A veteran collector unearths the Holy Grail of Browns memorabilia

Glory Days 

A veteran collector unearths the Holy Grail of Browns memorabilia

Standing at the curb next to his parked pickup, Danny Tharp slowly reaches into a box and unfurls a cocktail dress. The fabric is popsicle-red and looks new, despite the fact that it's 50 years old. With barbs of sunlight shooting off his shaved head as he excitedly bobs around, Tharp explains that the dress once belonged to a local girl group called the Poni-Tails. Riding the success of their 1958 hit "Born Too Late," the trio toured the world; this was one of their stage outfits.

Tharp, better known as Uncle Danny to his friends, has other artifacts on hand. Next he holds up a rare copy of the first issue of the Scooby-Doo comic book series. An original 1972 Rolling Stone magazine cover featuring a nude Janis Joplin is lying in the truck bed atop one of the original posters advertising Alan Freed's 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball. In his pocket, Tharp has a handful of mint-condition U.S. gold coins from the 1880s.

For most of his adult life, Tharp has been an avid collector, running the full gamut from knickknacks and toys to mechanical oddities and sports memorabilia.

"I've been an American picker from way back," he says, his mouth hitched into a wide grin under a bushy mustache. "I never believed in financial institutions, banks or 401Ks, so for 33 years I've just been buying things. I've put many miles on my vehicle going through basements, attics, garages, stuff of that nature."

The particular fruit of Tharp's eccentric pack-ratting that he's focused on today is also sitting in the truck bed: two cardboard boxes holding reels of old audio tape. On them is a play-by-play recording of the Browns' 1964 championship win over the Baltimore Colts — or as Tharp likes to call it, "The greatest day in Cleveland sports history."

With the help of some business partners, Tharp is hoping to spin his find into a fitting tribute to a piece of Cleveland pride that each subsequent dismal season only kicks further out of reach. He's working on putting together an audio documentary featuring the game recording as well as interviews with fans and players who were there on that historic afternoon.

The idea for the documentary sprang out of the Lake County native's desire to share his impressive private stash, which totals more than 22,000 pieces. The most interesting aspect of his horde is its diversity; drop a topic on Tharp, and he'll mentally dip into his collection and tell you about a related piece. Technology, history, rock 'n' roll, Cleveland sports — he's got it all covered. "It's things that caught my eye, unique, rare, one-of-a-kind artifacts, things of nostalgia from days gone by," he says.

Tharp's ultimate dream is to open a museum called "Uncle Danny's Land of Nostalgia" with an attached bar-restaurant. A regular at Barley House, he bounced the idea off bartender Rob Turek; in turn, Turek introduced Tharp to local entrepreneur Sorin Bica. When the three were looking through Tharp's stock, they came across the championship game recording, which was buried at the bottom of a box of WMMS material. Brainstorming about what to do with it, they hit on the idea of producing an audio documentary featuring the game and commentary.

"Everyone talks about Cleveland having a losing culture," Turek says. "We're going to show them that Cleveland was a winner. And still can be a winner."

Before the trio could move forward with their plan, they needed to verify what they had. After contacting a lawyer and tracking down original sound engineers from the station, Tharp learned that the recording actually wasn't from 1964, but a reproduction created by then-announcers Gib Shanley and Jim Mueller nearly 20 years later.

"During the NFL strike in 1982, there was nothing better going on in the city of Cleveland, so they recreated the game from the play sheets," Tharp explains. Although it's essentially an elaborate piece of radio theater, the copy did turn out to be the oldest known play-by-play recording of the game, with the original 1964 broadcast long vanished into the ether. Not to be derailed, Tharp believed what he had could be turned into a fitting tribute to the event.

The three have already digitized the recording. They've also reached out to former players, and are currently trying to locate fans who were at the stadium for the epic win. Plans are also underway to launch a web site. If everything stays on schedule, the interviews will be complete and production of the documentary will wrap by the end of the month.

"The date we have in mind to launch in Nov. 1," says Bica. "That's a Thursday, and the following Sunday we play Baltimore."

The CD is expected to sell for under $10, with part of the proceeds going to the Police Athletic League, and another slice donated to surviving members of the 1964 team and their families.

Along with adding some life to another disappointing season, Tharp hopes the documentary will introduce Clevelanders to an eccentric uncle they didn't know they had, building up some name recognition that might help him realize his dream of opening a museum. There's already been interest, he says, especially among younger adherents to the Cleveland football faith who only know the championship through local lore.

"I passed out many a flyer this past Sunday," Tharp says. "And people was hip to it down at the stadium."

Contact Tharp at sorine@greatestdayincleveland.com

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