Cain Park celebrates 80 years of outdoor arts in Cleveland Heights

For 80 years, Cain Park in Cleveland Heights has entertained audiences under the stars with quality theatre, nationally-known musical and comedy acts, and arts showcases.

Bob Hope, Harry Belafonte, Sarah McLachlan, Livingston Taylor, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are just some of the famous names that have graced the Evans Amphitheater stage, while theater productions like The Toxic Avenger, Hair, and Bat Boy The Musical have attracted sold-out crowds.

Renowned actors like Hal Holbrook, Dom DeLuise, Carol Kane, Jack Weston, and Pernell Roberts have also performed over the park’s history on sets designed by industrial artist and Cleveland native Viktor Schreckengost. And then there's the yearly Cain Park Arts Festival, a three-day juried art event held each July drawing as many as 150 local and national artists, selling their work at every price point.

“Cain Park is a touchstone for so many people," says Kara O’Donnell, a city planner and historic preservationist for Cleveland Heights. "Those who grew up here and those who have since moved far away retell stories detailing their time performing, working behind the scenes, attending summer camp, lifeguarding at the kiddie pool, meeting their spouse, racing down the sledding hill and so on.

“To me, Cain Park feels like the heart of our community, and I think it really set the stage for the arts focus so prevalent in Cleveland Heights today.”

From the moment Cleveland Heights voters approved a $100,000 bond to acquire a 22-acre ravine for park use in the heart of the city in 1915, residents knew that land was destined to be a special place. Voters approved another $75,000 bond in 1925 for improvements to the land.

By 1938, Cain Park began to emerge as an outdoor theatrical venue, thanks to the efforts of Cleveland Heights mayor Frank Cain and Cleveland Heights High School drama teacher Dr. Dina Rees “Doc” Evans.

“It was happenstance; there was never a master plan,” explains Ksenia Roshchakovsky, Cain Park’s public relations and marketing manager. “Evans wrote her doctorate [on the basis] that participation in theatrical endeavors helps students’ attitudes and social behaviors, as well as helping them succeed in other areas.”

Evans’ theory paid off, both amongst her high school students and the community. In 1938—at the bottom of what is today the sledding hill—Evans produced A Midsummer’s Night Dream and hastily called the location Cain Park. Mayor Cain did not object, and the name stuck.

“Everyone thought it was so fun and so wonderful,” says Roshchakovsky. “So, they decided to build an amphitheater. J.D. Rockefeller donated trees, and the WPA and Soldiers and Sailors Relief Fund provided the labor. On August 10, 1938, Cain Park was officially dedicated with the production of Warrior’s Husband."

The park originally put on summer stock theatre—10 shows a season—and the Colonnade and Terrace were constructed slowly, due to World War II, but were finally completed in 1945.

The Alma Theater (named after mayor Cain’s wife) was built in 1944 as a children’s’ puppet theater, and Doc Evans served as theatrical director until 1950. The theatre program changed direction over the years, with the Cain Park Teen Theater thriving in the 60s, and the amphitheater sitting dark through much of the 70s.

Cain Park got a boost in 1978 when Cain Park alumnus David Shaber chose to film his movie, "Those Lips, Those Eyes" on the grounds. The film created a renewed public interest in the park, prompting new stagings of musical productions, concerts, and dancing.

There were stories of sets blowing over during windy performances, flooded orchestra pits, and other weather-related issues. Roshchakovsky recalls a time when Arlo Guthrie’s performance was delayed repeatedly because of tornado watches, and when “everything was cancelled” during the 2003 blackout.

Cleveland Heights residents voted in 1987 for a $5 million bond to give the park a facelift, which is the look of the park today. The brick towers that were part of the original theater were the only components left intact following the last renovation; rumor has it that the bricks used in the construction of the towers were salvaged from razed mansions around town. The amphitheater got a roof, and a new entrance to the Alma Theater was created, along with improved ventilation, more comfortable seating in both theaters, and brick courtyards in front of each theater.

But Roshchakovsky remembers other, happier highlights to the 80-year-old Cain Park, "Hair sold out before it opened, and we had to institute a waiting list before every performance to sell any remaining accessible seats,” she says. “Bat Boy The Musical” almost sold out but, because of the 2003 blackout, we had to cancel a performance.”

Roshchakovsky says that when Sarah McLachlan was announced, the concert sold out in two days. “She was at the height of her career and wanted to spend time driving around the park in the courtesy vehicle with the operations staff before the concert,” she recalls.

According to Roshchakovsky, the same holds true of Livingston Taylor, who usually flies himself into Cleveland, rents a car, and drives himself to Cain Park to walk around before the concert to soak up the vibe. “One time he tried to go backstage after some front-of-house time, and a very vigilant usher wouldn’t allow him to do so because he didn’t have a backstage pass,”

Roshchakovsky recalls. “He explained who he was, but the usher was not convinced. So, he stood in line with the other ticket buyers and asked the ticket office representative to get the general manager to vouch for him so he could get backstage.”

For Roshchakovsky, the same components that made audiences fall in love with Cain Park are what she loves today. “I love watching a concert in the Evans from the Colonnade,” she says. “[I love] the beautiful vista of the sky, a crowd on the lawn, and the bright lights of the Evans.”

O’Donnell adds, “This park has stayed true to Frank Cain and Dina Rees Evans’ vision while adapting to changing times, making it a beloved institution in a community that appreciates history, parks and the arts.”

The 2018 season begins this Thursday, June 14, with Memphis The Musical, and The Monkees will kick off the concerts on Saturday, June 16. The Cain Park Arts Festival runs Friday, July 13, through Sunday, July 15. The Cain Park Ticket Office is now open.

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Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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