Jack Rouse Is Cincinnati’s Unofficial Minister of Fun

He launched CCM’s musical theater program, Kings Island, The Banks, Rhinegeist, and Playhouse in the Park to new levels. Mostly, though, he’s focused on creating smiles, opening minds, and touching hearts.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

He likes to think he’s worked hard and created his own opportunities over a 50-plus-year career in Cincinnati, but Jack Rouse isn’t so sure the rest of us agree. “When your work is everyone else’s pleasure, it’s difficult to convince them you’re holding down a real job,” he says.

Rouse has been directing pleasurable community-wide moments since arriving in 1969 to launch the renowned musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. But the average Cincinnatian probably isn’t familiar with his name or his reputation—and still won’t be for a few more months, until Playhouse in the Park opens its new mainstage venue, Moe and Jack’s Place – The Rouse Theatre. The unconventional name is one more way he makes people smile.

Think of all the fun activities and destinations you enjoy across the city, and Rouse has likely had a hand in creating or improving them. He launched Kings Island’s entertainment shows and repeated them at theme parks across the country. He established a design company to build similar attractions around the world, from Canada and Australia to China and Dubai. He led early efforts to transform the riverfront into The Banks and to preserve Music Hall and Cincinnati Museum Center. He helped hire artistic leaders for some of the city’s most revered arts organizations. He was the first investor in Rhinegeist Brewery.

Rouse finds fun everywhere, whether it’s riding motorcycles through a Colorado snowstorm or walking the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a giant Scooby Doo balloon. He had his first taste of Rhinegeist beer at an investor’s meeting before it was available to the public. “I’m still smiling about that,” he says.

At 83, he no longer owns Jack Rouse Associates, the downtown-based design firm now known as JRA. He’s helping the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra search for a replacement for Music Director Louis Langrée, and he helped lead fund-raising efforts to retire the Playhouse’s obsolete Marx Theatre. Otherwise, he says, he’s trying to keep an even lower-key profile than usual.

Rouse is often self-effacing in a gruff, nonchalant way. He says he didn’t do anything to advance the Playhouse cause other than write a sizable check. But as Keith James—his protégé, former business partner, and current president of JRA—observes, “You can’t sell fun if you’re not having fun.” Truth be told, Rouse’s real job since 1969 has been to stir things up and reshape the entertainment scene in Cincinnati and beyond. We should all feel lucky he enjoyed it enough here to stick around.

“You can take your work seriously, but for God’s sake stop taking yourself seriously,” Rouse says. “I’ve always tried to be open to change and to realize whether you mess up or shit happens, that’s not the important part. You have to move on to the second thing, whatever it is. Don’t carry around grievances, and don’t be negative about how the world didn’t treat you right. Be positive.”

Jack Rouse photographed at the Playhouse construction site in Mt. Adams.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

Rouse’s life lessons might sound a bit corny, but he’s been evolving and moving on to the second thing for decades. Born in Tyler, Texas, and raised in Billings, Montana, he started doing magic at parties during his teenage years for a little extra money. He performed briefly at Billings’s Pioneer Playhouse, a small summer theater for teens managed by a hard-working high school speech teacher and his wife. Rouse admired their honesty and devotion, and toward the end he played the grandfather in a production of The Rainmaker. “I think that ended my acting career, which was appropriate,” he says.

Rouse’s pre-med major at Washington & Lee College in Virginia (he characterizes it with a chuckle as “a school for gentlemen”) led him to the University of Michigan, where he discovered that medicine wasn’t for him. He missed having fun, which he found doing theater. As he pursued a Ph.D. in film in Ann Arbor (his dissertation considered the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North), he worked on student musical shows, first backstage and eventually as the director of big productions of The Boy Friend, Wonderful Town, West Side Story, and Anything Goes.

Rouse taught film courses at the University of Wisconsin for a year after graduating, but his theatrical credentials led him to a new opportunity. He was recruited to UC’s College-Conservatory of Music in 1969 to launch programs in musical theater, technical theater, broadcasting, and opera. He and Moe got married in Ann Arbor, and she came to CCM to teach broadcasting. The college musical theater program that Rouse established was the first of its kind in the U.S., and today it remains one of the most respected.

Art student Paul Shortt, an undergrad at Michigan, designed scenery for some of Rouse’s shows there. He recalls that Rouse “was hands-on backstage. You name it, he was an all-inclusive, can-do guy. He can sell things to other people. He could recruit people to be part of his big shows.” Shortt also remembers that Rouse loved riding motorcycles, a passion that enhanced his cool reputation.

When Rouse invited Shortt to come to Cincinnati to teach scenic design, he jumped at the opportunity. Shortt still lives here after a 37-year career at CCM and worldwide theater and opera set design credits.

Rouse’s success at CCM brought him to the attention of Taft Broadcasting executives who were looking to present summertime shows at Kings Island, their new amusement park north of town. He took on the seasonal task in 1971, and before long he was in charge of live entertainment and design for the company’s expanding array of theme parks. He left CCM in 1975 for full-time work with Taft Attractions (later Kings Productions) and was part of the team that undertook a leveraged buyout of the Taft parks in 1983. He led Kings Entertainment until 1987.

That year he and colleague Amy Merrell, building on their theme park experience, founded Jack Rouse Associates (JRA). For more than two decades, their experiential design firm worked with hundreds of venues and attractions around the world, including Universal Studios, Chicago’s Field Museum, and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. He knew how to entertain people regardless of their particular passion, and he’s especially proud of developing three “museums of conscience” that are lessons in empathy: the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center in Cincinnati and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

James, president of JRA since Rouse sold it in 2008, was the son of Rouse’s secretary at CCM. He graduated from Walnut Hills High School, and the following summer he and Rouse rode motorcycles cross-country together. James earned his degree at CCM during Rouse’s tenure there, and they worked together at Kings Island under both Taft Broadcasting and Kings Entertainment. James joined JRA in 1992 after stints with theme parks in Orlando and Toronto.

James says the design firm’s “job is to create memories. Jack was very good at leading us down that path to create miles of memories that last a lifetime.” He cites Rouse’s description of JRA’s basic job, using “experiential design to create a smile or to open a mind or to touch a heart.”

“There are very few people like Jack,” says James. “He’s a dynamic person, a magnetic personality, a character, and a great leader. He’s the one chasing the windmill and doing it exceedingly well.” Their long friendship continues. “He still pops into the JRA office,” says James, “and we have dinner from time to time.”

Rouse and JDA colleague Bruce Fisher join Dolly Parton in 1994 to celebrate her album “Heartsong,” which Fisher helped arrange.

Photograph courtesy JRA

While Rouse worked for Taft Broadcasting in the 1970s, the company’s corporate leadership encouraged executives to get involved in community affairs. He joined the board of an Over-the-Rhine community center, and before long he was on the board of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “Despite my tendency to verbosity, I also knew how to shut up and listen,” says Rouse. “That’s what I did for my first two years on the CSO board. It’s much easier to move as a leader from the performing arts into the corporate world than it is to move from the corporate world to performing arts. In the arts, you’re continually starting over with a new ballet production, a play, a concert.”

Rouse continued to start over, and his growing experience led him to recognize the role that arts, culture, and entertainment venues could play in the larger context of economic development. The importance of the arts as an essential component of civic involvement and leadership became a core value for him.

His reputation as a capable community leader grew, and he was recruited to larger roles. In 1998, after two years of public speculation and disagreement about how the acreage on Cincinnati’s central riverfront would be developed between the new sports stadiums, elected officials envisioned a mix of residential and commercial aspects but with minimal detail. A new group, the Riverfront Advisors, was convened by city and county leaders to make specific recommendations; Rouse was named its chair.

“Everyone clearly understood that Jack was the guy to lead the process,” says then- Mayor Roxanne Qualls. “Everyone knew of him, if not personally, then because of his arts involvement and his understanding of what people’s needs are when it comes to spaces. His experience was very important and relevant.” Under his leadership, the Riverfront Advisors put into motion the housing and entertainment environment that The Banks offers today.

That engagement led to Rouse’s appointment as founding chair of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, a position he filled between 2002 and 2011. When the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) was formed in 2003, Rouse was a founding member. And when serious efforts began regarding the renovation of Cincinnati Music Hall in 2010, he was an original board member of the Music Hall Revitalization Company.

His arts and entertainment involvement continued into the new century. As a member of the Cincinnati Symphony board, he chaired the search committee that brought Cincinnati Pops Conductor John Morris Russell back to town in 2010 to succeed the late Erich Kunzel. Today Rouse continues his CSO support, serving on the search committee for a new music director to follow conductor Langrée. He’s been on executive boards for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, ArtsWave, The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, and chamber music presenter Concert:Nova. His lifelong passion for theater landed him leadership roles with the Playhouse in the Park board, and he chaired the 2011 search for Blake Robison, its current artistic director. And, of course, Rouse and his wife Moe are principal benefactors of the Playhouse’s new mainstage theater, set to open in March.

“Jack was the first person I met from Cincinnati,” Robison recalls. “I was impressed by his casual manner, his candor, and his passion for the Playhouse. He’s a tremendous ambassador because he’s so charming and disarming. He makes a great first impression.” During Robison’s recruitment, Rouse hosted him for lunch with major Playhouse patrons Lois Rosenthal and David Herriman. A businessman who knew them stopped by to say hello, Robison remembers. “He looks at me and says, Well, I don’t know who you are, but if you’re having lunch with these three, you must be important. I thought, If these are community leaders, this is the place I want to be.”

While those who don’t know him well might have an impression of Rouse as someone with a colorful vocabulary and sharp elbows who just “gets stuff done,” Robison says Rouse is also deeply thoughtful and sneakily strategic about laying the foundation for future success. “It wasn’t just the enormous financial pledge that he and Moe made to launch the capital campaign for our new theater,” he says. “It was also the planning and smart, strategic thinking that goes into a campaign like that. That’s a side of Jack that people don’t often see unless they’re serving with him.”

Rouse’s business sense helped Rhinegeist get over the hump in its early days, says cofounder Bob Bonder. “Jack was the very first investor to actually give us a Yes at that point on our entrepreneurial path where we’d pitched 20 or 30 times and were starting to get this feeling like, I don’t know, is this gonna make it or is it not? He just cut through our business plan so fast and asked really incisive questions. I look back to that and realize our initial conversation turned pretty quickly into a back and forth. He got not just our plan, but he got us!”

Bonder asked Rouse to do leadership classes for Rhinegeist’s employees, and his entertaining demeanor quickly reached the brewery’s young staff. “He’d come in and really connect with our staff in a unique way,” says Bonder. “He’s like a 22-year-old with the wisdom of an 80-year-old.”

Since 2013, Rouse has flown monthly to New York City at his own expense to co-teach a graduate class at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Teaming with professional stage manager Michael Passaro—who spent several years working for JRA and who’s currently stage manager for Moulin Rouge on Broadway—Rouse teaches “Leadership and Ethics in the Arts” to young stage managers and company managers. Passaro, who’d never taught at the university level, asked Jack for guidance.

“He came to New York and ‘stayed’ for 10 years,” says Passaro, chuckling. “I thought it would be a one-off, and he just kept coming back. Anyone can teach them how to do a cue sheet or call a show. Jack shows them how to lead people from diverse backgrounds and work toward a common goal.”

When he’s back in Cincinnati these days, Rouse has a more fundamental teaching gig as a math tutor with third graders at the Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy (CCPA), based in the West End. “These kids are more often than not living with a guardian or a grandparent,” he says, recalling how one of his students didn’t have time for extracurricular activities because he was teaching English to his parents. Rouse encountered the young man a few years later with his parents and learned they had become U.S. citizens.

“I was crying on the spot,” he says. “Teaching at Columbia hits one side of your emotions, but this was completely different.” He’d wondered if the kids would respond to an “old white guy,” he says, but discovered they were simply grateful for someone who cares.

Jack Rouse (left) and Keith James, his student at CCM who’d eventually become president of Jack Rouse Associates (JRA), ride motorcycles across the country in in 1970.

Photograph courtesy JRA

With his worldwide reach and impressively diverse credentials, what’s kept Rouse in Cincinnati? “It’s easier to make a difference and to help folks along in a community this size,” he says. “If I were still chasing projects for JRA, I would have left a long, long time ago. But I think Cincinnati has a combination of work ethic and honesty.” That’s how he’d described his Montana high school theater teacher.

According to Robison, “In a board world populated by CEOs and VIPs, Jack remains refreshingly down to earth. When an issue arises at the Playhouse, we’re more likely to solve it at my kitchen table sharing a beer—Rhinegeist, of course!—than with a fancy consultant. That’s the way Jack rolls, and we’re all the better for it.”

Mary McCullough-Hudson frequently intersected with Rouse during her years leading the Fine Arts Fund, now known as ArtsWave. He was on several arts boards, as well as hers. “He has so much respect for the art form and for the artist,” she says. “He cuts through the bullshit. There’s a lot of tradition and politics around putting the arts together. Jack has such deep appreciation and feeling for the artists involved.”

Qualls recalls Rouse’s way of getting things done. “He just picks up the phone and is casual, relaxed, very open, nonjudgmental,” she says.” That’s how he does things. That makes you say, Of course I’ll have coffee with you and have a conversation. He’s emotionally accessible and knows how people feel.”

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