Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 93 - The Theatrical Grill
Story filed January 13, 2005

It was Cleveland’s longest running jazz nightclub where almost all of the jazz greats performed. The Theatrical Grill at 711 Vincent Avenue downtown, was also the city’s best known and most colorful meeting, eating and drinking spot for more than half a century. The Theatrical was the anchor of "Short Vincent," a 485-foot street of nightclubs nestled amid the tall buildings of Euclid and Superior Avenues and East 9th and East 6th Streets.

Morris "Mushy" Wexler opened the Theatrical in 1937. Wexler ran a gambling wire service that provided odds for bookies and was later accused by a Senate committee of being a member of the Cleveland mob. Retired Cleveland newspaperman Julian Krawcheck, who came to Cleveland the same year the Theatrical opened, said, "Mushy was a racketeer in his early years, but he became a gentleman restaurateur and was really a delightful man."

The Theatrical quickly attracted large crowds of sports and entertainment figures, lawyers, reporters and gamblers. According to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Short Vincent offered "good food, underworld gossip, and the odds on almost anything."

Wexler’s grandson, Jeffrey Spitz, sitting at the bar in the Theatrical, recalled, "This was probably the only place in the city of Cleveland where judges and lawyers sat with felons. We had a mixed group of people – every judge, every lawyer, and probably every hoodlum in the city of Cleveland hung out here. And when they were at the Theatrical, they were perfect gentlemen. We never had a problem. Everybody got along just wonderfully."

Longtime Cleveland Press columnist Winsor French, who covered the local entertainment beat in a Rolls Royce, once wrote that Short Vincent was "the only part of Cleveland that literally never goes to bed." He said, "It slows down, but it’s never quiet for very long." According to one Short Vincent legend, two regulars were disappointed when they saw a sign on their favorite bar saying, "Closed for Alterations." One looked at the other and said, "They must be washing the glasses."

In the early 1940s, when a young singer named Dean Martin was performing with the Sammy Watkins Orchestra next door at the Vogue Room of the Hollenden Hotel, he would dash over to the Theatrical to join impromptu jam sessions with the jazz musicians. Wexler booked a parade of jazz greats. In the early years, recalled Krawcheck, "It was almost entirely hot jazz musicians including Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden."

Others who performed at the Theatrical included Earl "Fatha" Hines, Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Oscar Peterson, Dorothy Donegan, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Butterfield. They didn’t come to Cleveland for one-nighters; they were on the bandstand at the Theatrical six nights a week, usually for a couple of weeks.

The club and the jazz artists attracted dozens of world-famous entertainers including Edward G. Robinson, Victor Borge, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra and Lorne Greene. "Whenever they were in town," said Spitz, "they would come here."

Morrie Fisher, the longtime head waiter at the Theatrical, recalled celebrities who visited the club: heavyweight champion Joe Louis, actresses Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, actors Don Ameche and Yul Brynner, and sports figures Boog Powell, Blanton Collier and Billy Martin. Longtime Cleveland jazz enthusiast Ron Watt recalled one night seeing New York Yankees’ manager Martin sitting on one side of the bar with Cleveland politicians and mobster Danny Greene (who was later killed in a mob bombing) on the other side of the bar.

A disastrous fire broke out at the Theatrical September 13, 1960. Spitz recalled, "There were fire engines all over Vincent Avenue, Superior and East 9th Street. It was probably the worst fire of the year in Cleveland." It took almost five hours for the firemen to control the blaze. The building and the Theatrical Grill were destroyed. "My grandfather was beside himself," said Spitz. "His whole life was here. There wasn’t anything we could save except one bottle of Scotch that my dad (Wexler’s son-in-law, Buddy Spitz) has at home as a remembrance."

Almost immediately after the fire, Wexler announced he would rebuild the club. During the construction, Wexler rented a corner bar at the Hollenden and managed to keep most of his employees on the payroll and his regular customers supplied with beverages.

The handsome new $1.2 million restaurant opened about a year later with jazz trumpeter Jonah Jones on the bandstand. After the fire, Wexler continued his policy of featuring top name jazz artists. The 1960s saw such jazz performers as Clark Terry, Jimmy Forrest, Red Norvo, Urbie Green, Dizzy Gillespie and Muggsy Spanier.

From the early 1960s, the "house band" at the Theatrical consisted of drummer Bob KcKee, pianist Hank Kohout and bassist Ken Seiffert. They played six nights a week for 17 years until Wexler died in March of 1979. After his death, Krawcheck said the music policy changed to include pop performers.

In the 1970s, downtown Cleveland’s nightlife was gradually migrating to the Flats, a new entertainment area along the Cuyahoga River. By the 1980s, the Theatrical was the only nightclub left on Short Vincent and continued to offer jazz by such favorites as Bill Doggett, Harold Betters and Randy Moroz, who played piano for lunch and dinner. A favorite for many years was Glen Covington.

In June of 1990, 53 years after the club opened, the Theatrical stopped presenting live jazz. For a couple of years in the 1990s, Jim Swingos rented the restaurant and made a brief attempt at restoring its former glory, but Swingos did not attract enough business to pay the bills. By the end of the 20th century, the building was still there but there was no jazz, just a so-called "Gentlemen’s Club" -- and memories of half a century of live jazz.

Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook

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