Take a trip to Cleveland where WV ‘Polka King’ takes center stage

By By Terry Robe
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
TERRY ROBE | Courtesy photos
Murals such as these by Lynnea Holland-Weiss (center) and Dan Isaac Bortz (right) give life to the streetscape of Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District. Waterloo Road is the spine of Collinwood, once the center of the Slovenian and Croatian American community.
Sculptor Jerry Schmidt’s studio and gallery, and many others, stay open late on the first Friday of the month for Walk All Over Waterloo.
Cone spools are stored by color at Praxis Fiber Workshop on Waterloo Road, a nonprofit that offers classes in spinning, weaving and dyeing to Cleveland Institute of Art students and the public.
Co-owner Mike Kaplan manipulates hot colored glass at the Glass Bubble Project in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
The balcony at Cleveland’s West Side Market in Ohio City overlooks Dohar/Lovaszy Meats, founded by Emery Lovaszy in the late 1940s.
The 28-foot “teacher” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Pink Floyd The Wall” exhibit, the gift of Roger Waters, rises in the hall’s glass “tent” overlooking Lake Erie.
Don Fedorchak, head usher at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, poses with a magnificent Sèvres vase in the Connor Palace, one of the performing arts center’s five restored theaters.
Frank Sterle, an immigrant from Slovenia, opened a smaller version of what became Sterle’s Country House in 1954, hosting famed polka musicians (including West Virginia-born Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King”). Try the halushki (cabbage, noodles, bacon and caraway) with a Slovenian or Croatian beer.

Center stage on Lake Erie, about 250 miles north of Charleston, the city of Cleveland will be forever linked to one of popular music’s most vibrant genres: Slovenian-style polka.

The Polka Hall of Fame (full name: National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum) is just east of the city in Euclid, “in close proximity to the Collinwood neighborhood where leading polka musicians lived such as Frankie Yankovic, Johnny Vadnal, Johnny Pecon and Eddie Habat.”

No relation to Weird Al, Frankie Yankovic was born July 28, 1915, in Davis, West Virginia. Davis’s population — at the time about 2,500 and now 650 or so — was swelled a century ago by Slovenes, an ethnic group from what was then Yugoslavia. Frankie’s father, a blacksmith, and his mother, a cook, met in a lumber camp.

In tribute to “America’s Polka King,” the intersection of Waterloo Road and East 152nd Street in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood, once favored both by Slovenes and Croats (another Yugoslavian ethnic group), was named Frankie Yankovic Square in 2007.

Today Collinwood is a hipster neighborhood, “the epicenter of Rust Belt chic,” branded the Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District. The first Friday of every month, you can Walk All Over Waterloo, stopping by art studios and galleries and browsing vintage clothing and vinyl. In 2000, the former Croatian Liberty Home became Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, welcoming the White Stripes a few weeks later.

You don’t hear “Who Stole the Keeshka?” very often at Beachland. As it turns out, there’s another genre with Cleveland roots: rock and roll. But these collisions of ethnic heritage and youthful creativity — respectful, rebellious or both — are what give the city its character and make it well worth a visit. (Please note: 50,000 additional Republicans are expected to arrive in July.)

No offense to its Euclidean counterpart, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, downhill from downtown and right on the lake, is spectacular inside and out. A few of its treasures:

n Howlin’ Wolf’s electric guitar, porkpie hat and money case (a beat-up valise that never left his side)

n Elvis’s custom motorcycle (actually a tricycle, with a cushy seat)

n The Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl Super Classic Model drum set Ringo played at the Return to Shea concert in 1966 (he stills owns it)

n The original lyrics to the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” (on a sheet of three-hole-punch lined paper)

n The awning from CBGB’s, the punk mecca in New York’s East Village (a gift from the founder’s grandson)

n The rhinestone-encrusted glove MJ wore when he performed “Billie Jean” on his Dangerous tour (rotating in a cylindrical vitrine).

In addition to the cases of memorabilia, arrayed on the hall’s seven levels are digital jukeboxes; theaters (one screening “American Bandstand” clips); a frightening “Pink Floyd The Wall” exhibit with a 28-foot “teacher”; and a radio studio named for disc jockey Alan Freed, coiner of the term “rock and roll” and organizer of the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, in 1952 in Cleveland.

Among the costumes on display are outfits worn by James Brown, the Supremes, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and the man who, in 1972, introduced Ziggy Stardust to America at the Cleveland Public Auditorium: the late David Bowie, inducted in 1996.

This year’s induction ceremony — at which Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller and N.W.A. will be honored — will take place April 8 in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The ceremony returns to Cleveland every three years, next in 2018.

Also jutting out into Lake Erie are Steamship William G. Mather (seasonally open to the public), the Great Lakes Science Center and FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns. (About an hour south of downtown Cleveland — you’ll pass it on the way — is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton.)

Two of the city’s inland entertainment hubs are on Euclid Avenue, once known as Millionaires’ Row. Close in is Playhouse Square, a performing arts center comprising five beautifully restored and renovated theaters from the 1920s. About five miles farther out is University Circle (the university being Case Western Reserve). On or near the circle are such major institutions as the recently expanded Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the nation’s best; the Museum of Contemporary Art, in a striking, 3-year-old building; the Cleveland Orchestra’s art-deco masterpiece, Severance Hall; the Western Reserve Historical Society, with well over 100 antique automobiles; the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where “The Power of Poison” opens Feb. 27; and the Cleveland Botanical Garden, featuring “Orchid Mania” through March 6.

While in the University Circle area, check out Happy Dog at Euclid Tavern, a reborn Cleveland classic, where SEC investigator turned social entrepreneur Sean Watterson has installed a branch of his high-concept hot-dog-and-tater operation in a legendary rock venue. (Cleveland has several legendary clubs, including the Agora, which helped launch the Boss, though at an earlier location.)

The city’s mix of eras and styles, beloved by its citizens, can be addictive to visitors. Sometimes it is encountered in a single dish, such as beef-cheek pierogi with wild mushrooms and horseradish crème fraiche, served at Michael Symon’s Lola Bistro on pedestrianized East 4th Street. Other times it makes itself felt as a sort of neighborhood triple play, such as the following:

Venture across the Cuyahoga River to Ohio City (annexed by Cleveland in 1854). Gaze at the specialties at 104-year-old West Side Market. Sample the sophisticated suds at Ohio’s first craft brewery, Great Lakes. Then, before you leave town, make a DIY souvenir — some wind chimes, maybe — at the Glass Bubble Project.

Ask for Mike, a wizard with molten glass. Oh, and be sure to say hi to Morty, the studio’s “lap chicken.”

Terry Robe is a freelance writer who covers travel and the arts. Email Robe at terryrobe1@gmail.com.

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