During World War II and into the early ’50s, Cleveland probably had more nightclubs than any other city in the country outside of New York and Chicago.
The city also became a launching pad for a number of successful orchestras—Guy Lombardo and Sammy Kaye, to mention two. That’s because at the time, when radio was still king, Cleveland had a 50,000-watt radio station, WTAM, and the networks asked all 50,000-watters to program two to three hours of network feed from their call letters. Thus quality orchestras would come to Cleveland just to get on the radio in order to sell themselves to other cities throughout the country.
There were nightclubs up and down Euclid Avenue and on side streets from downtown to East 107th Street. I had some favorites: the Cabin Club, which had Redd Foxx as emcee and great bands and a lot of dancing; Lindsey’s Sky Bar, and Chin’s Chinese, both of which featured such legendary jazz pianists as Art Tatum and Fats Waller, and boogie-woogie masters Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. Moe’s Main Street offered the song stylings of Tony Benedetto, whom you know as Tony Bennett, and later Johnnie Raye, who wept his way through “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” Dean Martin was singing at the Hollenden Hotel.
Borselino’s Restaurant also booked nightclub acts, and I worked there with a trio called “The Three Sons” and a short, baby-faced singing star named Bobby Breen. One night he and I went over to the Statler Hotel at East 12th and Euclid. There, a singer named Karl Brisson was holding forth with George Duffy’s orchestra. Very tall, very handsome, and suaver than suave in top hat and tails, he would serenade the ladies at the tables and make them wish they had never married.
On the way back Breen said he thought he could do something like that, and the next night, sure enough, he showed up in top hat, white tie, and tails, and began crooning to a beautiful young woman in a table up front.
She looked at him, smiled maternally, and said: “Why don’t you go home and get your father?”
I was able to get work in several other clubs as a stand-up comic and emcee, but the one that helped me most—and that I enjoyed the most—was the Alpine Village, a creation of a German-born gentleman named Herman Pirchner and his two brothers.
As you entered the club you would pass (or perch at) a nice little bar that attracted businessmen in search of a buffer between work and home. Then there was a stairway leading to the second floor and a charming room with soft lights, good food, a dance floor, and live music—a room for lovers.
But the big attraction was beyond: a theater-restaurant that seated between three and four hundred people. It had a big stage and a band shell for the house band, a fine 14-piece orchestra led by a trumpet player named Frankie Stracek. There was a line of showgirls who could sing and dance with the best anywhere, called “The Lindsey Ladies.”
The orchestra, the showgirls, a man named Bill Boehm (who later founded the Singing Angels), and I comprised a company that performed abbreviated versions of Broadway shows, like Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow, with an occasional Gilbert and Sullivan operetta thrown in. Each little production ran only 12 to 15 minutes, and we would do them twice on weeknights and three times on Saturday nights.
I also got to work with some of the great comedians of the day: among them a stuttering comic named Joe Frisco and the great circus clown, Emmett Kelly.
Joe Frisco stuttered badly but instead of concealing it made it an integral part of his schtick. He was the comedian’s comedian—the one other performers talked about. While neither he nor any other comedian enjoyed the instant fame and amazing exposure that television can bring today (even to second- and third-rate performers), Joe Frisco was right at the top of his craft.
He was always broke, though, mostly because he could not stay away from the racetrack. When he came to Cleveland he would head for a small track between there and Akron called Ascot, and I would often go with him. We were in the clubhouse one day, and the horses were pounding down the stretch when the jockey fell off the horse Joe had bet on.
“Joe,” I said. “Your jockey fell off the horse!”
“Wi . . . wi . . . wi . . . with my luck, he j . . . j . . . j . . . jumped.”
Once Joe was in Chicago and in need of some fast cash. He managed to steal a very nice copy of DaVinci’s Last Supper, which he took to a pawnshop. When the guy asked him how much he wanted for it, Joe said, “Twa . . . twa . . . twa . . . twenty dollars a plate.”
He was thrown into jail one time, charged with setting his hotel bed on fire. The judge asked him if he did it.
“I’m innocent,” said Joe.
“Why do you say that?” asked the judge.
“Because the ba . . . ba . . . ba . . . .ba . . . bed was on fire when I got in it.”
He once owed Bing Crosby $10,000. When he saw Crosby in the clubhouse of a racetrack Crosby owned, Joe had just won a lot of money. Crosby looked at him as if to say, “Where’s my ten grand?” and Joe said, “Hey, kid. Ain’t you the singer?”
Crosby smiled and said yes, he was.
Frisco slid a twenty-dollar bill toward him and said, “Here, sing me a chorus of, ‘Meh . . . Meh . . . Meh . . . Melancholy Baby.’”
One last Joe Frisco story.
He was at a benefit in New York City along with a long list of great vaudeville stars, with the great operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso, as the featured attraction.
Caruso was warming up, going up and down the scales, thrilling not only himself but all those within earshot. As other performers hovered around in awe of the great man, Friscoe walked up to him and said:
“Hey, Rico. Don’t sing ‘Da . . . Da . . . Da . . . Darktown Strutter’s Ball.’ That’s mine,” and walked away.
One of the men I most enjoyed working with was Emmett Kelly, perhaps the world’s most famous circus clown, the creator of Willie, the Tramp and as great a mime as ever lived.
Few people remembered that Kelly had begun his career as a newspaper cartoonist, and that Willie was first born as one of his cartoon characters.
I was delighted when he asked me to do a little piece with him in the opening of his act. The entire act was done without either of us saying a word. It opened with the spotlight following this poor, bedraggled tramp as he entered the room, confused, not knowing where he was, and obviously in search of someone who might ease his loneliness. It was all written in his face and his every move, and clear as day. Finding no one, he would wander up on the stage, where he discovered an immaculate table set with a white cloth, fine china and silverware, flowers, the works. To sit or not to sit, that was the question.
Such was his magic that the simple act of this poor, sad man dressed in tatters finally sitting down at that table was at once hilarious and moving.
I played the part of the waiter. I would hand him the menu, and then he’d look up. I would gesture: do you want a cocktail? He would shake his head—no—and make a big circle with his hands. No question about that—he wanted a whole bucket of beer. Then he would order an entire meal, and you knew just what each dish was—chicken, vegetables, potatoes, pie—everything, and I would leave.
Still in the spotlight he would look at the utensils, find fault with and polish each one. Finally, he would notice something on the horribly ragged coat he wore—a piece of lint. With an flick of his finger, the offending lint would be dispatched. I have never seen such elegant, convincing pantomime: he would take the audience from laughter to tears in seconds.
I would then bring out an easel and some charcoal, and he would do quick but brilliant caricatures of people in the audience—signed drawings that are worth a pretty penny today. Each time he would measure each subject with his thumb, as artists will. At the close of his act he would tear off the last sheet and show it to the audience. It was a portrait of his thumb.
He had a unique way of handling hecklers. When one started up, Kelly would take the easel right down in front of the guy and stare him right in the eyes, then start measuring his forehead, his nose, and his chin and start sketching.
When he was finished he turned the picture around for the audience, and there was the ugliest-looking jackass, mouth wide open, that you have ever seen. As the audience applauded he tore off the sheet and handed it to the guy, who likely never heckled anyone ever again.
There were dozens more top-of-their-trade comics, actors, jugglers, magicians, acrobats, and musicians that worked the Alpine Village, and I learned from all of them. It was like being at some marvelous school for performers, and a wonderful extension of the serious work I was still doing at the Cleveland Play House.
Then one evening someone, I don’t remember who it was, told me that a television station was about to start up in Cleveland, and suggested I go down there and see if they could use someone of my talents.
The next day I headed down to the station on East 13th Street, just behind the venerable old Sterling-Lindner-Davis department store, to see what I could see.
And the rest, as they say, is history.^ top
Excerpted from the book Barnaby and Me, copyright © Linn Sheldon. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Linn Sheldon
Amazing but true stories from one of the most beloved figures in Cleveland entertainment history.
For 32 years, he was a six-foot-tall elf named Barnaby. That was the character Linn Sheldon played on television, to the delight of . . . [ Read More ]
Linn Sheldon was a pioneer in the early days of television and a groundbreaking children’s television host. His character Barnaby was a fixture on Cleveland television for decades. He has won many awa . . . [ Read More ]