A Multi-Cultural Crowd Bonds Over Music at Leo's Casino

A club photographer caught Ruthie Brown and her husband-to-be on their first date, at Leo's Casino 50 years ago
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by David C. Barnett

In addition to the arrival of the Republican National Convention, next week marks the 50th anniversary of an event that also put Cleveland into the national spotlight --- the Hough Riots.  That week of urban violence has come to symbolize the social disparities of a segregated city.  But, some Clevelanders remember those dark days as a time when local black and white teens bonded over their love of music. It happened at a place called Leo’s Casino.

As CEO of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, Marsha Mockabee focuses on workforce development and economic empowerment.  But, mention Leo’s Casino, and she’s a teenager, once again.

"My first trip there was at 16, and it was when I won dinner with The Temptations," she recalls.  "We ate at the old Kon Tiki restaurant and then went back to the club, where the group brought us on stage and sang My Girl to us.  I was the most popular girl in my high school for about a week!"

Ruthie Brown also saw some memorable concerts at the intimate music club on Euclid Avenue.  The former community relations director at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Brown says Motown Records chief Berry Gordy was a canny businessman who used Leo’s Casino as a test market.  The rhythm & blues music that his groups recorded was sold to both African-American and white teens under the racially neutral banner of “The Sound of Young America”. 

"Berry Gordy used Cleveland as sort of like a template for hits," says Brown.  "If it was a hit in Cleveland, it was going to be a hit nationally."

Leo Frank and partner Jules Berger originally opened Leo’s Casino as a jazz venue in the 1950s.  It was part of a musical tradition called Black and Tan clubs --- bars that attracted both black and white audiences. Lisa and Trina Hickey of Bay Village were caught-up in the glamor of it all, and in being up-close to the stars.

"Nobody was dancing, because the floor was so packed with tables, and the stage was so close to the audience we were worried Stevie Wonder would fall off of it, one night."

Ernie Krivda was a budding, 20Something saxophonist from Garfield Heights, at the time.  And he would often get to step-up on stage as a sideman for the visiting groups.

"Everybody dug it," he smiles.  "They were sharing their love for this newly sophisticated pop music, which Motown was.  And Leo’s was bringing them in."

Pat Flanagan and his buddies used to hitchhike all the way from suburban Brecksville into the city.  Flanagan says they never had any fear of coming to the neighborhood.  But then, things changed.

One of Motown’s top acts, the Supremes, was finishing up a six-night stand at Leo’s on July 19th, 1966, when they became part of Cleveland history.  Several blocks away, an outbreak of fires and looting spread along Hough Avenue.  Historian John Grabowski traces it to a pattern of poverty and discrimination that had simmered in the neighborhood for years.

"Which sets off, what some of my colleagues would call --- not a riot, but a rebellion --- against the conditions," says Grabowski.  "And that’s just north of Leo’s."

Ruthie Brown says there were National Guard units rolling past the club towards the disturbance.  A guardsman was surprised to find a concert in full swing when he walked in the front door.

"The National Guard person comes on and he says, 'This place is closed.  Do you see those tanks outside?  There’s a riot going on!'  They had to make people go home.  That’s how dedicated people were to that place."

For a musician, like Ernie Krivda, the violent nights in Hough damaged more than buildings.

"The whole eastside music thing took a big hit, as far as I’m concerned.  It was sad."

He says a week of disturbances led to years of fear and suspicion.  Area clubs were shuttered as audiences disappeared.  Leo’s Casino reopened in August of 1966, and stayed open for another six years, but it wasn't the same.  John Grabowski says the once-thriving music scene had withered.

"But, nevertheless," he cautions, "I don’t think that negates the symbolic and actual importance of something like Leo’s Casino, where you had black entertainers, and a white audience and a black audience sharing space."

In an era when modern music clubs regularly draw multi-cultural crowds, it may be hard to imagine a time when racial mixing was rare.  But, one of the seeds for today’s diversity was planted at a place that offered an alternative to the segregated world outside.


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