Chatterbox Musical Bar and Grill

From 1949 to 1959, the Chatterbox Musical Bar and Grill, located at 5123 Woodland Avenue, was a place to be and be seen. Owned by John (Chin) Ballard, the colorful spot featured soft lighting, swank decorations, and a glowing atmosphere. Ballard and his assistant, famed Cleveland Browns star player and future National Football League Hall of Famer Marion Motley, instituted a policy at the Chatterbox of sparing no expense in order to provide their patrons with the very best experience possible.

The Chatterbox had become known citywide for its upscale atmosphere almost immediately after opening, and in 1951 Chin Ballard wanted it to be known for something else. Because the Chatterbox regularly drew large crowds to watch baseball games, Ballard decided to install the largest television set in any Cleveland café at his club. By Opening Day of that year, customers of the Chatterbox were able to watch games on an enormous 21-inch television set. The policy of providing the very best was not only instituted on what could be seen, but heard as well.

The jazz and rhythm and blues musical acts that graced the Chatterbox's stage were also of the highest quality. Bob Harvell and his trio played the club in the early 1950s, earning praise in the local papers, which compared their musical meanderings to those of the renowned King Cole Trio. Billie Holiday's performances at the Chatterbox were nothing short of sensational, and she took the place by storm with her inimitable voice. In October 1958, the record-breaking Idlewild Revue (featuring a cast comprised of all African Americans) began a two-week stand at the Chatterbox. Described by critics as one of the most fabulous revues of the past decade, the Idlewild Revue starred Della Reese, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Carter, Willie Lewis, the exotic "Black Velvet," the Four Tops, the Fiesta Dolls, Crip Heard, and the Bragettes. The revue would be the last large show at the club, as unforeseen circumstances would force the Chatterbox Musical Bar to close forever a few short months later.

Early Sunday morning, on February 8, 1959, the Woodland Avenue neighborhood surrounding the Chatterbox sprang from slumber when the four-story Ritzwood Hotel (located at 5117 Woodland Avenue, a few doors down from the Chatterbox) caught fire around two in the morning. Quickly the fire escalated to a five-alarm call, and began to engulf neighboring structures. Twenty-six pieces of firefighting equipment and 155 firefighters responded. The windswept fire spread quickly from the Ritzwood along Woodland Avenue, engulfing Owen's Billiard Parlor, the Fuller Products Company, Bob's Restaurant, the Sputnik Lounge Bar, and the Chatterbox Café. The destruction was too much to recover from, forcing the Chatterbox Musical Bar, as well as the other establishments that were damaged in the blaze, to close for good. Athough thousands of commuters pass daily through the intersection of East 55th and Woodland, most do not realize what rich history lies just to the northwest at what is now only a grassy lot. Sadly, jazz and rhythm-and-blues music will never be performed at this location again, and the only time it may be occasionally heard is from the radio of a passing motorist.

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Billie Holiday
Derwood Tatum recalls seeing Billie Holiday at the Chatterbox.
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