PlayhouseSquare Honors Two of Its Pioneering Leaders
PlayhouseSquare honored the founding chair of its board of trustees, Oliver C. "Pudge" Henkel, Jr., and his successor, John F. Lewis, with its highest award, The PlayhouseSquare Star Award for Achievement in the Performing Arts, at its annual Chairman's Dinner on Monday night. Past honorees include legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch, Disney Theatricals President Thomas Schumacher and Broadway producers Kevin McCollum and Margo Lion.
Henkel, know to most simply as "Pudge," obtained the first stay of execution for PlayhouseSquare in 1972. As a young lawyer, he went before the Fine Arts Council of the City of Cleveland to plead the organization's case, putting a temporary halt on demolition that had already been approved. The Fine Arts Council granted just 30 days for the development of a plan for the theaters. He then negotiated a five year lease with the owners of the Loew's Building to save the State and Ohio Theatres; he would later go on to convince the Cuyahoga County commissioners to buy the building. In August 1973, he became the founding chair (known then as "president") of the board of the not-for-profit Playhouse Square Foundation. Establishing the organization as a not-for-profit was a crucial move for attracting contributors to the project. Then in 1977, Henkel signed for PlayhouseSquare's first line of credit for the purpose of booking big name acts to try to prove that people would come downtown for entertainment. The gamble paid off; by the end of the year, more than half a million people had come to shows at PlayhouseSquare.
Also in 1977, five trustees voted to create a performing arts center out of the historic theaters. Henkel was one of those trustees. Another would become his successor as chair of the board in July of 1980: John F. Lewis. Five months earlier, the board had approved an $18 million plan for the creation of a three-theater performing arts center. Under Lewis's leadership, organizations like the Cleveland Foundation, Cleveland Tomorrow, Sohio and the banking institutions began to provide funding for the fledgling project. John also turned his eye toward professionalizing the staff, recruiting Kevin McMahon as a fundraising consultant and Larry Wilker as the organization's first president and CEO. Wilker would go on to run the Kennedy Center and McMahon is now the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
But it was a summons from then Mayor Voinovich, in February of 1981, that would really put PlayhouseSquare to the test. Voinovich had persuaded Great Lakes Theater to make PlayhouseSquare its new home if the Ohio Theatre could be renovated and ready in July 1982. Navigating through an ironworkers' strike just two months before the theater was to open, Lewis shepherded the organization successfully through the opening of the first renovated theater and the welcoming of the first resident company. Keeping up the momentum, the groundbreaking for the State Theatre stage house was held in the fall of 1983 followed soon after by the announcement that the Metropolitan Opera would perform at the State Theatre as part of its 100th anniversary celebration in 1984. This was a huge vote of confidence: the Metropolitan Opera was the biggest touring production on the road at that time. A theater that could present the Met could present anyone. And PlayhouseSquare did.
"At almost every step along the way, Pudge Henkel and John Lewis walked a fragile line between PlayhouseSquare's existence and demolition. They never gave up. They met and overcame every challenge. They rallied others to the cause. With incredible foresight, they developed the vision and laid the foundation for The PlayhouseSquare of today, and they remain among its greatest champions," said Thomas C. Stevens, chair of The PlayhouseSquare Board of Trustees.
Henkel is the founding chair of The PlayhouseSquare Board of Trustees and served as such through June of 1980. Lewis served as chair from July 1980 through June 1985.
The new documentary showcasing PlayhouseSquare's dramatic rescue and rebirth, "Staging Success: The PlayhouseSquare Story," features engaging interviews with Henkel, Lewis and others, as well as nostalgic older films, news stories and breathtaking new footage. "Staging Success" premieres on WVIZ/PBS ideastream on Thursday, November 15 at 8 p.m.