Real Music & Real Estate . . .

Yiddishe Cup’s bandleader, Bert Stratton, is Klezmer Guy.
 

He knows about the band biz and – check this out – the real estate biz too. So maybe he’s really Klezmer Landlord.
 

You may not care about the real estate biz. Hey, you may not care about the band biz.  (See you.)
 

This is a blog with a gamy twist. It features tenants with snakes and skunks, and musicians with smoked fish in their pockets.
 

Stratton is an occasional contributor to the New York Times, the Times of Israel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and City Journal. He won two Hopwood Awards.


 
 

Category — Cleveland, Full

THE SCHVITZ

If you’re a Cleveland Jewish male and have never been to The Schvitz, you are a disgrace. Real Cleveland Jewish men will malign you, impugning your Jewish bona fides. The Schvitz is at East 116th Street and Luke Avenue, off Kinsman Road, in a lousy neighborhood. The Schvitz has no sign. The Schvitz’s official name is the Mt. Pleasant Russian-Turkish Baths, which nobody uses. Some people call it the Bathhouse. Some people call it the Temple of the Holy Steam. (Lawyer Harvey Kugelman does.) Most people call it The Schvitz. It has photos of Mussolini, Dayan and Patton on the walls. That’s it for decorations. (Plus a photo of Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood, reports Mike Madorsky.)

There are three acceptable responses to “Have you ever been to The Schvitz?”
a) I held my stag there.
b) I was there with my father.
c) My grandfather took me there.

The Big Five in Russian-Turkish–style schvitzes are in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. I got this list from Billy Buckholtz, the pleytse guy at the Cleveland schvitz. Billy’s grandfather was the original pleytse guy. Pleytse is the rubdown, traditionally done with a broom of soaked oak leaves. Billy uses a seaweed broom and horsehair brush.
schvitzers

Cleveland’s schvitz isn’t coed. Most of the other schvitzes are. The Detroit schvitz even used to have an orgy night. The Cleveland schvitz never went coed, aside from a short experiment in the 1970s, because the neighborhood is so bad. Why encourage women to come to Kinsman?

In The Schvitz’s heyday, it catered to immigrant factory workers who dropped by after work “to get the creosote off their skin, knock down a few shots and get a pleytse,” Billy said. “The immigrants didn’t want to wait in line with their eight kids for the only bathtub at their house.” Billy told me all this at a Yiddishe Cup gig at an art gallery, not at The Schvitz.

I’m not crazy about steam. I get periodic Schvitz invitations from the Brothers in Perspiration, an ad-hoc group of Cleveland Heights Jews. The email subject-line reads: “Have a serious jones for the stench of sweat, mildew, steak, cigar, garlic?” That sounds good, except for the cigar, sweat, mildew and steam.


Rerun

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November 1, 2017   3 Comments

GO TRIBE! TOO UPBEAT?

I wasn’t in Rust Belt Chic –The Cleveland Anthology. An oversight. I’m Rust Belt chic. I’ve lived in Cleveland all my life and I use Rust-Oleum — a local brand — on fire escapes. A tenant fell on a fire escape Monday because it was rainy and slippery; he complained because we use good paint.

I’m not total lunch bucket like Pulitzer Prize columnist Connie Schultz, whose dad worked at the CEI plant in Ashtabula, or Rust Belt Chic co-editor Richey Piiparinen, whose dad was a Cleveland cop who got run over on the way home from an Indians game.

I told Richey I liked the anthology even though I’m not in it. I said, “I liked it and I’m not even into the Browns, booze, and broads thing.”

He said, “That’s good — ‘Browns, booze and broads.’”

1) The Browns. I’ve been to about five Browns games. One was the championship game in 1964. I’m good to go.

2) The Indians. I’ve been to about a game a year. Believe it or not, I’ve seen three no-hitters: Stieb, Bosman and Siebert. I’m good to go, again. Looking for a Tribe no-hitter tonight, by the way.

rust belt chic3) Booze. I’ve had very few Great Lakes Christmas Ales. No more than 10. But I’m 100-percent behind Great Lakes Brewing and heavy drinking.

4) Broads. I met a couple at the Last Moving Picture Company in 1976 and they’re probably dead by now from too much beer. Pong, the video game, was big then.

David Giffels in his essay “The Lake Effect” wrote, “There was never any color in the 30 miles of sky between Akron and Cleveland. It was a masterpiece of monochrome.”

I see color in the sky all the time around here. I see blue right now. Maybe I’m too upbeat for Rust Belt Chic. Go Tribe.

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October 11, 2017   3 Comments

RETURN OF THE MAGGIES


Maggies were linoleum salesmen/hustlers in Cleveland. “Maggie” is derived from Magnoleum, a flooring brand. Harvey Pekar wrote a comic strip about maggies in 1982. I didn’t hear the word maggies again until recently, when my cousin Danny Seiger expounded: “The maggies carried thick samples of linoleum that looked like Venetian marble. They sold nine-by-twelve sheets for fifteen dollars. Nobody had fifteen dollars back then, so the maggies took five bucks on installment, and came back with a roll of tissue-paper. They could carry it upstairs real easy. It weighed three pounds. The maggies laid the tissue-paper linoleum on your kitchen floor, collected the five bucks, and never came back.”

The maggies sold more than linoleum, Danny said. They sold ties at barbershops and socks at saloons. Each maggie had a territory and a product line.

I Googled “Maggies” after my cousin Danny left. Maggies, an Irish music group, popped up. Then I tried “Maggies + Pekar” . . .

Michigan State University Libraries,
Comic Art Collection.
“The Maggies: Oral History”/story by Harvey Pekar;
art by R. Crumb. 2 p. in American Splendor, no. 7 (1982).

I phoned Danny Seiger and read the Pekar story to him. I wanted to know if Turk’s deli — where the maggies hung out in Harvey’s comic — was the same place as Seiger’s deli. Danny said, “Turk’s was at One-hundred Seventeenth. We were at One-hundred Eighteenth.”

I said, “There were two delis right next to each other? How many delis were there in Cleveland?”

“There were seven on Kinsman, and twenty-eight in Cleveland in the 1930s,” Danny said.

Seiger's, 1958

Seiger’s, 1958, (with fire damage)

A version of this first appeared here 8/4/10.

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August 30, 2017   3 Comments

THE BILLYS

My parents often name-dropped Billys:

1.) Billy Rose. He put together the Aquacade show at the Great Lakes Exposition in 1936-7. The Aquacade was a theater-like pool. There was an orchestra and synchronized swimming. Johnny Weissmuller starred in it. Billy Rose took the show to the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

2.) Billy DeWolfe, a character actor. Billy De Wolfe occasionally ate at Seiger’s, my Great Uncle Itchy’s restaurant on Kinsman Road.

3.) Billy Weinberger, a Short Vincent Street restaurateur. He owned Kornman’s. Billy Weinberger moved to Las Vegas in 1966 and took over Caesar’s Palace. Billy was close with the Cleveland mobsters who started Vegas. My Uncle Al — not a gangster — once got discount hotel rates from Billy in Vegas.

I never name-dropped Billys to my kids. My parents took all the Billys.


A version of this post appeared here 10/19/11.


Funk a Deli (formerly known as Yiddishe Cup) plays at John Carroll U. 7 p.m tomorrow (Thurs., Aug. 10).  On the lawn. Free ice cream. Featured guest artists: Shawn Fink, Jack Stratton, Rick Lawrence, Maury Epstein and David Krauss.

cassette tape

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August 9, 2017   6 Comments

A LOVE SUPREME

The Jazz Temple was a former Packard showroom at Mayfield Road and Euclid Avenue. Coltrane and Dinah Washington  played there. The Jazz Temple was in business from 1960 to 1963. I passed the Jazz Temple weekly on my way to Sunday school at The Temple, the gold-domed Reform temple in University Circle.

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was the head rabbi at The Temple. He once spoke at the United Nations, advocating for the founding of the State of Israel. Rabbi Silver’s son, Dan, was the assistant rabbi. Dan  played football at Harvard and occasionally wrote for the Cleveland Edition.

At Sunday school, kids were mostly from Shaker Heights. One kid got a ride in a limo to temple. The driver wore a chauffeur’s cap. The limo wasn’t a Rolls; it was a Buick station wagon.

I couldn’t grasp how temple — the word — fit into the Jazz Temple. Was Jazz a religion too? Many years later, I met former beatniks who had actually gone to shows at the Jazz Temple.

abba-hillel-silverThe Jazz Temple was blown up in 1963. Somebody didn’t like the club or the owner, Winston Willis, a controversial black businessman. At The Temple religious school, we students attended services every Sunday morning to hear Rabbi Silver. (Services were on Sunday, not Saturday, in the 1950s at Silver’s.) Rabbi Silver looked like God. Nowadays, at The Temple East in Beachwood, there is a Abba Hillel Silver memorial study. The rabbi’s desk is laid out like he just stepped out for lunch. He died in 1963, just six days after Kennedy got murdered.

A slightly different version of this appeared 9/5/12. If you need baseball stuff, see my story at City Journal.

 

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November 2, 2016   5 Comments

TWO GUYS FROM CLEVELAND

Italians have great names, grant them that. The best name from my old neighborhood was Bocky Boo DiPasquale.  Bocky led a band, Bocky and the Visions, a local version of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Bocky Boo was a pre-Beatles greaser with a strong regional following; he got significant air play on Cleveland radio and on Detroit’s CKLW.

Bocky Boo, second from left, early 1960s

The Bock became a Cleveland legend. I, however, was too young to grasp Bocky’s vision. I didn’t listen to his music. I just knew his name and wondered, Can Bocky Boo be real?

I knew an Alfred Mastrobuono. Real.

I knew Carmen Yafanaro. Real.

Ralph Dodero. Real.

Bocky Boo’s real name was Robert DiPasquale.

Robby Stamps — another musician from my high school — knew The Bock and all other local bands, past or present.  Stamps was a rocker, riding the first wave of psychedelia. (Robby’s sister incidentally was Penny Stamps.)

Stamps never showed up at high school reunions. He said the Italian greasers would harass him for being a radical. Stamps was a misher — a meddler — more than a radical. He was always around the action, like Zelig. Stamps was shot in the buttock at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

After graduating Kent, Stamps worked jobs as an adjunct faculty member in Hawaii, California and Florida. He majored in sociology and Spanish. Stamps was half Jewish — an oddity in the 1960s. Back then you were generally all Jewish, or you weren’t. Robby’s father was Floyd(Not a Jew.) 

Robby Stamps, 1996, at Kent State

Stamps hung around with just about everybody in high school: racks (aka greasers, dagos), white-bread American kids (aka squids, collegiates) and Jews (aka Jews). Stamps was an emissary between the various groups; he had a pisk (big mouth), played music and was fearless — except at reunions.

Stamps wasn’t part of the “in” crowd or the “out” crowd. Stamps was his own man. He  scribbled “pseudo-freak” on the photo of a hippie poseur in my yearbook.

In middle age, Stamps developed every kind of illness: Crohn’s, Lyme Disease and pneumonia, plus he had the May 4 bullet wound. He died in 2008 at 58.

If Stamps had come to the reunions, he probably would have shed light — some sociology — on the  cliques. Stamps’ perspective was sarcastic, bitter and funny. He would have said something like: “See those Jews at the bar, those guys wore penny loafers in seventh grade without pennies in them, and yelled at me because I put pennies in mine.   They threw pennies on the floor. If you picked up the pennies, you were a ‘cheap Jew.’ I threw pennies. I worked both sides of the street.”

In 1988 Bocky Boo was shot and killed in a bar. The cops — some who had grown up with The Bock — tried hard to find Bocky’s killer. There was even a website, whokilledbocky, for a few years ago. (Now down. ) No Luck. The Bock and Stamps didn’t stick around.

Well, that’s one thing I can say about that boy, he gotta go.
–Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Born in Chicago,” lyrics by Nick Gravenites

Tombstone Eyes

This post originally appeared 5/2/12.

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May 4, 2016   7 Comments

THE OLD SEDER TABLE

eating utensils

My last close relative left Cleveland in 2001. Now my Seders are with friends. My relatives went to warmer places or died.

I’m in about two traffic jams a year in Cleveland. I would prefer five. I don’t relish the traffic of Chicago or Washington, but a few more traffic jams in Cleveland would be nice. In the 1970s, Clevelanders first began imagining the whole town could go under. A musician in Milwaukee wrote a song called “Thank God This Isn’t Cleveland.” Some Clevelanders never got over the trauma of the 1970s. I know Clevelanders who vacation in Cape Cod; they’re instructed by the national press to vacation on the East Coast. They wait an hour for ice cream on Cape Cod.

Some of the best scenery in America is the bike path from Gambier to Coshocton, Ohio: rolling farm country, horses, sheep, cows, pigs and Amish buggies. However, some Midwesterners need to see the ocean. They drive all day to the Carolina shore. Why? Lake Erie has beaches, waves and miniature golf.

Every one of my relatives bailed. Now I look for distant relatives. I’ve found some. My older son found Mississippi relatives via a PBS documentary, “Delta Jews,” about the Jews of the Mississippi Delta. The mayor of Louise, Miss., had been my mother’s cousin. (My mother grew up in Yazoo City, Miss.) My son called down there. We eventually met the Mississippi clan. Most were lawyers. They have Southern accents. That’s what you want from Southerners — a Southern accent. (So often Southern Jews will disappoint you on that.)

Seder-with-friends is not the same as with Aunt Bernice, Uncle Al, Cousin Howard and the rest of the family at the old Seder table. I live three miles from where I was born. I often see things that don’t exist anymore.

passover

A version of this appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer 4/6/12.

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April 20, 2016   6 Comments

NO HARD FEELINGS,
SAYS COUNCILMAN POLENSEK

Nobody out-talks Cleveland Councilman Mike Polensek. He’s the quote machine. He once said, “I’m old-school Collinwood. You mess with me or my property, and I mess with you.” He called former councilman Jay Westbook a “weasel,” and former mayor Mike White a “son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch.”

Polensek, 2002

Polensek, 2002

Before Polensek was a councilman, he was a machinist at White Motors. I saw Polensek frequently in 1981 and 1982, when I was a reporter for the Sun Scoop Journal. Polensek ran for city council against Dave Trenton — a fellow incumbent Slovenian — in 1981. The city wards had been redrawn, and Polensek or Trenton was going to be out of a job. Trenton was “shanty Slovenian,” said my editor, another Slovenian.   Trenton was slightly rougher-edged than Polensek. For instance, Trenton smoked a cigar in public.

polensekThe editor endorsed Trenton, maybe because he and Trenton played softball together. The editor told me to survey the 14,000 registered voters in the ward. I talked to 75 people. Trenton received 32 votes in my poll. He had a plurality. The paper ran this headline: “Trenton called favorite in Ward 11 race.”  And the endorsement stated: “As council’s majority leader, Trenton can serve the community from a position of strength . . . [He has] invaluable connections downtown.”

But Polensek, the underdog, won! When I walked into Polensek’s victory party at the Italian Cooperative Association Hall on St. Clair Avenue, a Polensek supporter announced, “Your paper endorsed Trenton!” Another man said, “You’re in the wrong place. You’re going to eat crow when you write up your shit. You’re one of the worst writers ever! What are you doing here?” A woman, somewhat calmer than the men, said, “I don’t think you’re going to find what you’re looking for here.”

They didn’t like me. (I was a curly-haired hippie Jew from the Heights. That didn’t help.) But Polensek liked me — liked me enough. He liked media people, period. He said, “Oh well, you’re here. Like I told your boss, I knew we’d win.”  I said I would have voted for Polensek if I lived in Ward 11. Polensek wasn’t impressed. He said, “You’re disrespecting your boss.”

Polensek is still a councilman 35 years later. I ran into him a couple years ago and said, “You remember the ICA Hall,  when some of your supporters wanted to kill me?”

He was foggy on it. I wasn’t. He said, “No hard feelings.”

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February 24, 2016   5 Comments

TOO UPBEAT

rust belt chic

I wasn’t in Rust Belt Chic –The Cleveland Anthology. Must have been an oversight. I’m Rust Belt chic. I’ve lived in Cleveland all my life. I use Rust-Oleum — a local brand — on my fire escapes. Granted, my Rust Belt pedigree is not total lunch bucket, like Pulitzer Prize columnist Connie Schultz, whose dad worked at the CEI plant in Ashtabula. And I’m not like the co-editor of Rust Belt Chic, Richey Piiparinen, whose dad was a “Cleveland cop who got run over on the way home from an Indians game.”

I once bumped into Richey and told him I liked the anthology. “But personally, I’m not into the Browns, booze, and broads thing,” I said.

He said, “That’s good — ‘Browns, booze and broads.’”

Specifically:

1) The Browns. I’ve been to about five Browns games. One was the championship game in 1964. So I’m good to go (to my grave).

1a) The Indians. I’ve been to, on average, a game a year. Believe it or not, I’ve seen three no-hitters: Stieb, Bosman and Siebert. I’m good to go, again.

2) Booze. I’ve had a couple Great Lakes Christmas Ales. No more than 10. But I’m 100 percent behind Great Lakes Brewing and heavy drinking.

3) Broads. I met a few at the Last Moving Picture Company in 1976 and they’re probably dead now — or near-dead — from too much beer.

David Giffels in his essay “The Lake Effect” wrote, “There was never any color in the 30 miles of sky between Akron and Cleveland. It was a masterpiece of monochrome.”

I see color in the sky here. I see blue right now. I’m too upbeat for Rust Belt Chic.

This post is a day early because of Yom Kippur (manana).

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September 20, 2015   5 Comments

HALF A JEWISH TOUR

lolly gagExploring Jewish Cleveland
1850 – 1950

Tuesday, September 20 • 9:30 – 3:30
$30 JCC Members; $40 Non-members
Registration deadline: September 15
Code: 6316
Meet by the Mandel JCC front entrance

lolly gag

I bailed from the tour halfway through (at Liberty Hill Baptist Church, formerly Euclid Avenue Temple). I was on the bus for four hours, and the tour had three more hours to go, according to the guide. I can do local Jewish history but not seven hours. I missed Kinsman and Glenville. I caught the Central neighborhood portion. James A. Garfield (not Jewish) and Mickey Katz graduated from Central High.

I’d like two half-day tours of Jewish Cleveland.

Here’s “Homeboy,” about growing up in Cleveland and never leaving. From City Journal. L’shana tova.

kid from cleveland

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September 9, 2015   1 Comment

CARMA

My son Ted parked his car at the Brookpark RTA lot and flew to Las Vegas. The RTA lot was cheaper than the airport lot. My son didn’t come back. I thought he was going on a vacation, but he got a job in Las Vegas and stayed for a while.

My son’s Ford Focus, a 2007, sat in the Brookpark lot for two months, until my wife, Alice, and I loaded our car with jumper cables and a generator air pump and drove to the RTA lot, which is next to Ford Engine Plant #1 and a couple strip bars.

I said to Alice, “Ted’s car is technically in Brook Park, not Cleveland. That’s good. If the car has been towed or stolen, we can deal with Brook Park red tape better than Cleveland red tape.”

But the car wasn’t towed or stolen. It was there. The doors were unlocked, and the tires were low, and there was a bottle of bourbon in the backseat.

The next day I drove Ted’s car to the Lusty Wrench in Cleveland Heights. Sam Bell, the repair-shop owner, said, “The car is basically in good shape, with 89,000 miles.  The battery will not make it, and as you know the side-view mirror is taped on.  But the tape actually is not a bad solution. The rear tires are round, black and hold air.” The car was serviceable, he proclaimed.

What I want to know, Is Greater Cleveland really this safe? I need more data. Please park your car for two months at a Rapid stop and tell me.


This post first appeared at CoolCleveland.com 5/15/13.

—–
SIDE B

Here’s something new . . .

RECALCULATING

You dislike yourself for several very good reasons:

    • You fist-bump too much. That is so childish. Shake hands!
    • You have tiny cracks in your fingers that irritate others. Try fist-bumping.
    • You are not 25, so act your age.
    • Your sexuality is questionable.
    • Cut back on the Facebook postings. Three a day is
      too many.
    • Don’t be so jittery.
    • Move to a log cabin. Or else go to an airport lounge with your laptop and iPhone, and live there for a week.
    • Doodle more.
    • Recalculating . . . ignore this.

doodle

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May 13, 2015   3 Comments

MLACHAK, MLOTEK AND HRIBAR

deli for mlachak story deli on every corner1. Norman Mlachak was a Cleveland Press reporter.  I didn’t know him but knew of him.  He grew up over a deli at E. 140th Street and Aspinwall Avenue.  Every old-timer in Cleveland grew up over a deli, or near one. Nobody had a car, so there were a lot of delis.  You bought food almost daily.  Mlachak sometimes wrote nostalgic pieces for The Press. His neighborhood was Collinwood.  He wrote about Fisher Body, Eaton Axle, Kuhlman Car Co. and the Collinwood Railroad Yards.  He died in 1984.

2. I went to high school with Helene Mlotek, who is probably related to Zalmen Mlotek, the New York klezmer macher.  Aren’t all Jewish Mloteks related?  Helene and I weren’t in any of the same classes.

3. Mary Lou Hribar grew up in and around Fritz’s Tavern, a polka hangout on E. 185th Street.  Her father, Fritz, was inducted into the Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame, under the category “proprietors.”   I once met Mary Lou at a Shaker Heights party and haven’t seen her since.  Fritz died in 2001.

4. I was at Claudia Hlebcar’s wedding . . .

OK, enough. Thank you for your patience.

— Bert Ptacek

Irregular Passover Humor:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N46JqHsCIxE

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April 1, 2015   5 Comments

MY SHOW BIZ LUNCH
IN CLEVELAND

I had a show biz lunch at Corky & Lenny’s.  The lunch was Hollywood-style, not Hollywood.  Bert Dragin, the owner of a furniture store chain, was looking for a movie script.  (This was in 1980. C&L’s was still at Cedar Center.)  Dragin said to me, “I’ve got money.  Everybody will talk to me in L.A.  Right now I have something in the Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival.” He suggested I write a screenplay about a fire at a gay nightclub in Atlanta.  Not my thing, sorry.

Dragin sold his Name Brand Furniture stores and moved to Hollywood to make movies.  He produced Suburbia (1983), and directed Summer Camp Nightmare (1987) and Twice Dead (1988).

I wrote a screenplay, The Flamer, about a bar mitzvah party where several kids got burned to death by playing with sterno.  [This paragraph is fiction.  The rest is true.]

Dragin ran a tab at Corky & Lenny’s, which he probably paid monthly. He acted in his TV ads for the furniture store.  “You heard of Erotic Salad?” he said. “It’s got a soft-X rating.”

“No.”  That’s as close as I got to Hollywood.

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March 4, 2015   6 Comments

MACHERS ON THE ROOF

Howard Metzenbaum was the big name in my father’s generation.  Metzenbaum made millions in parking lots, and eventually became a U.S. senator.  My father and Metzenbaum were born the same year, 1917, in Cleveland.  My dad didn’t know Metzenbaum but enjoyed following his career.

Metzenbaum, in his later years, owned a condo at Three Village, the holy of holies for upscale living in Cleveland.  The building went up in 1978 near Cedar Road at I-271.  The Three Village condo development was wooded and secluded.  My parents lived nearby, at the Mark IV apartments (now called the Hamptons).  I don’t know why my mother went to apartment living from a colonial in South Euclid.  She was a gardener, and then suddenly she was  doing tomatoes in pots on her Mark IV balcony.  My parents liked brand-new housing; they weren’t keen on used.  Everything had to be shiny and new, maybe because they grew up in poverty.

Across from the Mark IV was Acacia on the Green — a step up, rent- and prestige-wise.  Next to Acacia was Sherri Park, a step down.  Across from Sherri Park was Point East, a step up from Acacia but down from Three Village.  These buildings all went up in the 1970s and were popular with my parents’ generation.

three village

My parents never went inside Metzenbaum’s building.  I did.  I visited a friend who bought a condo in Three Village.  Metzenbaum was long gone — dead as of 2008 — and this was 2014.  The building’s buzzer directory read Maltz, Mandel, Ratner, Risman, Weinberger and Wuliger (among others).  Some of the condos were 7,500 square feet.

Maltz, Mandel, Ratner . . . Maybe you have to be an old Cleveland Jew to appreciate that.  If you’re not an old Cleveland Jew, and have read this far, please explain.

Buzz.  Come in.

Alan Douglass (L), Bert Stratton and Tamar Gray

Alan Douglass (L), Bert Stratton and Tamar Gray

The Klezmer Guy Trio performs at Nighttown, 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 25.  An evening of social commentary, plumbing tips and music. $10. 216-795-0550.   Alan Douglass, piano and vocals.  Tamar Gray, vocals.  Klezmer, soul and standards.  I’ll do prose blurts and play clarinet. 

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February 11, 2015   7 Comments

A FUNERAL WITH ALL
THE TRIMMINGS

The letter is from Milt — a friend of my parents — to his kids. 

May 15, 1990

Dear Children,

In 15 days I’ll be 71.

As you know, I’m not religious, but I do like a good party.

About my funeral: Use the gentile funeral home, Fioritto in Lyndhurst, to deliver my body to the Workmen’s Circle Cemetery.  Just bury me.  Invite some family and friends.  No rabbi!  I’ve never gone to synagogue, so don’t start with that now.

Pick a convenient Sunday afternoon to throw a memorial service at the Workmen’s Circle hall on Green Road.  There is plenty room, a loudspeaker, and a kitchen. Anybody who wants to speak, can speak. Except Bernstein.

I want a nice sendoff: trays, Scotch, music, dancing, food, coffee, pastry, wine and cold beer.  Whiskey too.  Hire a klezmer band — Bert Stratton’s band.  (Bert is Julia and Toby’s son.)  But remember, one hour of klezmer is enough.

Get the trays at Bernie Shulman’s at Cedar Center.  They’re good and cheap, but you have to pick up the goods yourself.  Get pastries from Acme supermarket at Mayfield near Green.  Their pastries are excellent and much cheaper than the Jewish bakeries.

I want coffee, lots of coffee; the Workmen’s Circle can make it by the gallon.  And plenty of soft drinks and wine — good wine. No Champagne.  And hire kitchen help.

Mom will say I’m nuts.  She can stay home if she wants!  This is what I want.

Love,

Dad

Footnote: Milt died 16 years after he wrote the letter.  He ate a lot and never exercised and lived to 87.  He had a graveside service with no band and no food.  No hard feelings, Milt.  All mourners received a copy of Milt’s brisket recipe at the funeral.

I slightly “enhanced” the letter.   I added Except Bernstein to “Anybody can speak. Except Bernstein.”  And I added “One hour of klezmer is enough.” Couldn’t help it.

“Milt” is a pseudonym.  If Milt’s children want his real name here, they’ll let me know.

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June 18, 2014   9 Comments

AMERICAN GREETINGS

“Cleveland is a hard town.  I came near committing suicide when I lived there.” — Robert Crumb, American Splendor intro, 1986.

Crumb worked for American Greetings. My dad, Toby, worked there too.

Toby was at American Greetings before Crumb.  My dad worked with Morry Stone, who eventually became a vice chairman.  My dad didn’t like working for anybody, including Morry, so Toby left in 1954.

Toby Stratton, 37, at American Greetings, 1954

Everybody in Cleveland has worked at American Greetings, I think.  Or tried to.  I applied for a job at American Greetings in 1981.

Plain Dealer, 1981

American Greetings had a Creative Building at West 78th Street.  I didn’t even get called in for an interview.  Maybe I wasn’t sick enough to write sick cards.

***

Robert Crumb again, 1996, Bob & Harv‘s Comics:  “Cleveland is a city that has been ravaged by financiers and industrialists . . . its population abandoned to their fate, left to freeze their ass off, standing in the dirty winter slush, waiting for a bus that is a long time coming.  Somehow they go on living.”

I haven’t lived anywhere else, so I can’t complain like Crumb.  I went to college in Ann Arbor (which doesn’t count) and spent a few months in Bogota, Colombia, in my twenties.

Bogota was tougher than Cleveland. That, I can testify to.  Bogota was rainy, gray, and headache-inducing from the high altitude.  Cleveland was simply rainy, gray and slushy.

***

A pilot stood in a grassy field by the Bogota airport and said, “Tell your friends to throw their packs in back and we’ll be off.”

They weren’t my friends.  They weren’t even Americans.

We climbed into the cargo section of the plane. “It smells like shit in here,” a Swiss girl said.

“This is Fish Airlines,” the pilot said.  (Aeropesca.)

We landed in the Amazon a few hours later.

I ran into a college friend in the Amazon! I knew him from my freshman dorm.  He said, “I scamp.”  That meant he sold gems, coke, pot or counterfeit bills.  “I’m going to reunite with my creators soon,” he said.

What?

“I’m going back to my parents.”

Adiós, amigo.

I tried to catch the ferry to Belem, Brazil. I waited several days in Leticia, Colombia, by the Amazon River dock, but the ferry didn’t arrive. I flew back to Bogota on the guppy/yuppie flight.  (Guppies to Bogota, yuppies to the Amazon.)

In Bogota, I froze — even indoors.  I wore two sweaters and socks-for-gloves in a small house I shared with a widow and her maid.  I taught English at a nearby private junior high.  For fun at night I read Cancer Ward .  I also looked at photos of beauty queens from El Espacio and El Bogotano — the tabloids. My bedroom had doggy pictures on the wall, a toy cannon on the windowsill, and a crucifix over the bed.

For mental exercise I tried to reconstruct my high school schedule: first and second periods, PSSC Physics.  What was third?  What was PSSC?  [Physical Science Study Committee.]  I didn’t know many people in Bogie.

I heard Charlie Byrd play “Bogota” in Bogota.  He was on a government-sponsored tour.  Byrd en guitarra, con bajo y batería. (Byrd on guitar, with bass and drums.)

I went back to Cleveland after three months.

American Greetings. I couldn’t take Bogie. The major bookstore in Bogota was run by a Nazi, I thought.  The owner was German, and I fabricated a fake bio, in my head,  about him. I went to the Peace Corps office to borrow more paperbacks.  I got Papillon, about a prisoner in Latin America.

I played blues harp for my English class.  The kids loved it but the administration didn’t.

I had to leave. Bogie was un frío horrible (a freezing cold).

Crumb should write about Bogota.  I want to hear his take on a real tough town.


Footnotes:
1.  My  Bogota adventure was  in 1974. 
2. I didn’t meet my college friend in the Amazon.  I met him in Bogota.   I remembered the encounter incorrectly. My friend straightened me out  in Cleveland in 2013. 

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February 12, 2014   5 Comments

I BRAKE FOR ETHNICITY

1.

Yiddishe Cup has shared the stage with the Hungarian Scouts, Ukrainian Kashtan dancers, and Csardas, a Hungarian troupe. These groups draw fans to local festivals, and the dancers perform in difficult odd meters. Yiddishe Cup doesn’t draw many fans to these multicultural shows. The typical Jew doesn’t want to watch Ukrainians, Poles, or Hungarians dance.

At one festival, some of the folk dances had sappy English titles, like “My Little Cherry Tree” and “I Love You, Shepherd Boy.” I took the printed program home and looked up the real titles:

“Tylko We Lwowie” (Let’s Get Out of Lviv)

“Frogisic Sie Pani” (My Bagpipes are Soggy)

“Jaz Pa Ti” (Dad is Tipsy)

“Pytala Sie Pani” (Pierogis With Butter, Senator)

“Llactosi Nyasa Pilsenioya” (I Hate Milk and Like Beer)

“Jak Szybko Hund Chwile” (Jacko’s Chili Dog Is Outstanding)

“Nasza Jest, Noc Tylko” (Not Tonight, Not Tomorrow.)

 

2.

I bought a raffle ticket for the St. Mary’s Church (Collinwood) fundraiser, Catholic Order of Foresters, Court #1640.

I bought the ticket from Stan. Stan’s father was Stan too.   Stan — my friend  Stan – got married at St. William’s Church, not St. Stan’s.  (St. Stan’s church is  Polish.  Stan is Slovenian.)

Stan’s wedding reception was at the big Slovenian National Home on  St. Clair Avenue at E. 65th Street. Stan hired his uncle’s polka band.  At the  wedding, we danced Slovenian-style polka — not the same as Polish-style polka.  (If you don’t know the difference, please see Harvey Pekar’s “Polka Wars” American Splendor, issue #16.)

Yiddishe Cup can play Slovenian! We’ve done Yankovic’s “Just Because” and “Blue Skirt Waltz,” and some charts from polka musician Joey Tomsick.

I won $20 in the St. Mary’s raffle.  I haven’t seen the money yet.

Slovenians are tight with a buck.  That’s their in-group reputation. Amongst themselves, Slovenians brag about their frugality, and they like to trash Lithuanians, who are even tighter.  Stan told me all this.

The St. Mary’s Church raffle was three years ago.  Stan, you owe me $23 — that’s $20 plus interest.   Pay up, Stan.  Any Stan.

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September 25, 2013   6 Comments

I HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT
HIGH SCHOOL IN DECADES

A friend from high school, Mike, found me on the Web and emailed me questions about real estate.  Mike lives in Minnesota. He added a postscript: “I haven’t thought about high school in decades!”  He listed a few old names – high school buddies.

I haven’t thought about high school in decades!  Was he bragging?  Like, “I’ve moved on.”

I think about high school fairly often.  I also think about grade school and pre-school — which is bad, because I didn’t even go to pre-school.

News flash: “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety” — New York Times, 7/9/13, John Tierney.

I go to reunions even when they’re not mine. I was at the 50th Cleveland Heights High reunion. I was playing a gig nearby and went into the  reunion for atmosphere. Go Tigers!

I wish teachers were invited to reunions. My 12th-grade English teacher, Mr. Hill, walked his dog by my house almost daily in the 1990s.  One day I got up the nerve to say hi.  He didn’t remember me!  He said, “I had so many students.”

Ann Wightman

I said, “I bet you remember Ann Wightman!”

Yes, he remembered Ann, the smartest woman ever and salutatorian. [See post about Ann here.]

I should call my high school buddy Dennis.  He’s around.

I should also call Howard. He’s in New York.  We occasionally vacation together to do in-depth analyses of our high school days, to talk about the Jewish “Tiger Mom” ethos of our youth — how it no longer exists (our youth and the Jewish “Tiger Mom” ethos).

Howard has constructed two main classifications for the Jews of South Euclid, circa 1965:  1. Racetrack Jews (gamblers / working class), 2. Refined Jews (sheyne, college-educated yehudim.)

My family was in between.  No New York Times, no Racing Form. We had the Cleveland Press on the doorstep.

I haven’t been back to my high school (Charles F. Brush) in decades.  It’s off my flow chart, even though it’s only 5 1/2 miles from my house.  If I entered my high school, I would probably feel very young or very old.  I think “very old” would win.  Not worth it.

I haven’t thought about high school . . . in seconds.

***

I gave the graphic novel Maus to a bat mitzvah girl as a gift.  The girl was the daughter of my high school friend Dennis.  Dennis returned Maus, saying, “She wants a gift certificate to an arts supply store.”

Dennis was the only person who could get away with that.

Dennis and I were born nine days apart at the same hospital.  We were the only Jews in our elementary school class.  (No wait, there was often a third Jew — Udelf.) Dennis and I were at Kent State the night before the shootings. I was the best man at his wedding. I went to a no-hitter with him.  We bought Playboys together. I was not Dennis’ best man the second time around.  He went on JDate and exchanged emails with a Philly woman almost immediately after his divorce. He said he was going to re-marry.  I said wait.  “You’re jumping off a cliff. ” He wouldn’t listen.

Dennis has been married to the Philly woman for about six years.  So I guess I was wrong.

Dennis and I occasionally meet at Jack’s Deli.  We are a couple middle-aged yidls trying to remember our first-grade teacher’s name.  Dennis remembers.  That’s worth a corned beef sandwich
to me.

Dennis and I haven’t been on the same wavelength since about seventh grade. (For instance, he loves sports and I’m blasé — unless the Tribe keeps winning.)

It’s my turn to call.

But maybe enough is enough.

No, I’ll call. Our second-grade teacher served chocolate milk at the Christmas concert.  She was the only teacher to ever give us a snack.  Who cares about that but Dennis?

“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human” — psychologist Constantine Sedikides (New York Times, 7/9/13).

Dialing Dennis:

NOstalgia 1-2323.

Just up at CoolCle, a Heinen’s grocery story.

Yiddishe Cup plays the West Virginia Jewish Reunion Sat. (Aug. 3) night.  All Jewish Mountaineers, be there.  Charleston, W. Va.

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July 31, 2013   2 Comments

SEIGER’S RESTAURANT

The cops at the Sixth District police station in Cleveland considered me a hippie spy from the Heights.  But when I told the cops I was a Seiger (“My uncle owned Seiger’s Restaurant on E.118th and Kinsman”), the cops warmed up to me. The cops — the older ones, the bosses — all knew Seiger’s Restaurant.

Cleveland Jewish News, 1968

Seiger’s Restaurant was a Damon Runyon casting hall on Kinsman Road. All manner of hustlers, cops, businessmen and shnorers (beggars) hung out there. The shnorers were Orthodox Jewish tzedakah (charity) collectors who had their own booth in the back.

Seiger’s, 11802 Kinsman Rd., 1957

My Great Aunt Lil Seiger served the shnorers kosher food from her apartment, which was at the back of the store. The shnorers wouldn’t eat the non-kosher food from the restaurant. The deli was kosher-style, not kosher.  “We served the rabonim [the rabbis] on special china and silverware,  milchig [dairy]’,” Lil’s son Danny said.

Seigers: Audrey (daughter), Lil, Danny (son) and Itchy, 1948

Rabonim and cops — ate well at Seiger’s. Nobody ever got a ticket for an expired parking meter, and sometimes cars were parked two-lanes deep on Kinsman.  “I couldn’t even spend a nickel in Seiger’s,” retired cop Bill Tofant said.

Itchy Seiger, my great uncle, was the owner and chief kibitzer (glad-handler/talker).  He had been a cloak maker in Galicia, Austria-Hungary.  Itchy was the greeter.  Aunt Lil did the cooking, except the breads and strudels, which she bought.

There was a party room, seating about 65, in the basement. The matchbooks read: “Seiger’s Restaurant, Delicatessen, Barroom and Rathskeller.”

Danny and Itchy Seiger, back row, from R. Shiva for Anna Soltzberg, South Euclid, Ohio, 1964

I didn’t go to Seiger’s Restaurant often.  My parents didn’t think Kinsman was the right direction for a Sunday drive. More often we wound up out east — the other direction — at the Metroparks.

Danny — my cousin —  started showing up at Yiddishe Cup gigs in the 2000s. I asked him about the mini-feud between his father (my Uncle Itchy) and my grandmother, Anna  Soltzberg (nee Seiger).  Itchy and Anna had been half-siblings. (Enough with the genealogy, Klezmer Guy!)  Danny said Itchy and Anna had had two things in common: sugar diabetes and iron wills.

My grandmother’s candy store — near Itchy’s deli on Kinsman — had frequently been “oyf tsoris” (badly off), and Itchy rescued it, Danny said.

Anna Soltzberg, center, 1950s. Others unknown

“Everybody loved Itchy,” Danny said. Everybody but my grandmother, who complained about Itchy’s buy-out terms on her store.  Later, my grandmother opened a candy store further east on Kinsman, near Shaker Heights.

Cleveland Plain Dealer ad, 1947

Cleveland Plain Dealer , 1947

“At the restaurant, there were two brothers, the Schoolers,” Danny said. “One, Joe, wanted a soft matzo ball. The other, Morty, wanted a matzo ball as hard as a baseball.  Ma made both kinds.  That’s how we thrived.”

Somebody should take Danny, age 80, and a video camera for a stroll down Kinsman. Walk Danny through the old neighborhood and into Seiger’s, which was recently a soul food restaurant.  (Today it’s boarded up.)

New World Restaurant, formerly Seiger’s, 2010.

The audio,
Danny: “This is where Ma made the mish-mash soup. She gave the recipe to Corky & Lenny’s. This is the counter where Jim Brown bounced a $10 check.  I should have saved it for the autograph.  This is where Oscar Schmaltz downed an industrial canister of soup.  Oscar weighed 400.”

Footnote:  Seiger’s is pronounced Sigh-ger’s (rhymes with High-gers) by Jews, and See-ger’s by cops.  Seiger’s closed in 1968.

For relatives only . . . family photo above, taken at the shiva  for Toby Stratton’s mother, Anna Soltzberg.
On floor, from L: Bert Stratton,  sister Leslie.

Middle: Aunt Lil Soltzberg of Washington;  unnamed woman who divorced out of  the family; Aunt Pearl Bregman; Great Aunt Molly Mittman; Marcia Seiger.

Top:  Uncle Milty Soltzberg, Toby Stratton, Julia Stratton, Uncle Sol Soltzberg, Great Uncle Sam Mittman, Aunt Lil Soltzberg of Delaware, Great Uncle Itchy Seiger, Danny Seiger.

(Sol Soltzberg, Milty Soltzberg, Pearl Bregman and Toby Stratton were siblings.)

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May 8, 2013   12 Comments

MISSISSIPPI BUBBE AND
THE XYLOPHONIST

I look for musical yikhes (lineage/pedigree) wherever I can find it.  My grandmother played piano at a white Baptist church in Yazoo City, Mississippi.  Not bad.

This Mississippi bubbe — Ida Kassoff Zalk — had a brother, Earl Kassoff, in Cleveland.  Earl was a drummer, xylophonist and house painter.  He went by the stage name Earl Castle, and led bands in the 1930s and 1940s.

Xylopainter

In the 1990s — when I first began looking for musical yikhes — I couldn’t find much info on Earl.  I talked to a couple relatives.  Earl didn’t leave behind sheet music or tune books.  He died in 1969.

At a Yiddishe Cup gig, an elderly musician schmoozed with me.  I asked him if he knew Earl Kassoff.  Yes, he  remembered Earl.  The schmoozer was Harold Finger, age 77.  He had made a living playing clarinet and sax during the 1930s and 1940s.

I took my tape recorder to Harold’s apartment and interviewed him. He said there were “four or five bands that got the Jewish work.”

I asked, “What bands?”  He didn’t remember the names.  “What were the most popular Jewish tunes?” I said.

He said, “The songs from the Kammen Book. That was the big thing.”

The Kammen International Dance Folio, published in 1924, is still around.  The Kammen book is to Jewish music what a sex manual is to sex. (Pianist Pete Sokolow makes this statement at most KlezKamp conventions.)

Kammensutra

My Uncle Earl’s band did mostly “dance work” — American music, Harold said. Earl worked the downtown theaters, as well as the Golden Pheasant — a Chinese restaurant where Artie Shaw started.

Harold said he didn’t stick to the melody all the time. He did some “faking” (improvising).  Now he played clarinet with a community orchestra.  “I don’t do much jobbing anymore,” he said.  (Jobbing is gigging.)

Harold died three years after the interview.  I thought his kids might enjoy the  interview tape, from 1992, so I called a Finger relative and left a message in the mid-1990s.

I didn’t hear back.

The relative should have called!  Harold’s wife was on the tape, teasing Harold about how he loved his saxophone more than her.  Harold said, “What? I quit playing music for you!”

Michiganders, come to the Klezmer Guy show at The Ark, Ann Arbor, Feb. 15. 8 p.m. $20.  Bert Stratton on clarinet and prose, Alan Douglass on piano and vocals, Gerald Ross on ukulele and Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Prose pieces will contain words such as “Ann Arbor,” “Michigan”  and “Rudy Tomjanovich.”


More on Mississippi Ida — my bubbe — later.  Maybe not.

Yikhes update.  Check out the latest from Jack Stratton’s band, Vulfpeck.

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February 6, 2013   6 Comments