George E. Condon was truly born to write. It was his passion, his talent, his main amusement in a life that he found endlessly bemusing. Being his daughter — and someone equally fascinated by the art of telling a story and drawn to the pursuit of journalism — I was intimidated. At the same time, however, I grew up in a house where storytelling and the beauty of the English language were celebrated and part of everyday conversation.
One of the earliest stories about my Dad’s talent was a tale he told from his high school days at West Tech High School. There was a writing contest and the prize for the best essay was a trip to Columbus and back … in a plane! The teenage George Condon of course won it. And a trip on an airplane in the mid 1930s — when the newly opened and then-called Municipal Airport was a dirt field in the middle of nowhere — was beyond exciting for the youngest of eight children of poor Irish immigrants.
His telling of the experience made you feel as if you were standing next to him for the whole trip. Why? Because he talked exactly as he wrote — with vivid words that evoked the emotions and visuals of whatever experience or person he was talking about. I could picture his cocky grin as his teenage self boarded the plane and waved jauntily to his probably very worried parents standing by a fence on the outskirts of the fields.
His tales from more than 40 years working at The Plain Dealer are no less colorful and vivid. While many may have been colored by the passage of time and a fondness for Irish blarney, he was a journalist at heart who honored accuracy and fairness above all. So, we can safely assume a kernel of truth to all the stories.
My favorites revolved around the early days of television in Cleveland. As the first TV editor in 1948 — a side beat to his radio column — he was there when the first stations went on air. He loved talking about how early station officials didn’t really know what to do with the new medium. They would book a few performers, usually old vaudevillians and radio stars, and put them in front of the camera, and expect black-and-white miracles in between the test patterns.
His most frequently repeated party story involved the night of Dec. 19, 1949. He and my mother, Marjorie, went to the opening of the Dumont Network’s newest station and Cleveland’s third TV station, WXEL, Channel 9, which is now WJW, Channel 8. Family lore is that after everybody had had a drink or two, he decided he had to do some reporting. He wanted to know what show would be broadcast first on WXEL that night. He went to the station director and was told — presumably because the station director didn’t know he was supposed to plan something — to ask the advertising manager. The advertising manager had no clue either and directed my Dad to the Cornell University professor who had been overseeing the construction. He also didn’t know the plans for the first broadcast.
It was about this time, my Dad said, that they ALL realized that there was no plan for that first broadcast.
Panic set in and the station officials had to throw a show together on the spot. Morey Amsterdam was in town. A veteran of vaudeville and radio, he was now 41 years old and had had a show on Dumont since the previous December. They asked him to emcee a discussion with the three TV critics who were there for the opening. It was Dad for The Plain Dealer, and reporters from the Press (Warren Anderson) and somebody for the News. The problem was that all three critics were pretty tipsy. And Amsterdam could not get the names correct. He kept calling Dad Warren and Warren George and the third guy by another name. One of them, according to Dad, threatened on air to punch Amsterdam if he didn’t get the names right.
When the show ended, Dad filed his story by phone and went to the Statler Hotel for a dance/reception celebrating the opening. He was dancing with Mom, he said, when he noticed out the window that the sky was red. He called the City Desk and was told there was a fire at the Central Market. The editor told him they couldn’t get another reporter there in time for the first edition and asked him to go over and write the first story. He sent Mom home and took a streetcar to the fire. As he recalled, when he stepped off the curb, his foot sank in a big hole and he got soaked thoroughly, nearly getting electrocuted by downed power lines in the water.
After filing the story, he went to an after-hours place frequented by city councilmen and ne’er-do-wells. While drinking there, there was a police raid and they were all swept off to jail. We don’t know why — perhaps there was gambling?
A note of research for that story. According to records, the opening of WXEL was on Dec. 19, 1949, and the Central Market explosion was Dec. 20, 1949. But according to Dad, both happened on one night and I trust his memory above academic notes.
In today’s world of special previews, DVRing and thick layers of media relations flacks, critics should be jealous of the access of those early days of TV. Once he got a phone number from New York or Hollywood agents, Dad had whenever-he-wanted access to all the early stars, including Jimmy Durante (we found a note from him among Dad’s papers after he passed away) and, my favorite as I look at old clips, Ernie Kovacs, a huge star in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kovacs hosted the “General Electric Theater,” “Goodyear Theater” and the hysterical … even now… “The Ernie Kovacs Show.” Dad once said to me that one of his biggest regrets was turning down an invitation during one of his trips to Hollywood for a night-on-the-town with the inveterate gambling, cigar-chewing star. Dad said he turned it down because he was tired after a day of press junkets.
Not too much later, Kovacs died in a car crash. It was an opportunity lost to tragedy, but I have to think that Kovacs must have seen something fun in the Cleveland Irish journalist that made him want to spend some time with him. Cool.
One of Dad’s oft-repeated TV/Hollywood stories involved Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. On one of his L.A. junkets, he interviewed Desi and then Lucy — separately for some reason. Desi rhapsodized about working on the groundbreaking “I Love Lucy” TV show because it allowed him to be home every night with his wife. As Dad told the story, when he went to interview Lucy, he mentioned how nice it must be to have her husband home every night. She blew up at him (to his confusion) and started screaming at him to leave. He didn’t know that the Hollywood gossip at the time was that Desi was out womanizing every night. The PR person was nowhere in sight, so Dad left the interview.
Late that night, asleep in the hotel room, he got a call. His story:
“Hello George. This is Lucille.”
“Lucille who?” my Dad asked in confusion.
“Lucille Ball. I want to apologize for today. I didn’t mean to blow up.”
Apparently, when she calmed down, Lucille Ball heard from Desi and her publicist that my Dad hadn’t been baiting her, but simply following up on a Desi statement.
What a hardship it was to be a newspaper critic in those days. He would sit at home with our one TV, flipping channels manually trying to watch as many shows as possible. Then he would take his notes to the phone and dictate reviews for the next day’s paper. Notes on paper and diction skills honed on the police beat. Unheard of now.
Some of his best stories — and these are related to me by my siblings, since I don’t remember him talking about them — were about the early live commercials on Cleveland TV stations. “He always told one about a shampoo commercial with a live duck happily swimming in a tank. Then they shampooed the duck and he sank to the bottom because of what it did to his feathers/down/whatever,” according to my brother George. “He also told one about a local fire marshal who was supposed to close the broadcasting day with a fire safety message. But when the camera came on, he froze. He started lighting the papers in front of him. And Dad always ended with them getting him off the air ‘when he started looking at the American flag’ and they feared he would set that on fire.”
My all-time favorite Dad characters story revolved around the infamous-among-PDers reporter and copy editor Roy Adams. Roy was quirky and unique — the type of person who made newsrooms interesting.
One day Roy asked Dad to give him a ride home. Roy lived in an apartment on the Gold Coast in Lakewood and, since Dad also lived in Lakewood (having moved there from Fairview Park in 1976), he said sure. Roy invited him into the apartment for a drink. When Dad looked for an ice cube in the freezer, he found instead a frozen (presumably dead) cat, right next to the ice cube tray. Calmly, Roy told him that he couldn’t bear to part with his beloved pet, who had passed away. And looked at Dad like he was crazy for finding that odd.
Another time, according to Dad, reporters told Roy that publisher Tom Vail’s son was named Mot (Tom backward). Roy believed it because Vail’s daughter was Siri (Iris backward. Iris was her mother.) Roy went up to Vail and told him what a good job “Mot” was doing. Vail, according to Dad, was perplexed.
Famous names were dropped in our household like they were next-door neighbors, which I didn’t realize until years later. Bob Evans? He wasn’t just a restaurant name. He was one of my Dad’s friends. He and my mother were frequent guests at Evans’ sprawling farm down in Rio Grande, Ohio.
Before he was Ohio governor, Jim Rhodes came to our house to fix dinner. He was still State Auditor. Apparently, Dad challenged Rhodes’ claim that he could cook the best soup in the state. Rhodes was not going to let his honor remain besmirched — and he wanted to suck up to the PD before he launched his 1962 gubernatorial campaign. So, he arrived at our Fairview Park small colonial loaded with vegetables and beef and who knows what other ingredients, as well as a large cookpot. I was too young to remember, but my brother said the soup was not very good at all and there was a lot left over.
“We put it in the pot in the garage (it was winter),” said George.
Being a journalist was never an easy financial path, especially for a man who had six children in 15 years. We were — completely unbeknownst to me — “word” rich and cash poor. This I learned from, you guessed it, reading one of my Dad’s columns. Back in the days when there were gas station attendants who pumped the gas for you, Dad drove his car sputtering on fumes into a station and tried to casually ask for only $1 worth of gas like it wasn’t because he was broke.
Here’s how he related the ordeal:
“Fill-‘er up?” asks the man with the pump.
“No-o-o,” I say thoughtfully, as if torn by indecision. “A dollar’s worth ought to do it, I think.”
“A dollar’s worth?” says the attendant incredulously, stooping to peer into the car for a closer look at the cheapskate.
“Yes, sir,” I say, hearty as you please, “make it a dollar’s worth. The old tank is pretty full, but she might take that much.”
He continues with the story, reprinted in his compilation of columns “Laughter from the Rafters,” noting that he and the attendant both know that the parsimony is because of a lack of funds, not a feisty gauge.
He ends with the tale with the final words of the exchange, using his wit to put the reader right in the gas station bay with him, to the point you can almost smell the pungent tang of gasoline pervading the air.
“Too much mass production these days,” I said, bringing my voice down a bit. “They make gas gauges by the millions. By the billions, if truth be known. They pour off the production line like sausages and nobody cares if they work or not. That’s the real trouble, if you ask me!”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said the man with the pump. “Did you say a dollar’s worth?”
“If you can squeeze that much in,” I said in a soft, low voice.
Gas stations were, apparently, his nemesis. Another story famous at our dinner table that made it into the same book involved his convincing another gas station attendant that he was involved in a secret experiment involving putting only 38 cents worth of gas — precisely — in a tank. The attendant really got into the experiment, even offering to assist by checking the car’s tires, batteries and oil. My Dad got flustered (a rare occurrence), assured him everything was fine and got into the car for a quick escape.
“I looked out at the man and he was stooping again, staring in at me. He had the same look you see on people as they stare into the cages at Brookside Zoo.”
“In fairness to the attendant, I had to conclude that he was entitled to this particular stare because, somehow, I had wrenched open the wrong door in entering my car and there I was, comfortably settled in the back seat.”
With as much dignity as he could muster, he opened the back door, he said, stood up, straightened his jacket (I am adding that because I can picture him doing it) and got into the driver’s seat.
“I remember the attendant sort of stepped backward as if not too sure what my next move would be. We didn’t exactly bow to each other from the hips, but we did bob our heads a bit in passing, the way foes who respect each other on the field of combat often will.”
For years, I wondered about the Baltic Avenue street sign — an official, made-by-the-city sign — holding a place of pride in the finished basement of our Fairview Park home. If I thought about it at all, I figured it was something my Dad picked up at work. Or garbage-picking (OK, I just made that last part up. But I like the imagery.) It turns out that my Dad was inherently and frequently annoyed by Baltic because it was hit or miss — sometimes literally — which one-way direction Baltic would be at that particular moment for commuters heading to or leaving the Shoreway. He wrote about it. A lot. As a joke, someone from the city gave him the old sign when they redid them.
The life of a journalist. You pick up a lot of odd souvenirs — and friends — along the way. One of Dad’s closest friends in his later years was Linn Sheldon, famous for being Barnaby, a beloved children’s show host in Cleveland. Barnaby was an elf who lived in an enchanted forest and happened to show a lot of cartoons. The show ran from 1968 to 1990. I remember coming home for a visit from Savannah, where I worked as the features editor at the Savannah News-Press, unaware of the renewed friendship. Dad asked me to pick up a friend of his at the friend’s apartment on the Gold Coast and bring him to my parents’ Lakewood home. This friend was Linn Sheldon. When he got into the car, I just stared. I hadn’t made the connection between Barnaby and the name Linn Sheldon. I stuttered like a toddler awarded a bag full of lollipops for the entire drive. I’m pretty sure my face was redder than all the stop signs I probably ran from inattention. And yes, I checked to see if he had pointy ears. He didn’t.
When I started at the PD, my Dad had been retired for nearly 10 years. But he was still a vibrant force on the Cleveland scene, involved in the city’s bicentennial celebration in 1996, writing books about near West Side characters, and writing, writing, writing — did I mention writing? He never stopped. Well into his 90s, he was intrigued by the city he had loved since moving here as a young boy in the 1920s. He was proud that two of his children (my brother George and I) followed in his footsteps at the PD. He tried to embrace computers, but he probably would have preferred his old Smith-Corona typewriter, used for decades in his basement office in Fairview Park. My husband Brian got nearly daily calls to help him out of computer dilemmas, including the time he somehow managed to switch the computer to typing only Asian characters (not sure if it was Japanese or Chinese now) — going from right to left, of course. That fix nearly stumped us.
The old newsroom at 1801 Superior Ave. was familiar to me when I walked in as an employee in 1995. Why? Because almost every Sunday when I was young, Dad would bring me with him to work as he banged out a column or two. I would wander around, playing with typewriters (I’m sure that was appreciated on Monday morning by the reporters) and absorbing the inky smells and lingering vibe of a classic newsroom.
Walking as an adult through the maze of fake walls, dropped ceilings and raised floors to accommodate electrical cords, I managed to ferret out the spot that was Dad’s old office. It was the editorial cartoonist’s office. It was much smaller than I remembered. And not drab green.
The era in which my Dad was in journalism and at The Plain Dealer was, in retrospect, the golden era of smoky rooms, irreverent reporters and a love of a profession worthy of such movies as “The Front Page.”
At this writing, there have been Condons employed by The Plain Dealer in every decade since the 1940s. When we hit 2020, the streak will end. But it was all started by George E. Condon. He was such a movie-image character — one with such talent and wit that he will long be remembered. Want to hear him speak? Just read any of his old columns. It’s like listening to him in person. What a gift.