Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Indians Celebrate Opening Day, Remember a Legend

The boys are back in town. While fan favorite Grady Sizemore might spend the first few games on the DL, there's plenty of other reasons to be excited for the Cleveland Indians' opening day this Friday.

Fausto Carmona will take the mound for the Indians during the sold out game against the Chicago White Sox. Though its the first opening day start for the young pitcher, he will be surrounded by the memories of baseball legend, Bob Feller, who passed away last December. Feller holds the club record for opening day starts with seven.

In addition to a video tribute and special banner presentation, Feller's wife Anne will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Progressive Field. All Indians players will be wearing No. 19 jerseys during pregame ceremonies in memory of Bob Feller. A No. 19 tribute patch will be on all team uniforms and batting practice jersey.

A Birds and Bees Story

Disclaimer: Despite the title of this post there will be no talk of sex here. Though dirt is peripherally involved, anyone hoping for down and dirty details will be disappointed. What I do want to tell you about is how to win your very own colony of honeymakers or a pair of egg layers.

Carl Skalak, a photographer turned field hand, is the man behind the giveaway. It’s a promotion for Blue Pike Farm, a former vacant lot on East 72nd, about 3/4 of a mile from the Shoreway, that he’s transformed into a thriving commercial garden. He began digging in the spring of 2006, harvesting a first crop of bricks, concrete chunks and other rubble. Now the parcel is an edible urban Eden, producing bushels of unusual and heirloom varieties of eggplants, tomatoes, greens, carrots, snap peas, peppers, cantaloupes and beans- all naturally raised and for sale. A weekly market is held there on Thursdays afternoons. The competition is also a tool for spreading the sustainable living and eating gospel.

The contest is open, Skalak says, to all breathing residents of planet Earth and there’s no entry fee. Just submit a work of art in any medium- essay, poem, photo, video, sculpture, musical composition, performance piece, whatever- that has something to do with either bees or chickens. When I asked him to elaborate, this is what I got: "A paean to a 57 Chevy probably won't win but then again something about chickens to the tune of "Little Deuce Coop" has a good chance." Entries should suggest which prize you're competing for. Said work must arrive, via email, as a digital representation suitable for viewing on a computer screen by the stroke of midnight (actually one second before that stroke) on April 16, 2011. Send to . To request full contest details and rules email to Even those who have no interest in animal husbandry or creative endeavors should contact him for details. Skalak is a very funny guy and the document he’s produced is an amusing read.

There are some things you should know up front. Beautiful women need only send an 8x10 glossy. Even better is a photo of your tractor. Skalak suggests altering your will to stipulate who should get your prize in case you meet an untimely end and be unable to pick it up at the Blue Pike Farm Open House on May 7th. “Entries, “ he writes, “ will be judged based on arbitrary and capricious criteria, Google’s ® published secret algorithms, and whatever else strikes the judges’ fancy at the time.” If family members disapprove of having critters take up residence in the yard, it gives you an advantage so share this, and don't hesitate to lie about it Lucky winners will be announced at the May 2nd meeting of Local Food Cleveland. “Winners need not be present,” according to official rules, “but it will be a lot more fun if you are.”

photos courtesy of Carl Skalak

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Murder, Mayhem & Memory: John Stark Bellamy II returns to Cleveland

John Stark Bellamy II has sent me two notes in the past year. Not emails, but handwritten cards with the date noted in the right-hand corner of the inside followed by the looping cursive letters we all see little of these days.

But the most striking thing about both cards isn't the fact that Bellamy took time out of his day to write them; it's that they're both Lizzie Borden-themed note cards. Yes, the Lizzie Borden who was tried and acquitted for killing her father and step-mother with an axe on Aug. 11, 1892. One card has an oval 1880 portrait of Borden and the Fall River, Mass., home where the murders occurred. The second depicts her calling card — "Miss Lizabeth A. Borden" it screams in square block letters — and a photo of the home she and her sister bought soon after the trial.

Yes, Bellamy is fascinated with the macabre, and we're better off because he is. Before relocating to Vermont several years ago, he was known as Cleveland's historian of strange, unusual and horrible deaths from the distant past. A librarian, he expertly scoured old newspapers and records to recount these tales of woe in a series of popular Gray & Co. books.

When I talked to him in 2010, just before the release of Cleveland's Greatest Disasters, Bellamy lamented that his new home just didn't have the same chilling raw material as an industrial city with a long past — a fact he noticed while penning his first and only collection of vintage Vermont murders.

"Not only was Vintage Vermont Villanies my first Vermont book, it was my last Vermont book," he said at the time. "It was damn difficult to cobble together 12 interesting-enough murders, and I had to cover almost 200 years to do that."

It's also lucky for us that he gets the bug to come back home once in awhile. Bellamy will be back in town next week for a series of library lectures running from April 4-16.

He's hitting the circuit again in support of his most recent book, The Last Days of Cleveland, so we'll be giving away copies of it on our Facebook page this week. So go over and "like" us if you don't already, and browse this list of Bellamy appearances to find the one closest to your home.

Tell him Lizzie Borden sent you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Danny Greene's ex-wife, daughter give thumbs-up to documentary, feature film

I chatted with Danny Greene’s ex-wife and daughter Friday night after the screening of Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, the documentary about the late gangster's life, at the Cleveland International Film Festival. They gave it two thumbs-up.

“The documentary was very good,” said Nancy Greene, who married Greene twice, in the late '50s and early '60s; they divorced for good in the mid-'70s.

“They portrayed what they needed to," she said. "They got their point across about who Danny was. Yes, he was a son of a gun.”

Nancy Greene and her daughter, Sharon Greene Wehagen, both appear in the documentary. On screen, Nancy describes her ex-husband as a Jekyll and Hyde character. “He could be very nice; he could be very violent.”

Nancy also hinted at domestic conflicts when I asked her and Sharon what the documentary captured about Greene. Sharon said it portrayed her father’s charisma, “the way he walked into a room.”

“I could say what a son of a gun he is,” Nancy added, “and he would walk in, and project himself, and make ‘em say I was the liar and he was the good guy.

“He really won you over -- before he boiled your blood.”

The Greenes also liked Kill the Irishman, the feature-film biopic now playing at area theaters. Nancy said she identified with the scene where Greene’s fictional film wife leaves him, fearing Greene’s enemies would hurt their children. In real life, Nancy divorced him for the same reason.

Otherwise, “She’s totally opposite of me,” Nancy said. “I’m a hotheaded Slovenian. She was a quiet Irish girl.”

Nancy and Danny met, not at a bar like in the movie, but in the pool hall Nancy’s uncle owned. He was 22 and she was 18. “He wanted to make me Irish potatoes and pork chops.”

Sharon says she knew little about her father’s life of crime. “I knew he had a job, that he went to work.” He told his daughters he was a consultant. (Labor consultant was the profession listed on his death certificate, displayed in the documentary.)

“He treated us like special girls,” Sharon said. “He didn’t seem like any different dad than anybody else.”

Except for the one incident Sharon retells in the documentary, when Greene came home singed from head to toe, presumably by a bomb. He didn’t explain, and she, in fifth grade at the time, didn’t ask.

“We didn’t really talk to him about what he was doing,” Sharon recalled. “You just didn’t do that. You just took care of him. You don’t ask those questions.”

The film fest is showing Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman again tonight at 7:05. The showing is on standby, so head to Tower City early if you want a shot at getting in.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Danny Greene documentary premieres at film fest

Hero, lover, rebel -- those three character types animate the Cleveland International Film Festival this year, splayed across its posters, celebrated in the trailer. The late Danny Greene embodied all three archetypes last night at the screening of a documentary about his life, and a couple more: informant, killer.

Kinetic energy propels Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, which debuted at the festival. Clever cut-outs of Greene and his enemies in the Mayfield Road Mob – actual photos played with, head shots mounted atop bodies -- pop into place against backdrops of Collinwood and Little Italy. TV news footage from the ‘70s, exciting in its grainy colors and resplendent with ugly cars, alternates with contemporary interviews.

Lawyers, a cop and a Teamster all appear in then-and-now contrast, their big glasses, big-lapeled suits and prime-of-life cockiness contrasting with the soft sweaters and tranquil chairs of retirement. Vivid memories and flashes of old passion bridge the two. Ed Kovacic, the policeman who considered Greene both friend and nemesis, tells many of the stories he told me for my March-issue oral history, “The Irishman Chronicles.” James Willis, defense attorney for Mob boss Jack Licavoli, cracked up the audience by calling his former clients and acquaintances “gentle souls” in a vintage clip and “good guys” in a still-fiery new interview.

Director Tommy Reid, who also worked on the fictionalized Greene biopic Kill the Irishman, created the documentary for moviegoers who wanted to know the real story as well as the legend. (You can read Cleveland Magazine’s interview with Reid here.) Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman covers all the phases of Greene’s career that I covered in my oral history (with less time on his early years as a union leader at the Cleveland port) and goes into more detail about how Greene’s murder was solved and how state and federal trials over his murder crippled the Cleveland Mob.

I only caught one significant error: the film claims Mike Frato, who tried to shoot Greene in 1971 and whom Greene instead shot to death in self-defense, was motivated by the hit Shondor Birns put out on Greene. Actually, Frato was trying to retaliate: Greene had blown up Frato’s car a few weeks earlier in a dispute about a trash-hauling guild.

The film, and the forum afterward, went into greater depth than I’ve seen before about Greene’s 13 years as an FBI informant. Greene, though a suspect in several murders, was never charged with murder and was only convicted once, on a charge of falsifying a union record. Many who tell Greene’s story suggest that the FBI protected Greene in some way, but facts are scarce, still shrouded in secrecy. In the film, Kovacic says former Cuyahoga County prosecutor John T. Corrigan dropped a potential extortion case against Greene at the request of a high-level FBI official. (I think the extortion case stemmed from Greene’s work as a labor consultant on downtown construction projects, though this isn’t clear.)

Forum moderator Dan Moulthrop asked John Sopko, who prosecuted the federal racketeering case against Cleveland Mob leaders, whether Greene’s informant status kept him from being successfully prosecuted.

“That was probably one of the reasons,” Sopko said. He didn’t know that for sure, he added, but he’d heard the “lore” from before he joined the Justice Department. “It could very well have happened.”

As the forum ended, I realized I was sitting in the same row as Danny Greene’s ex-wife, Nancy Greene, and his daughter, Sharon. I tried to interview Nancy Greene for my March oral history. She turned me down then, but last night, she spoke with me. Click here to read my interview with Nancy and Sharon.

The film fest is showing Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman again tonight at 9:45 and tomorrow night at 7:05. Both showings are on standby, so get to Tower City early if you want a shot at getting in.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Local Designer Works with Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj is due to play at the Q on Thursday with Lil Wayne, but she is already carrying a piece of Cleveland with her. That would be her signature microphone, which was designed by Lyndhurst native Katie Marks.

Marks, a 29-year-old Ohio State graduate, inlayed Swarovski crystals into the mic after a local sound company received a request from Minaj. Marks, who is also known as The Dazzler for designing crystal-covered Razor cell phones for Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan in 2005, produced the glittering gizmo within 20 hours.

CM: What was the inspiration behind the microphone?

KM: Everything I do is perfection. Everything is in a perfect line that allows me to interlock the stones. I do grids… [and] very intricate patterns with the crystals.

CM: Who’s your favorite musical artist?

KM: Well, right now Nicki Minaj is my favorite hip-hop artist, but it’s kind of obvious why.

CM: What’s your favorite Nicki Minaj song?

KM: “Your Love.” I’m a total softy. There’s always a layer of love behind all of my art.

CM: If you could make any piece for any person, what would it be, and who would it be for?

KM: I would love to do wall art for Natalie Portman. I don’t know Natalie Portman, but I look at celebrities like her. She’s like that girl next door that you just want to be friends with. I’d want to have a commissioned piece, like a 4-by-5-foot piece on her wall. I can relate to a person like Natalie Portman. She’s like one of these down-to-earth people who made it, and that’s what I want to be.

Mary had a Little Lamb but You can have a Lot

Like everybody else, I'm thinking about spring and a new season of fresh-off-the-farm produce. It’s easy to forget that eating local extends beyond the gorgeous fruits and vegetables that will soon (with a little cooperation from Mother Nature) be showing up at farmers markets all over the region. I just got a reminder of this from Kathy Breychak. She and her husband, Don, own Breychak’s Blue Egg Farm, a small family operation just 25 miles west of Cleveland in Columbia Station. They pasture-raise ducks, geese, turkeys, chickens, pigs and lambs the old-fashioned way. The animals are given no antibiotics, growth hormones or medicated feed. They live a pretty nice and natural life, enjoying pasture, sunshine and humane treatment. That's why the quality and taste of the meat is superior to anything from the grocery store.

The Breychaks are currently offering lamb and pork shares. (They've already sold out of the poultry.) If you have the cash, it’s a cost-effective way to stock the freezer with delicious, high-quality protein. You must commit to buying a whole or a half animal, but of course, you can split that with friends or other family members. The meat, professionally processed in Litchfield, Ohio, is cut and wrapped to your specifications, and you go out there to pick it up. It won’t be available until September, but you have to pony up a deposit now — $100 for a whole animal, $50 for half — to get in on the deal. More information and and order form are online. They're also selling veggie shares and seeds for your own garden.

And consider this: The money you spend does more than merely put good food on your table. Your dollars help put food on the Breychak’s table, too, because you’re supporting a small, local independent business; ensuring that this beautiful bit of farmland doesn’t turn into a mall or a subdivision; and investenting in the creation of a more sustainable community. Not bad for $6 a pound.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cellar Door Records release party at Grog Shop

In the trippy 2001 film Donnie Darko, a school teacher remarks that "a famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that 'cellar door' is the most beautiful."

A year after that cult film, which featured a sinister bunny that predicts the end of the world and a really good music soundtrack, Justin Markert borrowed the phrase Cellar Door for his small Madison, Ohio, coffee shop. The 135-capacity room was a space for artists, too. Markert booked music acts ranging from acoustic singer-songwriters to hardcore bands. Along the way, he released a compilation featuring music from acts that played there.

The coffee shop ultimately closed, but in 2007 Markert regrouped with his former business partner, Rick Fike, to create Cellar Door Records as a way to draw attention to musicians such as the ones who played at the coffee shop. Soon after, they released Cellar Door Records Volume II. Since then, the label has released five full-length albums from artists on its roster and promoted a number of shows at local venues.

Another show arrives this Friday, March 18 at the Grog Shop (8 p.m.) to coincide with the release of Cellar Door Records Volume III. Joshua Jesty & Band, Humble Home, Rob Geer & Band and Frozen Hellsicles — four artists featured on the new compilation — will perform. It's also Markert's birthday, so stop by and say hello. The $10 admission includes a Cellar Door Records Volume III CD.

Text to Help Japan

These are dark days. I go about my daily business as usual, but the frightening and heartbreaking news from Japan is there, all the time in the background. Everyone I know feels the same. We are safe here, but we are sad. We are grateful that this disaster spared us and those we love but painfully aware that others are suffering. We want to help.

Anna Saito, owner of Akira Sushi and Hibachi, a Japanese restaurant in Solon, has decided to personally thank people who act on that impulse, and encourage many more to do the same. Text a $10 donation to the Red Cross Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami Fund, and you’ll be rewarded with a $15 certificate to use in her restaurant. It couldn’t be easier. Text the word “REDCROSS” to the number 90999 . Once your contribution is confirmed, you’ll automatically receive the gift card.

This is not the post I planned for today. But the world has changed in the past 72 hours. Saito called me early Tuesday morning asking me to spread the word about her offer. Feeling so powerless and overwhelmed, I’m grateful to her for giving me this small opportunity to be useful. Take the same opportunity for yourself: Please pass this information on to your family, friends and colleagues by way of social media, emails, phone calls and in conversations with the people sitting next to you.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lift A Glass to A New Group

Craft guilds were the medieval way to network. Masters mentored newcomers, helping to insure high standards of workmanship. In a modern day reincarnation, the newly formed North East Ohio Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild aims to bring local mixers and shakers together for professional development and some spirited socializing.

Founding member Joe DeLuca describes it as a fellowship of bartenders who are passionate about and dedicated to the history, craft and enjoyment of spirits, wine and beer. (Evokes images of Frodo and friends leading a quest for adult beverages). Clearly this matters to folks in the business. But it’s good news for the rest of us, too, because they’ll be doing all sorts of special promotions, competitions and meet-ups in the area.

Nathan Ho (left) Tanqueray Championship Bartender and Joe DeLuca. Photo courtesy of Lynn Vozar

The group hosted their first ever public event and kick-off fundraiser last week. It was held at Plank Tavern, a new bar offering Midwest craft beer and up-market pub food, in Lakewood (16719 Detroit Ave.). Guests got mini-samples of seven cocktails made by seven mixologists. Here was the line-up:

-Nathan Burdette, Zinc: Honey “B” Jalisco Julep
-Darko Marankovic, Crop: Canton Ginger Sour
-Tom Novak, Pier W: Kentucky Rose
-Melissa Larupe, Rosewood Grill: 12 Roys-Robbed
-Matt Raynor, Plank Road Tavern: Detroit Collins
-Eric Ho, Melt: Beetnik’s Tonic
-Joe DeLuca, Dinner in the Dark: Trouble with Truffles

The Julep, topped with fresh raspberries and basil leaves.

They were working hard to keep these labor-intensive drinks flowing but clearly having fun in the process. There was some showmanship involved. I happened to be standing behind a small, beaming woman watching Nathan Burdette expertly lay a float of Tuaca (orange liquer) atop of his blend of tequila, basil-infused honey and lemon juice. She was beaming and seemed particularly impressed with his performance. Finally, unable to contain herself, she turned to me, a total stranger, and said, “That’s my son.”
It was the kind of pride usually reserved for children who achieve doctor, lawyer or Hollywood celebrity status. I take it as an indication that the NEO Chapter of the US Bartenders Guild is already elevating the profession and its knowledgeable and imaginative practitioners. Follow the organization on Facebook to keep up with all the happenings and news.

Nathan Burdette behind the bar at Plank Road Tavern. Photo courtesy of Lynn Vozar

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Woodstone Whiskey Has Arrived

I met Don and Linda Outterson last year when I was researching a piece about urban wineries and distilleries for Ohio Magazine. They run Woodstone Creek, Ohio's first licensed microdistillery, in Cincinnati. Don is CFO — Chief Fermenting Officer — tending barrels of whiskey, wine, gin, mead, rum, and port. It’s labor-intensive, time-consuming and exacting work. But all that is mere child’s play in comparison to dealing with the state’s tortuous liquor control laws.

Linda just emailed to let me know they finally got their 10-year-old Murray Cask Single Peated Malt Whiskey into the Ohio system. Although it's been bottled since November 2009, it’s only now available for distribution. This is big news for people who take their spirits seriously.

Whiskey expert Jim Murray sampled this when it was still in the barrel. He was impressed, giving it 92 out of 100 points and the designation Brilliant! in his 2009 "Whiskey Bible."

Here are some of his comments:

Nose: Earthy, salty peat much more redolent of Islay than of Cincinnati just beautifully constructed with excellent layering of gentle smoke, grapey fruit and toasted oak: Glorious!

Taste: The silkiness on the palate stuns. All is understated yet the clarity of the riches never fades. Lots of fruit, but the even sweeter peat circles in clouds and dovetails with drier, oak-led incursions. A tantalizing saltiness gives this a coastal dimension which belies the distillery’s location some 1,000 miles inland.

Overall balance and complexity: What a wonderful whisky! A massive well-done for a first bottling from this new distillery! "

(It’s not the first time Murray’s given this boutique distiller raves — he loves Outterson’s bourbon too. I have tasted that and know first hand what an exceptionally fine sip it is.)

The whiskey will be sold locally at Zagara's, Minotti's Bay Village, Minotti's Westlake, Shaker Wine & Spirits and World Wine & Liquor. Supplies are limited: this is a single barrel bottling and there are only 192 numbered bottles. Just five cases will be made available to the Cleveland market. All this means that those who want to experience this rare hand-crafted spirit will have to pay dearly for the privilege (or know someone who can afford the price and is willing to share). Retail is $118.