Cleveland is the birthploace of the Steel industry. There is active nightlife in The Flatts?. There is also the Great Lakes Science Center on the west side. If you like music you should visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the House of Blues. The Cleveland Art Museum has a wonderful collection. There are also a beautiful Botanical Gardens. If you like heights, you should visit Terminal Tower. If you really enjoy animals, visit the rainforest zoo.
If you're in town, don't forget to visit Severance Hall for the renowned Cleveland Orchestra.
by Bijan C. Bayne
Bob Hope, Tim Conway, Arsenio Hall, Drew Carey, Steve Harvey. These entertainers and others have started their careers in Cleveland before hitting the national comedy scene. With every city that produces such a stream of talent, one wonders if there is something tangible to which to attribute the legacy. Is there something instrinsically funny about Cleveland or its residents, and where can one go to experience stage humor in the city today?
British-born Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope moved to the U.S. with his family at age five, his father a stonemason, his mother a light opera singer-turned-cleaning woman. His family's Doan's Corner neighborhood was home to several vaudeville theatres such as The Alhambra. As a youngster, Hope earned money singing on the trolley en route to Luna Park. In 1915, he won a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest at the amusement park. By 16, he had dropped out of school. He and his Cleveland girlfriend, Mildred Rosenquist, apsired to the dancing success of Vernon and Irene Castle, the country's most popular hoofing couple. It was as part of a two-man dance team that Hope, who also tried his hand at boxing under the pseudonym "Packy East", was discovered as a dancer during the vaudeville era by the legendary comic actor Fatty Arbuckle. Dance teams employed comedy lines and repartee as a staple of their acts, and Hope's quick wit led him to the New York's famed Palace Theatre. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
One requisite of effective comedy is the ability to speak comfortably before audiences. Another is wit. Steve Harvey's parents were a churchgoing mother and a construction worker dad who supplemented the family's finances during the slow winter months by booking numbers in the organization headed by the aptly named Don King. Harvey aspired to work as a t.v. comic from his teens- he graduated Glenville High School in the Richard Pryor era of 1975. Arsenio Hall, like Harvey, was exposed to the oral tradition of the Black church- his father was a minister. Harvey, Hall and Carey all attended Kent State, though frat boy Carey was expelled. In 1986, Carey rode the success of winning a local comedy contest to an emcee position at the Cleveland Comedy Club. By then, Hall was opening for acts such as R & B singer Patti LaBelle. It is worth noting that the signature "Whoop, whoop, whoop" chant favored by Hall and his late night t.v. studio audience was very similar to that used by Browns fans in the section of the Municipal Stadium end zone known as The Dawg Pound. As for his church roots, many recall Hall's archetypical Black preacher in the 1988 film "Coming to America".
What about suburbia? Funnyman Tim Conway was born in Willoughby, and grew up in Chagrin Falls. After majoring in speech and radio at Bowling Green, and a stint in the Army, he took a job answering mail for a Cleveland radio station. Conway became a writer in the promotions department. He later worked with Cleveland broadcasting legend Ernie Anderson on WKYC and WJW t.v. ("Ernie's Place") and recorded a comedy album with Anderson before landing a starring role on the 1960's sitcom "McHale's Navy". No matter the training ground or the era, there have always been mentors and outlets for Cleveland comics.
Observational comics, as opposed to practitioners of the one-liner, are known to have open minds. Think George Carlin, Steven Wright, Jerry Seinfeld. The Midwest has few more open-minded cities than the one that produced progressive politicians the likes of Mayors Carl Stokes and Dennis Kucinich, the former who was America's first Black to govern a major city. Where corporate executives view Cincinnati as conservative and Columbus as an ideal midstream market to test new foods, Cuyahoga County provided stronger support for presidential candidate John Kerry than any other in the state.
The city has long laughed at itself, another characteristic of a comic mind. From a mammoth football/baseball stadium lovingly nicknamed "The Mistake on the Lake", to the notoriety of the "Major League" movie series based on the woes of the then-hapless baseball Indians, Clevelanders have joined in the fun Americans have had at its expense. Native son Carey even set his popular sitcom in his hometown.
Mike Polk, a promotions writer for a local t.v. station and freelance comedy writer, performs stand up and improv. He is part of a sketch comedy group called Last Call Cleveland. Says Polk, "the Cleveland comedy scene has a pretty rich history and has produced some rather respectable stars over time. I think that Cleveland is a such a remarkable breeding ground for comedic minds for the same reason that it is a swing state. The state is ecletic, with many differing opinions and cultures. There is a little bit of everything and it is all concentrated into small areas. Within fifteen miles around the Cleveland area, you have the blue collar working class, intense poverty, extreme affluence, and rural farm dwellers. Unlike other parts of the country where areas have a consistent mindset with rare exceptions, ie: California is liberal and blue, Alabama is rural and red, etc. Cleveland is all over the map. I believe that it is this exposure to tons of different types of people and circumstances that feeds comics and makes their material approachable to so many people. Cleveland's underdog status is a factor as well. We are consistently the nation's poorest city. We are losing people and jobs at an alarming pace. Our weather is, at times, wretched. Crime is high. Our sports teams are cursed. Our river caught on fire. Much like the fat kid in grade school, we as Clevelanders have been forced to develop a sense of humor about ourselves and what goes on around us as a self-defense mechanism."
According to Polk, Cleveland has ample opportunity for stand up comics to work on their acts before moving on to bigger and better things. There have been open mic comedy nights periodically at various bars and clubs, which last until owners decide karaoke is more profitable and interactive. The two main venues in town, for rising comics, Hilarities and the Improv, provide a stage for area comics in addition to bringing in national headliners. The Second City Theater, widely regarded as the world's foremost improv training theater, had a stint here in Playhouse Square a few years back, and though the comedic scene as a whole was appreciative and supportive, ticket sales simply weren't good enough to sustain the company. Second City left town, and closed their improv training school. Some of the offshoot groups spawned by Second City have survived, others have not been as fortunate.
Something Dada is the area's longet running improv group. Celebrating 12 years of existence, the troupe is moving into a new theatre in the Tower Press Building at East 21st and Superior. Their motto- "Never the same show twice". In January 2007 they will participate in the Chicago Skecth Fest for the third consecutive year.
Contemporary Cleveland nightlife offers several comedy options. Pickwick and Frolic, a retroswank martini bar, features an old style revue at Hilarities. For the unrepentant frat boy and coed in many of us, there's the bawdy dueling piano bar of Howl at the Moon in The Flats. Wednesday's at 9:30 p.m., Lakewood's underground Bassa Vita Lounge presents their Grimey Ninety comedy show, with performers such as Mike Baker, John David Sidley and Kathie Dice. The Improv is located at 2000 Sycamore in The Flats' Powerhouse. In early November, Cleveland native Tammy Pescatelli, who was featured on two seasons of NBC's "Last Comic Standing", performed there. This city's rich legacy of laughs inspires one to check out the scene, form one's own opinions and catch a rising star. History shows it is well worth the effort.
The Improv - Cleveland, OH (216) 696-4677 The Powerhouse 2000 Sycamore, Level 1 Cleveland, OH 44113 Web Site: http://www.improvupcoming.com/
Hilarities / Pickwick and Frolic 2035 East 4th Street Cleveland, Ohio 44115 (216)-241-7425 Web Site: http://www.pickwickandfrolic.com
Bassa Vita / Bottoms Up 1572 W 117th St. Lakewood, Ohio 44107 (216) 521-4386 Website: http://www.bassavitalounge.com
Cabaret Dada 1210 West 6th Street Cleveland, OH 44113 (216) 696-4242 Web Site: http://www.cabaretdada.com/
The Winchester 12112 Madison Lakewood, Ohio 9:00 p.m. 216-226-5681 Website: http://www.thewinchester.net/pages/1/index.htm
Bijan C. Bayne is a freelance writer and critic.