The Winterfest Diaries

As any longtime Clevelander will tell you, Winterfest is rooted in the tradition of going downtown during the holiday season — shopping, seeing Santa Claus, checking out the store windows, maybe stopping for a bite to eat. Stores such as the Sterling-Lindner Co. and eateries such as Higbee’s Silver Grille, figure prominently in memories of holidays past. Today, places such as the John Q’s Steakhouse, Tower City, The Arcade and Playhouse Square keep the holiday spirit alive with Kris Kringle sightings and great views of the Winterfest parade — the perfect backdrop for making future holiday memories.

We talked to a few Clevelanders, who share their stories of coming downtown each holiday season, as well as people from downtown institutions who have become an integral part of Winterfest’s present and future.

Family Matters

One of the people who watches the Winterfest parade is Willoughby resident Patty Deming. But she does it from inside John Q’s Steakhouse. The 47-year-old nurse anesthetist began occupying a window table at the restaurant four years ago, an arrangement that better accommodated her ailing mother and her younger sister Laura, who was visiting from Texas with her infant daughter.

“It was too cold for them to stand outside,” Deming recalls. “So we thought, ‘Well, the restaurant is right here on Public Square.’”

Parade-watching at John Q’s is the latest modification to a ritual that began when Deming was very young. Her late father always took a day off work during the holiday season so he could escort the wife and kids downtown. Dad donned a suit for the occasion, while Mom selected a comfortable dress. The girls wore skirts and their good winter coats. “When you went downtown, you got dressed up a little bit,” Deming says. Then they got in the car and drove from their Maple Heights home to the rapid station on Van Aken Boulevard and boarded a downtown train, a trip Deming describes as “a real adventure” for two suburban girls.

The day’s activities included going to the Sterling-Lindner Co. to look at the department store’s enormous Christmas tree, stopping at Halle’s to see Mr. Jingeling, and checking out the elaborate displays in the windows of Higbee’s department store. Lunch was eaten at Woolworth’s lunch counter, dinner at the venerable Silver Grille. Dining at a fancy restaurant, just like their parents did when they went to Top of the Town or Pier W on a Saturday night, was a special treat for the girls — even if they only ordered hamburgers from the children’s menu.

“We did some shopping,” Deming says, “but the trip was more to enjoy the holiday decorations and festivities.”

She continued the Deming family tradition by taking her own daughter, Christina, downtown in the early 1990s. The duo always visited The Twigbee Shop at Higbee’s, where personal shoppers dressed as elves helped children pick out gifts for their families. The trip to The Avenue eventually morphed into the gathering at John Q’s.

The group at Deming’s table typically includes Christina, Laura’s husband and two children, Patty and Laura’s mother, and Patty’s fiance. After a leisurely dinner, members of the party leave the table and go outside to get a better look at the Winterfest proceedings, a candlelight carriage parade, fireworks and special exhibits such as ice carving on East Fourth Street. But she jokingly expresses regret at revealing the family’s favorite parade spot.

“Now we won’t be able to get a table!” she exclaims.

Best Seat in the House

John Q’s Steakhouse has long been a favorite spot for holiday revelers looking to enjoy a view of Public Square lighting ceremonies. Since the first Winterfest parade made its way through the streets of downtown Cleveland, it has become a prime piece of real estate. The eatery, opened in 1959 by Stouffer Foods, is the only Public Square restaurant directly on the parade route. Other dining locations along the parade route are located on West 6th Street in the Historic Warehouse District. Owner Rick Cassara says a dozen or so tables — five of them directly in front of a window — offer good views of the annual holiday procession. The best are reserved months in advance by people who prefer enjoying a sit-down dinner to standing along the streets on what can be a very cold November night.

“The parade surrounds the restaurant, so there’s no vehicular traffic in the area,” Cassara says. “It’s a very busy night for us. After the lighting ceremony and everything is done, everyone just floods in.”

Cassara plans to open a little earlier than his usual 4 p.m. on the day of Winterfest to accommodate early arrivals and augment the steak-and-seafood menu with a number of seasonal specials. (Items will include pumpkin soup, roast pork loin with apple chutney, and boneless shortribs.) The bartender has already concocted a couple of specialty drinks in honor of the occasion: a “snowflake cocoa” spiked with peppermint schnapps and topped with whipped cream and candy-cane sprinkles; a pumpkin-pie martini made with pumpkin-spice liqueur, Stoli vanilla, Buttershots and Bailey’s Irish Cream and served in a glass with a cinnamon-sugar rim; and a more traditional hot mulled wine. A children’s menu is available.

“There’s a lot of families, young couples, people who have been coming here for years,” Cassara says. “Many people have made a tradition out of coming downtown and going to John Q’s.”

The Gospel Scene

Right next door to John Q’s is a Saturday-night hotspot. Yes, the Old Stone Church.

It’s a phenomenon that occurs once a year, when the 184-year-old Public Square landmark becomes a venue for free hour-long performances before and after the annual Winterfest carriage parade, tree-lighting ceremony and fireworks. The tradition began in 2005, when officials at the Presbyterian house of worship agreed to host a post-Winterfest performance of sacred and secular selections by the all-male Cleveland Singers Club. “It’s a natural place, being right across the street from where they set up the stage,” church director of music Bill Shaffer says. The show packed the place with approximately 1,000 people, ranging from young children to senior citizens, at any one time during the show.

“We threw open the doors, and it was like a vacuum — people just rushed right in as if there was no tomorrow,” he says.

The next year an estimated 500 people showed up for a pre-parade show — the lineup consisted of a brass quintet from Cleveland State University, a vocal quartet assembled from the church’s Old Stone Choir, and a singer/acoustic guitarist — and post-concert reception complete with fresh baked goods and hot beverages provided by parishioners and various donors. The early-bird event surprised organizers with its popularity — Shaffer only planned for 200 attendees and ran out of food. “The parade route goes right by the church,” he says. “People were happy that they could just walk right out the door and have a good spot.” A church-choir Pops concert that followed the fireworks finale drew a whopping 1,200 to 1,500 into the sanctuary.

This year the Old Stone Church concerts continue with a 4 p.m. show featuring the Heritage Chorale, an African-American group from Warrensville Heights whose repertoire Shaffer describes as an a cappella mix of gospel, blues and jazz, and 5 p.m. reception. The post-fireworks concert by the Old Stone Choir will include family-friendly fare such as a trio of songs from the movie “Home Alone” performed to piano, organ and harp accompaniment.

Shaffer is glad the church is one of the downtown businesses and organizations resurrecting Cleveland holiday traditions. The 31-year-old Mentor native remembers driving to Cleveland with his parents to wait for Santa Claus’ arrival at Higbee’s department store, winning a contest that involved guessing the number of Legos in a model of the Capitol on display at the Silver Grille, and seeing Mr. Jingleling. “That was a bigger thrill than Santa Claus,” he says. He adds that the concerts have benefited the church by increasing its visibility as a vital part of Winterfest. Despite its large size and prominent location, plenty of people don’t even realize what it is.

“It’s really opened the public eye to us,” he says of having the concerts at the church.

Baking Memories

Archie Garner first experienced the excitement of downtown Cleveland during the holidays as a young boy. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did so as an out-of-towner. The 59-year-old proprietor of Archie’s Lakeshore Bakery in Cleveland fondly recalls arriving as a grade-schooler at Terminal Tower, fresh off the train from his native Tennessee, to visit an aunt and uncle who lived in the city.

“My memory instantly goes back to hearing [Salvation Army] Santa Clauses ringing bells on all the streets, people dropping money in the little buckets, everything lit up, kids running in and out of places, dragging their parents with them,” Garner says. “It was really busy, and it was really crowded!”

Garner grew up to help make holiday memories for untold numbers of those in the Cleveland area. On his way up the ladder from janitor to specialty baker at Hough Bakeries, he was one of the workers who produced the countless cookies, cakes, pastries and other baked goods sold at the now-defunct institution’s downtown and suburban shops. For the catered parties thrown by former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, he prepared trays of elaborate sweets: miniature cream puffs and eclairs, tarts filled with chocolate and mint cream, meringue shells stuffed with mocha buttercream and topped with chopped nuts.

“We made tons and tons of Christmas cookies, different shapes and different colors — cinnamon stars, green trees, chocolate drops,” he marvels. “We made cookies seven days a week at one point.”

During those early years at Hough, Garner and wife Valinda began taking the first of their own six children downtown every Christmas season, a tradition that continued through the decades even as department stores closed their doors and the city lost some of its luster. The lighting displays remained a source of fascination for their kids. “We would walk all over the streets and take pictures in front of Public Square,” he says. “You can see the kids as they grew up in pictures of downtown.” After the city’s tree-lighting ceremony morphed into Winterfest, Garner’s group began making its annual pilgrimage downtown for that. The crowded streets along the parade route are a happy reminder of the metropolis that greeted him as a child. And the festive atmosphere alone makes the trip worthwhile.
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