How a Black Catholic From Glenville Came to Rule the Jewish Party Scene

bar mitzvah king

By the time Ryan Cira's bar mitzvah finally arrived last month, 13-year-old Autumn Caress figured she'd been to "25 — maybe 30 bar mitzvahs" this year alone. That's nothing compared to Ally Levy, another 13-year-old, who's been to "like 50 of them." Or Elana Grugman, who's been "to a hundred! At least!"

That's life for a new teen in Cleveland's tight-knit Jewish community — and it's a life that Paris Hilton could envy. Every Saturday and Sunday, these girls step into flouncy $300 dresses from Audrey's Sweet Threads and curl and spray their hair into long, sticky ribbons, getting decked out for $20,000 parties, all in the name of celebrating their Jewish friends' arrival at adulthood.

They've been to private bashes at the Cuyahoga County Airport and closed celebrations at Progressive Field. They've taken spins on virtual roller coasters and taken wild romps on mechanical bulls. But as veteran partygoers, these girls know that what really makes the party — what determines its ultimate success or failure — is the music. And for the past 30 years, the only acceptable DJ at a Cleveland bar or bat mitzvah has been Terry Macklin.

"I think I'd die if my parents didn't get Terry," one girl says.

"It's definitely a status symbol to have him," a boy admits.

They speak of the 50-year-old party-starter with a reverence usually reserved for LeBron or Miley. Which explains why the DJ is booked through 2010, and why parents are known to change the dates of their children's bar mitzvahs in order to secure the DJ. It's bizarre, yes — but no one denies it: In this storied world of Torah readings and catered five-figure affairs, it's easy to forget that the most connected person in Cleveland's bar mitzvah scene is a black Catholic from Glenville.

Growing up, Terry Macklin didn't attend a single bar mitzvah. He didn't even meet his first Jew until he was 19.

By then, Macklin was already a dedicated performer, traveling the region with an R&B group called the Dramatics. They did well, booking gigs at local clubs in Cleveland and Detroit. There was talk of going national. But one day, shortly after graduation, one of the boys came to practice with bad news: He'd been signed by football's Houston Oilers. He was moving to Texas.

Devastated, Macklin decided to go solo. The 18-year-old loved music, but he began to wonder about the viability of his chosen career. So Macklin, a self-professed "people person" whose speech is dotted with exclamation points, began taking gigs as a DJ at East Side clubs like Stardust and the Dark Side of the Moon. His most popular events, however, were the weekly teen nights at Host House, where 800 blacks and Hispanics, dressed in vein-constricting jeans and colorful tank tops, crammed into a room the size of a high-school auditorium, sweating and dancing to "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

Macklin's break came in 1982. His sister Marijo got engaged to a banker that year, and she asked her brother to DJ the 200-person party. It was Macklin's highest-profile gig yet, and the 22-year-old spent weeks preparing for it.

It would be an interactive event, Macklin decided immediately. He wouldn't just spin tunes. He'd also be out on the floor with a video camera . . . And then he'd flash the pictures on a big screen! And group dances . . . There had to be group dances! Macklin decided the event would be a success only if he could get everyone on the floor.

The event went as scripted. Afterward, as Macklin was disconnecting his equipment, an attractive older woman came up to the DJ. "I was really impressed," she said, extending a manicured hand. "Do you DJ other events?"

Macklin nodded yes.

"What about bar mitzvahs?" the woman asked.

"Sure," Macklin answered confidently.

He had no idea what a bar mitzvah was.

"I figured I could look it up later," he says now with a laugh.

The woman's name was Helena Diamond. She and her husband were deeply involved in the Jewish community. Macklin didn't know it yet, but he'd just been handed the keys to a very exclusive kingdom.

Macklin might not know Jews, but he knew teens. He knew what they liked. Or rather what they didn't like: boredom. Looking stupid. At the party, Macklin fused a selection of hip-hop, techno, and classical rock beats. He led the children in improvised line dances, like the Trans-Europe Express, pulling everyone out on the floor. When the teens looked restless, he brought out Hula-Hoops for a dancing contest, judging the way the hoops moved around their small hips. Then he insisted the mothers come out on the floor.

The event was a huge success. And word passed quickly around the East Side community about a new, hip DJ. "We're a close-knit group," says Beachwood mom Anita Cohen. Soon, all the Jews in the area were calling — and arguing over who had discovered Macklin first. (Three people told Scene they were responsible for Macklin's original success. ) And Macklin kept adding new moves to his repertoire, bringing karaoke machines, hired dancers, and strobe lights to the parties. He became a cult figure.

"There was a saying when I was growing up that when you got the date [of your bar mitzvah], the first person you call — before the caterer, before your mother —was Terry Macklin," says 23-year-old Michael Lord. "He was booked three years in advance."

Soon, Macklin's weekends were spent shuffling from one East Side synagogue to another. Macklin's black friends couldn't understand why he chose to spend his Saturday nights deejaying 13-year-old girls' parties. "They didn't know what they were missing," Macklin says with a smile, "and I wasn't going to tell them either."

Outside the T. S. Macklin Event Centre in Solon, the sky is doing its own version of a high-tech laser show while the rain falls in sheets. Inside the party hall, the cavernous room has been transformed into a miniature version of the Bellagio. In the middle of the room, "dealers" sporting visors and red bow ties shuffle decks of slick playing cards. On the side tables, slot machines ring like cash registers. Cocktail waitresses wearing black unitards and red feather boas walk around the room carrying plates of potato latkes. On the walls are blown-up pictures of Ryan Cira, with the words, "What happens at Ryan's bar mitzvah stays at Ryan's bar mitzvah."

Ryan has never actually been to Vegas; he just thought it would make for a cool theme. (Every good bar mitzvah needs one.) But there are other reasons for his choice. Ryan's bar mitzvah is one of the last ones of the season, and all his other choices — baseball or football, for instance — had already been used by his friends.

At 7:30 p.m., Ryan arrives with his family. Macklin, who up until four seconds before had been hidden somewhere in the back room, comes rushing out to greet them. It's one of his many gifts — he has an internal compass notifying him of where everyone important is at all times. And after years spent catering to doting mothers and picky teens, he has a knack for sensing people's moods and adjusting accordingly.

At the moment, for instance, Ryan's mother, Debbie, would really like her youngest son to stop hanging on her. Macklin silently steps in, pulling the six-year-old from Mom and flying him around the room airplane-style. The gaggle of seven-year-old girls nearby would also like some attention. So Macklin instructs his attractive, heavily muscled dancers to show off for them by doing back flips and spins. At the pool table, where the 13-year-olds — who are under the distinct impression that they now rule the world — are getting pushy and competitive, Macklin gets an associate to step in, challenging all of them to a duel.

"You want to know why Terry's so great?" Debbie says about then. "Look around."

To outsiders, Macklin's career might seem frivolous. He gave up the dream of being a singer for a life pressing the buttons that make other singers' voices fill the room.

But to Macklin, these aren't college-fraternity-like bashes. If that's all they were, he would have exited the business years ago, he says. For him, each bar mitzvah party is an "emotional experience." And though every bar mitzvah might look the same from the outside — the electric slide, the hora, etc. — no party is ever run or planned the same way. "Each kid requires something different to make them feel good about themselves," he says.

And sometimes that can be harder than you'd ever expect.

In the mid-'90s, 12-year-old Elana Kay was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the weeks before her big day, the normally vibrant, smiley preteen was confined to a wheelchair and living off portable oxygen. Macklin refused to treat her like a sick person. At the party, he made sure all the boys danced with her and that she never felt confined to one area. "He truly made her feel like nothing was wrong," says Rob Merriweather, a sound technician who helped at the bar mitzvah.

One week later Elana passed away. Later, her parents told Macklin the party was the "brightest day of her life." Macklin had a front-row seat at the funeral.

It wasn't the only time Macklin had to maneuver between tragedy and joy. The morning of Melanie Rosenberg's bat mitzvah, her parents were involved in a life-threatening car crash. The mother's leg was pinned between the steering wheel and front door. In massive pain, she called Macklin from the emergency room. The DJ told Melanie's mom "not to worry" — and not to cancel. He'd take care of everything. And he did.

"My daughter loved him," Mrs. Rosenberg says, voice cracking. "He was fabulous. He distracted everyone with giveaways and dances." From then on, Macklin was the only DJ she ever used.

As a veteran of more than 3,000 bar mitzvahs, Macklin has witnessed — and dealt with — dozens of unplanned life events: a party hall that burned down the day before the bar mitzvah. A suicide. Snowstorms. Flat tires. As Macklin quickly learned, in the Jewish tradition, life-cycle events are not allowed to be postponed — even if someone dies. The party always goes on.

His performance under pressure has helped his rep spread from Jewish mothers here to Jewish mothers across the country; Macklin has played parties in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit. One Jewish family from New Orleans was so impressed with Macklin's skills that they paid to fly the DJ — and his whole dance troupe — to Louisiana for a bat mitzvah. The event happened to fall smack in the middle of Mardi Gras. "I'd never been to New Orleans before," Macklin says. "We could look outside the Sheraton window and see all the festivities."

As a DJ for these events, Macklin's gone surfing on a virtual-wave machine, eaten wings flown in from Louisiana, and met mid-level rap stars (whose names he says he can't recall). And then there was the bar mitzvah that took place at the Cuyahoga County airport. The father rented out two private helicopters, and everyone in the party was invited to go on an aerial tour of the city. But at the last moment, the DJ decided to stay on the ground. "I didn't have the wits to do it," he says. "Besides, I was happy just where I was."

Two weeks ago, Elyssa Zegura threw a surprise 30th-birthday celebration for her husband. Unfortunately for the birthday boy, the party might as well have been renamed a Beachwood Class of '91 bat mitzvah reunion. Zegura booked Macklin for the event, knowing that most of the attendees had used Macklin at their own bar mitzvahs 17 years before. They nearly bowled each other over, rushing to talk to him. "All these people were coming up to me, saying 'Remember me? I was the limbo champ,'" Macklin says, laughing. "And all the girls were trying to Hula-Hoop again — but they had swollen bellies, so they couldn't do it as much."

Over the years, Macklin has become like a favorite uncle to East Side Jews. He sometimes even sounds Jewish — peppering his conversations with Yiddish words like "mensch" (a good person), skillfully pronouncing "baruch" like a native Israeli.

Given the ease with which the DJ has integrated himself into this insular community, it's easy to forget that he was once an altar boy at an inner-city Catholic church. But from the beginning, Macklin made efforts to understand the Jewish culture. He asked local rabbis to help him chant and pronounce some of the common prayers. He attended synagogue services and learned about the different denominations in the religion. "I never forget that it's the Jews who gave me my career," he says. "I always liked and understood their values — their emphasis on unity and family."

And the Jewish community has, in turn, unabashedly embraced Macklin, never treating him like hired help. He can't walk through Beachwood Mall without someone running over, wanting to hug or talk or reminisce ("It can get annoying, when you're there to get actual shopping done," says Macklin's son, Jason). The mayor of Beachwood, Merle Gordon, has joked about giving Macklin a key to the city. When a group of adult Jews is asked whether they find it odd that a black Catholic has become such a cult figure in their community, they look at a reporter in mock surprise. "You mean he's not Jewish?" one asks. "I always thought he was Sammy Davis Jr.'s brother," says another.

It wasn't too surprising, then, that when Macklin's own children turned 13 a few years back, he decided to throw them a "black mitzvah." The DJ held the event at a sports center, and all the kids bought fancy pastel-colored dresses. Just like at a Jewish bat mitzvah party, there was music and hors d'oeuvres. "The only thing they didn't do was have a haftarah," Macklin jokes.

All his Jewish training also helped Macklin prepare for his second career: stepfather. Eight years ago, the DJ got remarried to a manager at the Cleveland Clinic whose kids had been raised Jewish. And when they came to Macklin's home, they didn't have to explain too many religious customs to him. "I knew quite a bit of what was going on," he says. In fact, he deejayed both their bat mitvahs.

Over the years, many DJs have tried to challenge Macklin's position as Cleveland's bar mitzvah king. Some lasted months, others years. "People think it's an easy formula," explains sound engineer Rob Merriweather, who's been in the business for 28 years. "Just play some music. They didn't realize all the other ingredients that make a successful party. They don't have that 'it' that Terry has."

But the bar mitzvah scene is changing. The competition is "more cutthroat now," Macklin admits. "Anyone can download music and call themselves a DJ." A flood of college-age DJs are flooding the market, slashing prices. And as much as Macklin likes to talk about how young he feels and his "endless" amounts of energy, he turns 51 this year. His characteristic springy black hair is graying at the temples.

And for the first time, another company seems poised to compete heavily for — if not completely take — Macklin's crown. Rock the House, an Oakwood Village-based entertainment company headed by 28-year-old Matt Radicelli, specializes in flashy, high-tech entertainment. The focus for Rock the House is less centered; its parties cater to the ADD culture. They have gaming booths, "Mock Rock" DVD stations, airbrushing, and sumo wrestling competitions. "They, like, put on a really good show," 13-year-old Ally Levy explains. The company recently opened a satellite office in Boca Raton, Florida.

Macklin says he's not worried. His focus has switched from deejaying to all-around party-planning. He and his wife have their own party center now. For harried mothers looking for one-stop bar mitzvah shopping, Macklin has it all under one roof. The hall. The catering service. The entertainment. And the company is looking to become more interactive. "We want to turn [Macklin] into a new Walt Disney," says son and business partner Jason.

Macklin would love to stay and talk up his new vision, but a party's about to begin. And though the music has already started pumping, the crowd drinking, and the dancers spinning, everyone here knows it's not really a party until Macklin walks into the room.

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