In Cleveland’s ‘second downtown,’ jazz once filled the air: Elegant Cleveland

In Cleveland’s ‘second downtown,’ jazz once filled the air: Elegant Cleveland

By Evelyn Theiss, The Plain Dealer 
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on February 05, 2012 at 8:00 AM, updated February 07, 2012 at 3:27 PM

This vintage postcard shows how the corner of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue used to look — it was the heart of a “second downtown” of restaurants, clubs, dance halls, theaters, shops and restaurants. The Alhambra, at left, was its own draw. It opened as a vaudeville house and went on to become a movie palace (a big sign painted on the side of the building noted it as “The House With the Organ”). When former bootlegger Shondor Birns operated his nightclub there in the 1950s, it became the place to be seen. The building was torn down in 1976.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — These days, University Circle is a hive of construction, filled with cranes and workers building a new Museum of Contemporary Art, a pedestrian plaza and two residential buildings.

But underneath all this new energy in what has long been the cultural center of Cleveland, there’s almost a sense of deja vu.

Starting about 80 years ago, this section of the city, known then as Doan’s Corners, throbbed with a different kind of activity.

Several movie houses (at the Keith, you could watch two features and a vaudeville show), a huge indoor ice rink, shops and delis drew throngs. Cleveland, then the sixth-largest city in the United States, was vibrant enough that it could support what was widely known as its “second downtown,” several miles east of PlayhouseSquare.

Evenings, the streets near East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue shimmered with flashes of neon — signs beckoned the well-dressed (and who wasn’t back then, when fedoras were de rigueur?) to jazz bars, nightclubs and ballrooms that featured the finest musicians and big bands in the country.

Over the decades, the long list of artists would include Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Harry Belafonte.

“This was the city’s entertainment district,” says jazz saxophonist Ernie Krivda, who started playing the clubs here at age 17. “The Esquire Lounge, the Club 100, the Alhambra Lanes — and you had the Majestic Ballroom, the Circle, the Trianon — the scene was tremendous.”

And it ran late; men who worked at White Motors or the city’s steel mills would show up after they got off the second shift, so the neighborhood pulsed till dawn.

“I thought it was Broadway,” says Bonnie Dolin, a Cleveland artist whose parents owned one of the premier jazz clubs, Lindsay’s Sky Bar, from 1934 to ’52.

Her mom, Rickie Bash, was a petite, blue-eyed blonde who looked like a movie star — the perfect hostess for the club. Bash and her sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Earon Rein who co-owned the club, would go on scouting trips to New York to book the best acts. Lindsay’s was the first jazz club in Cleveland to regularly feature national performers.

When Dolin was a young girl, she lived with her parents — her dad’s name was Philip — at the Doanbrooke Hotel, at East 105th Street and Chester Avenue. “I remember visiting the pond in front of the art museum and drinking from the bronze water fountains,” she says.

The Doanbrooke was one of a plethora of hotels in the area. Beginning in the mid-1920s, there was a flurry of building what were known as residential hotels in Cleveland, and most of them radiated from the University Circle area. They included the Commodore, the Park Lane, the Tudor Arms and, most luxurious of all, the Wade Park Manor on East 107th Street.

Billie Holiday is shown performing at Lindsay’s Sky Bar in the 1950s. Note the stars that decorate the ceiling above her, in keeping with the nightclub’s theme.

Fenway Hall was another, and its Congo Room became the place where pianist Bobby Short entertained as a very young man, long before he got his standing gig at New York’s Cafe Carlyle.

Clubs most popular after World War II

Doan’s Corners hummed along through the Depression and the early 1940s, but its heyday was in the postwar years. Entertainment wasn’t too expensive, either for club owners or club-goers. If you didn’t have a date, you could easily find one.

Dolin got to hear lots of stories about the singers and musicians who played Lindsay’s.

“I remember my father complaining about Billie Holiday, because she didn’t mix with the customers between her gigs,” she says. “She would ‘retire.’ ”

Other singers were more sociable and would even attend post-show cocktail parties at her parents’ home (they moved to the up-and-coming suburb of University Heights).

Dolin’s favorite was a singer and pianist named Rose Murphy. “She was very kind to me, just a doll,” says Dolin.

Murphy was also a favorite of Winsor French, the Cleveland night-life columnist from the ’30s to the mid- ’60s and the subject of the recent book “Out & About With Winsor French,” by Cleveland author James M. Wood.

Murphy, wrote French, would often sit on a stack of telephone books as she played the piano and sang, “in a tiny, flute like voice” that enthralled her listeners. She had a special technique, too, of “suddenly removing both hands from the keyboard and continuing the rhythm, tune and all, with her feet.”

According to Wood, French himself often visited another storied joint in Doan’s Corners, the Alhambra, owned by mobster Alex “Shondor” Birns. (Dolin’s parents were friendly with Birns, too, so she also met him. Birns was killed in a 1975 car-bomb explosion.)

Getting together at the Alhambra

The Alhambra at East 105th and Euclid, whose exterior wasn’t as exotic as its name implied, was nevertheless one of the neighborhood’s jewels. The complex housed not only a restaurant but also a 1,600-seat movie theater — considered one of the “prettiest” — a bowling alley, a pool room and apartments. (As a young man, comedian Bob Hope hustled in the pool room here.)

On many evenings, just after midnight when another hangout — Gruber’s restaurant in Shaker Heights — closed, French would join its owners, Ruthie and Max Gruber, Indians owner Bill Veeck, general manager Hank Greenberg and his wife, the Press and Plain Dealer sports editors (and maybe pitcher Bob Feller and his first wife) at the AlhambraIt was an after-hours joint, or “cheat spot,” in the parlance of the day.

“They’d all bop down to the Alhambra to celebrate at the notorious mobster’s plushy nightclub, because Ruthie and Max needed a break,” says Wood. “Ruthie was known for taking over the microphone and doing an imitation of the nightclub singer Mindy Carson, which Winsor didn’t think was very good.”

Joe Mosbrook, a former Cleveland television reporter and a jazz historian, has done a lot of research on the “second downtown,” much of which is detailed in his 1993 book, “Cleveland Jazz History.”

charlie-parker.JPGJazz great Charlie Parker performed during three different weeks in 1951 at Lindsay’s Sky Bar, one of the top spots in Cleveland’s music and entertainment district near East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue.

“Frankie Laine told me he worked at Lindsay’s Sky Bar, when he was still struggling as a performer,” says Mosbrook. “He went and auditioned and got a job there.”

Mosbrook recalls a conversation with Kenny Davis, a trumpet player with Duke Ellington’s band.

“He told me that still in the early 1960s, you could park your car near East 105th and Euclid, and walk to 10 or 12 clubs that featured people like Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson — any big-name artist you can think of. They all played here.”

At first, in the ’20s and ’30s, says Mosbrook, “jazz was essentially dance music, and they’d play it in ballrooms like the Circle, which was above Zimmerman’s Drug Store.” Later, jazz began to be played in more intimate, club settings, such as Lindsay’s or the Tia Juana, among many others. The Tia Juana was cleverly designed in the shape of a four-leaf clover, with a separate bartender in each leaf — and featured singers such as Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Nat “King” Cole.

The decline of the scene

How and why did it all end?

“It used to be that even the top jazz people would play for low fees, but during the 1960s, those fees climbed enormously as they became more popular,” says Mosbrook. After a time, “local clubs couldn’t afford it — instead of a couple of hundred dollars a week, it was a few thousand.”

And times were changing. The ’60s brought civil unrest. Bomb threats began to be called into clubs where audiences were racially mixed. Eventually, a bomb went off at a popular club known as the Jazz Temple.

Students from nearby colleges began to seek out something different, too — folk music at La Cave, which was also in the neighborhood and featured such performers as Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary.

“For a long time in this neighborhood, you had the students, the traffic, girls, prostitutes — there was never any friction,” recalls Krivda. “You had exploding black consciousness, white students, mavericks like me, and no police issues.

“Then, the police started seeing trouble. They stepped in, and it wasn’t so much fun anymore.”

The late ’60s brought riots, and subsequent decades created desolation in a once-thriving area. Driving through University Circle in the years after — and even today — it’s hard to picture an area packed with nightspots. Most of the buildings were leveled to allow construction by the Cleveland Clinic, and of the W.O. Walker building.

Only recently has a renaissance begun, but it’s more arts than music and nightclubs (Severance Hall and the Cleveland Museum of Art had, of course, been in University Circle all along.)

But for people like Krivda, the jazz notes linger.

“To me, starting out, it was the most amazing place, where someone starting out in music could work,” says Krivda. “You hear about Cleveland and rock, but not about this.

“This is the real musical heritage of the city.”

A look back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown by its people, architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones. Go to to read other entries.

Elegant Cleveland: Society magazines offer a look back at the well-to-do in the Roaring ’20s

Elegant Cleveland: Society magazines offer a look back at the well-to-do in the Roaring ’20s

Clevelanders could get a visual sense of their town’s stylish high life in the 1920s, as in this jazzy ad for a hotel, through the glossy society magazines published in the city. Publications are courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society. 

ELEGANT CLEVELAND / A look back at the finest elements of Cleveland’s stylish history, as shown by its people, architecture, fashion and other cultural touchstones. Go to /elegantcleve to read other entries.

In the early 20th century, magazines showed Americans who they were. Not just in words, but through new technology that allowed photographs to be crisply reproduced, far more so than newspaper printing allowed.

Time magazine — which was headquartered and published in Cleveland from 1925 to 1927 — was one such periodical, and during that period acquired its iconic red border.

Although Time’s stay in Cleveland was relatively short, the city had been a longtime center for printing, publishing and lithography. And while a number of national magazines were thriving in the 1920s, including such titles as Vanity Fair and Vogue, many Clevelanders could avail themselves of a close-up of this city’s own cafe society.

Of the 80 Northeast Ohio publications in print in the first third of the 20th century, several were devoted purely to Cleveland’s bluebloods, their homes and travels, with photo features of them playing golf or polo at local country clubs or posing in an engagement or bridal portrait.

Among the most successful of such magazines was Cleveland Town Topics, which had gotten its start in 1887 — the same decade in which Cleveland’s social register, the Blue Book, began to be published. Another was the Bystander, which had been named Town and Country Club News in a previous iteration.

Eventually, the Blue Book’s publisher and arbiter of admission, Helen DeKay Townsend, became the society columnist for Town Topics.

Cleveland Town Topics billed itself as “A Weekly Review of Society, Art, and Literature.” At its start, it was edited by a Vienna-born fellow named Felix Rosenberg, who once served in the Confederate army but eventually made his way north to Cleveland.

The publication was first housed in The Arcade but moved later, as many other publications did, to the Caxton Building. The Caxton had specially built floors that were able to support the weight of printing presses.

Charles S. Britton became its longest publisher — for 25 years — until it folded.

The Bystander began as the Town and Country Club News in January 1921. At first, as you might expect, it was very social in its themes and was run largely by a group of female volunteers, among them the eventual historian and author Grace Goulder-Izant. Many of these women were college-educated, often at one of the Seven Sisters colleges, and they undoubtedly welcomed the chance to use their intelligence in a magazine endeavor.

By the late 1920s, though, the publication was nearly as thorough in its variety of coverage as Town Topics. In 1928, the magazine was now officially called the Bystander, and it reinvented itself as “Cleveland’s Pictorial Magazine.”

No one is sure what happened to either Town Topics’ or the Bystander’s business records or subscription lists. You could subscribe to the Bystander for about $3.50 a year or buy a copy at “better newsstands” or at the city’s “finer hotels,” according to information on its masthead — and it was even available at some hotels in New York that Clevelanders favored.

“Hand in hand, these publications speak to the arrival of an upper class in Cleveland,” says historian John Grabowski, who is senior vice president for research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society. “And it happened just as photo sepia turned into rotogravure, so suddenly, people are getting images.”

In the city’s newspapers, too, drawings and sketches were giving way to photos, but it was on the coated semigloss paper of the magazines that photographs really popped.

elegant12b.jpgIssues of Cleveland Town Topics and the Bystander: “Hand in hand, these publications speak to the arrival of an upper class in Cleveland,” says historian John Grabowski of the Western Reserve Historical Society. 

It all added up to popularity among those in the “right circles,” but no doubt also for those who aspired to such circles.

After all, the 1920s were about nothing so much as reinvention.

As Grabowski says, Town Topics and the Bystander may have been a version of People magazine for the Jazz Age. After all, if housewives in Iowa could read Lucius Beebe’s syndicated column out of New York about the doings at the Stork Club, why wouldn’t Cleveland housewives want to know about the doings at Shaker Heights’ country clubs?

Today, those magazines — which at their peak were said to have had a combined subscription of 10,000 or so — offer a rich vein for historians. The Western Reserve Historical Society has a nearly complete collection of the periodicals, from the 1880s to the early 1930s, and they are relied on by people doing research on family members, interior design or fashions of the time.

“These publications are such a great chronicle of the way that we lived,” says Ann Sindelar, research historian for the historical society’s library. “They offer the type of material you wouldn’t necessarily get from the daily newspapers.”

The dailies, for example, wouldn’t have had the space to report the minutiae of country club golf and tennis matches, played by men and women on separate occasions, or horseback riding, the hunts or yacht club races.

Nor would they have reported in as great a detail on who was departing on the ocean liner Ile de France on her way to Algiers, or that “Mrs. Charles Reed was entertaining her current events club at a luncheon at her home in Clifton Park.”

“These stories tell who you were visiting, who you were entertaining,” says Sindelar. “It’s kind of gossipy and interesting on one level, and almost intrusive on another.”

Yet details like these enrich our knowledge of an era in a way that likely will never be replicated.

The lives of elegant Clevelanders

Browsing through Town Topics and Bystander issues from the 1920s and early ’30s offers some snapshots — gleaned from stories, columns and advertisements — of life in a once-elegant Cleveland.

We can see that some things are not as new as we think they are — getting a colonic is something the occasional Town Topics classified urged — though some options sound a little dangerous.

To wit, the “electric bath” offered at the Hotel Allerton Health Club. (The Allerton still stands, now an apartment building, at East 13th Street and Chester Avenue.) Other services offered there included a “salt glow and sunlight rays” and a “long body massage.”

For a time, the Allerton was trying to draw bachelor businessmen as long-term residents. An illustration of two men in bathrobes, standing in front of a bathroom sink, has one telling the other how a friend brags of living near “everything.” “He must live at The Allerton,” one of the men remarks.

Losing weight, it turns out, was an issue even eight decades ago. An ad for Basy Bread, sold at the Chandler & Rudd Co., states, “Three slices of Basy Bread a day helps reduce your weight nature’s way.”

(Dr. Atkins would have disapproved.)

A circa-1928 ad for the Ohio Bell Telephone Co. features a sketch of a little girl holding a toy, to pitch the idea of placing several phone outlets throughout the house. “When minutes are precious, would you enjoy the convenience of having the telephone brought to you quickly?”

Some of the ads show the dark side of a “glamorous” era. The Neal Institute, at East 82nd Street and Euclid Avenue, was “devoted exclusively to the treatment of alcoholism” but promised “all the refinements of a first class club” and “meals served in rooms on individual trays.”

The Gardner Sanitarium — a photo shows a Victorian house, complete with turret — offered help for “invalids, mild mental, nervous and alcoholic patients” in private, homelike surroundings.

And a company called Corozone, housed in the Hanna Building, was pitching a mechanical method of “revitalizing dead air,” though the ad was hazy on how it created “a most delightful, odorless indoor air.”

Documents of history

When what we now know as the Depression got under way, Town Topics took the position in December 1929 that there was no reason to panic. The magazine’s editors decried those business leaders who, it said, “were losing their heads over . . . imaginary terrible conditions that don’t yet exist.”

The periodical continued its focus on a world where all was well, as may have been the case for many of its readers — for a while.

elegant12c.jpgFor many readers, style was everything, whether one could afford a new Easter hat or merely aspired to that life. 

Women got plenty of ink, whether for their social and sporting activities or professional work. Town Topics had stories and photos of female judges, such as Lillian Westropp and Mary Grossman, and of Linda Eastman, the nationally acclaimed director of the Cleveland Public Library.

But far more space was devoted to social doings, with a paragraph noting, for example, that “Miss Martha Stecker left Thursday night for the East. She will attend the Yale-Princeton game today in New Haven.” Or an aside that “Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Osborne have closed their home in Chardon and are at 3222 East 140th Street for the winter.” Or again, a mention that a tea was held at the Hunt Club in honor of Miss Jean McMillan’s debut.

Stories of society weddings, though, were an occasion for high specificity of detail.

The wedding of Miss Elizabeth Chisholm to John Rust Chandler listed every type of floral arrangement and fabric featured, from the bride’s white satin gown to the blue hyacinth chiffon worn by the bride’s 14 attendants at the ceremony at Trinity Cathedral. Walter Halle, of department-store fame, was the groom’s best friend and best man.

But amid the stories of parties and teas were sadder tales, many conveyed in obituaries or memorial notices.

A memorial service was held for Myron T. Herrick, the U.S. ambassador to France, also at Trinity Cathedral, at which former Pennsylvania Sen. George Wharton Pepper spoke of Herrick’s valor in the days leading up to the Great War, in 1914 in Paris. Pepper also spoke of Herrick’s charitable work with French soldiers blinded in the war.

Obituaries featured the far less prominent, too, and some are especially heart-rending. One is that of William Fullerton, 20, of Cleveland, who was an honor student at Dartmouth College. He died one February night along with eight Theta Chi fraternity brothers as they slept, “from poisonous fumes from a faulty furnace.”

A reflection of the times

Sadness seemed to pervade the pages as the 1930s wore on. Town Topics had combined with the Bystander in 1930 in a last-ditch effort to save itself and had begun using that name.

By 1933, as the Depression worsened, its page count grew paltry. The single-copy price dropped from 15 cents to 10 cents, and it became a monthly instead of biweekly. Art Deco-style covers in vivid greens or fuchsias turned black-and-white.

Covers began to feature unglamorous daily life — one cover photo was of a steel blast furnace; another was a grim black-and-white shot of pigeons and sparrows scratching for food on a snow-covered Public Square.

Even the stories inside had changed. Now, there was a full-length feature on how the employment provided through the New Deal’s Civil Works Administration fed some 40,000 people in Cuyahoga County. An inside photo showed CWA workers clearing Doan Brook.

Magazines that were 52 pages trickled down to 36. By April 1934, the Bystander printed what was to be its last issue.

There were still dashes of style — an interior design feature showed the sleek Moderne aesthetic of the Pumphrey family’s apartment at Moreland Courts.

But the cover of that issue gives it away, featuring a drawing by Salvatore Liscari that the magazine called “La Nymphia.” It’s a sketch of a sad little girl, looking down at the ground.

It may not have been intentional, but the image conveyed a future with little hope for gladness.

The slice of the world depicted with such joie de vivre in Town Topics and the Bystander for decades was gone, never to return to Cleveland in quite the same way again. Turning back through their pages, however, the ’20s continue to roar.

News researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this story.

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