Speeding northwest from Pittsburgh on I-76, our renovated 16-foot travel trailer behind us, my fiancée Mel and I finally hit the outskirts of Cleveland and scanned the radio for something palatable. Classic rock just isn’t our scene, especially whittled down to a looping radio format. But queue up Sinatra, a dash of Cab Calloway, some Count Basie and a little Jeri Southern, and we’ll smile until it stops. We landed on 91.5 WKHR, a local non-profit station paying tribute, it seemed to us, to our grandparents’ memory.
As that 18-piece swing played in our car, we remembered the way they smiled, the way they held their cards, the way they subtly grooved to the music, a foot tapping the floor beneath the linoleum dinner table. We landed at Punderson State Park, 45 minutes east of Cleveland, drenched in nostalgia and desperate for a porch swing.
Not yet sundown, we unhitched the trailer and explored the park. A small lake separates the campground from the Punderson Manor, an English-tudor style mansion built in 1925, extensively renovated in the ’50s, now a lodge and conference center owned by the state. If it was all part of the state park, we reasoned, surely we were free to use the pool. We quickly returned to our trailer and put on our suits, the music still in us, the world still swinging in 12-bar blues. We entered the pool gates and were about to dive in when we overheard a conversation that abruptly scratched the record. An older man and what appeared to be his granddaughter stood at the side of the pool. The girl had a strange look on her face, and the man, resting his elbows on the concrete, called out to an employee walking by.
“How often you all change the water here?” the old man asked.
I don’t remember the employee’s exact response, but it wasn’t encouraging and I’m certain it wasn’t what the hotel manager would have preferred. He added, “You know how some people treat public pools,” and tossed up his hands. I turned to Mel. She’d already put her shoes back on and was headed towards the exit. In previous lives we’d both worked as lifeguards at public pools, and nothing could have persuaded us to enter the water. When it comes to public pools, ignorance is bliss.
So maybe we wouldn’t find bliss in the Punderson Manor pool, but we hadn’t even touched Cleveland yet, the real target of our swing through Ohio. The next morning, we drove into the city, dial set at 91.5. We had free tickets to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but our heart wasn’t in it. We were still bopping to Billie Holiday and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and on a Saturday, the parking situation downtown was out of control. We quickly pivoted to the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Uptown District, where our luck was much better: On the first Saturday of every month, the museum is free. Better yet, an exhibit titled Myopia — the first retrospective of visual art by Mark Mothersbaugh, Ohio native and frontman of ’70s New Wave band Devo — was on display.
To reach the exhibit, we first climbed several flights of stairs encased in a narrow corridor — a trippy exhibit itself titled 4 Eyes / 8 Tracks —all of it painted yellow and flooded with fluorescent light. Crashing cymbals and ambient noise filled the staircase, and as we ascended the music slowly transformed.
“Imagine you are an earwig, and you have climbed inside Mark Mothersbaugh’s brain … ” a small placard at the entrance read. “As Mothersbaugh reflects, ‘By Floor 3, things are the most abstract, but as you ascend to Floor 4 … you can see light at the end of the tunnel.’ Or the hole at the end of his ear canal.”
The Myopia exhibit took over the entire fourth floor, and ranged in content from journal entries to drawings, paintings, rug art and more. In the middle of the first room sat a vehicle with two back ends and no front called Mutatum. In the next room, dozens of boxy wooden whistles, vintage organ pipes and PVC pipes were soldered together to form homemade islands of noise. The whistles and clanks emitted by these contraptions — powered by compressed air — rang out intermittently as we shuffled our way through the rest of the exhibit, lending the whole experience a very surreal vibe, not unlike walking through a scene of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, for which Mothersbaugh also composed music.
By the time we left the museum two hours later, we felt as though we’d emerged from a cryptic fever-dream. To regain our bearings and decompress, we headed for Cleveland’s Tremont district — one of the oldest in the city and historically populated by German immigrants — and pulled off at Hoopples, the first down-home bar we could find. We ordered a few PBRs and headed for the backyard, where a local “swamp pop” band called Cats on Holiday were tuning up. We drank our beers and watched a dozen tipsy middle-aged men and women groove to the music.
Before heading home for the night, we stopped at Sokolowski’s University Inn, Cleveland’s oldest family-owned restaurant and a Tremont staple since 1923. The restaurant is set up like a school cafeteria. We stood in line with plastic trays, waiting to reach the counter, where the Sokolowski’s staff stood behind steaming pans of mashed potatoes, smoked kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, meatloaf and other Polish and European delights. The whole place is dimly lit, with dark wood paneling and brown checkered carpet. One could shoot a period drama here and not replace a thing. Around the corner from our table, in a separate dining room, an octogenarian played piano for tips. At every turn, it seemed, Cleveland was begging us to remember our grandparents. The food. The music. The décor. We drove back to the state park that evening happy and bloated with carbs, one crooner after the next guiding us home on WKHR.
In the morning, we drank our coffee under the awning, radio quietly streaming inside. Midway through my second cup, I found myself singing along to the The Very Thought of You by the smoky-voiced Jeri Southern. Sinatra called Southern his favorite singer, but few casual listeners know the name, and very few stations play her music anymore. It felt as though WKHR was curating its playlist for me. I immediately set aside my coffee, looked up the station online, and sent an email. Just minutes later, station manager Chris Kofron wrote back: “Thanks for reaching out. I’m glad you found the most unique station in the country!”
As fate would have it, the station — run out of Kenston High School — was located in Bainbridge, Ohio, just 10 minutes away from our campground. I met Kofron at the station the next morning. He greeted me at the door in shorts and a fedora, and led me up a flight of stairs. The walls were covered in music memorabilia and lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with vinyl records. Behind a glass wall, a volunteer stood at the booth, speaking into the mic. Geriatric volunteers floated in and out of the room while Kofron waxed poetic about the station.
“During the Depression a third of all furniture sold was radios,” he told me. “People need to have something good in their life. We’re always gonna have problems. I’m not saying it’s escapism, because these musicians had the same problems. But they presented it elegantly … It’s giving you a look on the brighter side of life. Look for the silver lining, to quote Chet Baker. It’s not naïve.”
When Kenston High first offered Kofron the job, WKHR was only a 50-watt station, used primarily as a teaching tool for students. The hours were irregular and the genre varied. When the school hinted at closing the station, a volunteer with a taste for big band stepped forward, offering to pay the bills. Eventually, Kofron initiated an annual one-week pledge drive, which now fully funds the station. Over the years, the station focused more and more on the big band format, until finally, it went all-in. Today, WKHR is run entirely by students and community volunteers well-versed in the genre. It broadcasts at 750 watts 24 hours a day, and streams online, too. People call in from all over the world, from Mexico to Cleveland, the Swiss Alps to the Mekong Delta.
“The depth of our programming is everything from that era. It’s not Pennsylvania 6-5000 and what was a hit. For every one of those 78s that somebody bought, there was a B-side, and they might not have listened to it as much, but they listened to it,” he said. “Every artist, like the Dorsey Brothers or Artie Shaw, had a huge volume of work and most of it was never broadcast. We play that. People need to hear that.”
Kofron sent me home with a free tee shirt and two tickets to that night’s show at Nighttown, Cleveland’s most popular jazz club, named one of the 100 best jazz clubs in the world by Downbeat magazine. Mel and I arrived early and ordered two drinks at the bar. The dining room was dark, the stage bathed in light. The band warmed up, and with two more drinks on the way, we did too. We didn’t know the band. It didn’t matter. When you’ve been living in a travel trailer for a year, you come to cherish these moments, learn to acknowledge them as they’re happening. For now, we were happy. We were comfortable. We were tapping our feet beneath the table just like our grandparents used to, in perhaps the most American of all the American cities we’ve toured.