The First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland, known for almost two centuries as the Old Stone Church sits at 91 Public Square the corner of Rockwell and Ontario. Constructed from 1831 to 1833, Old Stone is has a long, illustrious history, and a complicated relationship with the theater.
There goes the neighborhood.
Reverend Samuel C. Aiken gave a sermon in 1836 condemning the theater as houses of sin. In 1883 a theatre called The Park opened next door. Three months later a gas explosion destroyed that theater, and burned down the Old Stone Church along with it. The church was rebuilt, but so was the theatre, which was renamed The Lyceum, opening in 1895.
By the end of the 20th century the Old Stone was by far the oldest building remaining on Public Square. For over a hundred years the building had lacked a spire, since its second one was destroyed after another fire in 1884. It wasn't until 1998 that a replica spire was erected, and the Berea sandstone of the building which had been blackened over the years was cleaned. Suddenly, this rather stern looking church was given a vibrant new appearance.
Around that time I had just turned thirty, and my friends and I were making theater in and around downtown under the name Bad Epitaph Theater Company. We presented contemporary version of Hamlet and Lysistrata, and in late 1999 staged the first Cleveland-area production The Santaland Diaries for our first holiday production.
For any theater company, the holiday production is key. For some reason, people who never see theater the rest of the year will come out for a pageant of some kind, and every local company competes for Christmastime cash. Some theaters depend upon their Solstice cash-cow to pay for the rest of their programming. We found something which fit with what we felt at the time was our urbane, Gen-X point of view in David Sedaris's tribute to horrible part-time work.
The plan was to remount this production in 2000, and to make a lot of money. However, it was also decided to present a second holiday show, The Wayward Angel. This one-act was written in the early 1960s as a television script for a local station, though we never could discover which one. Some said it was for PBS, but there was no PBS in those days. The playwright, Thomas P. Cullinan, wrote for KYW-TV (now WKYC, our NBC affiliate) and it may have originally been broadcast there. The show was tapped for national distribution, but there were copyright issues regarding music performed or played during the broadcast, and the recording was shelved, probably taped over, and most likely lost to history.
I didn't see why, when we already had a corner on the hippest new holiday show available we had to present two Christmas shows, and besides, The Wayward Angel, the story of a near-fallen angel who tries to get right with the Lord by crashing the party of the Messiah's birth, only to crash-land off the coast of Celtic Ireland and unintentionally plant the seeds of Christianity on the Emerald Isle ... well, it made me a little sick.
But the playwright's son was one of our artistic collaborators. And there was a great part for Nick. However, I insisted that if we were to present a Christmas pageant, then as Charlie Brown said, "We're going to do this play, and we're going to do it right." It would be free and open to the public, soliciting donations to cover the costs of production and anything left over we would donate to some worthy cause.
Since the days of Reverend Aiken the Old Stone Church has embraced the arts and has strong artistic programming. In the late 20th Century the director of the Faith & Arts Series was David Gooding, formerly of the Cleveland Play House and a connection to members of our artistic team. By mid-year we had already checked out the space and determined that while the 700-seat sanctuary would not be appropriate, the fellowship hall on the lower level would be ideal.
And a modest Christmas pageant it was. With the curtains of its little stage closed, the room appeared the familiar, utilitarian church hall; tile floors, big round tables with table cloths. Poinsettias on each table. Arabica donated coffee and a large tray of brownies and carrot cake for each evening's performance. A half-hour before the performance, musicians played a charming selection of Celtic tunes before the curtains parted to reveal a startlingly complete box-set of a hut carved into the stage. The performance itself lasted about 45 minutes.
Nick Koesters, face-down on the floor. Again.
Now. The Old Stone Church is located across Public Square from Tower City, which in those days was still being frequented by suburban shoppers in significant numbers. But how many would cross the square after dark to explore a forbidding looking stone church in downtown Cleveland, or park their car on the street to come and join us?
"It's a wisely observed, elegiac little piece, leavened by Cullinan's unforced statement and wry humor." - James Damico, The Free TimesNick was singled out for his surprising quietness.
"It's a small story, and a brief drama. But it will also leave the viewer humbled and thankful in this busy season of rampant consumerism." - Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer
The room sat over one hundred, we were full most nights, and in the final days before Christmas, it was standing room only. The "official" admission policy was that everyone bring at least one non-perishable food item for the Old Stone Church Food Pantry, but we received in excess of 2,000 food items. People were also very generous with their cash, as we covered our costs and had $1,000 left over to provide to the Food Pantry.
Closing night, the house was packed. One audience member came up to us to explain how they had just been over at Tower City, and all they wanted was some peaceful and enjoyable Christmas entertainment and that this was perfect. There were grandparents and lots of children. My wife attended, she was very pregnant with our first child. It was the night before Christmas Eve.
It was all very sweet and sentimental, far from the arch and bitter amusements that had been my source of creativity since childhood. I could imagine a future in this emotional place, embracing family and hope, though circumstances made it necessary for me to wait a while longer.
Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.
Showtime in Cleveland (John Vacha)
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Old Stone Church website