Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Dinner Bell - Farewell”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Regular visitors to this column will know of my admiration for the late George Diskes, former owner and operator of the local ‘Dinner Bell Diner.’ In recent days this empty landmark was demolished, apparently to make way for the expansion of Allegra Concrete Corporation, located east of the site. Though the former restaurant attracted many loyal patrons and a smattering of national attention, it was dispatched with little fanfare. I cannot help observing that we are all poorer as a result.

‘Famous George’ was a notable figure. Of that fact, there was no dispute.

Real debate came from the question of whether he was worthy of renown in local circles, or infamy. For true fans of the restaurant icon, his individualistic glory was obvious. Yet some were offended by the candor he displayed.

Still, no one could deny that George represented the American Dream in action.
He was the proverbial ‘everyman’ who succeeded through hard work and determination. A veteran of the Navy who worked for Sears & Roebuck, sold policies for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and then achieved fame with a distinctive eatery comprised of blue-collar traditions rendered with a Greek accent.

His generosity was also undisputed. George donated regularly to organizations supporting those in need. He visited children’s hospitals and appeared at local events.

But above all, he remained a hero of first amendment liberties.

Famous George had a simple creed: “What I think, I must speak.”

As a writer, I relished the opportunity to hear him opine on current events. And as a retail manager, I welcomed his visits to my Geauga County supermarket. Riding an electric-powered ‘Amigo’ shopping cart, he would offer poignant memories of bygone days and life experiences. Each of these stories was thrilling to hear.

I cherished such visits because it was clear that someone like him would never come this way, again.

When George passed in July 2008, I lovingly reflected on his incredible life in print. The result was undeniably personal, yet authentic:

“Famous George was someone who truly fit the description ‘one of a kind.’
He was a huge fellow in physical stature and personality. Notably gregarious, outgoing, and proud of his Greek heritage. Some revered him as an iconoclast, while others were not so fond of his cheerfully bombastic style. But regardless of the opinions that surrounded this colorful fellow, he could not be ignored.

Visitors to his ‘Dinner Bell Diner’ on Bank Street in Painesville were treated with the care one might reserve for close family members. George took pride in his restaurant, and every facet of its operation. He personally greeted patrons who had come for a meal. His food, atmosphere, and service were unmatched by any competitor. Eventually, the diner grew into a museum, meeting place, and cultural way station.
But the authenticity did not go pale with commercial excess.

Famous George dependably remained a humble, if vociferous, servant of the community.
For myself, visits with George were always exciting. When Johnny Cash played the Lake County Fair, the food entrepreneur appeared with a dozen bouquets of red roses for June Carter. The audience cheered his presence as if he were part of the performance. The man literally seemed to be everywhere.

I paused at his restaurant frequently, while living just around the corner on Chestnut Street. It was a friendly place to meditate over steak tips with noodles, and a Feta cheese salad. Being treated to breakfast at his 'front table' by the cash register was an experience that will live forever in my memory. It was there that I first met radio personality Mike Trivisonno. Giddy with the moment, I introduced him to the Famous One. Years later, Triv still spoke lovingly of the diner and its memory. We both wished for one more meal at the venue.”

I often paused at the vacant diner to remember George and his unconventional approach to everyday living. He seemed undeniably heroic as a figure of yesteryear. Yet I wished that he could return, even for a moment.

Today’s world needed him, desperately. But the last remnant of his life would not survive beyond the decade. Fate would bring judgement, and loss…

While browsing the social networking website Facebook last week, I discovered this awful reality. A friend from Chardon sent the news, in his own comment on my page:

“Hey have you been by George’s Dinner Bell since they tore it down???? Sad site. Yeah they tore it down on Friday! It was in Saturday's News Herald. Went by there on Monday night and it looks so weird at that corner”

I was shocked. But a look at the newspaper confirmed this wanton act of cultural insensitivity. With my head bowed, I read Nick Carrabine’s report of the historic building’s demise:

“A former Painesville Township landmark restaurant was officially brought to the ground Wednesday morning. George's World Famous Dinner Bell Diner, 1155 Bank St., was torn down by Canal Road Partners, five years after Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems foreclosed on the restaurant.”

When a day off from work permitted, I drove to the spot for a closer look. Even in the swirling chaos of a winter afternoon, it was undeniably bare.
I felt defeated. The last bit of Famous George was gone. Still, the brightness of his personality lingered.

Quietly, I pondered Andrew Diskes 2008 remarks about his notable father:

“My dad lead an exciting, never-a-dull-moment life… one of (his) strengths was that he knew what he was good at… in the past my dad owned apartments, insulated and sided houses, was a top salesman… he owned hamburger joints in California… but he reached his pinnacle by running George’s Famous Dinner Bell Diner… in it's heyday it was the 6th busiest restaurant I am told in Ohio.”

Physical traces of Diskes’ life may have disappeared over time. But his memory will truly live on, forever.

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