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Issue Date: December 2012


Our Gritty Past


Mark Winegardner

Forty years ago, the largest company headquartered in our fair city was, most probably, a multibillion-dollar operation hidden in plain sight in a heavily fortified two-story warehouse on the corner of East 65th and Carnegie. It might, in fact, have been the largest corporate empire here since the 1911 antitrust bust-up of Standard Oil.

The company wasn't listed on the Fortune 500 (though several smaller Cleveland-based companies were). Its CEO was almost certainly the richest man in Cleveland, but (until this magazine ran a long, intricate feature story about him) hardly anyone outside his circle of friends and business associates knew anything about him.

Reuben Sturman grew up in Cleveland, the child of Russian immigrants. He started selling used comic books out of the trunk of his car and wound up becoming the architect of the international pornography industry. He invented the peep-show booth, which created a demand for film loops, which created the boom in American porn films (mostly in California). He envisioned the VCR boom before the machines were sold to the public. He was a pioneer in logistics and off-shore banking. His vast, thriving business lurked for three decades in the underground economy, fending off attacks from law enforcement for selling goods and services that are now perfectly legal and enjoyed by millions of people all across America.

Sturman ran a sustainable, recession-proof business that was also far ahead of its time. Today, what were once called "marital aids" are often sold in drugstores and at the wholesome equivalent of Tupperware parties. Cable companies and luxury hotels have made billions from on-demand adult films.

Reuben Sturman died in prison in 1997. By then, other than the tax evasion charges that put him behind bars in the first place, nearly everything that made Sturman an outlaw had long-since gone legit.

The same might even be said for other, more sinister figures from Cleveland's gritty, seamy past.

Take, for example, two rivals to Sturman for the title of Richest Clevelander Circa 1972: John Scalish and William "Big Bill" Presser.

Scalish had been the boss of the Cleveland crime syndicate since 1944 and was one of six mafia bosses who banded together to share the skim from the Las Vegas casinos. But it wasn't until those early years of this magazine that the public came to know this retiring, media-shy don. When Scalish died of heart failure in 1976, the magazine lovingly chronicled the resulting power struggle — as well as the car-bombings with which that gang war was waged. At the epicenter of that struggle was Cleveland's greatest, bull-gonzo-loony antihero — a former longshoreman and self-styled modern-day Celtic warrior named Danny Greene.

Presser, a Scalish associate, was the longtime vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He was also a racketeer, responsible for sacking the union from the inside out (and, like Greene, an FBI informant to boot). His more famous son, Jackie, also a mobbed-up Teamsters leader (and informant — and, later, the president of the whole union), survived the car-bombing reign of terror only because the FBI protected him from it.

Unlike Sturman, of course, Scalish and Greene and the Pressers were criminals through-and-through. All of them, though, were colorful men whose exploits are too easy to romanticize. No question: They hurt and exploited people (y'know: the way legitimate businesspeople or revered politicians never do). But, for better and for worse, they're a living part of the Cleveland we've become.

Today, Greene's story has become a movie, Kill the Irishman; Clevelanders seem to love it, embarrassed only by the fact that it wasn't filmed here.

Today, some of the tactics that made Scalish and the Pressers filthy rich — looting pension funds, taking over companies and then exploiting their assets and lines of credit to the point of bankruptcy — look uncomfortably similar to the (perfectly legal) tactics of modern private equity companies.

Forty years ago, casinos were legal nowhere in America outside Nevada; even there, they were owned by criminals. Today, they're owned by publicly traded companies and seem no more threatening than amusement parks.

Casinos have become the supposed economic saviors of once-prosperous cities, where they operate in plain sight, in places as unlikely as the department store where Ralphie first saw that Red Ryder BB gun at the beginning of A Christmas Story — where, in real life, men like Sturman, Scalish and Presser once came to buy dark suits with wide lapels, right on Public Square.


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