It’s Saturday night, and you’re looking for somewhere to cruise. You don’t want to head to Mac and Jerry’s; the last time that you were there you went for a tall drink of water who didn’t quite swing your way. But he did plenty of swinging once you dared to speak to him. You can’t go back to the Cadillac Lounge; you broke Gloria’s “twelve-inch rule” with a quick kiss and got yourself banned last week. The other places that sprang up after the war have dwindled, and you can never be sure what other "safe" bar is open this month. Well, there’s always Little Ted’s…
Little Ted’s Restaurant and Bar was nestled in a dense business block catty-corner from Superior Avenue and East 3rd Street, right across from the Cleveland Public Library, and was owned and operated by restaurateur Ted Miclau. From 1944 to 1955, people would have been able to see the neon signs and walk in for some chicken paprikash or steak and greens, while enjoying the novelty of air-conditioning on a hot summer’s day and televisions showing live broadcasts throughout the day. The restaurant was popular, with regular advertisements in local papers touting well-cooked meals for a decent price, as well as musical acts for the bar downstairs. Little Ted’s also regularly appeared in papers as the venue for various events: A luncheon for the local American Civil Liberties Union, where the national head spoke to the assembled about new legislation and what it meant for labor rights. A dinner for the Yugoslavian University Club, where college students could mingle and listen to talks about conditions abroad from the Plain Dealer's foreign affairs editor. And, on December 31st, a big blowout party where guests would be able to enjoy live music, party favors, hats, and noisemakers to ring in the New Year included with their purchase of dinner.
By all accounts, Little Ted’s was a cornerstone of the community, and Ted Miclau was a pillar that rested on it. Born in Romania, Theodore Miclau was later apprenticed to a beautician, for whom he worked until he moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1926, where he built up a chain of five beauty shops and parlors. While there, he earned the nickname “Little Ted” due to his short stature and gentle speaking voice. With the repeal of the Prohibition Act, he purchased and renovated an old building and opened up one of the first legal nightclubs in the city, “Little Ted’s Garden.” Unfortunately, the Chicago Mafia had a vested interest in ensuring the bars of the city did not compete with their own now-legal speakeasies. Not without paying for protection, at least. “...one night, gangsters kidnapped me from my night club… They stuck a gun in my ear, beat me up, and threatened my family unless I bought their protection.”
The Chicago Mafia’s scare tactics did not end with this incident, and Miclau was forced to flee back to Romania in 1937. He would not return to the United States until 1943, and chose to re-settle in Cleveland, where he attempted to renovate an old nightclub called “the Showboat.” The project wound up falling through, and Miclau purchased a property at 304 Superior Avenue Northeast, renovated it, and named it “Little Ted’s Restaurant and Bar,” which would become quite an upstanding establishment and the start of a chain of “Little Ted’s” businesses. These included Little Ted’s Black Angus Restaurant, Little Ted’s Loop Cafe, Little Ted’s Latin Lounge, Little Ted’s Towne Casino, and Little Ted’s Pearl Motel. However, Little Ted’s had a secret. It was not just a family restaurant that hosted police balls and big meetings and wedding receptions… its basement was also a safe space for gay men to socialize and cruise.
Pre-Stonewall Cleveland had few options for members of the queer community to get together safely. Civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society and G.E.A.R., the Gay Educational and Awareness Resources foundation, would not come to the city for decades. And openly queer bars and nightclubs like Snickers or the Five-Cent-Decision were even further off. In his very directly titled essay, “The Cleveland Bar Scene in the Forties,” John Kelsey described a world of uncertainty and shifting safe spaces. Gay men had no option to be open due to Ohio’s existing anti-gay laws, and had to make do with bars owned and operated by straight people for straight people, hoping that they would be willing to tolerate gay patrons. This created a boom-and-bust cycle as gay men spread information via word-of-mouth—printed guidebooks like Bob Damron's Address Book would not exist until 1964— about a new bar that was willing to accept their business, only to become disenchanted and leave or find the bar failing, at which point they would jump ship to a new place. Some bars and clubs had staying power, like the upscale Cadillac Lounge at East 9th and Euclid, with its fine decorations, live music, and beautiful murals. However, the Cadillac had a strict dress code and a “twelve-inch rule” for male patrons that was enforced by its owner, Gloria Lenihan, with all of the fierceness of a prom chaperone at a Catholic school. This rule prevented any male customers from making physical contact, or getting closer than a foot apart from each other, while on the premises.
Little Ted’s, by contrast, had no dress code and there seems to have been nothing to prevent two men from shaking hands or getting chummy at the bar. However, these more lax standards carried a special danger. As John Kelsey wrote, “Here things were more informal; almost anyone was let into this large, dark room, and there was no dress code. Yet you had to watch yourself there; sometimes rather shady characters, such as shakedown artists, would turn up in the weekend crowd.” An event just like what Kelsey described did occur on May 26, 1952, where a 48-year-old veteran named Walter Koppitch bonded with a younger patron via stories of their mutual times in the military, and invited him home… only to be robbed. The younger man stole Walter’s wallet, containing $14, and his watch. The thief was later apprehended. Now, whether Walter was a gay man, or if he was just a kindhearted veteran looking to help a fellow out, his experience was not the first nor the last shakedown a Little Ted’s patron received.
In the end, however, this is all that ties Little Ted’s to the queer community of Cleveland in the early twentieth century, a handful of lines in an essay, a few crimes and "crimes" between men, and the occasional whisper. The restaurant is gone, abandoned in 1955 when Little Ted’s moved locations, and Ted Miclau died in 1991. With him, died the only man that could give a definitive reason for why he opened his restaurant to the queer community during a time when queer people were forced into hiding. The building that hosted the business was torn down to make room for the expansion of other businesses and even the numbering system has changed. Little Ted’s, like many other pieces of Cleveland’s history, is now dead and buried with the man that built it.