One of the important aspects of the annual Dean Martin Festival is its ability to give Steubenville a chance to show off for visitors from around the world.
People like Jerry Nolan and Michael Walsh, for example.
They were among the thousands of people who came to Eastern Ohio last weekend to help celebrate what would have been Martin’s 100th birthday. They liked what they saw and what they experienced, and were glad they had the opportunity to visit the city where Dino Crocetti was born on June 7, 1917, and grew up before becoming, arguably, the greatest entertainer of our times.
Nolan, the event coordinator for Yesteryear Entertainment, came to town from New York with Robert Cabella, who has been a Martin impersonator for about 20 years. A Wildwood, N.J., resident, Cabella was the winner in the Dino Singing Contest.
“We found out about the contest in Steubenville, and we knew there was no cash prize,” Nolan explained. “It was more about the prestige.”
According to Rose Angelica, the longtime festival chair, 18 contestants took part in the June 15 competition. She said the youngest was 6-year-old Emily Swisher of Columbus, who came to town with her father, Stephen Swisher, and her grandparents, Barbara and Lowell Swisher of Buckhannon, W.Va.
Nolan said Cabella put in a great deal of work into preparing for the contest.
“We knew he had a great voice, but we wanted to make sure he had the proper style,” Nolan said.
For tips, Nolan said they contacted Jack Battaglia, who Nolan said spent 20 years as a manager at the Sands in Las Vegas, the legendary casino where the Rat Pack often held court.
“He knew how to style the things,” Nolan said. “He knew how Dean liked to wear his ring and how he carried his glass. He was very valuable. We did all of that work and did some studying — and now Robert was Dean as an impersonator.”
That effort paid off for Cabella, who impressed a panel of judges that included Pat Benti, a Boston-based performer who specializes in pop, oldies, classic rock and country; Allen Karl, the CEO of Nashville-based Century II Records; and Donna Cunningham, Century’s II’s talent executive.
“Cabella was very good,” Angelica said of the winner, who competed in front of one of the largest audiences to attend a festival event at the Spot Bar. Nolan said the venue was fantastic.
“The owner, Joe DiAlbert, treated us like gold,” Nolan said. “He went out of his way to make us comfortable.”
Cabella also participated in the June 17 Martin birthday show at Steubenville High School. Nolan was impressed with that event, as well, especially with the way the organizers worked area students and young people into the show. But the real star, Nolan said, was Martin’s daughter, Deana, who put on a great performance.
Nolan said he stayed at the Bayberry House Bed and Breakfast on North Fourth Street. Also making his first trip to Steubenville and staying at Bayberry was Walsh, a longtime fan of Martin.
“I came to Steubenville for the festival for the first time,” said Walsh, who traveled west from his home in Wilmington, Del. “I’m huge Dean Martin fan — I have been since I was 5.”
A retired financial planner, Walsh is so into Martin, in fact, that he teaches a 13-week course on the performer at the University of Delaware.
“We cover his whole career, from growing up in Steubenville to World War II and his work as an entertainer,” said Walsh, who added he has taught the class while wearing a tuxedo and holding a cocktail glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other — the classic Martin look. He said he also teaches shorter classes on John Wayne and the Three Stooges.
Walsh said he had the opportunity to see Martin perform several times and had a couple of opportunities to meet him.
“He was more charismatic in person than he was on the screen,” Walsh said. “When you shook his hand, he gave you all of his attention.”
He added he has seen Deana Martin perform six times.
“The festival was fantastic,” Walsh said. “I had a chance to see the town and tour the Grand Theater. It was a little disappointing, though, that many of the things he touched have been torn down. I liked the murals and Fort Steuben — everybody was so friendly.”
Walsh was particularly impressed with the Jefferson County Historical Museum, and said he had spent almost six hours there. He was especially appreciative of help provided by Charlie Green of the museum.
Like Nolan, Walsh took advantage of the opportunity to eat at Naples Spaghetti House, and he said he was impressed by the staff and food at Froehlich’s Classic Corner. And, like Nolan, he really appreciated all the work Scott Dressel, owner of the Bayberry, and the Save the Grand Committee have already done in their efforts to restore the Fourth Street theater.
They said they enjoyed the city and plan to return.
“I’m definitely coming back,” Walsh said.
“You have a beautiful town,” said Nolan, who added that while there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to bring the Grand back to life, it’s something members of the community should be looking forward to.
“A refurbished theater is a thing of beauty,” he said.