Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 133 - Jazz Legends at the Theatrical

Story filed February 10, 2011


If you were listening to jazz in Cleveland in the 1950s and ‘60s, you undoubtedly remember the Theatrical on Short Vincent, the one-block long Vincent Avenue downtown, where most of the city’s lawyers, judges, reporters, sports figures and gamblers congregated. The Theatrical was constantly presenting live entertainment by some of the biggest jazz names in the country. But you may have forgotten just how many there were. I recently searched through hundreds of old newspaper articles and ads, trying to compile a comprehensive list.

In the early years, from 1937 to the mid-1950s, club owner Morris "Mushy" Wexler booked mostly popular singers, but from 1955 to 1972, the Theatrical Grill and Restaurant presented many of the most important performers in jazz history, playing six nights a week, usually for a couple of weeks at a time.

Among the featured artists at the Theatrical in 1955 were singer Maxine Sullivan, pianist and singer Dorothy Donegan, pianist Don Shirley, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and singer Rose Murphy. Writing in The Plain Dealer, Glenn C. Pullen said of Marian McPartland, "Jimmy’s lean, sun-tanned wife plays the piano with rippling imagination and a fine sense of dynamics."

She returned with her trio in 1956, along with pianists Lou Stein, Barbara Carroll and Joe Sullivan.

In 1957, Jimmy and Marian McPartland played together in March and cornet-playing Jimmy led his dixieland group for two weeks in November. Also in May of 1957, trumpeter Jonah Jones, who had lived on East 76th Street in Cleveland in the late 1920s before touring with Cab Calloway, made his first visit to the Theatrical to play for four weeks. Jones and his muted jazz proved so popular that he was booked for two more weeks in September and a total of 64 weeks over the next 15 years.

Jonah Jones

In 1958, in addition to two more multi-week stays by Jones, Wexler brought in jazz violinist Stuff Smith, pianist Teddy Wilson, and dixieland cornetist Wild Bill Davidson.

By 1959, Wexler was offering a very heavy schedule of traditional jazz with Ruby Braff, Ray Bauduc and Nappy LaMare from the old Bob Crosby Bobcats, trumpeter Billy Butterfield, all-time trombone king Jack Teagarden, Rex Stewart, West Coast dixielander Turk Murphy, trumpeter Charlie Shavers and two more engagements by Jonah Jones.

Jonah Jones

In 1960, Jones, Butterfield, Wilson, Murphy, Teagarden and Donegan all returned, in addition to newcomers Billy Maxted and his dixieland band, drummer Cozy Cole, Sharkey Bonnano from New Orleans, Earl Bostic, singer-composer Matt Dennis, pianist Ramsey Lewis, and "Sugar Blues" trumpeter Clyde McCoy. But in September of 1960, the Theatrical Grill at 715 Vincent Avenue was destroyed by a spectacular fire.

Mushy Wexler

Wexler spent $1,200,000 to rebuild his nightclub. He renamed it "The Theatrical Restaurant" and changed the address to 711 Vincent, a number easily remembered by gamblers who were among the clientele. When Wexler reopened the first week of October 1961, the first act was the popular Jonah Jones. He was followed in late 1961 by pianist Hazel Scott, Billy Maxted, trombonist Tyree Glen, vibraphonist Red Norvo, singer Joe Williams, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, multi-instrumentalist Bobby Sherwood, and singer and bandleader Tony Pastor – all in a three month period.

The parade of major national artists continued in 1962 with Wild Bill Davidson, Eddie Condon, Teddy Wilson, Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Henry "Red" Allen, Art Van Damme, Bobby Hackett, Jonah Jones, Red Nichols, Yank Lawson, Charlie Shavers, Dorothy Donegan, Billy Maxted, and Jack Teagarden. Teagarden celebrated his 57th birthday at the Cleveland club.

The lineup in 1963 included Phil Napoleon, Eddie Miller, Nappy LaMare, Charlie Shavers, Muggsy Spanier, Billy Butterfield, the Bourbon Street Six, Billy Maxted and Cozy Cole.

Playing at the Theatrical in 1964 were Wilbur deParis, Wild Bill Davidson, Jonah Jones, Billy Maxted, Dorothy Donegan, Stan Rubin’s Tigertown Five, and Teddy Wilson.

In 1965, it was Jonah Jones, Teddy Wilson, Wilbur deParis, Billy Maxted, and Henry "Red" Allen. Jones set an all-time attendance record during a three-week run in July.

There were long lines on Short Vincent when the Dukes of Dixieland played for the month of January in 1966. They were followed by Jonah Jones, Gene Krupa, Henry Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Bushkin, Doc Severinsen, and a variety of lesser known entertainers. Gillespie played at the Theatrical for two weeks in April.

By 1967, touring performers were beginning to command much higher fees and many clubs stopped or cut back booking national acts. But Wexler, who said he was spending $250,000 a year for entertainers (an average of $4,800 a week), continued to bring major jazz names to the Theatrical. In ‘67, they included: Gene Krupa, Charlie Shavers, Jo Jones, Art Van Damme, Jonah Jones (for four weeks), Doc Severinsen, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge. Krupa and his group almost missed their February opening when they were forced to drive through a big snowstorm on their way to Cleveland from Chicago.

In 1968, Wexler booked Jones (for five weeks), Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Roy Eldridge, Wild Bill Davidson, Eddie Condon, Kai Winding, Art Van Damme, Bobby Hackett and Marian McPartland. Hines, in an interview with The Plain Dealer, complained about the constant noise in the Theatrical and the fact that the bandstand was right above the circular bar. But Hines returned in later years.

The list of Theatrical performers in 1969 included Roy Eldridge, Claude Hopkins, Urbie Green, Jonah Jones, Charlie Shavers, Maxine Sullivan, Tyree Glenn, Joe Bushkin and Clark Terry.

In 1970, when the Theatrical was also beginning to book some rock-oriented entertainers, there was still a strong line up of jazz players including Tryee Glen, Urbie Green, Jimmy McPartland, Anita O’Day, Junior Mance, Jonah Jones and Earl "Fatha" Hines.

Jones made his last appearance at the Theatrical in July of 1971 when the number of nationally-known jazz artists was beginning to diminish. But, in 1972, when the Theatrical was the only entertainment spot remaining on the once very active Short Vincent, Wexler booked Sy Oliver, Bobby Hackett and Earl Hines.

In later years, when downtown restaurants were struggling and the national names became too expensive, the most jazz popular entertainers at the Theatrical included Glen Covington, Bill Doggett, Harold Betters, Rick Hardeman and Duke Jenkins. Wexler died in 1979 and his son-in-law, Buddy Spitz, continued to present the entertainers until 1990 when he was forced to cut back to only a cocktail pianist.

Jim Swingos bought the Theatrical in 1992 but, with Cleveland’s night life moving to the Flats, he was unable to make a go of it. For a couple of years, there was a so-called "gentlemen’s club" with young girls dancing on brass poles in the spot where dozens of jazz legends had played for big and enthusiastic crowds just a couple of decades earlier. Today, there is no sign of the Theatrical on Short Vincent, only an entrance to a parking garage.

Copyright 2011 Joe Mosbrook

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