Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index
Part 142 - Wild Night at the Mounds Club
Story filed May 28, 2013
Band leaders Ted Weems and Sammy Watkins planned a big night out with their wives. They got a lot more than they bargained for.
They took their wives to a spot called The Mounds Club, a mob-owned illegal retreat in an unassuming white frame house on Chardon Road just outside Cuyahoga County, near the bridge that now crosses Interstate 271. With illegal gambling and drinking, and top-flight national entertainers it was a nightspot that rivaled the most elegant restaurants and nightclubs in downtown Cleveland. Since it opened in 1930, during Prohibition, the club presented such nationally known entertainers as Lena Horne, Helen Morgan, Georgie Jessel, Sophie Tucker, and Joe E. Lewis.
MARTIN AND WATKINS
Sammy Watkins was a Cleveland institution. His band had played for years at the city’s top supper clubs. Eight years earlier, in 1939, when he heard a young singer from Steubenville who was working as a singing coupier at the Mounds Club, he hired him to sing with his band at the Vogue Room of the old Hollenden Hotel at East 6th and Superior. It was Watkins who changed that singer’s name to Dean Martin.
Ted Weems was a nationally famous bandleader who was playing this week at Cleveland’s Palace Theatre at East 17th and Euclid. He was riding the crest of a hit record called "Heartaches." Eleven years earlier at another gambling spot in Warren, Weems heard a young singer named Perry Como who was then with the Cleveland band of Freddie Carlone. Weems hired Como who sang with the Weems band for six years before becoming a major national star.
MOUNDS CLUB STAGE
On this night, Sunday, September 28, 1947, Watkins and Weems were not working; they were planning to spent an enjoyable night out with their wives as guests at this suburban mecca of indoor sports. There were about 250 customers in the club being entertained by TV comedian Peter Lind Hayes and his wife Mary Healy who was singing her impersonation of cabaret vocalist Hildegarde.
HEALY AND HAYES
As she was singing shortly after midnight, a group of men in stocking masks and olive drab army fatigues, armed with submachine guns, suddenly appeared in the crowded dining room. They had overpowered a security guard to get in and cut the club’s telephone lines.
Healy, thinking they were part of some kind of a joke, stopped singing and announced, "I will not go on with the show until the masked people sit down." One of the commandos leaped up on the small stage, waved his gun in her face and yelled, "This is a stickup, lady, and we’re not kidding!"
Weems, sitting in the audience, was still not convinced it was real. He thought it was part of a comedy routine and said to Watkins, "I don’t know why a good act needs garbage like this." When Healy and Watkins laughed at what was happening in front of them, one of the robbers suddenly fired a burst of bullets into the ceiling. Still believing it was part of an act, some people in the audience began laughing and applauding. But Weems spotted bullet holes in the ceiling and turned to Watkins and said, "Sam, this really is a stickup!"
Healy quickly dashed offstage and locked herself in the ladies room. The fat leader of the robbery team, who referred to each other by numbers, ordered all the guests to "Put your money, your jewelry, and your watches on the table!" The two well-known bandleaders, Watkins and Weems, put their hands in the air like prisoners of war and marched obediently toward the bandstand.
One man in the crowd, perhaps fortified with too many drinks, yelled, "These punks can’t push me around!" They did. The gunmen pushed him into a closet and locked the door. Despite the bullets fired into the ceiling, there was another man at the bar at the rear of the dining room quietly pouring himself a drink, apparently oblivious to what was happening.
The robbery team methodically collected the customers’ valuables, using table clothes as bags. With what appeared to be military precision, they also took money from the Mounds Club safe and from cash drawers. On their way out, one of the bandits spotted a big diamond ring on the finger of a man who was well connected to the Cleveland mob. He yelled at the gunman, "Do you know who I am?" The gunman said, "I don’t give a ---- who you are" and ripped the diamond ring off his finger. The total haul was later estimated at perhaps as much as $500,000. But nobody knew for sure because many of the victims at the illegal club refused to file police reports.
As the gunmen left, they stole three cars from the parking lot for their get-away. Included was a station wagon owned by Val Ernie, a trumpeter and the leader of the Mounds Club house band that was playing while Healy was singing.
After the robbers were gone, Watkins’ wife told her bandleader husband she had managed to hide her rings from the bandits by dropping them into cups of coffee and cream pitchers on the table. Another woman in the Watkins party said when she was told to dump the contents of her purse, she managed to hold about $1,500 in cash in her hands while dropping a few singles and loose change from her overturned pocketbook.
Following the mass robbery, the stunned crowd stormed the bar. John C. Miller, writing in the October 6, 1974 "Plain Dealer Magazine," said bandleaders Weems and Watkins ordered doubles and were amazed when they were presented a check for their drinks. They couldn’t pay it because their cash had been taken by the robbers.
While there was wide speculation that the armed robbery was staged by a rival gang, either Cleveland’s Mayfield Road Mob or the infamous Purple Gang from Detroit, there were never any arrests or convictions. But, according to Hank Messick, in his book "The Silent Syndicate," the Cleveland mob managed to quietly find and knock off the men who staged the daring robbery. Messick said the last was shot and killed on a Chicago street not long after the Mounds Club robbery.
After that wild night, the colorful Mounds Club was never quite the same as it had been for 17 years. In 1949, two years after the robbery, Ohio Governor Frank Lausche vowed to close the club which for years had ignored Ohio’s gambling and liquor laws. The Cleveland gang leaders who owned the club decided in 1950 to sell and move their act from the Cleveland area to safer and more lucrative Las Vegas. There they built and operated the Desert Inn. One of the owners was later quoted saying, "In Cleveland I was a bum; in Las Vegas I’m an industrialist."
Copyright 2013 Joe Mosbrook
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