Friday, August 3, 2012

Sex, Booze and Short Vincent Avenue

Robert McDermott wasn’t famous, but he added flair to the history of Cleveland’s Vincent Avenue  one spring day in 1975 when he drove his car through the front doors of the Theatrical Grill. He got out of his car and ordered a drink. When questioned about his behavior, he explained that he was looking for a shortcut from Vincent to Superior Avenue.

It's just one of the many unbelievable stories found in Alan Dutka’s book, Cleveland’s Short Vincent: The Theatrical Grill and its Notorious Neighbors, and retold at Dutka's book-release party at Pickwick and Frolic this week.

From the '30s into the '70s, Vincent Avenue was a downtown hot spot full of money launderers, strippers and questionable club owners who gathered at colorful yet trashy joints. Today the one-block street is home to a parking garage and the back entrances to PNC Bank and a Holiday Inn.

Some of Short Vincent’s most memorable moments, retold by Dutka, include the 8,000 person party that was almost destroyed by a tornado in 1953 and a showgirl who sued Frolic’s bar in 1961 for $35,000 after a shot glass, thrown by an angry customer, hit her in the head. Norman Khoury, who owned 24 clubs, including three on Short Vincent, outraged citizens when a state liquor agent caught a 17-year-old girl soliciting drinks in one of his establishments.

“The great thing about Short Vincent is that so many people know about it, even if they didn’t experience it themselves,” Dutka says.

“Some of the stories really hit home,” says Carol Johnson, who grew up in the area. “My first date was at Jean’s Funny House.”

Police raided the funhouse, a joke shop frequented by children and teenagers, in 1940, collecting a carload of obscene magazines, songbooks and peep show devices.

In the 1960s the funhouse became much more than a funhouse, featuring an “adult only” room with nickel and dime peep shows of barely covered or naked women, a “back room” equipped with 25-cent machines that showed two-minute explicit movies and behind the counter sex toys.

“We used to cut school and go down to Jean’s Funhouse,” says Clevelander Michael Baron. “It was so exotic, like it had the feel of New York.”

Short Vincent is full of shady historical moments that Dutka explores with detail. His daughter, Diane, says her father has always been interested in Cleveland’s past.

“When I was nine or ten my dad used to take me down to library to look through old newspapers,” she says. “He’s been doing research for about 20 years.”

Dutka, also the author of East Fourth Street: The Rise, Decline, and Rebirth of an Urban Cleveland Street, is working on another project involving Doan's Corners. The book, Uptown Cleveland: The Amazing Neighborhood Centered at Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street, will describe what was Cleveland's second downtown, now a part of the Cleveland Clinic campus. It is scheduled to be released in fall 2013.

 (photo: night view of clubs on Short Vincent, 1964, from clevelandmemory.org)

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