CLEVELAND: Three smart guys walk into a bar, interrupt a hundred people drinking and watching a ballgame and start talking about the crisis in Ukraine for an hour.
The crowd listens quietly and respectfully, then asks well-informed and thoughtful questions.
Are we in some strange parallel universe?
No, it’s just another night at the Happy Dog Cafe in the Gordon Square Arts District — a hot dog-themed bar/restaurant on Detroit Avenue.
On the first Tuesday of every month, Happy Dog hosts an informal lecture series that features local experts talking international affairs. The series has been dubbed “The Happy Dog Takes on the World.”
June’s forum, Making Sense of the Ukraine-Russia Crisis, was part of an ongoing collaboration between the Happy Dog and the City Club of Cleveland, along with the Cleveland Council on World Affairs.
The audience, a cross-section of more than a hundred people, appeared as transfixed by foreign policy as they were by the Indians game that continued on the bar’s TV screens while the speakers talked.
The three smart guys for June’s forum included: Andrew Barnes, chair and associate professor of political science at Kent State University; Stephen Crowley, professor of politics, and chair of Russian and East European Studies and chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at Oberlin College; and Tony Ganzer, from 90.3 WCPN ideastream, who was the moderator.
The panel addressed the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the impact of Eastern European nations joining NATO, the fascist tendencies of the current Ukranian regime and what U.S. policy ought to be in the region.
The informality of the venue is just the point, according to City Club President Dan Moulthrop, who opened the discussion by saying that they had intentionally left the TVs on the Indians game so people could keep an eye on it while they discussed Vladimir Putin and the challenges of the post-Soviet era.
The Happy Dog is owned by Sean Watterson, who after years in the world of international finance made a hairpin turn of a change in lifestyle.
“I started with the IMF right after 9/11 in 2001 so I ended up on the Financial Action Task Force, putting protocols in place to prevent international money laundering. The only measure of success was that nothing bad happens. And you were never sure if it was because you did your job or just because nothing happened,” he said. “So running a bar and watching people enjoy themselves, that’s nice.”
Watterson said that the idea of bringing cultural and civic events to the bar started with performances by the Cleveland Orchestra.
In 2010, the Happy Dog invited members of the Cleveland Orchestra to perform in the restaurant. The odd juxtaposition of world class classical performers playing in a casual local bar was an immediate hit.
That event, called “Orchestral Maneuvers at the Dog,” opened the door for scheduling less traditional events at the bar. “Each time we took a chance. Eventually, we started radio broadcasts and we released an album, the Cleveland Orchestra Live at the Happy Dog.
From there, the Happy Dog expanded into liberal arts nights on the second Tuesday of every month called Happy Dog U and more recently the world affairs programming on first Tuesdays.
“I started thinking what else can we do. I found out Case [Western Reserve University] has this Institute for the Science of Origins, which encompasses all kinds of disciplines from paleontology, to astrophysics, to evolutionary biology and more and we set up a program with them,” Watterson said. “We called it, ‘Life, the Universe and Hot Dogs’ and I thought we’d hold it in our small basement. But so many people signed up that we ended up having it in the bar and it was great.“
Watterson said it is an adjustment for speakers who are used to speaking in a classroom, but most seem to enjoy it.
“The idea is we’re not going to be formal about it. So listen, learn, drink beer, eat hot dogs. “
“We have all these incredibly talented people from all over the world who come to work in Northeast Ohio — at Case, the Art Museum, the Orchestra, Oberlin, Kent, Akron. And these events help them to connect with the community, share their talents, and feel at home.”
Moulthrop likes the way the series adds a new dimension to the City Club.
“Word affairs is important. But if I do a standard forum on world affairs at the City Club, we might be lucky to get 60 people to buy tickets. When I bring a similar conversation to the Happy Dog, I can pack 120 people in there and it feels like a completely uncommon conversation to be having,” said Moulthrop. “And it costs nothing to do it. I bring over the gong and we’re ready to go.”
The conclusion of June’s forum left many patrons discussing world affairs — not sports or pop culture.
“I think it’s amazing that 90 people were actually silent and listening to a policy discussion,” Marylyn McLaughlin said.
Jillian Rogers came with her boyfriend who she says is a policy hound. It was her first time coming to a City Club event and she said she plans to come back again.
“A lot of people don’t want to get dressed up and go to the City Club. But they will come to a place in the neighborhood, get comfortable and listen to a talk,” said Susie Porter, who has traveled in Ukraine and just returned to Cleveland. “Why do people come? “Well, it’s very informal, you don’t have to RSVP or anything, you just show up.”
The Happy Dog is at 5801 Detroit Ave. in Cleveland.
Daryl Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.