone was ringing off the hook as hotels and other suppliers tried to collect on their bills. We took cash up front, so we did OK.

One afternoon in mid August a section of the Ohio marquee soffit had collapsed into the street.  Luckily no one was hurt. I remember looking up at the Ohio marquee and one of the big neon transformers was hnging by a wire, fortunately we were able to cut it loose before it fell onto the sidewalk. Once this hit the news, the Loew’s Theatre district Manager called up Millcap and demanded their name be removed from the marquees. Mike Miller called Ray and we did them a favor. Smitty and I built scaffold on Euclid on the east side of the State marquee and started to pry the word “Loew’s” from the side. Smitty went back to the Allen and a minute or two later a policeman came up and asked if I had an obstruction permit, I did not. This meant I ended up doing the work after 6 PM so it wouldn’t interfere with pedestrian traffic. The Loew’s on the State marquee was pop riveted in, so it popped off pretty quickly, on the Ohio it was welded on and took considerable effort to remove. The offending word was then covered with the cheapest green paint that could be obtained. At one point Smitty wheeled me from the State to the Ohio on the scaffold. Not many people can say they rode a scaffold down Euclid Avenue.

This a period that was kind of grim, two of the theatres were under threat of imminent demolition, several longtime businesses in the area, Bonwit Teller and the Stouffer Restaurant, along with the Black Angus all closed their doors within weeks of each other. Our favorite restaurant Boukair’s would close by the end of the year.

Labor Day weekend kicked off with a Free Clinic benefit on Friday, Septembet 1st with Mr.Stress, John Garratte, Bishop Road Gang, Dirty Eddie, Greenbriar, the Lower Garbage Trio, John Bassette, Skeezix, and Wonderlee. I think there was about 5-600 people in attendance. The weekend ended on a sour note when the Spinners show scheduled for Labor Day, September 4, was cancelled at the last minute. The promoter of this event had no advance sales and had hoped to sell tickets at the door only, which didn't work out too good for him.


Doug Broome said...

This is awesome stuff! Can't wait to read more! Who was Smitty? Trying to remember... I remember when you had that simplex key and I went with you on your rounds. What a cool time this was. Good Bless Ray Shepardson!

Frank Dutton said...

Smitty was the do it all handyman at the theatres from 1971 to about early 1976, he was quite the character.