Historical Series originally published in 2008
Looking Forward to the Future, Beck Reflects on 75 years of Lakewood History
By Kelly Kutler
Take a moment and imagine the thrill of getting ready for a wonderful evening at the theater. The Guild of the Masque is the innovative new drama group in town and you’re lucky enough to have a ticket to their anticipated premiere performance. The play is “The Queen’s Husband,” by Robert E. Sherwood. The Guild is taking a chance on a promising new playwright who will go on in 1936 to win the first of four Pulitzer prizes for his play “Idiot’s Delight.” But tonight, the price of your ticket to see a Sherwood play is just 40 cents. The year is 1930 and you’re about to witness the curtain rising on the future Beck Center for the Arts.
Fast forward to the spring evening of May 7, 1938. A black tied and top hatted crowd of local dignitaries and leaders gather to witness Lakewood Mayor, Amos I. Kauffman, cut the ribbon allowing the curtains to open on the set of Fred Ballard’s “Ladies of the Jury.” After incorporating into Lakewood Little Theater in 1933, the former Guild of the Masque members have found their first true home in the recently leased and redesigned Lucier Movie Theater. With renovations costing only $10,000, the old Lucier stage is now 50 feet wide, well lit, and deep enough to accommodate the impressive cast and court room set required for Ballard’s three act comedy. This time the playwright’s work has already been adapted for the popular 1937 film, “We’re on the Jury.”
These are just brief highlights from Beck’s rich 75 year history in Lakewood. For those of you who want to know more, stay tuned for a series of Observer stories chronicling the most exciting periods of change and revitalization. For those of you who were actually part of the experience, the Beck needs your help in creating a more complete record of the Center’s past.
After more than seven decades of providing a home for the works of countless accomplished and aspiring playwrights, presenting quality theatrical performances and arts education, Beck Center is firmly committed to spending at least another 75 years here in Lakewood. “We’re proud to be part of such a vital inner ring suburb and we are committed to preserving the historic aspects of our facility,” says Cindy Einhouse, Beck Center’s President and CEO.
Did you or someone in your family attend one of the earliest theater productions, take a dance class in the 1970’s, or participate in the original Children’s Theater? If you have great stories or pictures of the Beck Center in past decades, they could be invaluable to staff in collecting and preserving important memorabilia. This is the official call to search your own back stages, including photo albums, trunks, and attics!
“Beck Center belongs to this community,” says Einhouse. “We invite all of you who’ve been a part of it to leave your own unique stamp on the Beck story by contributing your experiences.” Anyone with information or items is welcome to call the Marketing Department at 216-521-2540.
Journey Back in Time with Beck Center
Part 1: The Intrepid Little Theatre that Could
By Kelly Kutler
Whether you’ve been inspired by an art class or dazzled by a play, it would be nearly impossible to imagine life without Beck Center. In celebration and recognition of the individuals whose passion and dedication started it all, Beck Center invites you to take a journey back in Lakewood’s cultural history. President and CEO, Lucinda Einhouse, says she’s proud to share the inspiring history of Beck’s earliest years… “This is the story of people who not only created a thriving community theater from nothing, they used their passion for the theater to entertain and raise spirits during the most difficult times of depression and war.”
Beck’s origins can be traced back to 1931, when eighteen devoted thespians, known as “the Guild of the Masques,” were rehearsing plays in Lakewood living rooms. Under the direction of London-trained director, Richard Kay, the Guild performed wherever they could, including Lakewood schools and churches. By 1933, they leased an old blacksmith’s shop, where they eventually tore down a wall, built a new stage, and installed theater quality seats to accommodate sold-out crowds. It seemed like they had found a home.
The Guild took its next momentous step on May 12, 1933 when it changed its name and incorporated into the not-for-profit arts organization, Lakewood Little Theatre. Shortly after, the group received a devastating blow when the Lakewood Fire Department turned them out of the old blacksmith shop for code violations. Ultimately undeterred, the players again took their shows on the road. In 1934, Lakewood Little Theatre became known for its radio dramatizations, including the story of the Red Cross and Clara Barton. During the Depression, local papers followed the company as it played for free to “vast armies of the unemployed” throughout Cuyahoga County.
In fact, Lakewood Little Theatre’s reputation for civic responsibility earned the players their next home at the Lakewood Elks Club. The situation was less than ideal. Sets had to be assembled at other locations and literally carried to the Elks Club in pieces. Local undertakers were called on to provide extra seats. Patrons were routinely turned away from sold-out shows. But tenacity won the day. For three years, Lakewood Little Theatre staged up to ten productions each season at the Elks Club. They performed a rich variety of quality drama to appreciative crowds and rave reviews.
Behind the scenes, however, a group of Lakewood women had bigger ambitions for their beloved little theatre. Observing that the situation at the Elks Club was not sustainable, these determined ladies stepped in and formed The Lakewood Little Theatre Women’s Committee in February 1936. Establishing themselves as a formidable force in fundraising and subscription sales, the committee boasted a closed membership of sixty women with an extensive waiting list.
Not to be outdone by the ladies’ efforts, local businessmen soon formed the Lakewood Little Theatre’s Men’s Advisory Board and began to search in earnest for a permanent venue. After rejecting several sites, the Lucier Motion Picture Theater became available for lease with an eventual option to buy. The fact that the Lucier was in need of extensive and costly renovations was no obstacle. Despite the Great Depression, the members of the Women’s and Men’s Committees set the goal of raising $10,000 to give Lakewood Little Theatre its first genuine home.
“Times were different then,” says Lee Mackey, wife of the late Karl Mackey, Beck Center’s Main Stage namesake. “We didn’t have television and the theater was quite important to everyone. People volunteered so much of their time and put such love into it.” Indeed, the glamorous ladies of the Women’s Committee were 1936’s answer to television as the press reported on what they wore and where they vacationed. Famous for their sophisticated and floral themed fundraising teas, the ladies graciously opened their homes and welcomed the attention that ultimately led to more dollars for their cause.
On May 7, 1938, the Tulip Teas and tireless subscription drives paid off. That evening, the curtain rose on the Lakewood Little Theatre’s first production in their renovated home. The sold-out crowd of black-tied and top-hatted dignitaries enjoyed Fred Ballard’s Ladies of the Jury on a beautifully lit, fifty-foot stage. Acknowledging that the theater had struggled for eight years against nearly insurmountable odds, Mayor Amos I. Kaufmann declared it “Lakewood Little Theatre Week.” His formal proclamation stated that “The appreciation and development of the drama is a fine and essential activity in any well rounded community.”
Within days, Cleveland papers were splashed with headlines touting the Theater’s great success. In its first week alone, Lakewood Little Theatre had already drawn 2,265 patrons. Far from resting on its laurels, the company planned an ambitious succession of seasons featuring new shows nearly every six weeks. Auditions often attracted up to three hundred aspiring artists. The Women’s Committee continued its tradition of selling subscriptions over sumptuous teas, while the Men’s Board raised cash and painted sets.
In 1942, the War effort deprived the little theatre of approximately fifty of its regular contributors, including long-time director, Richard Kay. Once again, difficult circumstances inspired rather than defeated the group. The Women’s Committee devoted October of 1942 to sponsoring a massive scrap metal drive in the theater lobby. Calling for all Lakewoodites to donate their “luxury scrap metal,” the Women’s popular slogan read “Heirlooms and nicknacks of the past will make planes, ships and ammunitions for the future of America.”
Remarkably, the shortage of wartime materials and manpower didn’t hinder ticket sales or audience enthusiasm. In 1944, the group purchased the Lucier Theater, enjoyed one of its busiest seasons and began talking of expansion. Having achieved one seemingly impossible dream, the Lakewood Little Theatre became determined to carry their passion for drama beyond producing plays. Their vision for the future involved providing theater education to the community’s youth.
What were the first steps in developing the educational programming that the Beck Center is known for today? And what did the future hold for the ever adventurous little theatre? Stay tuned for the next chapters, when the Beck will take a look at the creation of the Children's Theater and the exciting years of expansion and growth that followed the War. In the meantime, visit www.beckcenter.org for a current list of shows and programs.
Journey Back in Time with Beck Center
Part 2: The Children Take the Stage
By Kelly Kutler
Updated: This coming December (2013), Beck Center celebrates 65 years of Saturday mornings filled with the sound of children’s laughter. The tradition dates back to 1948, when the Lakewood Little Theatre School began. As the Beck Youth Theater Education Program prepares for its 60th Anniversary Homecoming Celebration, staff and alumni reflect on six decades of challenges and laughter. “It’s an incredible place,” says former student, Maggie Fishell. “The people who’ve passed through the program created an absolutely magical experience for those of us who followed them.”
Actress, Virginia Woodworth, was the Little Theatre School’s first director. Affectionately nicknamed “Woodbean” by her students, Woodworth recruited the original teaching staff. Among the first hires, was radio talk show personality, “Lady Jan” Egert. Egert says that the program had a clear purpose from the very beginning. “Our focus was not on creating child stars,” says Egert. “The objective was always to teach children to be more comfortable with the spoken word so that they could become better in school and in life. I was thrilled to be involved.”
Classes included instruction in basic theater techniques, diction, and characterization. Karl Mackey made sure that Saturday mornings belonged to the children, entrusting them with use of the stage, lighting, and sound booths. Parents immediately pitched in and became an integral part of the activities, helping out with everything from costumes to fundraising. “The parents formed the Educational Theater Board as soon as the school opened,” says Egert. “They were completely behind us and so were the people who worked with the adult theater.”
The students also performed two plays each year to sold out audiences of delighted children. “We were famous for doing classics for children by children,” says Egert. “We had scout troops come in from all over the area and sometimes earn badges by going behind the scenes.” Former director, M.A. Haskin, was often in charge of over 100 students for each production. “We had two separate casts for each play so that we could put as many kids as possible on stage,” says Haskin. “I’d motivate them to behave by asking them to raise their hands and solemnly promise not to talk backstage.”
Special production touches included Egert’s idea to use a live goat for Heidi, and coating the stage with Teflon so that Hans Brinker could appear to skate. Students memorized their parts in small weekly increments to ensure success. And in an effort to foster teamwork rather than competition, leading roles were rotated from season to season. “If you played the lead one season, you knew you’d be playing the maid or the dust sweeper in the next show,” say Egert.
Thanks to this nurturing atmosphere, even the shyest students found the courage to participate. “We believed that arts should never be criticized or graded,” says Egert. “Some children were too shy to say their names out loud, but we worked with them. One little boy hid under a chair for weeks and by the end of the semester, his friends voted him to play the lead in our next production.” Parent, Linda Hiser, says her son was once prone to breaking out in hives before speaking in public. “He wanted nothing to do with the theater classes, so the staff encouraged him to be the curtain boy. Soon he came out of his shell and appeared in all the productions.”
In 1948, Faith Killius was in the 5th grade and one of the school’s first pupils. “I lived for it as a child,” says Killius. “One year during a terrible blizzard, I couldn’t understand why my father wouldn’t drive me to theater school.” Killius also recalls the extraordinary experience of appearing on “Lady Jan’s” radio show. “Jan would drive us to the station to perform the classics live on WJW. How many children get to learn about things like radio sound effects and how to behave during a live broadcast?”
By 1962, Egert founded the “Teen Theater” to accommodate the needs of older students who wished to remain in the program. When parents requested an increase in activities in 1972, Egert began the five week summer theater workshop called “SUMMERTHING.” By the time the school moved into the Beck Center in 1976, enrollment had skyrocketed from an initial 80 students to over 800. “There were so many kids and we looked for ways to include them all,” says Egert. So in 1980, they began the Children’s Theater on Wheels, a traveling ensemble of students who weren’t cast in other productions. As word spread, busloads of children from other counties flooded in to attend Saturday classes.
Yet impressive enrollment numbers and sold out shows are only part of the Youth Theater picture. The magic of Saturdays at the Beck, has inspired lifelong involvement in students who went on to volunteer with the program, teach, then enroll their own children. Many parents not only watched their children perform, they volunteered behind the scenes, helped with fundraising, and taught classes. Faith Killius grew to become a teacher and watch her own daughter, Robbie, star in Cinderella. In 1955, Marjorie Wiese enrolled her daughters, became President of the Educational Theater Board, and still serves today as an Honorary Trustee. Jan Egert directed the program until 1986, when she retired and was replaced by long-time instructor, Colleen Lanning.
As a former parent and teacher, Lynne Jennings, is familiar with the school’s indelible impact. “The best thing is that kids who never would have met, became lifelong friends,” says Jennings. “And kids who never fit in anywhere else, found a home. Once you stepped through those doors, no one cared where you came from.” Alumni and teacher, Ellen Huber, says she found her truest friends at the Beck. “It was a place where it was completely safe to express yourself and never be mocked,” says Huber. “There were no egos. Every single person mattered and if one cast member lost a shoe or a prop, we’d all pitch in to find it. As a result, we formed friendships that have lasted for decades.”
The current Youth Theater puts on four shows each year, in addition to four summer camps geared toward production. The annual spring musical pulls out all the stops and features 40-50 students. Children under 12 perform one show in early winter and in late winter, the teen students present more challenging material. “We’ve recently been introducing the older students to truly thought provoking scripts like The Laramie Project and Arcadia,” says Youngs. “We continue to choose our projects with an eye toward teaching students to appreciate art, while still having fun.”
Journey Back in Time with Beck Center
Part 3: Gaining Ground
By Kelly Kutler
As Will Rogers said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” These words might have been the motto for the individuals who helped build today’s Beck Center. Thanks to the indomitable spirits of those who refused to accept the status quo, a once struggling little theater evolved into the thriving cultural arts center that now inhabits 17801 Detroit Avenue. “We didn’t see ourselves as pioneers back then,” says actress, Helen Corns. “It was a labor of love. When you believe in something as much as we believed in the theater, you go above and beyond what’s expected of you.”
In 1938, the Lakewood Little Theatre found their first permanent home when they rented the former Lucier Movie Theater. After eight years of putting on shows wherever they could find space, the players were thrilled to take up residence on the West End of Detroit Avenue. Within five years, however, their leased home was in danger of being sold out from under them. Displaying their signature courage, members of the Men’s and Women’s Boards leapt into action. “These wonderful people actually took out second mortgages on their own homes and signed personal notes so that we could get a land contract on the property,” says Lee Mackey, actress and wife of the late, Karl Mackey. “They weren’t rich by any means, but their dedication to the Theatre was so remarkable that they were willing to take the risk.”
By 1947, the group had raised the funds to take out a $36,859 mortgage and obtain title to the property. In just ten years, the Lakewood Little Theatre paid this mortgage off without the help of a single grant or public funds. Already renowned for this unique ability to subsist solely on subscriptions and box office receipts, the group began dreaming of transforming the Theatre into a comprehensive cultural arts center with a significant educational component. Having achieved success with the Children’s Theater and adult classes in drama and speech, the group aspired to continue moving beyond the theater into community education. In 1958, they formed the Lakewood Little Theatre Fine Arts Foundation to pursue their long-term vision. “We were extremely well managed,” says Mackey. “Our volunteers were phenomenal people from all professions, who made sure we were financially sound and independent.”
In 1963, growth continued as the Theatre purchased 28,000 square feet of parking lot space for $100,000. The resurfaced lot brought the entire estimated value of the property to $250,000. For several years, expansion came in small steps as the Theatre gradually acquired surrounding storefronts, lots, and several apartments above the building. The addition of a rehearsal hall and classroom was followed by new central air conditioning and heating systems. An extensive 1969 remodeling project improved audience seating and increased space for the growing Children’s Theater and scenery work.
Then in April 1974, the future of the Lakewood Little Theatre was forever changed when a wealthy retiree entered the offices of then Mayor Robert Lawther. “Kenneth Beck came in one day to discuss leaving one million dollars to the City of Lakewood to build an art museum,” says Lawther. “He said he was a retired millionaire and at first I wasn’t sure whether he was serious. But when I was finally convinced he meant business, I put him in touch with Karl Mackey to discuss financing the Little Theatre’s expansion.”
An accomplished painter, Beck made his fortune designing signage for some of the world’s leading manufacturers. After retiring during World War II, Beck often traveled the world studying and collecting art. Artistic and Managing Director, Karl Mackey talked to Beck several times before he agreed to support the Theatre’s plans to build a multi-cultural arts center. “In the end Mr. Beck was very impressed with the way we did business,” says Lee Mackey. “He believed in doing everything on his own and respected that the Little Theatre operated the same way.”
Kenneth C. Beck’s first gift to the Little Theatre was $300,000. He later donated an additional $300,000, with the condition that the community match the amount. Beck’s generosity inspired the Little Theatre to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign. Before approaching the public, the group raised over $100,000 from their own members. Next, they set out to request support from the public for the first time in Lakewood Little Theatre history. Their ambitious goal was to raise 1.5 million dollars. “Mr. Beck’s donation started the engine,” says Mackey. “Fortunately, we had a professional fundraiser showing us how to raise the rest of it.”
While some members made phone calls and paid visits to potential donors, others used their dramatic skills. Actresses Helen Corns and Valerie London dubbed themselves “The Beck and Call Girls” and staged mini-shows all over town. “We did a scene from Romeo and Juliet, impressions of Judy Garland,” says Corns. “We would go wherever we could and raise $75 here and there. Unfortunately, Karl Mackey made us change our name because it was a little too racy!” Early morning breakfasts for local business people were held on the Little Theatre stage to coach volunteers on fundraising tactics. “It was wild and hectic and wonderful,” says Lee Mackey. “Everyone pitched in.”
Two years and ten days after Beck announced his initial pledge, the Little Theatre had raised enough money to break ground for the new center. In December 1975, youth from the Children’s Theater were given miniature shovels and surrounded Beck as he lifted the first scoop of earth. “We were dressed in our winter coats with hard hats on our heads,” says Bing Staley, who attended the event as a child. “The adults drank champagne served from wheelbarrows and they let us keep our shovels as souvenirs.”
Cleveland architect, Fred Toguchi, designed the plans for the complex. Beck made regular visits to the site, wearing the hard hat that Karl Mackey had made for him. But not everything went as expected. “Our original plans for an orchestra pit and basement had to be dropped because we found that there was once a lake underneath that area,” says Board Member, Bruce Wacker. “Controlling the drainage problem would’ve cost us another $150,000.” Karl Mackey had to fight with the utility companies to install gas heating instead of the prohibitively expensive electric. And sudden increases in construction costs made other modifications necessary.
Ultimately, no obstacle was too big for the Little Theatre to overcome. Construction was completed in nine months and three weeks. The new complex boasted a 500 seat theater, art museum, galleria, skylights, and indoor gardens. The main theater was equipped with a $62,000 computerized light board, an innovative trap door system, and an orchestra area behind the stage. “We were the first theater in Greater Cleveland to have a state of the art computerized light board,” says Lighting Engineer, Andrew Kosiorek.
Perhaps most exciting were the additional spaces that would soon be filled with students of all ages, from every arts discipline. The former inner lobby was transformed into silversmith classrooms and the former lounge redesigned to accommodate classes in the visual arts. A spacious skylight studio was ready for instructor, Lynda Sackett, to welcome dance students. And rooms in the old building were set aside for the Children’s and Teens Theaters. Classrooms for ceramics, sculpture, photography, adult drama, music, and crafts were also set and ready to go.
The Kenneth C. Beck Center for the Cultural Arts formally opened in October 1976, with a festive black tie celebration. Five hundred guests enjoyed a gourmet supper, followed by a lavish performance of Maxwell Anderson’s Mary Queen of Scotland. “We spent all day getting ready,” says Lee Mackey. “Karl was literally laying the bricks in one of the gardens that afternoon. Then I had to get into costume and make-up and perform in the show.” Cast member, Helen Corns, recalls the euphoric atmosphere. “The curtain was delayed going up,” says Corns. “But everyone was having such a good time, they didn’t even notice.”
At 80 years old, Kenneth Beck was known for saying that his connection to the Theatre had given him a new lease on life. He was often quoted as saying that he hoped to stand in front of the finished product and say “well, I helped a little bit.” Too shy to deliver a speech on opening night, Beck watched from the audience as Board President, Howard Egert, spoke for him. Through Egert, Beck said that it was “the happiest day of his life.” The elated audience gave him a standing ovation.