A Monroe High School graduate who went on to a long and distinguished career in theater restoration stunned the national art community when he died of suicide.
Ray Shepardson, 70, grew up on a dairy farm, and after graduating from Monroe High School in 1962, he went on to Seattle Pacific University, where for a time he considered studying theology.
But the theater bug bit him, leading him into a career in which he would be described as everything from a genius and a visionary to a “divine madman.”
It wasn’t acting in the theaters that drew him. Rather, it was the theaters themselves.
While serving as an assistant to the superintendent at Cleveland Public Schools, he stumbled on four historic theaters in Cleveland that were all slated for demolition.
All four buildings, which were on the same piece of property, had been designed in the 1920s by leading theater designers, and Shepardson couldn’t bear the idea of their loss. So he quit his job to try to save them.
He started sneaking into the theaters at night to tar the roofs, and mobilized a community campaign to stop the demolitions, eventually winning enough grant money to buy the property that became Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare Center.
In order to fund the renovation, he helped arrange a production of “Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which was supposed to run for two and half weeks and ended up running for two years.
Shepardson became a bold promoter, producing as many as 300 shows a year, and approaching famous performers and theater professionals for help or to perform.
Eventually, PlayhouseSquare Center became the nation’s second-largest performing arts center.
Shepardson, who described himself as a “farm kid from Seattle,” went on to become the nation’s most highly-paid theater restoration expert, restoring multi-million dollar theaters in many other cities, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
He even returned to Seattle, where he was instrumental in restoring the 2,800 seat Paramount Theater in a gargantuan seven-month, $20 million project that involved scrubbing 1.6 million chandelier crystals by hand with toothbrushes. He also oversaw the restoration of the 1940s-era Admiral Theater in Bremerton, which reopened in 1997.
Along the way, he continued to solicit the help of famous people, and when he restored the 4,500-seat Fox Theater in St. Louis, he arranged a benefit show featuring Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Count Basie. Another friend was Shirley MacLaine.
He made enemies, too; his fights with architects and what he called “hysterical preservations” were legendary. But although he had a similarly rocky romantic history—he was married three times—he remained friends with his exes.
Shepardson was as much a fan of good theater as he was beautiful theaters, and in the few weeks before he died, he went to see the same production of “Rent” a dozen times.
Monday, April 14, Shephardson wrote a brief note in which he made a small number of last requests, and in which he explained that he wanted to die at the site of the greatest theater experiences of his life.
Then he climbed to the top of the parking garage of a casino and jumped to his death.
The theaters of PlayhouseSquare the following night honored him by dimming the lights of the marquees that would not have shone at all without his work.