The Akron Civic Theatre is a beautiful jewel in downtown Akron. If you’ve been fortunate enough to attend an event there, you’ve likely rested your head on the back of a seat and watched the moving clouds overhead. You’ve marveled at the ornate interior and rising Wurlitzer organ. And perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to be greeted by volunteer head usher Matt Schonover.
During a recent visit to the Civic, Schonover strolled down the main aisle to the front of the stage.
“How many times have you walked down this aisle?” someone called to him.
“Too many,” he joked.
So loved is he at the theater that when word came that the 32-year-old was moving to Florida, the folks at the Civic notified the paper. But now the Cuyahoga Falls resident won’t be leaving after all. The news comes with mixed emotions.
Schonover was born with Apert syndrome, a birth defect that leads to malformations of the head, face, hands and feet. He has had nearly 100 surgeries in his life and decided it was best to stay in the area, close to his doctors.
“When we found out that Matt might be leaving the state … we were all quite sad. It felt like a part of the family was moving away,” said Val Renner, media relations manager for the Civic.
But while she’s pleased that Schonover is remaining in the area, Renner is saddened that he must withstand further operations.
“Yet he always finds times to help other people,” she added.
Schonover, who was named the “Miracle Child” by the Children’s Miracle Network in 2001, has spent untold weeks and months in Akron Children’s Hospital.
“If it weren’t for them [hospital staff], I wouldn’t be here today,” he said, dressed in his handsome dark red blazer, worn by the theater’s ushers.
Knowing what it was like to have long and lonely hours of childhood pass by within the hospital walls, he decided to become a volunteer there, dedicating a decade of his life to serving others. Today, among other things, he’s in charge of the entertainment at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in the Stow-Munroe Falls area and is a change bandit for the “Have a Heart, Do Your Part” Radiothon to benefit Akron Children’s Hospital.
According to hospital spokeswoman Laurie Schuler, “change bandits” are individuals, companies, schools and churches who “hold up” their friends, family and co-workers for pocket change.
Ghosts and birds
Schonover has family members who are, or have been, volunteers at the Civic over the years. He’s been donating his time there for at least seven years, where as head usher he directs the other ushers and addresses issues with patrons. And what an adventure to roam the corridors and cellar of a theater where his maternal grandparents once walked.
During our visit, bright bulbs, known in the theater business as “ghost lights,” were burning on stage, in the main hall, and the Grand Lobby. Though designed to provide light to prevent injury from falling or tripping when the theater is closed, the superstitious think the lights are there for another reason.
“Ghosts are afraid of light,” Renner said, laughing.
Local legend holds that a ghost haunts the Civic. And Schonover said he once spotted it.
“I was giving a tour [of the non-paranormal type] a couple of years ago and saw it downstairs,” he offered, chuckling. “It looked like … Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
Though he’s enchanted with the whole theater, the lobby is his favorite place.
“It’s because of her, Loretta,” pointing to a stuffed parrot that’s hanging in the Grand Lobby.
As the story goes, Loretta used to greet patrons. “When the theater opened, she used to fly around … and talked dirty,” said Renner. “She had a foul mouth. Pardon the pun.”
The rumor is that Loretta was put to sleep after biting a patron who threatened to sue, but there’s no solid evidence that’s what led to her demise. Even then, she didn’t leave the theater.
“After Loretta died [in the early 1930s] she was put on a perch that was on a floor stand. People going into the theater were touching her. She was getting pretty haggard. So during renovation, they decided to re-taxidermy her and move her up to the alcove,” Renner explained.
If you believe in theatrical lore, parrots are thought to bring good luck. That’s why so many of them, like the Civic, have the birds as mascots.
Without its more than 150 volunteers, Renner said the theater couldn’t operate.
“They are our strength. They are the first impression and the last impression people get when they come here,” she added.
Guests routinely write to the theater about its volunteers.
“There is a young man named Matt who always operates the elevators at the shows that I have attended. He is always smiling and polite, I love to see that in this amazing theatre,” wrote an anonymous patron.
Renner grinned when she talked about Matt. “His spirit is so infectious. We walk among angels every day.”
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.