Seven Questions with CAPA’s Todd Bemis
The arts group’s vice president of operations reflects on his behind-the-scenes career for CAPA's front-of-house.
This spring, the curtain will close on the career of CAPA’s longtime vice president of operations. The 65-year-old Todd Bemis, who has spent the last 40-plus years caring for the Palace Theatre and more than three decades doing the same for CAPA’s other historic theaters, will retire from CAPA and move to Cleveland with his wife at the end of April. He doesn’t plan to get involved with the theater scene there (“I don’t want to be the guy that says, ‘Hey, you’re doing that wrong,’ ” he says), but instead hopes to begin volunteering with an area food bank. “I just like seeing people being taken care of,” Bemis says.
The return makes sense: Bemis grew up in the area (and in fact will be moving into the home he grew up in), studied political science at Baldwin Wallace University and in the early 1970s bussed tables at the dinner show that set him on a course to his life today. It was there, during a production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” that he met both his wife, Heather, and theater operator Ray Shepardson—the man who would eventually help him find his calling.
A few years after that show, Bemis and his wife were living in St. Louis when Shepardson reached out with a proposition: Would Bemis and his wife want to move to Columbus to help a woman restore a historic theater?
“We were homesick and thought, ‘Oh, let's move to Columbus. ... We'll live there for a couple years and we'll move back to Cleveland,’ ” Bemis recalls.
The woman who hired them was Katherine LeVeque; the theater, the Palace. The “couple of years” became decades.
“We fell in love with the city, fell in love with the theater and kind of turned around 41 years later and said, I guess this is—was—my career,” Bemis says with a laugh. “Up to that point, I wasn’t sure what my career would be. … It’s just been opportunity after opportunity, which turned out to be really rewarding.”
Columbus Monthly spoke with Bemis via videoconference in early March; the following has been edited and condensed.
I was reading the piece my colleague, Holly Zachariah, wrote about you for The Columbus Dispatch, and something that struck me was how the scope of your job ranges from overseeing major renovations to making sure there is enough toilet tissue in each theater. It’s remarkable to have to work both on the big picture and the minute details.
Yeah, I always joke with people: You think you’ve got it bad in your house, because if you have a couple of bathrooms, you’ve got a couple of toilets to deal with. I counted it up one day—I don’t even know why I did this—but in all of the theaters, we have over 700 toilets that we’re responsible for. That’s 700 things that could go wrong, leaks and things, and then you have to get them clean and stocked. That attention to detail is certainly important.
And our volunteer corps; people don’t realize that in CAPA, we have well over 700 volunteers. That’s 700 connections that you have to maintain, you have to engage them and get them scheduled for the shows. They’re critical to what we do, because if we had to pay for all those services, it would be very difficult on the budget, obviously.
Another example: When we had the recent snow, we’re up on our roofs, checking to make sure that the drains are open so we don’t get leaks, because most of our theaters have plaster ceilings. It’s that kind of attention to detail. I’ve been known, over the course of the years when we get those frigid temperatures, I can’t sleep. I’d get up at two in the morning and just walk through the theaters to make sure the heat was on properly because I didn’t want frozen pipes. Unfortunately, I experienced those things in the last 40 years, and nothing good happens when you have a frozen pipe. It’s about having that responsibility of the theaters 24/7 and making sure they’re taken care of.
Do you have a similar attention to detail in other aspects of your life?
Great question. I think my wife would say I don’t have as much attention to detail around our house as I do the theaters. Soon after I got into this, I felt like, OK, this is probably what my job is going to be. I just realized the importance of it. I don’t own the theaters, but I feel like they’ve always been my responsibility, and I’m making sure they are taken care of to pass on to the next folks. They’re really here to engage the public so they can come in and, hopefully, have a great time, see a great show, have a laugh, have a cry. When I leave at the end of the day, I’m still thinking about the theaters and probably don't have that attention to detail in other areas. It’ll be interesting to see if I refocus my energies elsewhere after I’m not responsible for the theaters.
Going back to the beginning of your career: I read that when CAPA was about to take over the Palace from Katherine LeVeque, you were part of that transfer, right?
Yeah. Katherine LeVeque was a great woman. She wasn’t from Columbus; she was raised in the South, and I was amazed at how much passion she had for the city of Columbus. That was her reasoning for reopening the Palace. She even reopened it as a for-profit business, even though her finance people said, “You’re not going to make any money.” She didn’t want it to compete with the Ohio Theatre for donations.
So when CAPA got to a point that she felt it was strong enough to take over the Palace, one of her stipulations was that my wife and I would be employed by CAPA. Who does that?
Do you think she saw a passion you both had for the work? I hate to ask you to speculate what she was thinking, but did she ever tell you why she made that a condition?
I will tell you, she saw my tears more than once in her office as I talked about the Palace. When you get to love these theaters, it’s hard not to be emotional. And it’s not just the theaters; it’s the experiences that I’ve seen people have in our theaters.
I tell staff now, if you feel that your job is not important or something, stand at the back of the house after the end of the show, when you see the audience rise for a standing ovation or cheers or whatever. That’s when you can just say, OK, we did something good tonight.
You’re responsible for a lot of properties. Do you have a favorite venue among them?
I always have to be careful with this one. At the end of the day, I do love all the theaters. That’s a sincere answer. But I’ve almost given certain relationships to them; one feels like my mother, another like my favorite cousin.
I will probably always be most passionate about the Palace, because it’s what brought my wife and I to Columbus. It’s where we raised our family, and we had great experiences there. Without that, I would have never had the Columbus experience that we’ve come to be blessed by.
That’s such a great way of looking at it. Which theaters represent which family members?
The Ohio Theatre is the grandmother. She’s the standard we all need to live up to; she sets the standard for the family. The Palace is my mom; I had great respect for my mother. The Southern is a brother. And then the Lincoln is the long-lost cousin that I’ve come to treasure. I didn’t know about my cousin, and that is the story of the Lincoln.
I’m not proud of this: I lived here for many, many years, and I would drive by the Lincoln without even knowing what I was driving by. It wasn’t until 12 or 14 years ago, when Mayor Coleman and Larry James asked CAPA to take on the project of renovating the Lincoln that I learned about its rich history—Sammy Davis Jr. played there in a vaudeville show with his family when he was 3 years old; the jazz greats after jazz greats. So it was that long-lost cousin who I’m like, “Where the hell have you been all my life? I wish I would’ve known you 20 years ago, but now we’re having a great time together. I’m glad I know you now.”
What are some of your favorite memories at the theaters?
I can’t sit in a CAPA theater and watch a show from beginning to end. This is going to sound strange, but I really don’t enjoy it. I’m not focused on the performance; I’m focused on everything else around me. Why didn’t we get that light replaced? Why is someone over there talking and we’re not dealing with it? Why is there trash that we didn’t pick up?
But I will come in and stand at the back at times. Years ago, at the Palace, probably 1990-something, we brought in a production of the Russian Red Army chorus. It was 200 members of the orchestra and chorus, and I stood at the back of the house when they were doing their encore. It’s not the hugest of stages; they were packed in. They sang “God Bless America” while they unfolded an American flag over their heads. At that time, we weren’t such enemies, and it was one of those moments. I’ve seen it time and time again, how the arts can be a healing process for us, bringing together people that wouldn’t necessarily be under the same roof and enjoying something. I hope the arts can continue to heal and bring people together, so we don’t have as much division going on.