Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Sweet memories of downtown

        Ruth Lyons' coffee cake never tasted sweeter. Maybe it was the topping of brown sugar and cinnamon coupled with sweet memories of Cincinnati and hopes for better days.

        The cake came from the Three Rivers Nursing & Rehabilitation Center's kitchen.

        Memories and hopes were provided by residents of the Miami Heights' nursing home.

        They just spent a week celebrating Cincinnati Days. That's a 15-year tradition at the center, thanks to assistant administrator Greg Johnson.

        He's a local history buff and collector of Cincinnati memorabilia. “I save everything,” Greg told me, “that might be relevant to anything.”

        For this year's Cincinnati Days, he enlisted staffers and residents to turn the center's corridors into memory lanes. Displays showed off clothes and boxes from shuttered department stores. A china closet held railroad collectibles tied to Union Terminal.

        The largest display paid tribute to Ruth Lyons, the queen of Cincinnati radio and TV, pioneering talk-show hostess, peerless pitchwoman and coffeecake namesake.

Legend lives on

        Thirty-five years after Ruth Lyons left the air and almost 14 years after her death, Three Rivers residents can still sing along to her favorite tunes, “I Love Paris” and “Let Me Entertain You.”

        They know the names of her sidekicks and singers. They remember the show's associate producer Elsa Sule.

        Introduced by activities coordinator Juanita Chessey, who was dressed as Ruth Lyons in blonde wig, high heels and '50s dress, Elsa was the guest of honor for a recent Cincinnati Days reception of remembrances and coffee cake. Never one to pass up dessert, I tagged along for a piece of cake and a timely history lesson.

        Downtown Cincinnati used to be a vibrant place, the residents said. Safe, too.

        “No trouble. No problems,” said Mary Fleckenstein, 70. The retired nurse from Price Hill “always felt safe walking from the Public Landing to downtown late at night.”

        Rosemary Ohmer remembered “shopping all day, going to restaurants and shows.” The 80-year-old Mount Healthy native often “waited for a bus on a street corner at 1 a.m. No one bothered you.

        “Today you might get shot. Who would ever think that would happen in Cincinnati?”

        No wonder a headline in Monday's Enquirer read: “Suburbanites eschew downtown.”

Tomorrow's teens

        Mary and Rosemary were teen-agers when they had those memorable experiences.

        Fifty years from now, what will today's teens remember of downtown Cincinnati during the summer of 2002? The boycott? Melees after the Black Family Reunion? What will make them smile, as Martha Wenzel fondly did, when she said:

        “Those were the days.”

        Martha turned 99 last week. At age 15, she sold dresses downtown and lived in Clifton.

        She has “fond memories” of becoming a housewife and listening to Ruth Lyons. “A great talker, she could be funny. But she could also be serious. Her show was impromptu.”

        And unique.

        “There's nothing like Ruth's show on local TV today,” said Elsa. “There's just the news.”

        And talk radio with hatemongers sowing seeds of discontent.

        Each woman I spoke with expressed the hope that life in Cincinnati will soon change for the better.

        “It has to,” Mary said. “Today's kids need something good to look back on.”

        For their well-being and the city's future, they should someday be able to echo the words of Martha Wenzel:

        “All of my young memories are sweet.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at cradel@enquirer.com; 768-8379; fax 768-8340. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/radel


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