Dan Stephan dies at 83
MARIETTA — From children in tutus to acrobats dropping from the rafters, the memories that one local patriarch has made possible for generations to come will not easily be forgotten.
And neither will he.
“It’s just hard to accept that he’ll not be back in here for another show,” said Hunt Brawley, executive director of the Peoples Bank Theatre in Marietta. “Dan was there through all of it … there are so few projects where you can point to somebody and remove him from the equation and it doesn’t happen. But this, it would have never happened without him.”
Dan Sanders Stephan Sr., 83, of Williamstown, passed away Monday.
A Marietta High School and Marietta College graduate, Stephan Sr. made marks on the community through the family businesses distributing periodicals and retail support of news distribution through Peoples News.
He was even a director of the Williamstown Bank.
But his public legacy?
“I think the theater is his legacy to the most extent,” said Dan Stephan Jr. as he recalled the years of faith and work his father dedicated to saving, renovating and embedding new life into the Hippodrome, Colony and most recently named Peoples Bank Theatre on Putnam Street two doors down from Peoples News.
“He was the theater,” said Brawley. “He’s done everything to make the theater happen, right from the very beginning.”
Stephan Sr. shared numerous memories over the years in the theater of his childhood and adolescence watching acts and movies within the seats of the venue.
He purchased the property in the 1980s with the eye on reopening its closed doors.
“He bought the theater in 1988 and held it for a while thinking he’d restore it and realized it would take more money than just one person,” said Brawley. “I met Dan in 1999 or 2000.”
And at that point, Brawley explained, the theater’s structure was part of a Community 2020 visioning process for Marietta.
“I just remember sitting with a group of people and everyone having all of these ideas of what should be done with the theater and I remember thinking, well, ‘who owns the theater?'” Brawley recalled. “I guess I was entrusted with that task and called him up and he suggested that we meet with Carol Wharff at the community foundation.”
Of the original six that started meeting, and by 2004 were the founding board members when Stephan Sr. donated the property to the nonprofit, four have now passed on, Brawley said.
But while the public celebrated the Jan. 8, 2016, successful reopening and in the last four years since have attended recitals, parties, nationally and internationally-acclaimed acts and celebrations of faith and history within the walls of the theater, it was those smiles, laughter and cheers that kept Stephan Sr. entering the doors.
“I think he came more to see the reactions, to see the families here together,” recalled Brawley, his right eye glistening as memories of his friend struck him Wednesday.
Brawley and Stephan Jr. recalled multiple stops and starts throughout the visioning, planning, designing and financing stages of the theater’s restoration.
“He just always remembered going to the Colony Theatre and the place being such a joy from way back when,” said Brawley.
And those years of work from 2000 to 2015 were not easy years, Brawley noted.
“We lost twice, nearly lost the third time, but we kept crawling forward,” he explained. “Dan could have sent me packing years ago, after the recession, really anytime.”
But with faith in the vision for sharing similar family experiences and childhood with generations to come, Stephan Sr. never gave up.
That persistent vision saw a small reward near the end of construction when a signature painted across a concrete block wall beneath the stage was found five years ago.
The signature was of Dan Stephan Sr.’s father, Floyd Stephan, dated 1933, three years before Stephan Sr. was born.
“I remember he always said he knew there was a reason he was doing this when he saw that,” said Stephan Jr.
Stephan Sr. shared that memory on the night he was surprised at the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce Dinner in 2017, with the recognition of Gabe Zide Citizen of the Year award.
“My dad was in a minstrel show in 1932 with the high school and they performed when the theater was the Hippodrome,” explained Stephan Sr. “And now people are enjoying the music, the arts and the interaction that I did there growing up.”
Now, three generations of Stephan family members have signed the wall beneath and are surrounded by more than 1,000 signatures of large national acts, private wedding parties, local solo musicians and young aspiring artists in the chorus dressing room beneath the stage.
But Stephan Sr. was a humble man, often passing on the praise directed his way with a hug and a smile.
“It wasn’t me that brought the (Peoples Bank Theatre) to life,” he said. “It was the community that embraced it through the renovations and then … by continuing to come to the shows and buy tickets.”
In lieu of a large ceremony or funeral, the family asks in accordance with the patriarch’s wishes that donations be made to the Hippodrome Colony Endowment Fund at the Marietta Community Foundation, 100 Putnam St., Marietta, in memory of Dan Stephan Sr.