Saturday, April 17, 2010

Lancer Steakhouse, major player in Cleveland history

By Dick Peery

The flames that destroyed the Lancer Steakhouse Sunday took more than a business from the community. They consumed a legacy of Cleveland's finest memories.

When the Lancer opened 49 years ago, its well-dressed patrons included physicians, lawyers, successful business owners and numbers bankers who prospered before the state encroached on their territory with the lottery.

As Carl Stokes ran for mayor in the mid-1960s, the Lancer was where campaign workers swapped information, recharged their political batteries and planned new activities after an evening of volunteer work. It was considered the unofficial campaign headquarters.

Stokes was elected by a hairsbreadth in 1967 as the nation's first black mayor of a major city and launched a political revolution that opened urban leadership to all citizens across the country. Arguably, it was the Lancer that put him over the top.

The political importance of the Lancer continued throughout the Stokes administration as the mayor opened the full range of positions in City Hall to black job-seekers for the first time. Municipal workers, city council members and anyone wanting the back story on developments at City Hall knew they could get a good political conversation going at the Lancer. The upstairs conference room was the place of choice for strategy sessions.

As a reporter for the Call and Post while Stokes was mayor, I found the Lancer invaluable.

I started at the Plain Dealer in 1971, shortly before Stokes' announcement that he would not run for a third term. When the bombshell dropped on a Saturday, I was told to go out in the black community and get some reaction. I guess the editors assumed I would buttonhole people on the street. I made a beeline for the Lancer where I took a stool at the middle of the bar and sat there the entire afternoon taking notes.

Virtually everyone I would have thought to ask for an opinion came by. Elected officials, heads of neighborhood organizations, activists who had been in the news one way or another, all flocked to the Lancer seeking understanding of the shocking news. When I turned in the story, several editors told me no other reporter would have known how to get such a comprehensive wrap up. I didn't tell them it wasn't me. It was the Lancer.

Of all the sessions I attended in the upstairs meeting room, the most unique was hosted by Ron Bey. He was a black Muslim protege of Louis "Babe" Triscaro, a colorful Teamster official and Mafia figure. Bey owned businesses, headed some anti-drug programs and was a City Hall frequenter during the Stokes and Perk administrations, but his primary occupation was assumed to be as a hit man for the mob. He was a fixture in Little Italy when few African Americans dared to visit the area.

He helped calm a community uproar after kids threw rocks at a school bus carrying black students on Murray Hill road in Little Italy. Bey arranged a press conference at the Lancer at which businessmen Al Micatrotto and Tony Hughes said they wanted to apologize on behalf of the Italian community. Micatrotto was especially eloquent as he emphasized the right of everyone to travel on any street without fear of attack. When the local Mafia unraveled years later, Micatrotto and Hughes were identified as longtime members.

Over the decades, politics, economics and demographics changed and so did the Lancer.

As the old customers faded and the next generation of professionals were welcomed in new hangouts downtown, the base for a center of black social and political activity also waned. But not completely. When there was a need to gather, old timers resurrected the past at the Lancer. For instance, whenever boxing promoter Don King came back to Cleveland for a political event or the funeral of former colleague, he bought out the house and everyone was welcome.

The most significant celebration in the Lancer's history occurred just a year ago. The local NAACP wanted to have a viewing party for the election of Barack Obama as president, and there was just one logical place to go. International television broadcasts emanated from the large tent in the parking lot where euphoric voters rejoiced in Obama's incredible victory.

Of all the passionate statements from gatherings throughout the country that I saw on television that night, the most profound was from the Lancer patron with long braids down his back who told the world, "Tomorrow I can cut my dreads."

Owner George Dixon says he will rebuild. He must. It will be great if his new restaurant brings back the enchantment of the original Lancer. In any case, a monument to that magic time is needed.

This was written by Dick Peery, who has stockpiled countless observations of people, places and events in contemporary Cleveland history as a reporter, labor leader and concerned citizen.

It was originally posted on on Dec. 7, 2009.

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