When Mel Rose Went Bust

With the start of the NBA season postponed, there is much handwringing in the media about the effect of a shutdown on the ordinary workers who earn a living off the NBA, such as the ushers and vendors inside the building. Then there are the ancillary businesses located in the vicinity of Quicken Loans Arena, especially the bars and restaurants that will furlough cooks, bartenders and servers, parking lot attendants, cops working overtime.

    Let me paint a very real picture of one man’s tragedy because of a strike. This is the story of Mel Rose.

    When the Richfield Coliseum opened in 1974, the place to be seen before and after games was Mel Rose’s restaurant, The Tavern of Richfield.  The old Coliseum was a hopping place, with the Cavs basketball, Crusaders hockey and the Force indoor soccer. Besides that, there were concerts, ice shows, tractor pulls, the circus and even a couple of major heavyweight fights. All these events generated a lot of business for Mel Rose. He even opened up a second restaurant inside the Coliseum.

    When the Coliseum closed in 1994 and everything moved downtown, so did Mel Rose. After 20 great years in Richfield, he sunk everything he had, every last dime, into a fancy restaurant on the corner of  East Ninth Street and Bolivar. It was directly across the street from the new ballpark. The new basketball arena was just beyond the ballpark.

    Mel’s joint was very upscale. He brought in a general manager from Chicago and paid him handsomely, which shows you how serious he was.

    He opened in time for the Indians’ 1994 home opener. President Bill Clinton threw out the first pitch. I don’t think downtown Cleveland ever was cooler than that, and I’m not talking about the weather. The Indians, meanwhile, got hot and for the first time in 35 years they were actually in the pennant race. Mel Rose’s place was jumping. The Indians were about to overtake the Chicago White Sox for first place when, in early August, baseball went on strike. The season was over. There was no World Series. And the strike was not resolved until the following April, delaying the start of the 1995 season.

    For months, Mel refused to lay off his staff. They came to work each day and twiddled their thumbs. Nobody knew how long the strike would last. Mel kept hoping. Maybe they’ll reach a settlement tomorrow. Maybe next week. Almost four months passed before the basketball and minor league hockey traffic arrived, but Mel couldn’t survive on basketball and minor league hockey alone.

    In the meantime, he sold his family’s second car and his boat in order to pay his worker’s salaries. He second-mortgaged his house. He was suddenly so deep in debt there was no escape. He studied the small type of his life insurance forms. He pondered suicide. He couldn’t find the answer there, either. All he could do was hold on.

    He slowly crawled back to even thanks the Indians. When play resumed the Indians began a string of 455 straight sellouts. Mel’s restaurant was packed before and after home games.

    The halcyon days were short-lived, however. Because of another strike, the NBA season of 1998-99 did not begin until Feb. 5, 1999. Almost half the season was wiped out.  Mel’s restaurant became a very quiet place. One Sunday morning Maddy and I put together a brunch at Mel’s restaurant with Gib Shanley and his wife, Jan, and our old friend Marilyn Madigan, a widow. We were the only ones there.

   Not long afterward Mel got out. He sold what was left of his business and moved to Port Clinton, where he opened another restaurant on a smaller scale. A few years ago he got sick and died. Mel was a good guy and he ran a chic joint. He made only one mistake. He hitched his star to pro sports, an industry out of control.

    That’s all. Now that my book, “Pass the Nuts,” is in the hands of the printer, I have more time to spend here.  “Nuts” is only $14.95. Buy several copies. It will be available the first week in November.

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