Bar Stories 

A clubland prince battles the demons of his father's murder.

Though nightclubs remain at the center of his world, - Danny Cudnik aspires to a career in finance. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Though nightclubs remain at the center of his world, Danny Cudnik aspires to a career in finance.
A recent dispatch from the long history of muscles inflated and tempers flared by alcohol:

In the wee hours of November 13, at the Mercury Lounge, police say an intoxicated 23-year-old man twice cracked a bartender in the head with a glass and punched another guy out. When the cops arrived, the man yelled, "Here I am. You're here for me, you fuckin' pussies."

The man's brother tried to calm him down, but the drunk began to flail his arms, challenging the "piece of shit" officers to scrap. After a struggle, he was finally subdued and charged with assault and resisting arrest.

Inviting cops to rumble is seldom a good idea, but the timing of this tough's challenge was especially poor. He's on probation for the 1999 assault of a patron at That Groovee Little Nightclub, a bar he owns.

A month later, Danny Cudnik is feeling pretty good about himself as he orders a turkey sandwich at a downtown deli. He hasn't touched a drink since that November night. His bar businesses are steady. This month he will attend the first college class of his life at John Carroll. And he agreed to a misdemeanor assault plea, which should keep him out of jail.

His life, it appears, may finally be on the upswing after a four-year fall from grace.

In 1996, Cudnik's father, Hilary, a Cleveland cop, was killed during a street stop gone bad. The elder Cudnik was approaching a car believed to be stolen at the corner of East 77th Street and Carnegie Avenue when the driver jumped out and opened fire with an assault rifle. Cudnik was hit six times; he died from a chest wound. Leonard Hughes, the shooter, was convicted of murder, but spared the death penalty by a holdout juror.

"I'm still trying to deal with it," says Danny, the youngest of three brothers. "He was my idol. He was my problem solver. He was my best friend. Everything I had done, it was because he showed me."

Danny served in the Coast Guard when his father was killed. Hilary Cudnik, a man's man who traded his electrician's union card for a badge at age 39, had imbued his son with a love for boats and the sea. Granted a hardship discharge, Danny watched the assailant's trial, half-expecting his father to walk in and announce his death a charade. "It was like a bad dream that I didn't wake up from," he says. "I had thought he was invincible. To me he was like a god."

It wasn't as if Danny had been a saint prior to his father's murder. Cudnik's handsome face is freckled with the small scars of a tumbling young adulthood. In 1995, police broke up a fight at Shooters that had spilled outside the bar. No one was arrested, and Cudnik was listed as a mere witness, but the fracas foreshadowed bruises to come.

Danny and his brother Hilary Jr. went to Holy Name High School with Dominic and Adam Iacona, and the brothers' friendship sometimes played out in police reports. Dominic was at the center of the Shooters dispute. Cudnik-Iacona relations were also complicated by Danny's romance with the brothers' younger sister, Audrey, who accompanied Danny to his father's funeral.

Three months later, Audrey would be arrested for the death of her newborn baby. She said the child died shortly after she had delivered it alone in her basement; police said she suffocated the child. Danny wasn't the father, but her arrest and eventual conviction of involuntary manslaughter stunned him.

"I still believe what she has to say," he says. "She's a very wholesome person."

Danny's problems continued to mount, as the Cudnik and Iacona boys commiserated in unhealthy ways. A month after Audrey's arrest, Hilary filed a menacing complaint against Adam for allegedly threatening to kick his ass. In 1998, Danny told police that Dominic and Adam beat him outside Aqua Nightclub. Despite the insults and punches thrown over the years, Danny and Dominic remain friends. "He was going through a rough time, and I was too," Dominic Iacona says. "We laugh about it now."

After his father's death, Cudnik moved to Delray Beach, Florida, to escape the reminders. He returned to Ohio to run the family bar, shot-and-beery Cudnik's Tavern, with his mom. But with the south Florida surf tingling in his mind, Danny wasn't content popping tops for steelworkers. He imagined himself running a throbbing club like the Basement. With the expertise of DJ Robin Freeman and money received as compensation for their lost father, Danny opened Groovee in winter 1998.

The tragic death of a hero dad and the surround of liquor bottles, however, proved a toxic blend. Someone is always eager to buy a shot for the club owner, not to mention the son of a dead cop. Cudnik's not sure when the furry hangovers and missed meetings pointed to a struggle with booze. "At first, it was controlled, but then it became a problem."

Brother Hilary, a Cleveland firefighter, says their father's death hit Danny the hardest. He was the youngest and, because of his Coast Guard service, was unable to spend time with their father during the last six months of his life. Hilary noticed the change when his brother drank. He wishes he had been more forceful with his take-it-easy warnings. The night at the Mercury Lounge, Danny "just kind of snapped," says Hilary.

In clubland, personalities tend toward the oblique, but Groovee Little Nightclub marketer Mick Cochrane says Cudnik is atypically warm-hearted and mild-mannered. "For such a young kid, he's got a lot of ideas, and he follows through on them." Yet rumors of Cudnik's darker, combative side proved true. "I couldn't believe it myself, and I didn't see it -- until he was drunk," Cochrane says.

Cudnik says his 1999 arrest was not alcohol-induced. It is, however, a classic bar tale, with two versions so conflicting that the truth seems lost to time. His accuser, Charles Roebuck, said he and Cudnik had a conversation at Groovee Little Nightclub about Roebuck's possible employment. Later that night, as he was leaving, Roebuck said he asked Cudnik if he was serious about giving him a job. Cudnik responded by pushing him and punching him in the face, Roebuck alleged. Cudnik recalls a much different story. He told police Roebuck "came out of nowhere and took a swing at me. I was shocked that he swung at me, and my reaction was to push him out of my face."

Roebuck ended up with a busted jaw. Cudnik says it was good business to take a plea, pay Roebuck $20,000, and be done with it. "I wasn't pissed about it, because I thought it was just some drunk guy."

Cudnik accepts responsibility for the Mercury Lounge incident, but doesn't wish to replay the details. He admits he was petrified by the consequences before he took the plea. "It's pretty much cut and dried. I was drinking. It's all on paper."

Spooked into sobriety, Cudnik now attends AA meetings twice a week. The first week without booze was the hardest; he fills the time with PlayStation 2, work, and family. He once thought about selling Groovee; instead he brought in Dan D'Agostino as a partner. "Danny's personal trials have been well documented," D'Agostino says, "but I've never had concerns he wouldn't land on his feet . . . I have not one concern about his integrity and his sincerity."

Few John Carroll freshmen will have experienced as much as Cudnik, who is now 24. He plans to study finance and envisions a career as a day trader. He sees a therapist and plans to remain abstinent after his sentencing in February, when there isn't a judge to impress. "Just because someone's going to buy you a drink, it doesn't mean it has to be an alcoholic beverage," says Cudnik. "I think it will be a permanent thing.

"I've taken each incident and done well with it. I've addressed what I've needed to do and still am. I think that goes with life; how people react depends on if they continue."

More by David W. Martin


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