November 1976—exactly 40 years ago—I wasn’t doing anything I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be writing music, playing my music (somewhere), writing comedy, performing comedy . . . those kinds of things. I just wasn’t. I was stuck.
I used to get together with other artist friends—musicians, actors, dancers, visual artists—and we’d all commiserate about that same situation. We would usually meet in bars. In the middle of the afternoon. We all hated doing that, but there wasn’t anywhere else to meet. This was before the big coffee movement. Or, at least, before it hit Cleveland. I was living in a small third-floor apartment in some unfriendly guy’s house. Everyone else had other reasons why we couldn’t gather at their places.
But one afternoon, a few of us were sitting around a table in Chester’s, a bar on Coventry, and someone wished aloud that there would be a place other than a bar where we could all meet. Someone mentioned the Algonquin Round Table, the group of famous authors, actors and comedians, who met during the 1920s in New York City at the Algonquin Hotel’s lobby bar. Someone else pointed out that that took place in a bar, too. Someone else wished aloud that we could have a clubhouse, where we could all come and go as we pleased.
I came up with this idea on the spot. I hated the place where I was living, so I said, “If I can find an apartment that costs, say, $160 a month [this was 1976, and that was an average price around Coventry], and I paid half of the rent, $80, would you each pay $10 a month to be able to use the place as a clubhouse?”
Everyone agreed. It took a couple of phone calls to bring the number of “members” to eight, plus me. And it was easy to find an appropriate apartment. I rented one on Euclid Heights Boulevard around the corner from Coventry. It was sort of a basement—the apartment was halfway underground; the windows sat at ground level. Its one bedroom was all the way in the back, setting it apart from the “public” areas.
Everyone brought over a couple of pieces of furniture. I was working at Rocco’s Market, a gourmet produce and sandwich shop behind CoventryYard, so I supplied the place with food. And, oddly enough, this experiment worked.
We decided that since we had a clubhouse, we should also be a club. And if we were a club, we should have meetings. So, though everyone came and went every day and night, we agreed that we should all meet every Thursday evening. We also usually gathered on Sunday mornings for brunch, where we always wound up doing a line dance someone taught us that worked well with the song “As,” from the then-brand-new Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life, which seemed to be playing constantly there.
The only complaint we ever got from another tenant was the one night we brought in a teacher to give us a group tap dancing lesson. Even though we were in the basement—thus, not on top of anyone—the din of nine people tap dancing on a linoleum floor was enough to bring our upstairs neighbor down to politely ask if we could do it more quietly. The answer to that question will, of course, always be no, so we stopped the lesson.
During our first Thursday night meeting, someone suggested that the clubhouse needed a name. Someone else recommended that it be called “Chez something,” to give it an air of class. I had just sold a joke to American Greetings cards that involved this word, so I said, “Bozo. Chez Bozo.” Everyone agreed, though it was moved that since “chez” was a French word, we should spell Bozo as “Beaux Eau.” Technically, “Chez Beaux Eau” means “house of beautiful water,” though grammatically incorrectly.
At first, none of us really knew why we were holding those Thursday night meetings, other than just to get together. But soon, the meetings turned into real discussions about our art forms and our careers, with everyone offering advice and support to our fellow members.
It was also in November that our very nice landlord, who also lived in the building with his wife and teenage son, was closing up his midtown bar—which he had finally decided to sell and get out of that business—when he was held up and shot, and killed.
I remember standing in front of our building talking to him one November night. We had a long talk, during which he pointed out the ways in which the sky looked like November. The next night, he was dead. I always look at November skies and think about that conversation. And I always say, “That looks like a November sky,” like he did.
His wife asked us to leave not long after that—which is another story. . . . But we found a new place, half of a side-by-side duplex on East Derbyshire, near Lee. So Chez Beaux Eau lived on for another couple of years. And, oddly, the thing that killed it was its own success. Those Thursday night meetings had actually inspired us and helped clarify our goals and missions. Everyone started working in their chosen fields. So it got to the point where not only was everyone too busy to get together often, but, ironically, now no one needed to hold those discussions.
None of us knew that would happen. Which is how that kind of thing happens.
And, by the way, during that time, two of our members started performing as the comedy-and-music duo Willio & Phillio (and I wrote comedy bits for them, and often performed with them, as one of several weird characters). And if you ever saw them doing their once-a-week stint on WJW-TV’s P.M. Magazine, from the “secret Willio & Phillio hideaway,” that was Chez Beaux Eau. Now you know.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.