September 29, 1987. It all started with Singin’ in the Rain. More than 275 productions and one million audience members later, we’re still going strong. Guest contributor David Lyman takes a look back at Broadway in Cincinnati’s beginnings.
It’s been 30 years since the very first Broadway in Cincinnati season? OK, it was called the Broadway Series then. And it was over at the Taft Theatre, not the Aronoff, which wouldn’t open until 1995.
But 30 years?
Broadway in Cincinnati has become so firmly ingrained into the fabric of Greater Cincinnati’s theater scene that it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t here, when we weren’t looking forward to the next big show to roll into the Aronoff. You know – “Wicked” or “Beautiful –The Carole King Musical” or “Hamilton.” (Yes, that’s not until the 2018-2019 season, but it’s definitely one to look forward to.)
There was such a time, though. And for those who have an affection for Broadway shows – and are old enough to remember – it was a mighty grim era.
At one time, there were a lot of theaters in downtown Cincinnati. Most were movie palaces or holdovers from the vaudeville era. But a few were devoted to “legitimate” theater.
But by the time the Broadway Series launched its first season in 1987, all of that was gone. It had been more than 10 years since The Theater Guild-American Theater Society, which presented touring shows at the Shubert Theatre, cancelled its 1975-1976 season.
They were down to just 1,000 subscribers. According to news reports at the time, the producers of touring shows didn’t want to come here because of the financial losses they’d incurred in previous years. Cincinnati was seen as too great to risk.
So in 1980, the Shubert, located on the northwest corner of Walnut and E. 7th streets, was razed, along with the Cox Theatre, which adjoined it. There’s now a CVS where the Shubert used to stand, kitty corner from the Aronoff.
In the late 1970s, in an effort to return big-time live entertainment to downtown Cincinnati, a group of investors restored the Palace Theatre, located on E. Sixth Street between Vine and Walnut. It was a lavish place and, for a brief period, offered top-flight entertainment, everything from Liza Minelli and Andy Williams to B.B. King and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It was also home to the Cincinnati Ballet and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.
But by 1982, the theater was closed. And soon after, it was leveled to make way for a 30-story office building now known as Center at 600 Vine.
So it was understandable that it sounded a little crazy when Bradley Broecker and Jim Howland decided that downtown Cincinnati would be the perfect place to present touring Broadway shows.
Earlier that same year, Broecker had taken over operation of the Louisville Theatrical Association. And now, he was already looking to expand. While Howland was the quiet one of the pair, Broecker was – and still is – a charismatic combination of salesman and showman.
Jerry Stein, the longtime arts writer for The Cincinnati Post, remembers his first encounter with the pair.
“I wasn’t sure what to make of them,” he recalls. “They were smart, they did their research and they had talked to the right people. But I didn’t know how they were going to make it work.”
What Stein couldn’t have known back then was just how perfect their timing was.
Broadway itself was changing. And the irony was that the change was being driven by musicals that originated in London’s West End.
“’Cats’ was huge,” says Leslie Broecker, Bradley Broecker’s daughter and President of the Midwest Region for Broadway Across America. “It was really a phenomenon. It was different from anything that had come before it. And audiences loved it.”
The ability to include “Cats” drove up public interest in subscribing. It’s no coincidence that it was the final show of the Broadway Series’ first Cincinnati season. It would return in three of the next four seasons.
“People couldn’t get enough of it,” says Leslie Broecker, pointing out that in all, they have presented the show six times in Cincinnati.
It was completely different from anything that had come before it. It was a show with no major star. Or, for that matter, much of a plot. Rather, “Cats” was built around catchy songs, memorable costumes and dazzling choreography. It was a spectacle. And it was one that audiences adored.
Unsurprisingly, other shows would follow in its footsteps.
In November, 1994, “Phantom of the Opera” opened an unprecedented seven-week engagement at the Taft Theatre.
It changed everything.
Up until then, the longest presentations were just a week. Two years later, when the series moved to the then-new Aronoff Center, nearly all of the engagements expanded. Two weeks became the norm, with the occasional “special” show like ”Miss Saigon” playing for six weeks.
“That was the year of our all-time high in subscriptions,” says Bradley Broecker. “We had more than 24,000 that year.”
Having a new theater was certainly part of what drove those numbers. But not everyone was happy with the idea of the Aronoff. With so many theaters having been razed in the previous decade, there was no shortage of people questioning the expenditure of public money on an art center in the middle of the city.
Fortunately, there were even more people who wanted to come downtown and see what this new building was all about.
It wasn’t just the building that was changing. The shows were changing, too. That first Aronoff season – 1995-1996 – included “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the 1973 film, in the leading role. And although “Ain’t Misbehavin’” paid homage to music of the 1920s and 1930s, this was its first National Tour. And, just as important, it starred major pop stars, The Pointer Sisters.
The entertainment business as a whole had been in a state of flux for more than a decade. Remember, this was when suburban multiplexes were redefining the movie business. And huge amusement parks were sprouting up around the country. Radio was migrating from AM to FM.
Clearly, our tastes in entertainment were evolving. Now, finally, Broadway was starting to catch up. Finally, there were shows that could attract a broader range of audience members. It is at that moment that Broecker and Howland came to Cincinnati.
Were they entertainment visionaries? Hard to say. But they had absolute faith in what they were embarking on. They were bold and willing to take risks. And they had the nerve to keep moving forward, even when common sense might have dictated otherwise.
They understood that Cincinnati’s downtown was unlikely to lie dormant forever. And they believed that there were still a good number of people willing to come downtown, if only they could put the right shows in front of them.
“It’s simple, really,” says Ken Davis, a Cincinnati native who went on to become production stage manager of “The Lion King.” “There has to be a compelling story. Production values are important. And great music and performers. But the story is really the most important.”
Technologically, theater has changed radically. Think of all the head-spinning changes we’ve seen on the stage in the past 30 years. LED lighting, projections, synthesized audio effects. They’re spectacular.
“But no amount of glitzy sets and special effects can hide a show that is, at its heart, empty,” says Davis. “It’s timeless storytelling that is paramount to a show’s long-term success.”
The other thing that Broadway Series had – and still does – is a deep and sincere commitment to its customers. It sounds so old-fashioned. But keeping a customer happy is much easier than trying to reclaim a customer you’ve treated badly.
“We already knew that we had to deliver a good show,” says Leslie Broecker. “But if you deliver a good show and offer bad service, it’s not going to work. Once you give people an excuse to leave, it’s much, much harder to get them to come back. So why not be good to them the first time around? If there’s a problem, pick up the phone and talk to your customer. It makes a difference. I have longtime friends in Cincinnati who are people I first met when they wrote me to complain.”
Not surprisingly, it was a formula that appealed to audiences. Buoyed by their successes in Louisville and Cincinnati, they kept growing.
“Yeah, we were moving pretty fast in those days,” says Bradley Broecker. “Cincinnati came one year, Columbus and Indianapolis the next. We were in a rush, I guess.” In time, they would go into a half dozen markets in Florida, as well.
Talk to the Broeckers today and that same enthusiasm that drove them in the 1980s is still there. Yes, theater is their business. But it is also their passion, the great love of their lives.
You can still hear the excitement in Bradley’s voice when he recounts one of his earliest brushes with showbiz.
“We lived a block away from Fontaine Ferry Park, which was an amusement park in the West End of Louisville,” says Broecker. “I loved it because, every day at 3:30 and 9:30, they gave a free show in the middle of the park. Every day, I would go there and watch a magician named Mal Lippincott. I was just absolutely spellbound by the magic.”
That was more than 60 years ago. But to hear him tell it, it’s as if it happened last week. But then, it’s clear that both of the Broeckers are still captivated by Broadway and by the more than 275 productions they’ve presented in Cincinnati.
They’ll regale you with stories about Carol Channing (“the best,” says Leslie) and Robert Goulet’s wife (“she protected him”). About “Fiddler on the Roof” star Topol abandoning his cast-mates and refusing to perform when the air conditioning failed.
They still remember Dorothy Hamill (“a blast to work with”) and Jean Stapleton. Or Faye Dunaway, whose rigidity earned her the nickname of “Faye Do-It-My-Way.”
There are more recent stories, too. Of Julia Knitel, the young star of “Beautiful – The Carol King Story,” who suffered second-degree burns to her right hand hours before the show opened, but went on anyway, playing the piano through the entire performance.
“It’s been amazing,” says Leslie. “And it’s just flown by. It’s gotten huge, I know. But this is still a very personal business. I loved that at the beginning. And I still love that now.”
In the span of three decades, Broadway in Cincinnati changed us from a sleepy town that Broadway shows regularly bypassed into one of the most valued theatrical markets in the country. As a business story, it’s a great tale, filled with wheeling and dealing and good timing and sharp-as-tacks business deals.
But for those of us sitting in the theater seats, the business dealings don’t really make a lot of difference. That’s not why we buy tickets. We’re here for a show. A great one, ideally. And for us, Broadway in Cincinnati has been a theatrical game-changer.
Year in and year out, they’ve made sure we get to see Broadway’s best and most entertaining productions. Some have been more memorable than others. But thanks to Broadway in Cincinnati, instead of being a city that stands on the theatrical sidelines, Greater Cincinnati has stepped to the center of the stage with the likes of “Les Misérables” and “Once” and, in the not too distant future, “Hamilton.” What a glorious ride it has been.