The Playhouse that Jack & Moe built

Perhaps it was inevitable that Moe and Jack Rouse’s names would assume the place of honor when the Playhouse in the Park opens its new mainstage theater on March 11.

From the time they came to Cincinnati more than 50 years ago, it was clear that theater – directing it, performing it, presenting it – was their great shared passion.

Jack and Moe Rouse
Jack and Moe Rouse

Jack founded the vaunted musical theater department at CCM, while just down the hall, Moe was modernizing the school’s radio and television program into a forward-thinking electronic media/communications department.

They went on to do much more than that. Jack was in at the birth of live entertainment at Kings Island and a host of other theme parks around the world. He championed The Banks, too, and the recent revitalization of Music Hall. Meanwhile, Moe founded the American Society of Trial Consultants to help bring a more even-handed approach to jury selection across the nation. She became an in-demand consultant and seminar leader throughout corporate America as well.

But they were never far from the theater, and always ready to offer their often outspoken opinions on what they had just seen. They have their own, individual styles. Where Jack can be blunt and sometimes even irascible, Moe has a gentler touch. But don’t be lulled into complacency by her approach. What she lacks in bombast, she more than makes up for in persistence.

Predictably, they make a formidable couple. These are not folks you want as your opponents.

At this stage of their lives, though – Jack is 83, Moe just a few years younger – they’ve spent some time considering their legacies. 

It’s not so much about sealing their fame. They will be remembered. Besides, they’ve never been ones to slap their names on the projects they’ve been involved with.

But when the naming right for the new Playhouse mainstage became available, it seemed an obvious choice.

“We’d been talking about a new theater for more than 20 years,” says Moe. “Not necessarily as the lead sponsors. But we knew that the Playhouse needed a new home. And now, it seemed like something we should do.”

No standing on the sidelines for these two. They long for a spot in the thick of the action.

Back in 2008, Jack Rouse – then the Playhouse board president – and the late Ed Stern, the Playhouse’s artistic director, held a series of public forums to discuss the idea of moving the Playhouse out of Eden Park and into the heart of downtown Cincinnati.

The Marx Theatre was not up to the standards of modern theater production, Stern told the groups. He cited the leaky roof, poor sight lines and a backstage area that was a hopeless maze of tunnels and niches.

“The focus isn’t so much on moving as it is on having a 21st-century theater facility,” Stern said at the time. “Really – I don’t care about moving. I need to have a theater that works. But no matter how much I say it, it seems that people hear what they want to hear. Individuals and corporations and foundations are focused on downtown proper. They’re not interested in a Playhouse in the Park.”

But much has changed since then. Most obviously, Over-the-Rhine has become the city’s go-to entertainment district. But more telling is that nearly all of the area’s major arts organizations have sunk tens of millions of dollars into updating their facilities: Music Hall, the Taft Theatre, Cincinnati Museum Center, Taft Museum, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Cincinnati Art Museum, Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati – the list goes on and on. The significance of that was not lost on Jack Rouse.

“There is no one ideal space for the theater,” he said recently. “There was a time when The Banks was regarded as the hot spot. Then, everyone told us that we just had to go to OTR. But it didn’t take long for OTR to be priced out of everybody’s budgets.”

Ultimately, says Rouse, it was the patrons themselves who insisted that the Playhouse remain in the park.

“We all knew that the Marx Theatre was the problem,” Jack said. “It’s just a lousy theater. Besides, it was clear to us that nobody wanted to leave the park. Once the audience has spoken, you don’t need to argue with them.”

So in 2017, Blake Robison, the theater’s producing artistic director, announced that a new mainstage would be constructed, and that the Playhouse would remain in Eden Park. BHDP Architecture was chosen to design the new theater, with Messer and TriVersity as construction partners. 

Two years later, Robison announced that the Rouses’ $5 million donation – later raised to $6 million – would make them the lead donors for the $49.9 million project. And that the new theater’s name would be Moe & Jack’s Place – the Rouse Theatre.

More than a handful of people were underwhelmed by the name. Perhaps they thought the centerpiece of the new Playhouse complex should have a more stately name.

But the Rouses wanted their new theater to have an air of informality about it. They wanted it to be warm and welcoming, even to people who had never stepped into a theater before. Back when they were at the University of Michigan, theaters everywhere were searching for ways to become more inviting and less intimidating. That was one of the major goals of the Marx Theatre when it was constructed in 1968. Working with architect Hugh Hardy, Playhouse artistic director Brooks Jones felt that the quirky and non-traditional design of the Marx would make it a more hospitable setting than old-fashioned theaters noted for their rectangular layouts and heavy velvet drapes.

Moe Rouse at the Playhouse construction site in January

“I think everyone will find this new theater smaller and more intimate than the Marx,” said Moe. “It had more seats, but backstage it was inadequate. This theater has a fly gallery and wing space – all the things a modern theater needs.”

Ideally, that more forward-thinking attitude will carry over to the business side of things, too, Jack says.

“Never forget that in ‘show business’ it’s the ‘show’ that is the adjective. This is a business. Who says that a show has to run five weeks. If you think it is going to do well, run it for seven weeks. And why do we run ‘A Christmas Carol’ for so long? There has to be a balance between the business model and the artistic mission.”

Nowhere is that more evident than with the show that will open Moe and Jack’s Place: “A Chorus Line.”

The selection surprised me. I expected they would opt for a show that was more “artsy” rather than one that was unabashedly commercial. But then, Moe – who selected the opening production – started talking.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Moe. “The final choice of the show was Blake’s. But when he asked me what I thought I said it thought it should be ‘A Chorus Line.’ It’s a show about theater. And this is the opening show in a new theater – you want to attract as big an audience as you can, right? And it’s a show that both Jack and I love.”

“Moe is right,” Jack says. “It is the quintessential theater show. And we never could have done it in the Marx. It lends itself to culture-conscious casting. And hell, it won a bunch of Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize – what more do you want?”

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