The Theatrical: Characters Welcome

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is coming out in early November. Here’s a preview of the book– taken from Chapter 34.

The movie about Cleveland gangster Danny Greene, Kill the Irishman, featured several references to the Theatrical Restaurant on Short Vincent Street in downtown Cleveland. The restaurant closed in the early 1990s, but in its heyday it was the smartest joint in town.

Having mentioned the movie, let me clarify something. I never saw Danny Greene in the Theatrical. I don’t know where he hung out, probably in the Collinwood neighborhood. As for Shondor Birns, he only ate lunch there, always at the first table to the left. That was Shondor’s table. He was never there at night. I never saw Cleveland’s leading Italian gangsters at the Theatrical, either, and I was there a lot. They favored the Murray Hill neighborhood and other east side Italian spots.

But this isn’t about them.

My denizens of the night included gamblers, detectives, lawyers, sports figures, broadcasters and other characters, including the most colorful figures in Cleveland history, and you would find them at the Theatrical. That’s where The Plain Dealer sportswriter Bob Dolgan fought a draw with boxing trainer Richie Giachetti. When the New York Yankees were in town, they signed their tabs and the bill went to George Steinbrenner. When Dick Jacobs was riding high as owner of the Indians, he picked up the tab for the entire joint for three hours one St. Patrick’s Day. Imagine, wall-to-wall Irishmen drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. The bill could have financed the first Gulf War.

Among professional drinkers, nobody rivaled Dick Lamb, heir to a trucking fortune. He slept until two o’clock every afternoon and then began his nightly rounds. He had a regular routine. In the early evening he joined his best friend, Creighton Miller, and other pals at the Pewter Mug downtown, always at table 14. From there he would move on to the Theatrical Restaurant. Dick never needed a big introduction. He announced his arrival in a loud, gravelly voice that carried a great distance.

“Gentlemen, start your engines!” he usually bellowed as he walked into the bar.

This from a tall, lanky, gray-haired man wearing glasses and a business suit. Everyone looked up. He could be heard even above the din of the band.

He sometimes varied his anthem. “Prepare to dismount and fight on foot!” he would declare.

Sadly, Dick died when he ran his Bentley into the railroad trestle at E. 55th St. and Euclid Ave. at two o’clock in the morning. Several bartenders were grief-stricken. Dick usually bought drinks for everyone present and he was a big tipper.

He never should have let his chauffeur go. Dick lost his license a few years earlier for driving with a snoot full. He spent thirty days in jail. They treated him well in jail. He had a television and a small bar set up in the doorway of his cell, which was usually left open. He was the first inmate in that suburban pokey to host happy hour every afternoon.

I once called the jail and asked to speak to Dick Lamb.

“I’ll see if he’s available. Whom shall I say is calling?” said the desk sergeant.

When he was released, he was not permitted to drive for a year but life didn’t change. He hired a chauffeur who picked him up in the afternoon and they made their rounds from bar to bar. His chauffeur usually found a chair off to the side and watched Dick drink. When the year was up the chauffeur handed Dick the keys to his Bentley.

* * *

Notre Dame and the Naval Academy have met in football every year since 1927 and 11 of those games were at Cleveland Stadium. Notre Dame was a big draw in Cleveland. Two days before the 1976 game I entertained the two sports information directors at dinner. They were my old friends, Roger Valdiserri of Notre Dame and Tom Bates of Navy, the publicity men for their respective schools. Bates, in fact, was my old college classmate from Notre Dame. It was Thursday night, Oct. 29. The teams didn’t arrive in town until the next day.

I made a reservation at the Theatrical and we sat at Shondor Birns’ table. Valdiserri, who didn’t drink, had a Coke while Bates and I tossed back a beer and looked at the menu. We were barely settled when I noticed sports agent Ed Keating in a far corner negotiating a player’s contract with Ted Turner, neophyte owner of the Atlanta Braves. I waved at Ed. He waved back at me. When they finished dinner and made their deal, Turner agreed to pay an outlandish sum to free agent outfielder Gary Matthews, far more than he was worth. Then they headed over to our table and sat down. The adjacent table was empty so we pulled it up against ours.

I made the introductions. Keating was frequently in the news but Turner was a relative unknown. He had owned the Atlanta Braves for only a few months. His various cable television networks were in their infancy. He had neither skippered the sailboat “Courageous” to the America’s Cup victory nor married Jane Fonda.

While everybody was getting acquainted, boxing promoter Don King wandered by and he sat down. I performed the introductions. King knew nothing about college football but he liked the sound of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. King, a convicted killer, had been out of prison only about three years and already was an important boxing promoter. At that very moment he was putting together a professional boxing series and he needed venues. Notre Dame sounded like a good place.

King moved closer to Valdiserri and soon had him against the ropes. The last person in the world Valdiserri wanted as a business partner was Don King. Valdiserri kept fighting him off. King was relentless.

Turner, meanwhile, having discovered that Bates was from the Naval Academy, launched into a long, boastful monologue about his own sailing expertise, such as racing on Annapolis Bay. Bates, unaware that Turner actually was an accomplished seaman and that he was captain of the Brown University sailing team during his college days, did not believe a word of it.

“Who is this guy? He’s full of bullshit,” Bates whispered to me.

Bored with Turner’s boasting, Bates turned his attention to King, who was going nowhere with Valdiserri. I’m not saying this was a major career mistake by Bates, but it did not gild his resume. Some people see dead end roads. King sees eight-lane super highways. A heavyweight boxing series on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier was even better than a fight at a football school. King was on Bates like a mongoose on a cobra.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Nick Mileti sashayed by and he sat down. We pulled up another table. Everyone was getting paired up. Mileti talked to Turner about pro basketball. Keating talked to Valdiserri about Notre Dame football players. King talked to Bates about the aircraft carrier. I sat back and waited for the next guy to sit down.

All this time we were ordering dinner and drinks and appetizers. The next guy to arrive did not sit down. He was the waiter and he handed me the bill. I stared at it a long time. It would not bankrupt The Plain Dealer but it would get special attention from the accounting department.

“I suppose you expect me to pick up the bill,” said Turner. Keating had bruised him so badly that Turner was conditioned. He actually expected to get my bill, as well.

“It never occurred to me,” I said. “But since you brought it up. I’ll flip you for it.”

I dug a quarter out of my pocket and flipped it. I caught it. I peeked. I won.

I won a $500 bar bill.

Here’s how it ended. Keating paid the bill. His monthly bar bill at the Theatrical exceeded $1,000 anyway.

The following summer Turner skippered “Courageous” to victory in the America’s Cup and he wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1977.

Don King staged his boxing series at the Naval Academy, at a naval installation in Florida and on the aircraft carrier Lexington docked at Pensacola, Florida, all thanks to Tom Bates. It did not go well, however. There were allegations of fixed fights, phony records, contract violations and generally every possible ethics violation, which in boxing is a long list. One fight on the hallowed grounds of the U. S. Naval Academy was so obviously rigged that the losing fighter, heavyweight Scott LeDoux, stormed around the ring and inadvertently knocked off Howard Cosell’s toupee. LeDoux, after all, had just outpunched the inept Johnny Boudreaux, 50-1. One of the judges, Carol B. Polis, explained the decision. “Johnny Boudreaux threw possibly 10 punches and Scott LeDoux threw maybe 500,” she said. “But Johnny’s were effective. We had a unanimous decision for Johnny Boudreaux. It’s not the amount of punches you throw. It’s how they land.”

The FBI investigated the judges. ABC cancelled the TV contract and Ring Magazine, which rigged its ratings to support King, backed away in disgrace.

When Turner bought the Atlanta arena, he hired Keating to handle contract negotiations with promoters who booked the building for ice shows, conventions and other events. Turner had learned the hard way that night in the Theatrical that Keating was the best.

* * *

Historic events often began at the Theatrical. That’s how Art Modell bought the Browns and former Browns running back Fred (Curly) Morrison earned a fat commission on the deal.

Morrison told me the story many years ago. After his seven-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns ended, he went to work as an advertising salesman for CBS television. Because he was from the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, had played at Ohio State and spent three years with the Browns, CBS assigned him to handle the accounts of the Akron rubber companies.

“Whenever I called on the rubber companies, I would come through Cleveland and stop in the Theatrical Grille. That’s where you found out what was going on in Cleveland,” Morrison said.

In January 1961, Morrison had dinner at the Theatrical before catching the last Capitol Airlines flight back to New York. That night he learned that the Cleveland Browns were for sale and his interest was piqued. He made some inquiries and learned that Dave Jones was the point man for the owners.

For the previous eight years, a syndicate of wealthy Cleveland investors including Jones, insurance man Ellis Ryan, Saul Silberman and Homer Marshman had owned the Browns. All were sportsmen. Ryan had once been president of the Cleveland Indians. Silberman owned Randall Park Racetrack. Marshman was an attorney who had founded the Cleveland Rams in the National Football League in the 1930s and later owned a piece of Northfield Park Racetrack. They were making money on their investment each year, but they felt they wanted to move their funds elsewhere. A minor investor was Bob Gries, whose family owned the May Co. department store.

Morrison reached Jones on the phone.

“He told me they already had an offer of two million dollars from a Cleveland investor,” said Morrison.

They were happy with that. It represented a nice profit. They had bought the Browns for $600,000 in 1953 from Arthur B. (Mickey) McBride, who had paid $50,000 for the original franchise in 1946. The value of pro football teams was escalating.

“But I told him I could get him more. I said I could get him three million,” said Morrison. “I knew something they didn’t. I knew that CBS had just agreed to a new contract with the NFL that would pay each team another one million dollars per year. It hadn’t been announced yet. The owners didn’t even know.”

“You’ve got thirty days to find a buyer,” said Jones.

Morrison went back to his office in New York. He was on the clock. At stake was a 10 percent finder’s fee, enough to set him up for life. The days turned into weeks and Morrison had nothing. Less than a week remained when Art Modell picked up the scent. Modell was a degenerate pro football fan. The Giants were his team but the Browns also made Modell’s heart skip a beat.

At the age of 35, Modell had accumulated a modest fortune in the advertising business. He had become executive vice-president and partner of the H. L. Hartman Company and he also owned a television production company.

Modell hungered to buy the Browns. He sold his production company and borrowed to the max from banks. He was still more than a million dollars short.

In an unusual deal, Gries agreed to increase his shares in the team. Instead of selling, he bought back in at the new price. Essentially, Bob Gries became Modell’s partner. Gries owned almost 40 percent of the Browns, but he was content remaining in the background.

The selling price was $3,925,000. The price of the Browns had increased almost 80 times in 15 years.

Curly Morrison walked away with nearly $400,000 and started a television production company in California. He never set foot in the Theatrical again.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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