A War with Heart

Every year, the men’s basketball teams from Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati square off on the court, in what’s known as the Crosstown Shootout.

There’s no love lost between the two teams… there was an ugly post-game brawl in 2011.

The fan bases can get rather rabid, too. With a bit of perspective, it seems silly for normally-sane adults to get so emotionally invested in a single basketball game between two groups of mostly teenagers. (But as a Xavier alum, I’m duty bound to mention the fact that my Musketeers have won 10 of the past 14… Let’s Go X!)

However, there’s a new XU-UC “shootout” going on right now where there are only winners: the local bar and restaurant workers. It started more than a month ago when a man and his daughter left a $1,000 tip at a venerable burger joint and finished off their note with “Go Xavier!”

Since then, fans of both schools have been engaged in a friendly game of one-upmanship, leaving monster tips at dozens of local restaurants.

This tip war isn’t a war of attrition, it’s a war of appreciation for the local restaurants and bars whose business has been crippled by coronavirus, and the workers who rely on tips to get by.

It’s good to know that folks from both schools have their heart in the right place (and apparently fat wallets too).

Running list of tips from this Cincinnati.com article

The Illustrated Man

John Ham passed away a week ago. No relation to Jon Hamm. But there was a connection.

Jon Hamm, the actor, is best known for playing the character of Don Draper, a cigarette-smoking ad agency man in the 1960s, on Mad Men.

John Ham also was quite the character. He was a cigarette-smoking ad agency man in the 1960s. And the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, too.

I worked with John from 2000-2005. He was an illustrator, and a damn good one. He did a lot of the packaging artwork for the original line of Star Wars action figures and toys. He created the illustrations for a Cincinnati beer company’s souvenir six-packs of the Reds World Series Championship way back in 1976.

By the time I joined the agency where “Hammy” worked, he was 62 years old… the wise (and wisecracking) elder statesman of the creative team. He didn’t really need the money – he and several friends had broken away from a big agency to form their own small ad agency decades prior. They grew the business, and were eventually bought out by a big national firm. But John was a people person through and through. “Gregarious” is probably the best adjective. He genuinely enjoyed the camaraderie of a creative environment. Always smiling, always generous with his time. He was much older than the rest of the creative team, but it never really felt that way. He was one of us. And when he wasn’t pursuing his art at work, he was engaged in his other passion: playing tennis.

Toward the end of his career, John would often get tapped to create a “farewell” caricature. It was usually for a bigwig who was leaving P&G (our largest client by far). But occasionally he’d create them for co-workers. I was lucky enough to get the Hammy treatment when I left the agency.

When John retired in 2008, Keith Neltner, our mutual friend and co-worker, turned the tables and created a caricature of Hammy in that same style.

The Yoda in the illustration is fitting – not just because of John’s Star Wars experience, but also because he was a lovable, wise mentor to all of us.

I shouldn’t feel so bummed out about the passing of a guy with whom I haven’t worked in 15 years, especially someone who made it to 83 (despite the smoking habit) and lived a very fulfilling life. But that smile, man, it was incandescent. We’ll miss that light.

May the force be with you, Hammy.

Radio silence

My old radio boss is finally calling it quits on broadcasting. Gary Burbank was the last of his breed, a radio personality who did “theater of the mind” comedy sketches. Mel Blanc may have been called the “Man of 1,000 Voices” in Looney Tunes cartoons, but Gary probably did more voices than anyone else, including Mel. And unlike the current breed of “morning zoo” personalities, his bits were funny without being prurient and/or insipid.

Photo credit: The Cincinnati Enquirer/Michael E. Keating

Gary’s show was syndicated to multiple stations in the mid- to late-90s, which is when I was part of the cast and crew. I learned a lot from GB -about humor in general, about doing character voices, about comedic timing, about how to deal with freelance writers and how to organize a show. Every day was a new adventure. It wasn’t always easy, but the end result was always entertaining. In many ways it was a dream job for me, but I was born about 20 years too late to be able to make a decent living at it.

In 2007, Gary retired from his weekday afternoon radio show on WLW-AM (known as “the nation’s station” because as a 50,000 watt clear channel AM station based in Cincinnati, it would reach 38 states at night). He created dozens of indelible characters (a partial list is on this Wikipedia page) but the one who lasted the longest was Earl Pitts, a blue-collar, ‘murica-loving redneck. Even after he retired from his daily show, Gary continued to record Earl Pitts commentaries, which are syndicated and air on several stations around the country. Now, at 79, he’s finally calling it quits on Pitts.

logo from the official Earl Pitts website

Gary’s already in the national Radio Hall of Fame — deservedly so — and at this point in his life he’s certainly earned the right to call it a day. But it’s a sad day for radio, because they don’t make ’em like Gary anymore. The good news is, Gary is turning his attention to a podcast that will feature several of the characters he created. So we’ll still be able to hear his voice(s).

You can read more in this article from John Kiesewetter, formerly of the Cincinnati Enquirer and now with WVXU (the former Xavier University station!).

The Queen City is King of Beers (again)!

For the second year in a row, Cincinnati claimed the top spot in SmartAsset’s assessment of the best cities for beer drinkers. Mainly because we have dozens of breweries, a plethora of bars, hundreds of beer varieties, and a decent cost of living.

We compared 384 cities across the following metrics: total number of breweries, breweries per 100,000 residents, average number of beers per brewery, bars per 100,000 residents and the average price of a pint. 

From the SmartAsset article “Best Cities for Beer Drinkers – 2020 Edition”
Visual from the SmartAsset article

The Germans who immigrated to Cincinnati in the 1800s really loved their bier. You couldn’t swing a dead knockwurst without hitting a brewery. Most of these businesses didn’t survive Prohibition. But a new generation of brewmeisters has done a great job reviving the old traditions… and putting a new spin on them, too.

Clip from the Art & Craft video from Leapframe and Neltner Small Batch. Full video is below.

At present, we’ve got 70 local breweries and 63 taprooms. And they’re making good stuff: 18 local breweries picked up a total of 39 medals in the 2020 US Open Beer Championships.

Original artwork by my good friend Keith Neltner, done for an Artworks mural in the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati. Learn more about the mural on Keith’s Neltner Small Batch website.

My wife and I went to our “local” brewery, Big Ash Brewing, last night.

photo from the Big Ash Brewing website

It was warm enough to sit outside… at least, it was warm enough with a fire pit going.

It’s tougher to visit taprooms in the Age of Coronavirus… but you can always get your beer to go. It’s good for your health…

Cheers to the Cincinnati Beer scene! If only they had this brewery…

Art & Craft | A Tale of Beer and Brushes from LEAPframe on Vimeo.

Four on the (flour-covered) floor

Our youngest kid started his first real job this week. (I don’t count the weekly community newpaper route he had for a couple of years, because a parent had to drive him around for that.) He’s 15 and a half now, and he’s working at a restaurant. The same restaurant where his 17-year-old sister works. Oh, and his 19-year-old brother… and his 20-year-old brother as well.

Yes, we’ve got a real pizza parlor pipeline going on. (Uh, not like the hoax one in D.C.) Our oldest even serves as the shift manager a couple of nights a week.

My kids are all gainfully employed. I love it! (So does my wallet!)

Ramundo’s is about five blocks from our house — easy walking distance (although our kids rarely walk it). The business is still doing well during the pandemic (more deliveries, less dine-in), the owners are great folks and they treat their employees well. (“They’re making tons of dough!” #DadJoke)

Photo source: New York Times… that means it’s New York style pizza

There’s only one problem with this pizza payroll situation: some of the pizza slices that are left over at the end of the shift make their way into our house… and into my belly.

I suppose packing on a few extra pizza pounds is a small price to pay for having someone else pay my kids.

Music that mattered. People who cared.

Matt Berninger is a singer and songwriter, best known as the frontman for The National, a group he formed with two pairs of brothers (Bryan and Scott Devendorf, plus identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner). All five of them hail from Cincinnati. Matt has a new solo album coming out this Friday. You can read more about that here and here. (Sidebar of note: the album artwork was done by my friend Dale Doyle – you may remember him from this post, when he was “downsized” by the ad agency where he worked for 23 years. What a difference a couple of years makes!)

Artwork by Dale Doyle

Growing up in Cincinnati, Matt tuned in to a tiny station with an even tinier transmitter, broadcasting from 35 miles northwest of the city, in Oxford, Ohio. 97X (WOXY-FM).

From the November issue of Uncut magazine

Nearly four decades ago, Brian Eno made a now-famous statement about The Velvet Underground in particular, and gratification in general:

“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”

Brian Eno in the Los Angeles Times, 1982. Source.

I’d like to think a similar concept holds true for 97X, where I worked for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s. The station only had about 3,000 listeners, but everyone who tuned in was a true music lover. Not all of them started a band (although Matt did), but to a person, they were folks who cared deeply, profoundly, sometimes rabidly, about the music. It wasn’t just about the artists, it was about the community that formed around that music… the “tribe” in Seth Godin parlance. Many listeners grew up misfits and outcasts in “normal” society. At 97X, they found a home, a place where they truly felt like they belonged.

You hear a lot about diversity and inclusion these days – it was baked right into the station’s programming. 97X ran the gamut of “modern rock” – jangle pop, punk, goth, singer-songwriters, grunge, you name it… with specialty shows for blues, reggae, dance, industrial, metal, and local music. If it was new, if it was different, it probably got played. We’d always err on the side of the listeners’ ears – play it and let them decide, not us. To be a 97X fan was to be open-minded, tolerant, adventurous, liberal in the broadest definition of that word.

All of this helps explain why, more than 16 years after the terrestrial station went off the air, and a decade after the internet version died, 97X still holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts. There’s a FB group called WOXY Forever. There’s a monthly playlist of new music on Spotify, compiled by dedicated listeners who never lost the joy of discovery that was inculcated by 97X.

There are college professors who give speeches about it. There are listeners who have painstakingly recreated countless hours of playlists, and archived each year’s “best of” and the “Modern Rock 500” (a Memorial Day countdown of the top 500 songs). It’s why Dave Tellmann (who worked at 97X for a decade) and I do a podcast about 97X (shameless self-promotion: it’s available on Podbean, Spotify and Apple podcasts).

The fact that Matt Berninger developed his musical tastes listening to 97X is super-cool. But I’m just as thrilled about all the other listeners who made 97X their station. We were all part of a small but mighty band… and we’re still focused on “the future of rock and roll.”

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