Rascals and Rogues: Russian Joe Bielski

During my travels, adventures and travails in 1950’s and 1960’s Cleveland, I got to know a quite few people who fit into the categories of “Rascal” and “Rogue” very well. Let me tell you about some of the most interesting ones who could be found mostly on Short Vincent in those days.

Russian Joe
Russian Joe Bielski was not really Russian. He was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus which is a small country that was part of Russia but later gained its independence.  

It would have been more accurate to call him “Belarusian Joe,” but since most Americans had never heard of Belarus back then, he was known as “Russian Joe.” Joe was a downtown regular in the 1950s and he lived in an apartment hotel on East 9th Street.  

Jean’s Funny HouseToday, East 9th Street as we know it is a collection of gigantic bank and office towers. They are there for serious business. Therefore, they are cold, impersonal, lifeless, and dehumanizing.

The East 9th Street of this story was an entirely different place. It was alive with people and buzzing all day and most of the night.  It was filled with 19th Century buildings that were worn and were not totally reputable.  

Businesses there were mostly third-rate hotels, bars, Coney Island restaurants, and other toxic palaces that didn’t cater to the more mainstream clientele on Euclid Avenue. 

Two of Cleveland’s landmark shady institutions were located on East 9th—Jean’s Funny House and the Roxy Burlesque Theater.

Jean’s Funny House was a kid’s delight with pre-electronic games, magic tricks, gag gifts, and peep show machines for the more discerning adult customers. The owners of Jean’s Funny House eventually went to jail for income tax evasion. Their son was a grade school friend of mine.

I don’t know the cause of his parent’s problems, but I did find out that when that when we grew up, he ran Jean’s Funny House until it was torn down and replaced with a gigantic bank building.

If you were walking by the Roxy on a weekday afternoon it was fun to see respectable looking businessmen entering the Roxy with their practiced “not-to-be-noticed” method: To casually walk with their heads down and faces toward the building and then they would make a very quick turn and hustle into the Roxy, hoping that no one that they knew would see them. 

It was a small price to pay for a few hours of watching semi-naked ladies dance.

Roxy Burlesque TheaterNearby Short Vincent Avenue NE was where the criminal elite and other interesting individuals hung out in the high-class night clubs. By criminal element I don’t mean drug dealers, rapists, and other violent types. This is where the big boys who were connected to the Italian, Jewish, and Irish mafia-types-of-associations socialized. 

The top of the cigarette vending machine at the Tasty Burger on East 9th Street and Short Vincent was where Max, Cleveland’s number one bookmaker, plied his trade. 

East 9th Street was where the hustlers, pickpockets, characters, and Damon Runyan-types hung out. Russian Joe’s comfort level was more attuned to that East 9th Street than today’s East 9th Street.  He was a member of that fraternity. 

He was about 60 years old and had been employed as a bouncer in various places when he was younger. I don’t know what he did to earn a living, but he always seemed to have money. None of the characters that I knew from East 9th Street seemed to have a job, but they always had money. 

I got to know Joe when I worked at the Thom Mc An store on Euclid.  If you worked in one of the small stores on Euclid Avenue, the Damon Runyon types got to know you from seeing you around. They would stop by your store for a visit when your store was not busy.

Joe Bielski liked to drink and would walk sometimes to his apartment on East 9th in various states of inebriation. 

On several occasions he was spotted by punks who would hustle him into an alley to try to relieve him of his wallet. That was a bad decision on their part. What they didn’t know was that an old man who looked like an easy mark was definitely not—because he used to be a strongman in the circus. They were never a match for Joe.

There was a movie a few years ago that was titled “Defiance.” It was about three brothers who were the leaders of a partisan group of Jews who operated in the forest of Belarus during WWII. They fought the Nazis and built a village in the forest. The village was made up of 2,000 Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and survived by hiding in this secret village. The brothers who led the group were the Bielski brothers.  

When I saw this movie, I thought of Joe and wondered if he was one of the brothers in this remarkable story. Wow! Wouldn’t that be something?

Read more articles by Ralph Horner.

Ralph Horner grew up in the 1950s and 1960s on Whittier Avenue in the Central and Hough neighborhoods. In the 1960s and 1970s, at the age of 19, he managed a French Shriner shoe store on Euclid Avenue, where he got to know many of the people who hung out on Short Vincent.  A self-proclaimed juvenile delinquent living in the inner city, Horner observed the characters who were regulars in the neighborhoods he lived and worked in. Now in his 70s, Horner shares the stories of some of his more memorable experiences on Short Vincent with the FreshWater series, Rascals and Rogues I Have Known.