From the monthly archives: "July 2015"
Davenport, Iowa, June 29,  2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

Davenport, Iowa, June 29, 2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

DAVENPORT, Ia.—Sometimes you reset the odometer.

I buried my parents in  April and late May and in early June my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire stopped running at the toll booth on a trip from Naperville to Chicago, a journey I had been making weekly over the last 18 months. Finis. The car was as loyal as an old mare and left only after it had done its job. I’ve spent 30 years writing road stories of small towns and gentle intentions and never had to call a tow truck.

I needed a lift.

When it came time to drive to the Quad Cities for my Midwest League baseball column I deployed my parents 2006 Hyuandi Sonata. You learn a new car, you learn a new way of life. I had used the four-door Sonata for all of my parents doctors appointments. My Pontiac only had two doors and a back seat full of half read Sunday New York Times.

The measured cadence of baseball lends itself well to being in the moment. Keep your eye on the ball. Embrace every blade of green grass of a Midwest League field because soon it will be winter for all of us. But on the drive out to the great Mississippi River I could not deflect recent moments, especially on my mother’s final visits to the Naperville Cemetery.

I would remove her black Drive wheelchair from the trunk of the Sonata. The caregiver and I helped my mom out of the passenger side of the car and into the wheel chair. I would wheel mom over the grass to my father’s grave. My parents are buried around stories much sadder than theirs.  Mom  got as quiet as a broken radio. Sometimes I looked away. She never wanted to stay long but she always wanted to arrive. Mom and Dad were married 65 years.

Rivers have a timeless nature which is why I wanted to see the Quad Cities River Bandits after all that I had been through. Rivers are always going somewhere and I feel a greater sense of history in Mississippi River towns than I do when I am along the ocean in Key West and Myrtle Beach -although Coney Island is an exception.

I drove alone to Davenport, at least in a physical sense. I brought along a river mix CD I made in 2012:  “Kern River” by the great Merle Haggard, “River Bends” by Tim  O’Regan,” “Get Down River” by the Bottle Rockets, and “Moon River” by Andy Williams, a song my parents liked.

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

The first thing I did when I got to downtown Davenport was visit the Quad Cities Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Union Station, 102 S. Harrison St. The center features souvenir books, locally made food and drink, postcards and bike rentals that are perfect for the riverfront.

I found the River Music Experience (RME) museum and performing arts center thriving at 129 N. Main St. in downtown Davenport. The two-floor RME is in the former Von Maur department store in the  Redstone building, erected in 1872. I first visited RME right after it opened in 2004 and it continues to amaze me Davenport can feature such a fine music museum while Chicago cannot get its act together to honor its important music heritage. In fact, RME is expanding to honor coronetist-composer, Bix Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in  Davenport. (Sun Ra sideman Pat Patrick was from East Moline, Ill.)

RME presents an all-ages and free “Live @ 5” series on the museum courtyard; Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey play today, followed by Fickle Filly and the Haymakers on Aug. 7, Wicked Liz & the Belly Swirls on Aug, 14 and the Ellis Kell Band on Aug, 21 (Kell is also a long-time museum staffer.)

I walked along the Mississippi River.

I had been to the former John  O’ Donnell Stadium several times but I had never found the time to  carry my thoughts along the river and Le Claire Park. I made discoveries. I saw a plaque that commemorated Aug. 22, 1963 when the  Catholic Interracial Council and other area organizations held Iowa’s  largest civil rights rally at the 400-acre park. Nearly 2,000 marchers listened to speakers like John Howard Griffin, author of “Black Like Me,” who spoke in the park’s since-refurbished band shell.

The march was a warm-up to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington (D.C.) which drew more than 250,000 people to hear Dr. Martin Luther King and others.IMG_0954

Finally, everyone can enjoy a nice picnic in the park and walk to what is now  called Modern Woodmen Park. The fraternal financial services company  scored naming rights in a 20-year deal worth $4.5 million. The 84- year-old “Modern Woody” often makes national news for getting flooded  out. Home plate is 400 feet from “The Big Muddy.”

The stadium was doing fine in June. A removable flood wall was created in June 2013 with a removable bridge that provides pedestrian access from the floodwater to the stadium. It is one of the three longest installations of its type in North America and the wall can be installed by six people in less than 24 hours.

June was the wettest month in Illinois history with 8.9 inches of rain, a fact not lost on my blue mood. I sat through an 86-minute rain delay before the game was suspended after four innings  with Quad Cities (Astros) leading Beloit (Oakland)  1-0 (Quad Cities  won 2-1 the next day.)

Earlier this year Modern Woodmen Park was voted “Best of the Ballparks” in Class A baseball by fans and readers of Ballpark Digest, which conducted a bracketed online voting competition of all Class A venues.

Modern Woodmen is the oldest stadium used continuously by a current minor league baseball team for more than 50 years. Davenport’s baseball history is one of the most storied in America, going back to 1879 when Davenport was a member of The Northwestern League that included Rockford, Ill. Dubuque, Ia. and Omaha, Ne. Northwestern is acknowledged as the first league west of the Mississippi River.

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My brother recently gave me the 2013 John Sexton book “Baseball as a Road to God (Seeing Beyond the Game)” which cites a 1956 poem John Updike wrote for the New Yorker while sitting in the Yankee Stadium bleachers:  “Distance brings proportion…From here the populated tiers as much as players seem part of the show…..”

Sexton wrote how Updike saw unity in time and place within the framework of baseball.

I last visited the riverside park in 2004 when the team was known as the “Swing of the Quad Cities,” which always sounded like some kind of private kinky club. The improvements are impressive and memorable.

In May, 2014 a new 110-foot tall $1 million Ferris wheel was erected beyond  the left field fence. The wheel was shut down during lightning and thunder, but it is easy to see that you can see views of the Mississippi River and the humble Davenport skyline. Why didn’t Tom Ricketts think of this as part of his left field renovation? The Cubs have been spinning wheels for generations. There is a $5 charge to ride the wheel.

A children’s amusement area is being built in the right field corner, bringing a bit of the wonderful Brooklyn Cyclones-by Coney Island experience to Iowa.

The latest addition for this season is a tiny cornfield in the left field corner beyond the bullpen. Bumper cars will be added in the right field corner before the season is over.

It is clear that River Bandits owner Dave Heller is all ears for just about anything. He realizes the shortened attention spans of today’s younger baseball audience.

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This is Iowa baseball.

“When I get five or six innings out of my kids I feel like I’ve really accomplished something,” Heller said from Connecticut where he was tending to his ill father. “If we’re in someone else’s park and they’re tired, we can leave. But when it’s Quad Cities and I’m in charge, leaving is not an alternative. Part of it is understanding first hand the struggles parents have to carve out affordable family friendly entertainment for themselves and their families. We wanted to do things that hadn’t been done before in minor league baseball to provide enough other attractions to keep them there for nine innings.”

Heller is a life long Democratic political media consultant. He attended Yale University where he completed his Master’s thesis and taught an undergraduate seminar on 20th Century American Politics.

“I’ve worked for 25 different members of congress,” said Heller, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m working on a number of campaigns include Congressman Alan Grayson who is running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. I still love politics. But I joke that I’ve spent my entire life selling something nobody wants to buy and now I get a chance to sell something people really enjoy—baseball.” And sometimes, something people really need.

 

 

 

Dave Hoekstra photo,  June 9, 2015

Dave Hoekstra photo, June 9, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C.–If you look hard enough you see history in the misty shadows of bright neon.

As Asheville grows as a tourist destination many people stop to take photos of the Mountaineer Inn neon-lit sign on the near east side of Tunnel Road. The 1960s era sign features a hillbilly with a rifle resting against his right leg.

The iconic sign is purposely spelled with backwards N’s and E’s to attract roadside attention, but it attracts its own desires at night when it is lit up in cherry red and evergreen outlines.

Asheville is now filled with trendy motels and boutique hotels, so the Mountaineer Inn is left for extended stay residents, day laborers and the occasional prostitute. On a lazy June afternoon I sat by the pool (closed for remodeling) reading the biography of North Carolina born writer Joseph Mitchell. I saw that a few families were attracted to the Mountaineer Inn. The families asked proprietor Chris Moutos to see a room and then left for greener pastures.

And they were witness to the kind of room I stayed in: a saggy bed, a 1970s era Zenith television set jerry-rigged to cable TV and an air conditioning system run through the front office. I paid $59 for a Monday night stay. As one family drove away a middle-aged man with a walking cane left his room. He startled the mockingbird perched on the roof of his unit. His dago tee shirt wasn’t doing any favors for his ample belly. The man asked me how far the Waffle House was. It is two blocks west, not far from where the sun sets on Asheville.

Dave Hoekstra photo

Dave Hoekstra photo

The Mountaineer Court was built in 1939 as a 19-unit motel. Moutos added another 44 units in 1973. “Some of the biggest rooms in the state, 14 by 28 (feet),” Moutos crowed. The Mountaineer now consists of 76 units and the spectacular neon of the barefooted mountain man with his corncob pipe and rifle.

John Turk, Vice-President of the Western North Carolina Historical Association and Professor Emeritus Youngstown State University told me, “Asheville was founded in the 1790s and has had up and down times. The civil war certainly a down time.

“When the railroad got here in 1880 the place started to boom. You could get to Asheville from Baltimore or Philadelphia. A lot of people came to the mountains to get away from the heat and humidity. It built up until 1920 and the stock market crashed.Asheville went into the dark ages until the 1960s when tourist trade started to jump again. That’s when all these motels were built on the three main roads that led into Asheville. Themes varied from hillbilly to Florida chic to Colonial Revival and that was the time period before Howard Johnson’s where they all looked the same. There was a certain amount of character to the Mountaineer.”

Turk leads walking tours and bus tours of downtown Asheville through History At Hand. He has lived in Asheville for 10 years.

He admits he has never stayed at the Mountaineer.

“It is wonderful this motel is still in operation,” he said. “It prides itself in this huge sign. And if you live in Asheville everybody knows where it is. You are either in the camp that thinks its a horrible filthy thing that we need to get rid of or an iconic statement about what was happening in Asheville in the 1950s and 60s.”

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

 The 5’2” Moutos shuffled about his front office which features a vintage sofa and a front desk where he registers visitors by pen and paper. On a good day Moutos will tell visitors about studying Byzantine music as a young man. A Greek Orthodox, Moutos wanted to be a priest when he was young.

Here is a portion of our interview that we aired on the July 18 edition of Nocturnal Journal on WGN-AM 720 in Chicago.

“I will be 92 in one month,” he said. “And I work from seven in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. If we have a storm, we get big problems with the neon. It cost money to operate. It is hard to get parts. I fight and fight to keep the sign. The city has made it a historic sign. People from Europe and all over take pictures of that sign. Several people have tried to buy the motel. It is not for sale. What do I do if I stay home? Keep working. That’s all I can do. I love to meet people. I meet good people.

“Remember ‘Horse’ on ‘Bonanza”?

Actually it was ‘Hoss.’

“I wanted to give him (Dan Blocker) the room free,” Moutos continued. “He would not take the free room. He went across the street and ate feta cheese and bread just like he was in Athens, Greece. He came here in September, 1964.”

Blocker was one of Moutos’ first celebrity guests. Moutos was an Asheville restauranteur on June 10, 1964 when he visited the motel to sell a chamber of commerce membership. “I bought the motel in less than three minutes without knowing what I do,” Moutos said in a broken Greek accent.

Moutos was born in Greece and grew up in Athens. He was a messenger in World War II and came to America in 1951. Moutos lived with his aunt and uncle in Augusta, Ga. for 18 months before relocating to Greenville, S.C. to work in a restaurant. He next moved to Asheville to open his restaurants. He liked Asheville because the cool climate reminded him of the Mediterranean. At one time Moutos operated four diners in Asheville.

But Moutos found his calling in the Mountaineer.

His first restaurant, Cosmos, was across the highway from the Mountaineer.

“One of the most nice and high reputation in the state,  the best part of the city,” he said. Moutos is married to a high school classmate from Athens but they didn’t get hitched until April, 1977. It was not a shotgun wedding. “I was 53,” he said. “I went back to Greece to get married. She is 17 years younger than I am.” Barbara and Chris have sons ages 34 and 36. The oldest son John is involved with the motel and lives in Raleigh, N.C. Nick lives in Asheville.

Portions of the 1988 hit baseball film “Bull Durham” were filmed in  Asheville and the nearby McCormick Field is a minor league baseball treasure. McCormick is situated in a slope on the fringe of the downtown area. I’ve visited McCormick Field the past two summers.

The tiny brick framed ballpark (4,000 capacity) opened in 1924 and was renovated in 1959. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Willie Stargell are among those who have played at McCormick where the right field wall is a mere 297 feet from home plate. The Asheville Tourists are a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees.

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Waiting for the gates to open (Dave Hoekstra photo)

McCormick is baseball’s oldest minor league stadium still in use. The vintage scoreboard reads “Visitors” in the guest slot and “Tourists” underneath in the home slot. In “Bull Durham” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) ends his career with the Tourists after being released by the Durham Bulls.

 “Bull Durham make shot,” Moutos said. “It was all right. I gave them the room free because it was good work for the city. But they took off the screen doors and never put them back. They were rough people. I’m glad they did the scene with no clothes on at another hotel in Greensboro (S.C.)

Moutos had a better experience with the acclaimed 2003 indy film “All The Real Girls” that starred Zooey Deschnael and Paul Schneider. 

“That was the best movie we had here,” he said. “Good girls. It was nice. They stayed here from October to March. 40 rooms. They were beautiful people. They paid the bills and it was good advertisement for the motel. The producer (Jean Doumanian) wanted to write a story on me. I came here with nothing and made something.”

The 92-year-old proprietor can walk around his grounds and realize it is not 1964 any more. “It’s not good people like it used to be,” he said. “You have to watch close to whom you rent it. You don’t want to rent to people who have a good time or dealers of dope and those things. You have to watch it close. You have to be 21 to rent a room. We have a bridal suite with new furnitures.” And like an old wedding ring, the Mountaineer circles the past with hopes for the future.

The Mountaineer Inn is at 155 Tunnel Rd, for reservations, call 1-800-255-4080.

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

Finding yourself on the road; George Maharis (left)

Finding yourself on the road; George Maharis (left)

A couple weeks ago I saw my pal Jimmy Rittenberg at Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse, 1028 N. Rush for an interview on the most comprehensive book about Disco Demolition you will read.

Rittenberg was the impresario of Faces, 940 N. Rush, arguably America’s best known disco. It certainly had a longer run  (1971-89) than Studio 54.

Like a Frank Sinatra ballad, our conversation floated off into the dreamy 1970s memories of Rush Street; a time when footsteps were lighter and the Jack was stronger.

Soon we were joined at our table in the bar by comedian Tom Dreesen.

This guy is everywhere.

He was on my WGN Nocturnal Journal radio show in May  and now he was in Chicago to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Dodgers game.

Dreesen told a few good stories at Gibson’s  but I loved his recollection about his bit role in the 1971 movie “T.R. Baskin,” which starred Candice Bergen as a young woman from rural Ohio who meets sleazy guys in the big city.

The mostly panned movie was shot in Chicago and included scenes at the now-gone O’Connell’s Coffee Shop on Rush street. The coffee shop wasn’t far from Punchinello’s, 936 N. Rush, a popular after-show spot for acts at the Shubert  Theater and Mr. Kelly’s—now Gibson’s. The second floor Punchinello’s is also where comedienne-singer Pudgy got her big break.

Jimmy Rittenberg (L) and Tom Dreesen (Paul Natkin photo)

Jimmy Rittenberg (L) and Tom Dreesen (Paul Natkin photo)

 “I just had a couple of lines,” Dreesen said. “But in the movie with me was a gay kid who worked at Punchinello’s. He was one of the first gay guys back in those days who buffed, who wore the tight shirts and everything. And his name was Bon-Bon which I thought was the greatest name for a guy in a movie. Everybody liked him and he was a likeable kid.

“George Maharis was working at Mister Kelly’s. He goes down to Punchinello’s and he likes Bon-Bon. But George wasn’t out of the closet in those days. I don’t if he ever was out of the closet.”

Rittenberg leaned over and said, “He is now!”

Actually, Maharis was arrested in 1974 for  on a sex perversion charge with perfectly named male hairdresser Perfecto Telles in the bathroom of a Los Angeles gas station. Just a year earlier Maharis posed nude for “Playgirl” magazine.

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“George Mahraris was (Buz Murdock) on Route 66,” Dreesen continued. “So Maharis sees Bon-Bon and makes a move. He says, ‘Would you like to go out later?’ Well Bon-Bon says ‘Yes!, are you kidding?’ Bon-Bon tells Maharis he’s going to get off in five minutes and Maharis says ‘I’m going to leave, meet me on the corner.”

Dreesen looked over his shoulder to distant characters on a different Rush Street.

With impeccable pacing he continued, “Bon-Bon was disappointed because he wanted his friends to see him. So Maharis is walking through the restaurant going out and Bon-Bon starts walking behind him.”

And Dreesen started tip toeing around the crowded restaurant bar, smiling with sealed lips as he pointed to an imaginary Maharis. “All the other gay guys are applauding Bon- Bon,” Dreesen said. “ And Maharis is beaming and going ‘Thank you, thank you!’

“It was a scene I could put in a movie.”

Rittenberg and I took it all in.

Rittenberg was born in 1943 and grew up in West Garfield Park. His father James, Sr. was a Jackson Boulevard bus driver for Chicago Motor Coach, his mother Lucille was a telephone operator. “My Mom was a music buff but I hated a lot of her music,” he said. “I remember breaking ‘Sentimental Journey’ by accident on purpose. Then when ‘45s came out I ruled the roost, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard was my favorite. I played ‘Lucille’ and my mother hated it.”

He broke onto the Rush Street scene tending bar at the original Store, 1030 N. State, which previously had been the Gate of Horn, where in 1962 Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were arrested on obscenity charges.

“Rush Street was different than State Street,” Rittenberg explained. “Rush Street was a little dressier. I made $6 a night in tips bartending at the Store, when I moved to Jay’s (1026 N. Rush) I was a school teacher so I only worked Friday and Saturday nights. I made a $150 a night.”

Rittenberg taught sixth and seventh grade and coached baseball and basketball for six years at St. Francis Cabrini at Sacramento and Polk. “I go back to the Marienthals, Chez Paree,” he said. “I learned from those guys.” George and Oscar Marienthal owned Mr. Kelly’s, the Happy Medium and the London House in the north Loop. Rittenberg declared, “ Rush Street has been destroyed.  I tell (Gibson’s owner Steve) Lombardo that all the time. No more hookers, no more jazz joints. Its turned into restaurant row and now clothing.”

And life is more fun when you peel back the layers.