theater education

As you know, Greater Cleveland lost an irreplaceable community leader and philanthropist on September 20 with the death, at 88, of Lainie Hadden.

When we think of her, we think first of how Lainie, the Junior League and a visionary named Ray Shepardson saved the Playhouse Square theaters from the wrecking ball in the early 1970s. Over the years, she deflected all praise for her work, but those of us who had watched closely knew she spearheaded the effort. By now, of course, the Playhouse Square district has developed beyond her most fantastic dreams.

What you may not know is that Lainie’s many “causes” included The Musical Theater Project. More than 20 years ago, while in the first stages of forming TMTP, I paid a call on her at her Cleveland Heights home. The scene in her study — a room filled with books and LPs — plays vividly in my mind’s eye; I even remember the table where we sat. I knew she loved the “glorious” (her word) classic musicals, and I told her about my own dream: an arts-education nonprofit that would explore them.

Then I said, “Lainie, would you do me the honor of serving on the board of trustees?”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” she replied. “I have so much on my plate.”

I looked her straight in the eyes. “But Lainie,” I said, “I can’t do this without you.”

And I meant it.

It was her turn to look me straight in the eyes: “Well, all right then. I’ll sign up.” Soon after, she sent me a letter including a line that I still quote: “Musicals remind us of what we like best about ourselves.” And let it be known that although Lainie Hadden could be seen in her box at Severance Hall everything Thursday night when the Orchestra was in town, her favorite art form was musical theater. Whenever I alluded to that passion — which was often, of course — she gave me her captivating smile.

About 10 years ago, she suggested I present a talk around town with the tongue-in-cheek title, “Everything I Know About Life I Learned From Musicals.” I thought it was a crazy idea, but I did it (still do), and she was right. People love that talk, because there’s a lot of truth in it.

Lainie served on our board until her death, and for me one of the best things about TMTP was getting to know her better. She became an extraordinarily generous contributor, but it was her generosity of spirit that inspired all of us. My colleague Nancy Maier recalls, “When Lainie particularly enjoyed one of our concerts, I would receive a personal phone call, or a card from her, or even flowers. We had the most wonderful talks, and she was truly interested in everything about me and my family.”

Lainie and I chatted on the phone nearly every Saturday morning. Typically the conversation began with a jovial “Mr. Rudman!” — and an inquiry about that night’s edition of Footlight Parade on WCLV. When I revealed the topic, she would guess which songs I had chosen. (Lainie knew the musical theater repertoire so well, she easily could have hosted my show and done it with style).

Then we’d segue into conversation about TMTP and Broadway and PBS specials and national affairs. At the end it was always, “Goodbye, dear man,” and my own ironically formal “Goodbye, Mrs. Hadden.” We enjoyed the fact that both of us had been college English majors; our dialogue was unabashedly old-fashioned, even courtly.

Lainie became quite frail a year ago, but in February, that didn’t stop her from attending at TMTP concert in Beachwood in the middle of snowstorm. Dressed in a multicolored, knockout winter coat and moving with the aid of her elegant walking stick, she had come to hear Cole Porter, by God, and once my commentary began, I could see her down front taking notes, as usual. What she didn’t know, she wanted to learn. Lainie and Cole had something in common: what critic Bredan Gill called and “elevated mind.”

At TMTP board meetings, I sometimes made a point of hailing her as the “mother of us all.” She clearly liked playing the role, and yet, as she told Cleveland magazine several years ago, “I’ve been too busy living my life to consider my legacy.”

I visited four times last summer. One gorgeous evening on her patio we traded reflections. There was something I wanted to know, but I had to be careful how I said it or she wouldn’t accept the compliment: “Lainie, you’re the most gracious person I’ve ever met, and I wonder where that came from.”

“From my father,” she said, “who brought home my first treasured Broadway album, Oklahoma!, on a set of 78s. He was a great influence because he taught me the art of living.”

Lainie’s graciousness has had an impact on our organization, if such an ineffable quality can by passed on outside a family circle. I do believe it can, and for that, among so many other qualities, we felt privileged to know her — to live in her time.

The 2019-20 TMTP concert and cabaret series is dedicated to the memory of Lainie Hadden and to her fellow trustee Robert Conrad.