CLEVELAND, March 18, 2012 – Once this city on the shores of Lake Erie called itself “The Greatest Location in the Nation.” And for a long time, this gritty railroad, manufacturing, and steel hub was numbered in the Top Five of American cities. But slowly, steadily, since the 1950s, Cleveland has fallen on increasingly hard times.
Between the hollowing out of the Rust Belt economy and the iron rule and ruthless corruption of its machine Democrats—largely responsible for running the city for over fifty years—Cleveland has steadily lost population to the point where, like Detroit, its tax base can no longer afford its outlandish budgets and gold-plated public employee union benefit packages.
The last census shows that the city’s population has dropped decisively below 400,000, a major reason why Ohio lost seats (again) in this year’s Congressional redistricting.
One of Cleveland’s main problems has been the Democrats’ vice-like grip over nearly every aspect of city business, again for decades. Such ironclad control virtually guarantees corruption. And, during a long-running secret investigation of this corruption, the FBI eventually got to the bottom of it. From rigged elections to rigged contracting, Cleveland had it all. And most of it seems to have been run from the offices of former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
After snagging the cooperation of many of the smaller fish in the pond, the Feds finally brought kingpin Dimora and his chief ally, the equally corrupt county auditor Frank Russo to trial. The lurid details of the trial, including rampant bribery, plentiful prostitution services, lavish Las Vegas gambling trips—you name it—were juicy enough to attract public attention at last. But, as is often the case in such trials, cameras were not permitted in the courthouse.
The usual media answer to this problem is to stake out the courtroom with a reporter and a sketch artist in order to present the day’s trial action on the evening news, along with a few sketches of the players.
In an attempt to do something completely different, local TV station WOIO hit upon an innovative scheme: why not do a puppet show, recapping the days’ activities (actually conducted in Federal Court in nearby Akron) with puppets playing the key roles and using actual trial testimony as dialog.
Introduced with a clever disclaimer (“The testimony is real. The puppets are not.”) each evening’s segment is anchored by “Nutty the Squirrel” who introduces the day’s cast of colorful characters, including the judge, lawyers, the defendants, witnesses, and sometimes jury members, all depicted by customized puppets.
Though a bit primitive in execution, “Puppet’s Court” soon proved to be a smash hit with Clevelanders, garnering national attention and even a recent feature story in the Wall Street Journal. An added bonus: the inherent goofiness of each segment was in its own way a brilliant parody of the endless parade of corrupt officials who have collectively brought Cleveland to its fiscal and infrastructure knees over the years.
Let’s check out some of this great local TV action. In this first segment, “Puppet’s Court” introduces Day One of the trial, as WOIO’s TV anchors explain:
More damning testimony here, introduced by puppet anchor Nutty the Squirrel. Note that the Jimmy Dimora puppet sports a beard during re-enactments of past incidents while the puppet is clean-shaven in the courtroom, mirroring the various appearances of the real Jimmy Dimora.
After a last-minute ruse by Mr. Dimora’s attorneys failed, the Dimora case went to the jury, which delivered its verdict on March 9 after only a week of deliberation. According to a Cleveland website, the jury found Jimmy Dimora “guilty on a range of bribery, extortion, mail fraud, and racketeering charges this afternoon in his federal corruption trial. He was facing 34 counts in all; he was found not guilty of only one, a mail fraud charge.”
But we’ll let Nutty and his puppet pals show you the climactic moment when the jury delivered its verdict:
Game, set, and match for Jimmy Dimora and company. Looks like “Puppet’s Court” has come to an end at last.
But maybe not.
We discovered last week that the Feds aren’t done with Jimmy Dimora and his pals just yet. They’re bringing a new case against him, and the defense is trying to prevent a release of information to the public.
One is reminded here of that famous tagline from the 1960s TV “Batman” show: “The worst is yet to come.” Or better yet, that timeless TV infomercial tagline: “But wait! There’s more!”
It’s beginning to look like WOIO may have to rehire its star puppets and renew their contract for a second TV season in Cleveland. Will Nutty the Squirrel pass “CSI” in the upcoming fall 2012 ratings war? Stay tuned.
While-U-Wait, you can get your fill of archived “Puppet’s Court” videos here.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man, in Business.
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