EVANS, DINA REES (DOC) (19 June 1891-20 Jan. 1989) was a drama instructor at CLEVELAND HEIGHTS High School who trained generations of actors and the founding director of CAIN PARK THEATER and its Youth Theater.
She was born in Chicago to D. Ellis and Elizabeth (Rees) Evans, and received her bachelor's degree from the University of South Dakota. During the 1920s she taught languages in Bozeman, MT, while pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Iowa. In 1930, she was hired to teach English and direct the Heights Players at Cleveland Heights High School. She used her students as the subjects of her doctoral dissertation, which concluded that studying and performing in theater improved young people's behavior and academic achievement. This proved the guiding principle of Evans' professional life. Her doctorate, awarded in 1932, was the first granted for theater in the U.S. Her colleagues and students referred to her as "Doc."
Evans modestly claimed that she could not act, sing, or dance (she did actually both act and direct). What she could do was inspire young people and adults, including elected officials, to make her dreams for a theater come true. In the summer of 1934, she staged a production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the deep wooded ravine that ran along Superior Road between Taylor and Lee Roads, which was owned by Cleveland Heights. She shrewdly suggested to Cleveland Heights Mayor FRANK C. CAIN that the park be named after him. He was enthusiastic and gave her credit for inspiring what would become the park’s open-air theater.
More importantly, Cain supported her financially and politically. He arranged for unemployed men from the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Relief and the New Deal's Works Progress Administration to clear the rugged terrain, culvert the stream that ran through it, build the stone work, the seating, and the stage, and finish the landscaping. Cain probably kicked in some of his own money and talked citizens, including JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, into contributing materials. In 1938, Cain Park Theater opened its permanent amphitheater, becoming the country’s first municipally owned and operated theater. The city controlled its finances, and Evans became the theater’s executive director who reported directly to Cleveland Heights City Council.
Evan’s book, Cain Park: The Halcyon Years, describes the first dozen years of the theater’s life. It was intended to be a community theater, relying mostly on local talent but supplemented with professionals from community theaters and universities and an occasional big star. The first ticket prices were geared to Depression-level pocketbooks: eight tickets sold for $1.50; general admission was 40 or 25 cents. Although the 1938 season did not begin until mid-summer, Evans staged five band concerts, five Sunday afternoon programs of lectures and community sing-alongs, and 10 dramatic performances, including two by the Federal Theater Project.
She accelerated this pace through the 1940s, typically producing a play a week for ten weeks in the summer, ranging from Shakespeare and Ibsen to musical comedies and operettas, one of which involved live horses on stage. In 1946, 114,410 tickets were sold for 50 outdoor performances. Productions got mostly rave reviews in all the Cleveland newspapers. Cleveland’s fickle summer weather, however, was a constant headache. Opening nights got canceled because of torrential rain. Sometimes the show went on during deluges, drenching the actors and the audience.
In 1949, the theater ran in the red. Evans resigned as executive director, maintaining that the theater was not getting adequate financial support from the city. She stayed to direct the 1950 summer season in the amphitheater.
Evans also continued to run the park’s Youth Theater, founded in 1941. Its classes produced puppet shows and plays for children, performed by children, in the Alma Theater, which had been completed in 1944 and named for Cain’s wife.
Evans’ alumni at Cain Park included Joel Gray, Jack Weston, JOHN L PRICE JR. of MUSICARNIVAL, and Bill Boehm of the SINGING ANGELS. Another of her “kids,” David Shaber, arranged to have his screenplay, “Those Lips, Those Eyes,” filmed at Cain Park. The film company invested $100,000 to rehabilitate the amphitheater.
After her retirement from the high school and the youth theater in 1958, Evans moved to Arizona, where she bought and ran a local newspaper, organized a theater group, and married Harvey Shaw at the age of 72. She occasionally returned to Cleveland, notably in 1980 for the publication of her book about the park. Cleveland Heights High School renamed its auditorium after her in 1976, and Cain Park similarly renamed its main amphitheater in 1989. Following her death in Sun City, AZ, her ashes were interred in the family plot in Gallipolis, OH.
Marian J. Morton
Evans, Dina Rees. Cain Park Theater: The Halcyon Years (1980).
View image at Cleveland Memory.