Record Rendezvous: Cleveland cradle of rock 'n' roll sits empty, awaits new life (photos)
John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
Updated on July 9, 2017 at 7:31 PM Posted on July 9, 2017 at 6:04 AM
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Amid the revival of this once-forlorn area sits perhaps the most important piece in downtown Cleveland's comeback.
You wouldn't it know it walking past 300 Prospect Avenue.
After all, the building that once housed the legendary Record Rendezvous sits empty, in darkness, so close yet so far away from the bright lights and celebrity chefs of East Fourth.
The facade is grimy. The windows are black. The door and ground floor are fortified from the street with a thick metal bars.
There isn't even a plaque memorializing it as the cradle of rock 'n' roll, where Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz gave the music a name and plotted its rise and the first rock 'n' roll concert with Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed.
The only reminder of its legendary role - and the basis for Cleveland having the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum -- is a beat up, dingy welcome mat. Look closely through the dirt and grime: There's an "RR" embossed on it that goes back to, well, at least 1987, the year the record store shut down.
Some would find that ironic, some tragic. Most don't think twice about it on the way to dinner or a show or a game or the casino.
"Record Rendezvous has been closed for so many years that most people have forgotten all about it," says Terry Stewart, former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, via phone from Arkansas. "But there would be no Rock Hall in Cleveland without it."
Looking back at things we call "legendary" often results in mythmaking. But you can't overplay Record Rendezvous, says noted disc jockey and scholar Norm N. Nite.
Not just because he was always hanging out there in the 1950s, picking up sides of wax as a teenager as Elvis Presley was hitting the charts. Nite also remembers the bus ride decades later that helped reverse the fading fortunes of downtown.
"It was 1985 and I was involved in the early planning of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," says Nite, a Cleveland native who was working as a marquee DJ in New York at the time. "When I heard there were plans to do it in New York, I thought, 'Hey, why not Cleveland?'"
So he set up a meeting with Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records and an early driving force in the early planning of the museum.
"He told me, 'No way, not Cleveland," says Nite. "And then I told him, 'But don't you remember, this is where rock 'n' roll was born?'"
It all came back to Ertegun when the Rock Hall steering committee made a visit to Cleveland - out of courtesy -- and a bus taking them around town started coming up on 300 Prospect Avenue.
"He told the driver to stop when he saw Record Rendezvous," says Nite. "And he walked in and just started buying records."
A simple act, but one that brought history full circle.
Ground zero for rock 'n' roll
If you go to google.com and type in "Why is the rock" the search engine will fill in the rest of the question... "Why is the rock hall in Cleveland"
It's a question music fans around the world continue to ask decades after Cleveland was chosen, in 1986, to host Rock Hall.
For good reason. There is no Graceland or Sun Studios, no Cult of Elvis. Nothing like Haight-Ashbury or anything remotely resembling a record industry.
But there are fans -- rabid ones that Mintz would notice combing the aisles of his record store. Among them were a whole lot of white kids buying "race records" -- 78 rpm discs that were marketed to black America - and he could sense which way the cultural winds were blowing.
Ertegun, a pioneering New York label guy, would travel to Cleveland to sell his discs to the store and noticed it too.
"Cleveland was an important part of the music business in those days and you'd have Ahmet coming in from New York with all these sample 78s asking my dad, 'So what do you think of these?'" says Stuart Mintz, who started working in his dad's store in 1950, at the age of 5. "My dad liked music, but it was a means to an end... He was a businessman who took pride in having the elite of record stores."
Leo Mintz, a tall, lanky man who had a soft spot for Scotch, opened Record Rendezvous in 1939 to sell used 78 rpm jukebox singles.
By the late 1940s, the store's location and accessibility to black and white record-buying audiences made it the perfect spot for kids coming together to get those "race records," which were forerunners to the genre he coined.
"I remember one night, a rainy Tuesday in 1950. My dad was in the basement catching up on his paper work and there was a knock on the door and a guy named Harvey who worked at the store answered it," recalls Stuart Mintz. "And he yells to my dad, 'You know an Alan Freed?'"
By 1951, Freed started playing the music on his radio show WJW-AM, "The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party." Mintz not only sponsored the show, he also sat alongside Freed, feeding him slabs of wax to play.
"Sometime they'd play stuff people weren't buying," says Stuart Mintz. "My dad would say, 'We gotta start playing this stuff so I can get rid of all these records at the store.'"
Rock 'n' roll was born - or, at least, branded.
"My dad wasn't aware of what was really going on," says Mintz' daughter, Lesley Mintz Trattner. "He just saw all these kids jiving and jitterbugging and dancing in the aisles or, as he called it, ''rockin' and rollin'.'"
Mintz had music play in the store and encouraged dancing. He also installed boxes that customers could browse through and listening booths where they could preview discs - both firsts in the music business.
"My dad just wanted people to have fun, like when he was hanging out with them in a bar or at the record store," she adds. "He didn't care about convention, he followed his own rules."
Iconoclasts, outlaws and riots
The foundation of rock 'n' roll was built by iconoclasts and Mintz was among the first, says former Rock Hall CEO Terry Stewart.
"You had all these little hillbilly and race and R& B and rock 'n' roll labels putting these records out," says Stewart. "It was a world of outlaws operating outside of the big companies."
The Moondog Coronation Ball almost turned Mintz and Freed into real-life outlaws.
The March 21, 1952 show at the now-closed Cleveland Arena is regarded as the first rock concert -- even if it was shut down by authorities after it had barely begun.
Nearly 20,000 fans tried to crowd into the 11,000-capacity Arena.
"The result was a near brawl as thousands of angry ticket holders milled about outside and others demanded admission, breaking down a door in the rush," The Plain Dealer reported on March 23, 1952. "Police ended the ball at 10:45 p.m., observing the place was so filled that nobody could dance or hear the music."
An "ill-fated" show, wrote the paper. A riot, said the Cleveland Police Department. A scandal, complained community leaders.
Perhaps, but the Moondog Coronation Ball turned Freed into a star. It also revealed the rising power of rock 'n' roll and cemented Cleveland's role as a breakout city.
"Rock 'n' roll wouldn't exist if that show didn't happen and things didn't go that way," says Stuart Mintz. "It made rock 'n' roll rebellious."
Leo Mintz didn't even attend the concert. After it had sold out, he decided to take his family on a trip to Florida.
"He got a call the afternoon of the show and was told that people were starting to riot, so he hopped on a plane to get back to Cleveland," says Stuart Mintz. "A cabbie picked him up at the airport and took him to the Arena and then when he saw what was going on he told the cabbie to take him to a bar."
Even though Freed would leave for New York City in 1954, Cleveland's reputation as a rock 'n' roll city kept on growing thanks to its rabid fans and vibrant radio scene.
The 'Vous was in the middle of it all.
"I remember we had the Capitol Records guy come in with this promo of a single by a band he was trying to get us to carry," says Stuart Mintz. "We couldn't stop laughing at the name."
They stopped laughing after the Beatles made their 1964 debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" two days later.
The store became a popular stop for stars as well as shoppers - from Milton Berle and Lawrence Welk to Keith Moon, Barry White, Sam Kinison, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and David Byrne.
"Southside Johnny would always come in to check out the old 78s we had stored upstairs," says former store manager Randy Meggitt. "They were the leftovers from the old days and weren't for sale, but he was always welcome to them."
Meggitt was hired by Mintz months before the rock pioneer passed away in 1976.
"Leo was hilarious -- this tall, skinny Jewish guy who would cuss you out in Yiddish and would step out to the bar next door, where the bartender seemed to always have a shot of Scotch ready for him," he says. "He'd do one shot, then another and then come back to work, until it was time to step out again."
Record Rendezvous expanded to three other locations -- in Public Square, Richmond Mall and Randal Park Mall -- but 300 Prospect Avenue remained the anchor.
"It was the place downtown for music," says Meggitt, who worked at the store until 1987. "We appealed to gospel audiences and punk and new wave audiences alike."
The latter occurred in no small part due to popular Cleveland musician Jim Jones, who played in legendary bands such as Pere Ubu, Mirrors and Easter Monkeys.
"We called Jim The Phonologue," says Meggitt. "People would hum a few notes of a song they didn't know the title of - and I'm talking any style of music -- and he would walk right to the record bin and grab it."
Reversal of fortune
While the store was popular with musicians - including Peter Laughner and Chrissie Hynde and members of Pere Ubu and the Cramps - it saw a decline in white shoppers.
"The '70s were tough years for downtown and it really started affecting retail," says Charlotte Pressler, who worked in the store in the latter part of the decade. "The department stores were still functioning, but once you got on Prospect it was a different world and an edgy one - and suburban audiences started disappearing."
The business was also changing.
"You had the rise of these big-box retailers and chains that were selling records for less than we could get them for," says Stuart Mintz, who took over the business in 1976 after Leo's death.
The 'Vous merged with an area distributor, which used the store to sell less-desirable titles.
"I ended up walking out and the store closed for good in 1987," says Stuart Mintz, who now resides in Scottsdale, Az. and works in the computer industry.
For years, the space operated as a sports apparel store. It was purchased by developer and restaurateur Bobby George, who has partnered with local real estate company Weston Inc. to develop the property.
"We've been trying to assemble and develop the entire block," says George. "But it's tough when you have three different owners."
The block runs from East Second to East Fourth streets and includes four buildings. Two of them, on the west end, were part of the iconic Goldfish Army & Navy Store, which closed in 2005 after an 80-year run.
"Three of the four buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places which qualifies them for historic tax credits," says Tom Yablonsky, executive director of Historic Gateway District, a Community Development Corporation that has played a vital role in the development of the area. "You can get on that list for different reasons and it can be architectural - but in this case it's the social history that took place at Record Rendezvous."
There are three different plans that could be viable to revive the block, he says. It comes down to the owners - the George-Weston partnership, Stark Enterprises (owner of the eastern most building) and Ike Simmons (the Mr. Albert's Men's World owner who owns the old Goldfish location) - working together.
"When you have multiple owners it always takes time," says Yablonsky. "But it's going to happen - this place is so important to Cleveland history."
So was Mintz, even if the fun-loving father of rock 'n' roll didn't know it at the time.
Neither did his family.
"To me he was just my grandfather and this cool guy," says Douglas Trattner, a Cleveland writer who was 9 when Leo Mintz passed away. "Even at his funeral he had people laughing and celebrating, because that's what he was all about."
"Then I noticed the line of cars and people - and I'd never seen that many cars," he adds. "And I realized, 'You know, my grandpa really was special...'"