Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tell Me a Mitzi

I hate to be a spoil sport, but I have a feeling the bar we went to in Cleveland the other night will be my favorite of the whole trip. There will be other bars (many, many other bars), some of them legendary in their own ways – but Mitzi Jerman's is going to be a little lonely at the top. Founded in 1908, the bar has been in the same family for one hundred years. We had the place to ourselves on a rainy Tuesday night and it was nice to chat with Mitzi's daughter Susie about the bar and the city, and to meet her old dog Rosco and her cat Belle, who wags her tail like a dog when she's happy. It was like finding a home away from home on the road, and I couldn't think of a better introduction to Cleveland.

When Mitzi Jerman died in 2006 at the age of 92, her obituary ran on the front page of the Plain Dealer. Here it is:

St. Clair Avenue's friendliest bartender dies at 92
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Michael O'Malley
PD Reporter

The old beer joint will never be the same without the elegant lady in the housedress and clip-on earrings who called each customer "honey."

For generations she poured whiskey for the blue-collar boilermaker crowds that lined the wooden bar in one of Cleveland's oldest neighborhood saloons -- Mitzi Jerman's, named after the elegant lady herself.

Mary "Mitzi" Jerman, who was born in the apartment above the bar on St. Clair Avenue 92 years ago, died on Sunday in a nursing home where she had been cared for since April.

Before going to the nursing home, she still lived above the bar, helping her daughter and son-in-law when the place got busy. Sometimes she'd shuffle in wearing slippers, but always in a housedress and earrings, and always smiling. No one called her Mrs. Jerman. She was always Mitzi.

"The amazing Mitzi," Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman said. "She was the great innkeeper. She always made you feel warm and welcome."

Mitzi entertained her honeys with stories about her old bootlegging days and the characters who used to come into the bar -- politicians and reporters mingling with working-class Democrats. The late Frank Lausche, a Cleveland mayor who went on to be governor and U.S. senator, regularly left the place forgetting his hat.

And Mitzi remembered him having holes in his shoes.

Though the place will never be the same without those colorful stories, it was business as usual Monday at the bar. "My mother would have a fit if I closed," said Mary Therese "Susie" Myers, whose grandparents, immigrants from Slovenia, started the business 98 years ago.

John Jerman came to America and worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines before settling in Cleveland, where he met his wife Frances, a governess. In 1906, he borrowed $1,000 to buy a house at 3840 St. Clair Ave. Two years later, he opened a bar on the first floor.

When Prohibition came, the Jermans worked in the shadows to keep the business going, trying to avoid snooping G-men.

Mitzi's brother Eddie smuggled whiskey from Canadian boats, and when the Feds got too close, the Jermans would pass bottles out an upstairs window into a window of a next-door neighbor whose house stood only a few feet away.

"My grandmother used to tell my mother, 'Look out for those guys wearing the black boots and white socks. Those are the Feds. Those are the bad guys,' " Myers said.

In the old days, Mitzi cooked chili and hamburgers for the neighborhood's hungry factory workers and truck drivers. "She made the best hamburgers," said Karla Golub, 62, who grew up in the near East Side Slovenian neighborhood.

"My parents would give us kids money, and we'd walk from St. Paul's to Mitzi's for hamburgers. We would swivel on the stools and watch the factory workers crack eggs in their beers."

Golub owns Golub Funeral Home on Superior Avenue, where Mitzi's wake will be on Wednesday. The place used to be a boardinghouse where Mitzi, as a girl, took piano lessons. The old piano in the bar is dusty and out of tune.

Myers said her mother remained alert to the end. She said Mitzi asked every day about the business and her dog Rosco, an uptight mutt who sleeps in the front window and barks at the regulars coming through the door.

"Every day she said, 'Tell the customers I said hello and make sure you buy them a drink,' " Myers said.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Paul Croatian Catholic Church, 1369 East 40th St.

Mitzi Jerman's Café is 3840 St. Clair Avenue Northeast, near the waterfront. Stop by if you're ever in Cleveland.


Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite things you have posted, which is really saying a lot.

Looking forward to seeing you guys in the 206.

Unknown said...

Roscoe had a stroke on Saturday....I gave him a kiss goodbye last night.