Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 76 - Benny Goodman’s Bum Steer in Cleveland
At the end of the 1939 baseball season, when the Cleveland Indians finished in third place, a 34-year-old man named Larry Sunbrock rented Cleveland Municipal Stadium to stage what he called "a wild west rodeo thrill show and swing concert." He booked the high-flying Benny Goodman Orchestra to perform with such diverse attractions as auto daredevils, motorcycle races, a balloon ascension, Indian dances, and a cowboy bull-riding contest. Heavy advertising brought about 42,000 people to Cleveland Stadium on Sunday afternoon, October 1st, 1939.
The promoter’s big show did not go well. During the so-called "grand entry," only a few dozen of the "12-hundred stars" Sunbrock had promised took part. Many of the advertised 60 events never materialized.
The Goodman band, which had just arrived in Cleveland by plane from Chicago, did play briefly, providing the music for a jitterbug contest. The contest was won by dancers Mary Wynne of Willard and a man with the unlikely name of Buzzy Buzard of Mansfield. It was a cold October day at the Stadium. An article in Downbeat magazine said pianist Fletcher Henderson wore a topcoat throughout the performance and several other band members wore sweaters under their white coats. Guitarist Charlie Christian and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton did not play because there was no electrical connection on the field for their amplifiers.
After the jitterbug contest, there were motorcycle races, and auto daredevils driving cars through brick walls and board fences. A driver named Walt Koivac, who was billed as "a Hollywood stunt man," suffered burns when his car crashed into a flaming barrier and caught fire.
For the rodeo bull-riding event, the promoter had set-up a flimsy wire fence corral in the infield of the baseball diamond. During the rodeo, a big Brahma bull tossed a cowboy, then crashed through the fence, and darted toward the grandstand. Near the first base dugout, the big steer leaped over a four-foot railing into the box seats, sending spectators scrambling for safety. Then, as cowboys on horseback watched from the safety of the field, the bull butted a 21-year-old spectator to the floor and ran up an aisle to the runway that led beneath the grandstands. After a minute or two of bovine bewilderment, the big bull started up a ramp leading to the back sections of the lower stands. With the spectators in near panic, the steer made a running leap and landed in some seats that only seconds earlier had been occupied by spectators.
Finally, after 17 spectators had been injured, the cowboys went into the grandstand and managed to control the big bull with ropes. As they were trying to drag him back to the field, Cleveland Police Captain Harry Weis suggested that, in the interest of safety, the bull be left in the stands until the show ended. The steer was tied to the seats and stayed there until the Stadium was emptied.
Two spectators were rushed to Charity Hospital – a Lakewood man and a former Lakewood city councilman. Fifteen others were treated at the Stadium first aid station.
In the midst of all this confusion, promoter Larry Sunbrock announced that the planned second show, during the evening, was called off. He said the Benny Goodman Orchestra, billed as the headliners of the night performance, had "unexpectedly" been called back to New York City.
According to The Plain Dealer, the Goodman band had arrived in Cleveland from Chicago at one o’clock in the afternoon aboard a United Airlines chartered plane and planned to leave Cleveland for New York shortly after the afternoon performance. The newspaper quoted Goodman’s agent as saying Goodman had been booked for only the afternoon performance and had to be back in New York for the World’s Fair. Apparently, promoter Sunbrock, at the last minute, asked Goodman to stay for a second performance at night, but Goodman refused.
When the nighttime second performance was canceled, there were hundreds of phone calls to newspapers and radio stations from disappointed patrons, many of whom had come to Cleveland from out of town for the widely-advertised show. There were also rumors that the promoter had left Cleveland with the receipts of the afternoon show. But, Stadium Manager Herbert Bruckman announced the receipts, almost 30-thousand dollars, had been wisely impounded by the city which would pay refunds on unused tickets.
The next day in Pittsburgh, promoter Sunbrock stuck to his story that Goodman and his band had been engaged for both the afternoon and evening performances. But, United Airlines said Goodman had arranged the day before the show to take his band out of Cleveland by chartered plane between 4 and 5 o’clock, hours before the night performance. The interview with the promoter was done by a young announcer at radio station WGAR. His name was Jack Paar, later the host of the Tonight Show on NBC.
Benny Goodman did not return to Cleveland for more than a year, but he went on to immortality in his chosen field. So did promoter Sunbrock. He continued promoting wild west thrill shows through the 1940s, offering his "rubes" a thousand dollars if they could stay on a Brahma bull named "Big Sid" for ten seconds. Then, in the 1960s, when he promoted an all-star country music show in Birmingham, Alabama, he faked a heart attack, fled with the proceeds in a hired ambulance, and never paid the artists, including country music legend Red Foley.
The ill-fated rodeo and swing concert at Municipal Stadium in 1939, with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, was, no doubt, one of the most unusual jazz gigs in Cleveland history.
Copyright 2003 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book will be published in September by the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society.