Ghosts of Short Vincent: Theatrical Grill saw an odd slice of CLE society for six decades

Cleveland has hosted many memorable dining and entertainment venues over the years. Older area residents will recall places like Jim’s Steak House (1930-1997), the New York Spaghetti House (1927-2001), and Weber’s Restaurant (1899-1974).

Another that lingers in memory is the Theatrical Grill once located on Short Vincent.

Theatrical Grill 1950This night club thrived for decades as venue that brought a remarkable cross section of patrons together. It was common to find Cleveland Police Department detectives and judges seated next to numbers runners, big name entertainers, and sports figures.

A notorious figure associated with it was Shondor Birns, one of the best-known figures in Cleveland’s underworld for half a century. Born in Europe in 1907 he was brought to Cleveland as an infant. His birth name was Alexander. He acquired the name “Shondor” when a younger sibling was unable to pronounce his name correctly.

Beginning in the 1920s, his hair trigger temper and powerful fists found him employment as an enforcer.

As his power increased, Birns gained a controlling interest in a number of criminal enterprises. One of his ventures was the Theatrical Grill. The street where it was located ran between East 9th Street and East 6th Street and saw a lot of traffic in the 1940s and 50s. There was always a hint of notoriety about it, and patrons who knew what was good for them never dared to trifle with Shondor Birns.

He didn’t exactly mellow with age, remaining on the front pages throughout his life, while somehow avoiding lengthy stays in jail.

In the end, crime did not pay.

Contemplating retirement, Birns visited a favorite bar one night in March 1975.

Preparing to leave, he got behind the wheel of his Lincoln Continental Mark IV and turned the key. It was the last thing he ever did. An explosion destroyed the car, blowing Birns to bits.

Theatrical Grill 1960The Theatrical Grill by this time was a fixture downtown. Opened in 1937, under the name Mickey’s Theatrical Grill, the establishment took its name from Mickey Miller, brother-in-law of principal owner Mushy Wexler. Wexler was a character in his own right as the owner of Empire News Service, a wire service operation that supplied up- to-the-minute information about horse races for bookies.

By the mid-1940s Birns was a part owner of the Theatrical Grill, although this had to be kept quiet because a previous felony conviction made it impossible for him to hold a liquor license. Not one to quibble over details like this, Birns had a similar arrangement with his Alhambra Tavern near Doan’s Corners at East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue.

In 1945 an expansion led to one of the Theatrical Grill’s most notable features—a raised stage placed inside its distinctive curved bar.

Further expansion over the next several years created the Burgundy Room, the Penthouse, and the Grill Room—all desirable venues for meetings and private parties.

The Theatrical Grill welcomed headliners—entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, and Cab Calloway were regulars, as were sports figures like Joe DiMaggio and heavy weight boxing champion Joe Louis.

Another regular visitor was Toots Shor. As the proprietor of New York City’s renowned Toots Shor’s Restaurant, he probably took a professional interest in the Cleveland venue.

Over the years the Theatrical had its ups and downs, weathering fires and owner Mushy Wexler’s brushes with the Internal Revenue Service.

Wexler succumbed to kidney disease in 1979, ending 40 years at the helm of the Theatrical Grill. While relatives continued the business for several more years the Theatrical’s day was done. Patrons complained of slow service and menus reminiscent of earlier years when food preparation involved large amounts of butter and salt.

Original members of the Bob Crosby Band playing at Theatrical Grill in 1963The final blow came with the Theatrical’s conversion into a strip club. Even this wasn’t enough to save it, and the Theatrical Grill finally gave in to changing times in 1999.

The site of the longtime Cleveland landmark is now the entrance to a parking garage.

The voices of Sinatra and Garland fell silent long ago, as did the crack of Joe DiMaggio’s bat.

Freddy’s, Kornman’s, and all the other establishments that once lined Short Vincent have joined the Theatrical Grill and now exist only in the memories of Clevelanders old enough to have grandchildren.

This once thriving entertainment district has vanished as completely as if it had never existed, leaving the ghost of Shondor Birns to marvel over the empty sidewalks, the gangsters, bookies, cops, and crooners having long since joined him in Valhalla.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.