Columbus, Ohio USA
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Joe Theibert: A Great American
The Pied Piper of the early Short North remains a neighborhood
mainstay after 25 years of change
by Dennis Fiely
November 2008 Issue
Three pioneer bar owners of the Short North at a Gallery Hop.
(Left to Right) John Allen, Greg Carr, and Joe Theibert. © Photo by Larry Hamill
Nobody needs to ask that question when Happy Hour rolls around.
As reliable as the setting sun, Joe Theibert will be anchored at the Short North Tavern, presiding over “the 5 O’Clock Club,” a constellation of after-work regulars who spin in Theibert’s orbit, talking sex, sports, politics and economics.
“We have attorneys, politicians, artists, factory workers, actors, journalists, government workers, even a busker,” Theibert says proudly. “Rich or poor, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, everybody gets along.”
Theibert is their genial ringleader, the cast of Cheers blended into one, the Mike Douglas of the bar-based gabfest, who makes everyone around him feel funny, good and special.
There’s just something about Joe . . .
“He’s the most positive guy I’ve ever known,” said Short North Tavern owner John Allen. “To hear Joe tell it, he’s never had a bad day.”
And he won’t let anyone else have one either.
“A day is what you make it,” Theibert often advises, and he lives by that axiom.
The 60-year-old Bexley native has been sprinkling his good cheer like pixie dust in and around the tavern for a quarter-century and helping transform an inner-city slum into a thriving arts and entertainment district, just by being there.
“Joe is synonymous with the Short North Tavern,” said his lifelong friend Louis Seidensticker, “just as much a fixture there as a bolted-down barstool.”
On July 4, Theibert celebrated his 25th anniversary as the official (unofficial?) starter of the Doo Dah Parade – marshalling all his persuasive power to lend some structure to the chaos.
Over the years, he has managed entrants ranging from Hare Krishnas to an elephant.
Joe Theibert in the Short North Tavern with Deb Robert, aka Mz. Doo Dah.
© Photo by Gus Brunsman III
Doo Dah began as a provincial neighborhood lark until its second or third year, when blocks of people – lined three- and four-deep on High Street – materialized before the starter’s disbelieving eyes.
Walking across Goodale Park toward High Street, a Doo Dah founder Gregory Carr turned to Theibert and said, “I think we have a parade,” signaling the birth of a citywide tradition.
While pioneers such as Allen and Carr invested in the rehabilitation of tattered businesses and homes. Theibert tagged along for the ride, content to serve the changing neighborhood as its bon vivant, concierge, doorman, well-wisher and happy hanger-on – roles he retains today.
“Life’s too short, relax,” says Theibert, who wears his devil-may-care attitude as a badge of honor. “I just relate to everybody, whether it’s a homeless guy or a judge. If you treat people right, they will treat you right. If you act like a jerk, you get treated like a jerk.”
Theibert has embodied from the beginning the Short North character. “He’s non-judgmental and open-minded and never has a bad word to say about anybody,” Allen said.
“Gentleman Joe” became a Short North mainstay when Allen and his partner Carr hired him to tend bar shortly after they bought the tavern in 1981. “Neither one of them had ever owned a bar before, and I had some experience in that area,” Theibert said.
The fourth of 12 children, Theibert mastered the art of social interaction in the crowded house of his parents, Fergus and Mary Louise. “When we were growing up, he was the Pied Piper of our neighborhood,” his younger brother Thom recalled. “The little kids would follow him around, and he’d take them to May’s drug store and buy them a nickel phosphate, because he knew they didn’t have any money.”
Circumstance coupled with genetics to shape Theibert’s rose-colored perspective. “It comes from his mother,” said Carr, Theibert’s Bexley schoolmate. “All the Theibert children were wonderful and she was always upbeat.”
In the early days of the tavern, Joe attracted almost as many customers as the teenage hookers on High Street.
“His tentacles were far-reaching,” Carr recalled. “With all those siblings, his links to Bexley and all the people he knew, we began drawing a crowd.”
As Allen put it, “Joe is just the kind of person people like to be around.”
Like his siblings, Theibert seemed ticketed for a conventional life of college, career, marriage and kids.
He graduated from Bexley High School and enrolled in The Ohio State University in 1966, when “the Short North” was little more than the geographic slang cops used to describe the high-crime ghetto. In college, “the students would never go down there,” Theibert said. “Nobody would. I never dreamed then that it would become such a big part of my life.”
His future took a detour during his freshman year when a near-fatal car accident on an icy patch of Rt. 315 steered Theibert on a road less traveled.
Foundering at OSU, where he majored in “good times,” he had planned to enlist in the Navy, but numerous broken bones and internal injuries from the crash rendered him 4-F.
“The accident really set him back,” said his brother Thom. “Joe was so mobile, he could run like a deer. But, physically, he was never the same after that.”
Nevertheless, Joe took the months-long recovery in stride. “I just had to change my golf swing a little,” he said.
His biggest regret was not being able to ship out to Vietnam with his buddy Seidensticker, who pulled duty on a riverboat, patrolling jungle waters for corpses.
Theibert stayed with Seidensticker in spirit.
“That son-of-a-gun wrote me nearly every day,” Seidensticker said. “Nobody else back home did that. It meant a lot to me. He was always telling me to keep my chin up and to hang in there.”
With college and the Navy out of the picture, Theibert headed to San Francisco to work for the baseball Giants. “That was my goal in life,” Theibert said, “because I grew up a Willie Mays fan.”
His fantasy, however, failed to match reality when the Giants exiled him to a thankless post in their Downtown ticket office.
Theibert soon relinquished his Major League dream to help operate Fanny Arkwright’s Pub, a popular spot in San Francisco’s Market District. The bar achieved a measure of local fame when, in the aftermath of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Theibert helped stage the abduction of the pub’s namesake mannequin.
“We had phony ransom notes and the whole works,” Theibert recalled, “and it got us on the local news.”
His knack for promotion earned Theibert a public relations job at UCLA before budget cuts axed his position. Unemployment and the death of his father returned Theibert to Columbus in the early ‘80s when Allen and Carr were happy to hire a seasoned server for their fledgling business.
The two official starters of the Doo Dah Parade working the route,
Greg Carr and Joe Theibert. © Photo by Larry Hamill
Theibert quickly immersed himself in the burgeoning gentrification of the Short North. In addition to the Doo Dah Parade, he helped originate tavern and neighborhood traditions such as the Wheeze Bowl (a now-defunct early-winter touch football game in Goodale Park), the Short North Tavern Golf League and the aforementioned 5 O’Clock Club.
“Joe became active in everything that was done down here,” Carr said.
During the area’s peak transition years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Theibert was a one-man welcome wagon selling ads for the Short North Gazette. He became known up and down High Street as “the mayor of the Short North.”
“I was often the first person many new business owners met,” he said. “I’d welcome them to the neighborhood, give them the lay of the land and tell them about the people. And if they still had doubts about coming here, I’d tell them that it may still look grim, but keep the faith.”
The Gazette’s legally blind 84-year-old publisher Tom Thomson still counts on Theibert for rides around the neighborhood. “I wouldn’t get out as much without Joe,” said a grateful Thomson.
Theibert’s sunny disposition accents a happy-go-lucky lifestyle with the emphasis on lucky. In fact, if it weren’t for good luck, Theibert wouldn’t have any luck at all.
He considers himself blessed to have survived his accident. “I should have been dead,” he said. He’s notorious for winning bar bets.
Fortune smiled upon him in a big way in 1985 when he shared a multi-million-dollar lottery windfall with his poker club. Theibert was in the Short North Tavern – where else? – when the club called him with the news.
The first thing he did with his winnings was take his mother to Europe.
The second thing he did was buy a bar.
Theibert opened Joe’s Great American Bar and Grille in 1987 in the downtown Char-Bar location, but he proved to be a better patron than an owner and scotched the venture in 1990.
Since then, with a shoeshine and a smile, Joe has worked in a variety of sales-related jobs – even selling toilet paper for a time. “He was such a winning salesman, I think he could have sold our product used,” said David Hurwald, his business partner at the time.
Presently, Theibert is a housing relocation specialist for a government sub-contractor; he often places the elderly and disabled in Bollinger Tower, just up the street from his favorite watering hole.
Life, in a sense, has come full circle for Joe: his father also worked for the Department of Housing and Development.
If there is any truth to the power of intention, Theibert generates his own serendipity with optimism and generosity.
“God bless him,” said his brother Thom. “When I got divorced after 12 years of marriage, Joe took me in and I ended up living with him for eight years. And I’m not the only one he has taken in.”
During 25 years at the tavern, Joe has mourned the passing of several bar buddies, most recently “5 O’Clock Club” stalwart Louis Stevenson and longtime neighborhood resident Margaret “Rosie” Martin.
Theibert is the first one to take up a flower collection and, dressed in his Sunday best, lead mourners to the wake.
Jokes and banter often overshadow his empathy for others in trouble or pain. Some of it has to do with his own “dark days,” especially in the mid-80s when he violated the terms of his probation after a DUI conviction.
Typically, Theibert made the best of a bad situation, parlaying his charm into a work detail at Cooper Stadium, home of the Clippers. “I even had fun in jail,” he said.
Joe hit his biggest jackpot 14 years ago when he met his future wife,
Suzanne Cotton. © Photo by Gus Brunsman III
Although age has settled him, mischief always has been a part of the Theibert persona.
“I thought dad was going to kill him quite a few times,” Thom recalled. “But the trouble he got into was nothing serious – stuff like putting firecrackers in tin cans and running through neighbors’ yards at night playing flashlight tag.
“When I went into high school two years behind Joe, teachers would always ask me, ‘Are you Joe’s brother?’ When I said yes, they just rolled their eyes. That’s written in my yearbook: ‘Are you Joe’s brother?’ ”
For Theibert, every misstep has been an adventure and fodder for another great story at the bar.
In Joe’s world these days, luck is a lady. Forget the lottery, he hit his biggest jackpot 14 years ago when he met Suzanne Cotton at the Short North Tavern – where else? – and married her in 2003.
Cotton, coordinator of the fashion department at the Columbus College of Art and Design, seems like the perfect partner for Joe. She not only accepts her husband’s man-about-town revelry, she embraces it.
“Joe was Joe many years before I met him,” she said. “He loves to hang out and be around people. I would be foolish to expect him to be somebody different. That’s not who I fell in love with. He’s a loving and caring person who would do anything for anybody.”
His wife’s weekly home-cooked Sunday night dinner is one of the few enticements that pull Joe early from the tavern.
Now in the “fourth quarter” of his colorful life, Theibert measures his years in blessings more than disappointments. He still shuffles with a slight limp from his accident. He never made it with the Giants. He lost his bar and spent his lottery winnings.
Yet Theibert, a man of many quotes, cites his favorite from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life – “a man is not a failure who has friends.”
Said Theibert: “If that’s the case, I’m one of the richest people in town.”
© 2008 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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