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Issue Date: November 2011

Last Call

For 40 years, The Table held court downtown, bustling with celebrity, city lore and camaraderie.
Michael D. Roberts

The way I figure it, The Table met nearly 10,000 times over some 40 years. The bar bill was more than $2 million, but its reservoir of city lore was priceless.

The Table had no official membership roster, but those who attended included George Steinbrenner, Art Modell, Dick Jacobs and Nick Mileti, as well as Clevelanders who made their fortunes in relative obscurity, such as the late Dr. Marvin S. Freeman, who is said to have made house calls in his Rolls-Royce.

This August, after meeting almost daily since the 1960s at various downtown restaurants, The Table ended with the death of John Minco. The handsome, witty and urbane ad man was The Table's spirit, the arbiter of its membership, instigator of its dialogues and the one constant in an ever-changing parade of personalities.

With Minco's death, an era passed, one television is trying to reprise with retro shows about the 1960s. It would be easy to create a series about The Table, a subculture of celebrity, gaiety and fraternity. It had only one membership rule: Everyone had to at least try to buy a round.

The Table's early bond was World War II. Many who sat there had seen the worst of that war and acquired a special appetite for life. They lived in a time when it was acceptable to smoke and drink at lunch and refer to attractive women as "tomatoes." They called the lady singer who occasionally sat with them The Canary. It was what television's Mad Men attempts to portray.

The Table began in the legendary Theatrical Grill in the 1960s. By the 1970s it had moved to the Pewter Mug, an unassuming bar on Frankfort Street at Public Square. Table 14 was made up of two ordinary Formica-topped tables pulled together, around the corner from the phone. On some nights, as many as 20 people would circle their chairs around it.

Visiting reporters and writers sought out Table 14 to learn about the city or measure the region's political mood. They mentioned it in books and national newspapers. Here you could learn which politicians were clean, which took money (some in brown paper bags) and which real-estate deal was a scam. A retired police detective could provide a detailed criminal background of a man drinking across the bar.

I first discovered The Table at the Pewter Mug, when Cleveland Magazine was in its formative years, with limited resources. We needed to find interesting stories about the city, and The Table had the cast we so desperately needed.

Steinbrenner and Modell were at their best on those evenings, arguing for the check, each jokingly accusing the other of being cheap. Both agreed that Mileti, who owned the forlorn Cleveland Indians, was not allowed to buy.

"Spend it on some pitching," Steinbrenner would say. Mileti had outbid him for the Indians, and then, in one of those freakish things that happen here, Steinbrenner purchased the New York Yankees with Cleveland money.

One night, Steinbrenner brought along Yogi Berra, who sat next to me. I told Berra how much I disliked him as a kid, because he always seemed to end up beating us on those July 4th doubleheaders in the 1950s with 70,000 in attendance.

"Every kid outside of New York feels that way," he growled. "It's not fun being me."

Another night, a bank examiner from Washington confided in the late Richard Lamb that he was in town to close a major bank infiltrated by organized crime. Lamb was unusual in that he would sleep until late afternoon, join The Table around five and roam the city until all hours. Though in the trucking business, he had the keen eye of a journalist and a dedication to Dewar's White Label.

We told the story of organized crime's hold on the bank thanks to Lamb's tip. We also wrote about the late Tom Hill, a Texas businessman who frequented The Table for a time and bilked prominent Clevelanders out of millions of dollars when his investment scheme went south.

More stories went untold than were ever published because The Table was governed by an unwritten code of discretion. To my knowledge, it was only seriously violated once, with painful consequences.

The late J. William Petro, the U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio, was a regular at The Table. One night, he warned another member to keep clear of a friend who was in trouble with the Justice Department. Foolishly, the man called his friend and related Petro's warning. An FBI wiretap intercepted the call, resulting in a contempt charge against Petro and his firing as U.S. attorney.

When the building that housed the Pewter Mug was torn down in 1989 to make way for a parking lot, The Table shifted to Sammy's in the Flats. There, a little-known real-estate developer named Dick Jacobs joined the group, largely to learn more about the city.

Then one night a greedy bartender killed the golden goose. He double-billed The Table.

Despite profuse apologies from Sammy's, Minco moved The Table to Johnny's on West Sixth Street the next night. It thrived there, welcoming a stream of passersby: the former federal agent trying to cut an oil deal with Russia, the Arab rug merchant related to Saddam Hussein and the pretty blonde who collected gambling debts locally for Las Vegas casinos.

Wives and girlfriends generally did not like The Table. The conversation rarely included them, and they found themselves spectators. The Table contributed to many late dinners and several divorces.

Occasionally, an unwelcome interloper would appear — in table parlance, a stiff. The Table attorney, the irascible Robert J. Rotatori, would be tasked to discretely exclude the intruder.

Once, when Jacobs owned the Indians, a woman approached him and declared her affection for the team by baring a buttock emblazoned with a Chief Wahoo tattoo. A tourist sitting nearby captured the moment on film. An alert and alarmed Jacobs paid handsomely for the camera.

With Minco and the others gone, so is an institution. A city is complex, made of bits and pieces, people and things, and ebbs and flows. The Table was all of that, a place that shared the secrets, joys and concerns of a city the way a family would its own.

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