“Par-ma?!” – Leonard Ghoulardi
Question 1 – Why a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Question 2 – why Cleveland? Question 3 – Does anyone care?
Well we thought we did. Last April, we trekked up to Chicago for that last chance to freeze our asses off before springtime came. It is a good way to give thanks for Miami’s warm but generally wet winters. Arfie said,”Well if we are all the way up there, let’s hit Cleveland on the way back and go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We can get some of that Great Lakes beer and pierogis.” Pierogis. I had forgotten about pierogis. We grew up 50 miles south of Cleveland in a Hunky family that had a grandmother who loved to cook. Pierogis, jelly filled crepes, chicken baked in sour cream and paprika, pigs in the blanket – You don’t get any of that stuff in Miami. Cleveland has them all. So I sez, “sure we can do the HoF as long as we can get some of those pierogis first.”
We rented half of a two family I found on Abnb. It was on the west side of town, a part called Ohio City. I’d never heard of Ohio City before but I did know their biggest landmark – the West Market. The West Market is a hangar like structure built in the 1800s. It’s crammed with scores of butchers, bakers, farmers and specialty food stores. They sell pierogis there. So did a restaurant around the corner of our apartment – they had pierogis and beer. And another place just up the street had them and another and another. You pretty much could get pierogis everywhere but odd Thai or Indian restaurant.
There were a lot of other great things about Ohio City besides pierogis. When they built the West Market, Ohio City was full of immigrants that came from Europe’s underbelly to work in Cleveland’s heavy industries a half mile north on Lake Erie. It was blue collar and bosses all thrown together. Their homes are still there – small one and two family framed houses like we were renting, some grand thee story brick houses with big front yards and wrap around verandas. And, where I guess the big bosses lived, a half a dozen stone behemoths that took up half a block surrounded sturdy iron fences.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Ohio City got its share of urban blight as whites moved out (to Parma!!) and the community’s tax based shriveled to nothing. This reversed in the late 90s. Whites moved back in. So did blacks, and Hispanics and Asians. Everybody rehabbed every house they could buy, Great Lakes Brewery built their micro-brewery on Market Street and suddenly Ohio City was the place to live. Ten years ago, gentrification started. Boutiques opened next to consignment shops; a dozen restaurants selling tiny portions of food that cost a lot opened throughout the neighborhood killing any free parking that remained. The West Market started selling $50 bottles of wine, pierogis doubled in price. Abnb rentals opened on every block.
Two miles from Ohio City is Cleveland’s big downtown landmark – Public Square. Public Square is just that. A big square. There is nothing notable in the Square. No grand statue, elegant monument or even a piece of confusing civic art. Just wide swaths of concrete broken up by a park benches flung around a handful saplings planted randomly in the concrete. Mostly the square is there to drive around. Five of the city’s main drags run into it so to switch from west to north or south or east, you first have to go to the Square then circle around it until you got to the road that took you in the right direction. It’s an Americanize version of an English roundabout without the statue in the middle.
We set off for the Hall of Fame Monday morning. To get from Ohio City (west side of town) to the HoF (north east side), you had to go around the Square. Being a stranger in these parts, we went around it twice unaware that the traffic lane on which you entered the Square determined the street you would exit out of. The city apparently felt signage was a waste of money since everybody driving through the city most probably lived in the area. It was no big deal. Cleveland traffic is not like that of New York City or LA or Chicago. It’s more like Albuquerque’s – there is not much of it, and that which is there moves nicely along. (That evening we went to a ball game during rush hour. It was the same deal as the HoF. To get from the west (Ohio City again) to the south (towards Progressive Field) we had to loop the loop Public Square. The traffic moved around the square as licketly split as the big metro buses can go.)
We ended up parking two blocks from the place and an easy walk towards the lake to the Hall of Fame. There we had the luck of the preterite : two school buses were empting out kids right in front of us. Naturally the kids blocked the doors until everybody took a picture of themselves taking a picture of themselves with someone else. Then someone else. After that rigmarole was done, they moved into the building, grabassing along the way. The few adults that seemed to be minding them were more minding their smart phones screens. One of the more unfortunate of them was trying to handout wrist bands while checking names off on a printout on her clipboard. It was a slow process but no one cared. Everyone had the day to kill so why rush it? We just wished we had been their 10 minutes sooner and avoided the whole thing.
I remarked that we were fucked – the kids would be in front of us throughout the whole exhibit, moving at a snail’s pace through one exhibit to another. Arfie figured we would get ahead of them once we got through the ticket process. His theory was that half of them would need to piss so there would be a 30 minute bathroom break before they hit the museum. Arfie was right. Once they got into the lobby with their wristbands checked, it was back to the selfies and grabassing.
Tickets seemed reasonably priced at $26 bucks a head; $25 if you were under twelve or over 65. Not much of a discount. With your ticket, you got a guide. Six stories of stuff. We were excited.
A wondrous pyramid stretching along picturesque Lake Erie (well it’s somewhere around there).
It turns out, our enthusiasm was premature. Firstly, although the HoF building rises five stories above the lake, the main exhibit is in the lower level of the building (An I.M. Pei signature glass pyramid, this time knitted into the beautiful lake setting with as much effect as his Louvre pyramid accentuates the Louise XIII buildings surrounding it, i.e., zero and zero). The ground level consists of a utilitarian food court and a huge Disney sized souvenir store. The second floor was closed and, according to the brochure, has been for some years. The fourth and fifth floors are a SiriusXM studio and an area where visitors can record the thrill of viewing the history of Rock and Roll. Both were empty.
The third floor is the actual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I am not sure what our expectations were – maybe some memorabilia from its famous members, but again, a letdown. The floor was filled with plaques. The same little plaques they hand out to the inductees every year at HoF ceremonies in NYC. Hundreds of wood blocks with brass name plates. And nothing else. It is hard to ooh and aah over a bunch of wood squares strung from the walls.
The nice café. Still don’t see the lake? Keep looking.
If you were wondering who stills sells CD, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has your answer.
So there were three things you get for the $26 (or just $25 for kids and grandparents) admission ticket: (1) a basement exhibit of the history of Rock & Roll as envisioned by Ahmet Ertegun, the Atlantic Records founder, (2) the privilege to buy a half an avocado sliced onto a piece of toast for ten dollars, (3) entrance to a Disney designed all exits out of the building lead through Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ToysЯUs like visitor’s store.
What’s in the basement? A lot of stuff. Chuck Berry’s red shoes. A suit worn by Gene Autry (Gene Autry? Rock & Roll? Confused? Read the little signs that explain it all and you’ll still be confused.); actually there are hundreds of suits and dresses worn by nearly anyone who ever made a record, all arranged historically on the exhibit’s maze of walls. Somewhere in the center of the place is the Elvis area. It’s a large oval room upon whose walls hang a dozen Elvis jump suits, lots of shoes and a couple of guitars. A giant video monitor sits in the middle of one wall surrounded by benches. It’s the only seating in the gallery and when we were there, every fricken seat was taken by those old people (enjoying their $25 discount fee!) who actually remembered and/or cared about Elvis. After watching 10 minutes of Elvis performance footage from his Las Vegas days you get one of those ‘I guess you had to be there’ feelings. How could so many people go so gaga over a middle aged crooner dressed up like a color blind drag queen? The people sitting on the benches, that’s who. Reliving the dream.
It was hard not to compare the Cleveland Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. We had been to the CM HoF two times and came away both times thoroughly delighted. We are not big country music fans but after you tour that museum, you come out wanting to tune up WSM on the radio and play it real loud. The CM HoF is many times larger than the Cleveland HoF but it’s not the size it does better – it is how the exhibits are arranged. Yes they have one of Gene Autry’s suits too but you also figure out what Autry sang, who he learned it from and who the singing cowboy influenced in the 1950s. Ernest Tubbs had a small stage in back of his record store and as a young man, Elvis played there along with Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and dozens and dozens of other stars. They tell the history of it all. Then, you can walk a couple blocks down to Broadway and the Ernest Tubbs Records is still there still selling vinyl.
The Ryman Auditorium became known as the church of country music back in the 40s when everybody owned a radio and WSM broadcast a two hour show from it every Saturday night. You can spend an hour in the HoF reading about the Ryman, look at ton of photos of the early shows with Roy Acuff or Mini Pearl or Hank Williams. When you’re done with that, you can just walk two blocks north on 5th Street and guess what? The Ryman Auditorium. And if you visit during the right time in the winter, you can catch a real live Grand Ole Opry show at the Ryman pretty much as they were when WSM broadcast them seventy years ago. And it goes on and on. Nashville was where country musicians wrote their songs, tried them out at one of the Broadway honky-tonks, than recorded them in RCA Studio B on south 17th Street. If they were lucky and talented enough to make the big time, they bought a big house – In Nashville. The place reeks of music.
Birthplace of Rock ‘N’ Roll? Really? Cleveland!
At least Nashville’s got the country creds.
Cleveland isn’t Nashville so it’s not totally fair to compare the two. But when you build a Hall of Fame dedicated to Rock& Roll, you need to have to have a pretty jazzy museum and perhaps located in a town with some music history. Or at least it should be in a place Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees actually come to. Cleveland strikes out on all three. Game Over.
As anyone who has spent time in Cleveland will tell you, there are countless reasons not to visit the city. Ohio City is cute and an anomaly. Most of Cleveland sucks. It is just another rust belt city like Detroit or Pittsburgh or Akron – decaying infrastructure, struggling schools, and a dingy downtown. It’s a city a native can love but for the rest of us? Periogis. Go to Cleveland for the Periogis. And Great Lakes Beer. But skip the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame even if you can get that great senior citizen discount.