The Birthplace of Rock & Roll & Abby Amaro: Cleveland in the 1950s

Starting this week, we will begin our look deeper into the world of Sideshow with explorations of the setting, plot, characters, and the research that it took to get them right. Enjoy!

Looking east down Superior Avenue from monument sector of Public Square, July 1950.
Public Square -1950 [Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery]
Sideshow begins in Cleveland, Ohio. This seemed a natural choice to me. I honestly never even considered setting Abby’s beginning anywhere else. Continuing the world of “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter” meant continuing a story set in the 1950s. That was not a problem. As far as the writing of historical fiction goes, the 1950s have a ton of interesting themes to mine and I’ve only begun to crack that surface. Using Cleveland as a backdrop for the opening scenes just seemed to slip right into those themes seamlessly.

In the 1950s, Cleveland, like the rest of the world (and the Amaro family – I’m sure the reason for the gap between Abby and Leon is painfully obvious) was trying its best to move on from WWII. The world was still in turmoil, but Cleveland was trying to forget.

The post-WWII manufacturing boom definitely helped. Cleveland was, after all, a manufacturing city, for better or worse.

Abby’s father, like many other Cleveland fathers of this decade and decades prior, worked in a steelyard. It was hard work but would have provided well for the growing Amaro family  and allowed them to live in a house between the neighborhoods of Little Italy and Coventry Village (a one time “planned” community for Cleveland’s wealthy Protestant elites which began growing in ethnic diversity around this time). Natale and Abby both work and are concerned with money, but they would, unlike their parents, have been able to finish out their high school years in relative peaceful enjoyment. They would have likely attended a local Catholic School such as St. Marion’s (which would close in the 1960s, so the younger Amaro children would have to be sent elsewhere).

Cedar Lee Theatre
Cedar-Lee Theatre [Courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society & Cleveland Historical]

A critical intersection, both to Abby and Sideshow is that of Cedar and Lee roads. Abby spends her evenings after her music classes working at the fictional (though loosely based on a one time burger joint known as Mawby’s) Cedar Lee Diner, the existence of which was inspired by local Cleveland landmark, the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

The Cedar-Lee opened in 1925 and anchored the ever changing commercial center around it. It’s still there today, albeit a little different than Abby would have known it.  Though Abby and Marjorie likely preferred the East Side Drive In (especially during the summer), Cedar-Lee would definitely have held a special place in her social life.

Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS.
Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS. [Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History by CWRU and the Western Reserve Historical Society]
Speaking of social life, Abby would likely have also frequented dances held by Italian-American social clubs and teen organizations. As a music lover, Abby’s adoration of everything from opera to folk to, of course, rock and roll would mean seeking out places where she could hear the music she loved. In Sideshow she mentions to Suprema that she listened to Moondog every night. This is a reference to Cleveland disc jockey Alan “Moondog” Freed often credited with coining the term “rock and roll” leading to Cleveland’s beloved moniker. [I will discuss this particular aspect of Abby’s life in further detail in a later post.]

The carnival the Amaro family attends on that fateful day in late July would likely have been held in Gordon Park on the lakeshore or somewhere similar to it. These areas were casualties of that manufacturing boom mentioned earlier as the lake struggled through environmental degradation. That would have allowed McClure’s Amusements the ability to rent their time on the land cheaply, however. As seen in Sideshow, they do not always get the choicest locations, but they make the best of it. (Gordon Park’s Beach is also where I envisioned Abby’s breakup with Frank.)

The 1950s in Cleveland truly do provide an incredibly rich backdrop in which to paint the story of Abby Amaro’s early life and launch her into her later adventures with McClure’s amusements. This real and vibrant city that is more than it appears on the surface was, in my mind, the only place to begin.

 

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Women in Baseball History: Alta Weiss

“I found that you can’t play ball in skirts, I tried. I wore a skirt over my bloomer– and nearly broke my neck. Finally I was forced to discard it, and now I always wear bloomers.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t begin this series with one of the two major inspirations behind my novel Legend of League Park. [The other will follow later]

Alta Weiss Pitching
Image courtesy of Ball State University Library

Alta Weiss is one of the great claims to fame of the area in which I grew up. She was born in Berlin, Ohio and moved to Ragersville, Ohio in childhood. The fact that I didn’t learn much about her until I began research on this project is something I find unfortunate.

In 1907 at just 16 years of age, she was discovered by the Vermillion Independents, a semipro team in the Cleveland area and agreed to pitch for the then all-male team. Competitors, teammates, and spectators alike were in awe of the woman they and the press had dubbed the “Girl Wonder” and news of her spread quickly throughout Northeast Ohio.  When she made her League Park debut in the fall of 1907 against the Vacha All-Stars (also a Cleveland area team), the Independents won 7-6. Soon special trains were being run into the city whenever Alta was slated to play.

Alta’s baseball stardom, though never on a pro-team, helped paved the way for her to be a pioneer in other fields as well. The money that she made from playing baseball was used to finance her education at Starling College of Medicine, which would later become Ohio State University Medical College. She was the only women to graduate in the class of 1914 and proceeded to take over her father’s medical practice.

Though she played her last officially uniformed game in 1922, she truly stands out as a pioneer woman of baseball history.

Alta Weiss
Image courtesy of Cleveland State University

“Miss Alta Weiss can easily lay claim to being the only one who can handle the ball from the pitcher’s box in such style that some of the best semi-pros are made to fan the atmosphere. –The Loran Times Herald, 1907

[Women in Baseball History is a weekly feature in honor of my book The Legend of League Park, which will be released in April.]

There’s a red moon rising on the Cuyahoga River

And as such, the Belle Isle Bella and I return from the hometown of rock. It was good to go back for a bit and (of course) to see my Tribe succeed against the Tigers once again (though that was much to the dismay of Belle Isle Bella). Father says that I need to find a way to be at every one of their games for the rest of the season. I think that would make a fun new baseball movie: Random girl is struggling team’s good luck charm. Oh, how I love sports movies. They’re a class all their own. So awkward in their cliched inspiration and yet…still delicious.

Speaking of which, Ninja football? Who’s in? The thing practically writes itself.