The King of Cool: Dean Martin's Time in Cleveland

Ralph DiMatteo

Dean Martin Mural in Steubenville, Ohio

Dean Martin, the suave and charming crooner who, along with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., ruled the '50s, '60s and even a bit into the '70s as the Rat Pack, literally got his big break right here in Cleveland.

Most people know of one Dino Paul Crocetti being born in Steubenville, Ohio, but few fond of his career, as I consider myself to be, knew that he really got the biggest break of his career in Northeast Ohio, specifically Cleveland.

Martin led quite the life before settling into the career that he is best known for, with his smooth vocal stylings and a commanding stage presence. He did a stint as an amateur welterweight boxer under the name “Kid Crochet” and he also had a hand in several just-a-bit-outside-the-law activities in his early years, ranging from running liquor during Prohibition to serving as a bookie.

So what led him to Northeast Ohio and the big break that set him on his way?  Glad you asked.

Despite all the distractions and temporary flings with Illicit activities, Martin was meant for stardom and made his way to a mob club just outside Cleveland in Lake County singing as Dino Martini, a nod to opera singer Nino Martini.

He got a chance to croon for the Eddie McKay Orchestra, which led him to the Hollenden House right in downtown Cleveland and the watchful eye of bandleader Sammy Watkins. I remember the Hollenden House very well at the corner of E. 6th and Euclid. When I got my start in the beer business, I delivered there in the '80s, never knowing it was the place that one of my favorite entertainers finally settled into the career he was clearly destined for.

But back to Dino, Watkins felt the name Dino Martini sounded a bit too "ethnic," so he suggested a change to Dean Martin, and the musical legend was born.

Martin met and married wife #1, Betty McDonald, while performing with Watkins in 1941, and they lived in an apartment in Cleveland Heights during their time in Cleveland that still stands today. They had four children together before the marriage ended in 1949.

Later in his career, as his style of music began to be overshadowed by the meteoric rise of rock n roll, Martin recognized that he would need to evolve his career yet again. So he turned his attention to films and had a successful, although stressed at times, partnership with Jerry Lewis. He even took on serious roles; the one most will remember is Martin's role as the captain in the star-studded Airport from 1970.

I’ll leave you with this: In the twilight of his career in 1983, his son Ricky approached him with an idea on how to appeal to a brand-new generation of music fans. MTV music videos were at their peak of popularity and Ricky convinced his dad that this would expose him to a potential new legion of fans, and it worked. The song “Since I Met You Baby” from his last recording for Warner Bros, The Nashville Sessions, became that video. Check it out below; you’ll see just how cool the King of Cool was and always will be.

(Image credit: kinggrl)

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