Wheaton's Grand Theater in good hands

  • Ray Shepardson is spearheading the restoration of the Wheaton Theater.

    Ray Shepardson is spearheading the restoration of the Wheaton Theater. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 
Published1/27/2009 12:00 AM

While Ray Shephardson may be accused of name dropping, the names he drops are impressive: Bob Hope, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Seinfield, Ray Charles.

Shephardson, the driving force behind the renovation of the Wheaton Grand Theater, has made a career out of renovating old movie houses, then filling them with big name stars and the audiences who pay to see them perform.

 

Ironically, Shephardson was educated at Seattle Pacific College, a Free Methodist sister school to Wheaton College.

"There was no music in the Free Methodist Church," he says. "It was a sin to go to the movies."

But as cultural affairs chairman on the college campus, the first act he booked was the Chad Mitchell Trio featuring John Denver.

"I was considered the campus liberal," he explains.

After graduation, he took a job as special assistant to the superintendent of Cleveland Public Schools. As director of the Visiting Scholars Program, he was searching for a place to hold lectures for speakers such as Bill Cosby and Chet Huntley and found the decrepit State Theater.

Downtown Cleveland was a wasteland with its five movie houses shuttered and in disrepair. Shephardson soon quit his job with the school district, founded the Playhouse Square Association, and took on the job of renovating the theaters: the Palace, Hanna, Allen, Ohio and State theaters. He was 26 years old.

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"I never saw them completely renovated," he admits. "We fixed them up enough to pass code with fire escapes, roof work and new seating."

He began with the Allen Theater. His backer was a Hungarian gentleman in a city with the largest population of Hungarians outside of Bucharest. The first show he booked into the Allen was the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. It played to a sellout crowd of 2,800.

Two years later, the Junior League of Cleveland backed him in putting on dinner theater in the lobby of the State Theater. "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" became the longest-running show in Cleveland history with 522 performances.

"I was lucky. You shouldn't be in show business unless you're lucky. I didn't really know what I was doing," he said. "But I must have show business blood. Most of my shows made money. I try to do unconventional things in a conventional way."

When the renovation money was raised, the theaters became the cornerstones for the Playhouse Square Center, the second-largest performing arts center in the United States.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For his leadership and dedication, Shephardson was honored by the city of Cleveland with its 1998 Trustees Honor Award. Last May, he was awarded a doctorate of human letters by Case Western Reserve University.

But Cleveland is not the only city to benefit from Shephardson's talents. Four Detroit landmarks - the Gem, Fox, State and Grand Circus theaters - have been resurrected from eyesores into showcases. The Detroit News honored Shephardson as Michiganian of the Year in 1992.

He also has led restoration work in Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Los Angeles; Seattle; Atlanta; Minneapolis; San Antonio, Texas; and St. Louis, Mo.

Closer to home, he worked on the renovation of the Chicago Theater in 1986, a time when the Loop was not fashionable. He pioneered the concept of corporate suites in a theater. The opening night featured Frank Sinatra. The Chicago Theater now is part of the popular Theater District of Chicago, which has brought people back into the Loop at night.

He later renovated Waukegan's Genesee Theater, leading to a renewal of the town's center, attracting restaurants, shops and, more importantly, people to its previous empty downtown. The Genesee has hosted performers ranging from Bill Cosby to Donny Osmond to Thomas the Tank Engine.

How did Shephardson come to Wheaton? He was invited by a local podiatrist to speak to the board of the Grand Theater Foundation.

"We were living in Waukegan in 2004," he says. "I said to my wife, 'Wouldn't it be fun to take a ride in the country!' I was quite surprised to find that it's urban. I really wanted to see Wheaton College. This theater really wasn't on my radar."

Shepardson and his wife, Nanette, moved to Wheaton in 2005.

"We absolutely love Wheaton," he says. "It's the first time we're doing a theater in a nice neighborhood. I like to be around people who appreciate quality."

The project has been on the drawing board for 10 years, but Shephardson says it's not unusual for a project like this to take 15 years.

"If it wasn't for Steve Rathje, it (the building) wouldn't have been donated." he says.

"Acoustically, it's magnificent," he says. "The floor plan is like a jewel box, but with enough seats to afford to put something special on the stage."

Plans call for adding a 1,150-seat balcony.

"Paul Vandermolen donated one of the world's great theater organs," he says. "Everyone remembers the twinkling stars on the ceiling. We are restoring the twinkling dome with an aluminum-leafed dome that will never lose its luster."

The theater was originally named The Grand, then The Paramount, and finally The Wheaton. Its new name is yet to be determined. Shephardson is working with Progressive Insurance concerning $7 million in naming rights. Naming rights include $1 million to name the annex building to be constructed on the site of the Masonic Temple, $350,000 for the Grand Lobby, $7,500 for a chandelier ("I'm really into chandeliers," he says, laughing) to $100 for a brick paver.

Shephardson's work won't be over once the building is renovated. He plans to have the building financially viable through subscription programming with eight weeks of family programming, eight weeks of faith-based programs and eight weeks of variety shows as the anchor.

"The idea is to get people to try things they wouldn't usually do, to get in the habit of coming," he says. "Right now the town definitely needs a shot in the arm. It needs a spark. It will change the image of the town and bring people into it."

Shephardson explains that Wheaton is a prime market for entertainment with 2 million people within a 15-mile radius and an annual family income of $80,000. Most people have dinner either before or after a show and Wheaton has 29 restaurants or coffee shops within a four-block area.

"It's a perfect mix," he says.

He admits that parking will be a problem on Friday car nights, but 25 percent of the shows will be on Sunday afternoon when few people are downtown. The addition of the new 400-car parking garage is a plus, and he is planning a tram between the two edifices.

"This will be a $45 million building for $15 million. I couldn't reproduce this building for $45 million. And then you would just have a new building."

Unthinkable for a dedicated preservationist like Ray Shephardson.

For information about the Wheaton Grand Theater project, contact Shephardson at (630) 221-1049, (847) 867-4750 or nshepardson@sbcglobal.net.

• Sharon Huck writes about Wheaton.

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