Stepping into the decorated light cast from the looming ceilings of the Taft Theatre, it’s immediately apparent the space holds memory far outreaching your own. That is, of course, unless you’re about 100 years old and happened to be around Cincinnati in your early teens.
If that were the case, you’d probably remember the other awe-inspiring theaters that entertained the Queen City in those days: the Albee, Shubert and Capitol, to name a few — all astounding architectural representations of the heyday of local theaters. Sadly, the Taft is the only of those grand structures that still remains today, likely because it stands just far enough away from the heart of downtown, just missing out on the urban redevelopment that has defined the city for the past half-century or so.
Taft Theatre was opened in January 1928, inaugurated by lines of suited men and flower-hatted women who were willing to brace the 40-degree weather of the new year for the warm spectacle of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in a shining new entertainment venue.
The theater is part of the Cincinnati Masonic Center, then called a temple rather than center, and is currently owned by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. In its early days it would host Broadway shows, ballets and traveling performers and artists, among other entertainment.
The name, contrary to what some might think, is not a nod to the former United States president William Howard Taft, although many likely know of the street we have to honor him. Rather, the theater was a tip of the hat to William’s older brother, Charles Phelps Taft, a major figure in the Cincinnati newspaper business and a high-ranking Mason who lived just down the street from where the theater now stands.
While it was very popular during its early days and became popular again in the new millennium, the theatre went through a largely dormant period in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the Scottish Rite applied for demolition rights twice in the 1960s — although they were rejected both times — because they thought the theater would be too expensive to renovate and wanted to replace it with a parking garage.
Luckily, it hung on and didn’t fall into serious disrepair long enough for Music and Event Management, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, to take over in 2010. The company headlined a $3.2 million renovation, less than a third of the value the Masons had been quoted for renovations decades earlier.
The revamp, finished in 2011, increased the size of the seats, lowering the original capacity of 2,500 to about 2,300, as well as the size of the bathrooms — fewer venue seats, but more toilet seats (does this say something about the needs of folks in the new millennium?). They also took great consideration of modern concerns, spending a heavy load on hooking the building up with eco-friendly air conditioning.
Thanks to the restoration and rejuvenation of the old theater, it now holds about 140 shows a year compared to roughly 90 before renovations, and the annual attendance has also almost doubled. The theater is again one of Cincinnati’s hot spots for entertainment, hosting all kinds of musical concerts as well as theatre, being home to the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. With the upsurge in activity at the beautiful old Masonic Amphitheatre, the tall walls can keep holding and building memories of entertainment that life would be oh-so boring without.
At this time, however, people lived in small townhouses with acres of land to farm, and Woodward came as a surveyor to work with that land. In the process, he began investing in real estate, got himself some land and settled on a good sized plot near Fifth Street Market — now known as Fountain Square.
Hammering down coarse boards gathered from the flat boats that were dismantled upon reaching Cincinnati, Woodward built a house in 1803. Years later, in 1816, he upgraded, building the Woodward Mansion, a beautiful house of brick and hand-carved woodwork. All around the northern side of that house he fixed the problem of Cincinnati having no good fruit by starting a huge apple orchard that would crank out around 500 barrels of cider a year (ever wonder where Orchard Street in Over-the-Rhine got its name?).
Through his investments and business endeavors, Woodward gained significant wealth, which he would then turn around and give back to the community out of his love for others and his era-appropriate fear of God.
One of the major ways he gave back to the community still stands today — in 1831 Woodward High School opened thanks to his efforts and donations. Woodward High School was not only the first in the city, but the first high school to exist west of the Allegheny Mountains.
When Woodward eventually grew old and passed away, his land and home was given to his wife, who also passed it on when she died. Eventually, by the time it was almost 100 years old in 1912, it was in the hands of a man named George C. Kolb.
Kolb razed the house with the intention of building a theater in honor of Woodward. Not simply a businessman without a care for the history of the house, Kolb had a committee choose certain items from the mansion to be preserved. The wooden mantel and the front door were given to Woodward High School and, according to a news article at the time, the committee also saved a cupboard, balustrade and a window Woodward had been known to look out from into the woods.
Once it was properly gutted of relics, the building was knocked to the ground and on top was built the beaux art-style building we see today (though the statues on either side of the door are replicas).
It was opened as a movie theater on June 18, 1913, in the days when film was still a fresh and developing art form. To say silent film at that time was redundant, because recorded — and especially synchronized — sound was a concept beyond reality. For example, in 1917 you could have seen the then-new but now lost film The Railroad Raiders.
The theater only lasted until 1933. While there are no records of why it closed, most speculate that the Great Depression kept people from having a nice night at the movies, causing the theater to go under.
By 1935 the building was again showing something, but this time it was used cars under the name Andy Schain Inc. A newspaper ad from 1937 shows that you could buy a ’36 Chevy Town Sedan for $525, a ’29 Chevy Coach for $60 and a ’31 Chevy Sports Roadster for the mindboggling price of $10. In other words, you could’ve purchased that Coach for the amount you might spend at today’s Woodward Theater in a night of heavy drinking with your spouse (or alone, if you’re that hardcore).
Around this point is where the trail runs dry except for a few sad drips. The used car shop closed sometime in the 1940s. While it’s hard to brush the dust off and find evidence, apparently there was a Kroger in the building in the 1950s. And jumping ahead to the ‘70s, it was a nightclub called Wanda Bear’s.
In 1990 Greg Starnes bought the building, using it as storage for his antique shop further down Main Street until 1995, when he opened it as the second location of Greg’s Antiques.
The end of Starnes’ tenure there is where Dan McCabe stepped in with his partners Chris Schadler and Chris Varias to begin work on this old building that has seen and heard it all.
It’s heard the silence of an early 20th century film; the passionate debate between two 1930s jocks over the price of a hot ride; the chatting of lovers shopping for lemons and mustached men cheering a band; the cooing of an old lady over a doll that reminds her of her younger days; and most recently, the buzzing of drills and booming of hammers.
Now once again the halls of this honorary building might listen to the rumbling and rattling of Rock music, the soft crying of a mother watching her daughter wed, or the perfectly timed joke of a comedian to the background of rollicking laughter. Whatever it is, as time rolls on these walls won’t stop listening.
The Woodward Theater opens to the public tonight. Read more about Main
Street’s newest music and events space here.
When researching Bogart’s for the first of these columns, I discovered a place that used to be its side-stream neighbor. Sudsy Malone’s, which sat just across the street from Bogart’s until 2008, may be a well-known name to older Cincinnatians, but to those of my generation I imagine it’s a legend unheard.
Sudsy’s, as those who knew it well referred to it, was more than just a bar or music venue. It was a laundromat. A gathering place of locals who fancied having a beer and hearing a tune as their clothes turned over in bubbly cleanliness. And while it was only open for a fraction of the time many of the big venues around here have been, it occupies a deep space in the history of Cincinnati and its local music scene.
Refined searches and several page scrolls through Google turns up hardly anything on the former venue. I finally found a memorial Facebook page that further fascinated me, still only offering a brief and general history but filled with posts by former loyal patrons reminiscing of great times at the bar, offering tales of hilarious happenings along with images, videos and old posters to fill it all in with color.
I wanted to know more in hopes of giving Sudsy’s its due place in Cincinnati music history. To understand where it all started and where it went from there, I talked to Janine Walz, a former managing partner who was around during the establishment’s heyday.
Sudsy’s was originally owned by John Cioffi and opened in 1986. As I understand it, the idea was inspired by similar businesses popping up in the region such as Dirty Dungarees in Columbus. They serve beer, so you can sip some foam while listening to the groan of washers and dryers, but Dungaree’s was never quite a bar. They served drinks in more of a refreshment center style. Cioffi’s vision for Sudsy’s was different.
The decision for the name came from a lot of scrawling and scratching by Cioffi and his family.
“They just had a long list of names that they would write down as they were brainstorming, and then they started crossing names out until it was down to Soapy Tucker’s or Sudsy Malone’s,” Walz says.
Sharp, the highly adored Renaissance man known for his ballet career in
Cincinnati and who sadly just passed away in September, designed the character
logos. Soapy Tucker was a sort of motherly figure, whereas Sudsy Malone was a true
He became the face of the place, with his one-eyed look, suds-filled beer and coin-flipping hand becoming the calling card of the bar’s sign.
Upon walking in the front door guests faced a 40-foot bar.
“We would have competitions to see who could slide a mug full of beer the furthest down the bar without spilling it,” Walz recalls with a smile.
They had little round cocktail tables covered with dark blue tablecloths and standard bar stools. The ceiling undulated with the movement of fans under which each had a globular light, providing a sort of soft ambiance to the bar.
At the back of the building sat the laundry area, a brightly lit room where the fluorescent lights glinted off dozens of top-of-the-line washers and dryers.
“I remember some of the bands complaining after a while about the laundry room lights because they would glow into the bar and kill the mood for the crowd,” Walz says. “We strung up some Christmas lights and would just turn those on instead when bands were on stage at night.”
When the place first opened, however, the stage didn’t exist. Live music had never even been part of the idea.
“It was only intended to be a laundromat with frosty-mug beer,” Walz says of the original plan.
Walz recalls being the second laundry customer when Sudsy’s first opened. She worked at the Perkins just up Short Vine, and happened to be John Cioffi’s waitress the day he sat down to get food with the liquor agent that was supposed to be approving Sudsy’s license.
“When they were finishing lunch he asked me to come a few doors down to talk to him about a job,” she says. “I figured it was the same distance from home and might pay better, so I went. Next thing I knew I was hired on as a manager.”
In other words, she was there from the start. Walz watched the bar being built, and she knew it when it was just a place for people to wash clothes and have a drink, the crowd rarely exceeding 10 people.
Only months after the place opened, a local band called The Thangs approached the owners with the idea to play music. Essentially, they just wanted a place to gig when nowhere else would let them. After some hesitation, Sudsy’s let them do it, and much to their surprise the first show was packed with about 100 people. Sudsy’s wasn’t expecting this, and they completely sold out of every drop of beer they had stocked at the time.
outrageous success, The Thangs wanted to come back. Before long, music became
the detergent to Sudsy’s suds, responsible for consistently bringing in large
crowds. At first they charged a very minimal cover, mostly so they had
something to give the band, and offered a free soft-drink ticket with entry for
By ’87 they were charging a $5 cover, although they would still let people in for free if they had a basket of laundry. This often resulted in washers full of abandoned clothes the next day, as people brought the clothes to get in and then simply forgot about them in the excitement of music and merriment. Over time, Sudsy’s developed a massive collection of forsaken threads.
This memory sparked another for Walz: “I remember this guy that would show up about once every year driving a station wagon. He would take the clothes people had left over time and pack every inch of his car, literally. He would do something with them, I think donate them.”
As the place continually packed in people like foam to the top of a mug — thanks to the highly praised booking magic of Dan McCabe (Now of MOTR Pub) — problems inevitably occurred that now seem laughable. The carpet in the bar area became so matted and disgusting that it resembled tile, so Walz had it ripped out and replaced with wood. The men’s bathroom was a story of its own. Widely known as “Worst Men’s Bathroom,” Walz said she wouldn’t go near it, even almost buying stainless steel sheets to layer on it so she could just hose it down at night.
At one point the fire department came in and completely cleared house, although there wasn’t a single flame or wisp of smoke. The building’s stated capacity was far under how many people they would pack in, and one night they had to count the crowd back in, one by one. Eventually they completely stopped the music for a period of time to get the building up to code.
Despite its small size, Sudsy’s brought in now-major acts that were rising at the time — Beck, Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers — while also helping breed local acts like The Afghan Whigs and Over The Rhine. Almost all the music was original, save some special events like Grateful Dead night.
Even on nights they weren’t playing themselves, members of bands could always be found among the crowd. The music scene at the time was like a circle, made up of bands and fans that truly appreciated music and enjoyed simply watching people express themselves creatively. Bands would come out and support other bands. Non-musicians would out come and support them all.
and celebrities that were too big to play there live in the storybooks.
Popularly known folks like Jackson Browne, "Weird Al" Yankovic and
James Taylor stopped in to wash clothes or use the phone. Kate Pierson (B52s)
and Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) came by during their Tide protest to pass
out literature in affiliation with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Walz recalls the afternoon before a Jefferson Airplane concert at Riverbend when the bar was pretty empty and there were four guys hanging out doing laundry and drinking a beer. They were worried about their cab not showing up and frantically trying to figure out how to get to their hotel — so Walz drove them. Only after dropping them off did she realize the reason the dudes were so worried about being late.
Walz showed me the blueprint of the building, and again lit up when she pointed out the wash sink in the laundry room.
“Some crazy celebrity took a bath in that sink one night,” she says. “I’m pretty sure it was Marilyn Manson.”
And these stop-ins aren’t the only “celebrity” claims to fame for Sudsy’s. The bar itself was given awards throughout the years from Cincinnati’s former alternative weekly Everybody’s News, from “Best Looking Staff” to “Best Rock Club,” and even “Best Place to Ditch a Blind Date.” They were also named the best bar in Ohio in ’93 by Creem magazine, courtesy of The Connells.
However, all the press, awards and celebrities aside, Walz says what really made the place special were the local patrons.
“It was like a family, people were loyal,” she says. “They would look out for others, and for the bands, and would always defend Sudsy’s no matter what. Without the people, everybody, the people that watched the bands, the bands themselves, Sudsy’s was nothing.”
The bar would even cater specifically to bands they knew well, for example stocking extra Hudy Delight when The Thangs would come back because their crowd loved to drink it.
There were also folks she referred to as “family bums”. There was Archie Harrison, a local homeless man who would help clean at night for a little money. During the days he would just hang out, always being jolly and telling jokes sharing what little bit of anything he might have had that day to share.
Then there was Sonny, a good-hearted man who hid behind a hulk of a body. Sonny would guard the back door, despite never being asked.
“I remember one time one of the dryers was broken and the glass wasn’t in there to cover the hole,” she says. “We had an out of order sign but, you know, I guess it disappeared. No surprise there. Anyway, we had given him some money to do laundry and he used that dryer, just picking up the clothes as they fell out of hole and throwing them right back in. It was hysterical. When we asked him why he didn’t switch dryers he said he didn’t want to bother us and cause trouble.”
As the Millennium rolled around, a lot of the core patrons began settling down and showing up less often. The crime in the area would keep people away, and the decline in the laundry business lowered their numbers even further. Walz had just put $12,000 into a new sprinkler system, still trying to keep the building code-worth, but she, too, was moving toward settling down.
“I was pregnant at that pointm too, and I was just kind of done working in the bar business,” she says.
That, along with clashes between Walz and McCabe about making money versus booking acts that would be huge for the scene led to Walz selling the establishment by 2002.
While it seems that Sudsy’s wasn’t as glorious after that time as it once had been, the venue remained open until 2008, at which time it closed its doors for good. The old building at 2626 Vine Street remains a boarded up relic.
One of the most revealing things Walz said during our talk about Sudsy’s was, “If you were there, you were part of the reason you are here talking to me today.”
me that I didn’t have to opportunity to be there, but for all those who were, as
well as for the others that might not have known what this place ever was, this
is just a small piece of the big apple pie that was Sudsy Malone’s Rock n’ Roll
Laundry & Bar.