Tom Hanks signs on to help Great Lakes Theater Festival

August 17, 2008


Tom Hanks' movies have earned $3.3 billion, making him the third best-selling leading man in Hollywood history.

And it all started at Lakewood High School in 1977, when a bushy-haired, baby-faced, 20-year-old actor-intern from California got a weekly paycheck of $45 for doing bit parts at Great Lakes Theater Festival.

It was a break Hanks, who couldn't even get a role onstage at his college theater in Sacramento, has never forgotten.

So starting this week, Hanks - 52 and earning $45 per nanosecond - will lend his name, face and voice to Great Lakes' effort to raise the last $3.6 million in a $19.2 million campaign to renovate PlayhouseSquare's historic Hanna Theatre into a state-of-the-art new home.

"I'm the honorary chairman, the generalissimo, the public face of this stupendous project to finally give Great Lakes a permanent home in the historic Hanna in the world-famous PlayhouseSquare."

Hanks said that mouthful last week in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he was finishing the shoot of "Angels & Demons," a prequel to 2006's "The Da Vinci Code."

In the next few weeks, Great Lakes patrons and contributors will receive a letter from Hanks - no doubt typed on one of the 80 or so manual typewriters Hanks collects as a hobby - endorsing the Hanna project, scheduled to reopen Sept. 20.

And he'll come back to Cleveland to make a personal appearance at the Hanna, probably next spring, before the campaign's deadline June 30.

Get Hanks to talking about Great Lakes and the 1921 Hanna - it isn't hard to do - and he enthuses in breathless, elegant run-on sentences.

"If you had told me, back when we were performing in that gymnatorium, or whatever it was, in Lakewood, where we had to draw a curtain across the back of the house to get it down to a thousand seats, that Great Lakes would be going into a cozy, first-class theater, with 540 great seats, a theater that in its heyday hosted the great luminaries of the stage, a theater named for one of the most powerful figures in American political history, well, I would have asked what planet you were on, and now I'm get to help that dream become a reality.

"That is so cool."

In an age when celebs routinely give lip service to causes, Hanks clearly knows - and loves - what he's talking about.

The Hanna, one of the most important road houses in Broadway's prime, was named for U.S. Sen. Mark Hanna (1837-1904). He engineered the election of President William McKinley in 1896, the dawn of the Progressive Era.

The theater has played host to the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, and was the home of the 1933 world premiere of Noel Coward's infamously bisexual comedy, "Design for Living."

Now it is in the midst of a high-tech makeover, the last of PlayhouseSquare's five 1920s theaters to be restored at the country's largest performing arts center outside New York.

Why does Hanks - who left Great Lakes in 1979 for TV's "Bosom Buddies" and went on to star as "Forrest Gump," "Toy Story's" Sheriff Woody, "Apollo 13's" Cmdr. James A. Lovell, and "Saving Private Ryan's" Capt. John H. Miller - still follow the Tribe, and everything else Cleveland?

To hear him tell it, his autobiography could be titled: "All I Ever Really Needed to Know About Life I Learned in Lakewood."

"I could go on about what I learned at Great Lakes for an hour-and-a-half," Hanks said.

"But here it is: 'The responsibility of the actor.' You have to show up, and show up prepared, know your lines and the scene and what the scene is about, and you have to do it if you're Hamlet or holding a torch on a balcony as Soldier No. 26, which is what I was doing."

Vincent Dowling, artistic director of what was then called Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, discovered Hanks in 1977 in Sacramento, calling him "Tony Curtis, only more talented." Dowling said it was no surprise to him that Hanks still wants to help the theater.

"Here's what I recognized instantly in Tom when I met him: He's a great actor because he's a great person," the gregarious Irish actor and director said from his home in North Chester, Mass.

By the end of his first season at Great Lakes, Hanks landed his first featured role - and his membership in Actors' Equity Association, meaning he was a professional actor at last - as the comic servant Grumio in "The Taming of the Shrew."

He achieved local stardom the following year, playing Proteus, one of the two title characters in "The Two Gentleman of Verona," the first of the very few not-so-nice roles he has ever played, and won the 1978 Cleveland Critics Circle Award for best actor.

Hanks has continued to follow and support his alma mater after it moved to downtown Cleveland's Ohio Theatre in 1982 to become the first resident company at PlayhouseSquare.

He came to the Ohio twice in the early 1990s, to help Great Lakes raise money by performing benefit shows. He continues to mention Great Lakes in newspaper, magazine and TV interviews around the world, most prominently on "Live with Regis and Kelly" in 2006.

And he exchanges letters at least once a year with Dowling (whose autobiography, "Astride the Moon," has a foreword written by Hanks) and with the reigning leadership at Great Lakes.

In one such recent letter, current producing artistic director Charles Fee asked Hanks to help raise $2.6 million by end of next June so the Hanna campaign, now at $15.6 million in pledges, would qualify for a $1 million challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation to put it over the top.

Hanks' reply was swift and forceful, Fee said.

"He said, 'Absolutely. When do I start?' "

What will Hanks' pitch for the Hanna be? Here's a sampler from last week's interview:

"To be in an actual theater, and I'm talking here about the spirituality of the place, a place built for one thing, for theater, and specifically for Shakespeare, just like walking into Jacobs' Field and knowing, 'this thing is for baseball and baseball only,' that is going to put Great Lakes and Cleveland on everybody's theatrical map."

Tom Hanks: Still grateful after all these years.

By Tony Brown

Source : Cleveland Live