Bobby Minicucci, owner of Ontario House, the long-running jazz mecca in Niagara Falls, picked up his phone in August 1988 and it was somebody from Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd. The 15-man big band was heading west after a date on Cape Cod.
“They wanted to stop here and they wanted to play,” Mr. Minicucci told The Buffalo News. “I explained the size of the club and we came to an agreement. … No, there’ll be no room to dance, but we should have enough room for the band. We had the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble in here and that’s 22 guys.”
The club was renowned worldwide. Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Chuck Mangione and others came by after their gigs elsewhere in the area to listen and sometimes sit in. James Brown brought his whole band. Comedian Dick Gregory stopped in and took the microphone. Mr. Minicucci greeted them all with a welcoming grin and an ever-present cigar.
The club at the corner of Main Street and Ontario Avenue, known to its fans as O-H, closed in 1992 and was demolished three years later, but its legend lived on. An outdoor concert, the Ontario House Jazz Reunion, was started on the site in 2005 and was held annually for several years.
In 2009, Mr. Minicucci received “Keep Jazz Alive” awards from the State Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives. He was inducted into the Niagara Falls Music Hall of Fame in 2019.
He died July 6 in Kenmore Mercy Hospital from complications following a fall a month earlier. He was 89.
Robert Michael Minicucci was born in Niagara Falls, one of four children of Italian immigrants. His parents, Frank and Julia Minicucci, began operating the National Grill on Ontario Avenue in the 1930s, then acquired Ontario House during World War II. In his Hall of Fame biography, Mr. Minicucci said that his father bought it for his older brothers, John and Albert, as something they could come home to after they served in the war.
Mr. Minicucci worked in the restaurant as a boy. After he graduated from Niagara Falls High School in 1952, he studied at Pratt Institute in New York City and intended to have a career as an artist, but was called back to help when his father became ill.
Following his father’s death in 1956, his mother turned the business over to him and worked in the kitchen. Renowned for her meatballs and known to everyone as Ma, she attracted a loyal clientele.
Mr. Minicucci brought in the crowd at night, presenting touring artists, as well as up-and-coming local players like Spider Martin, Ronnie Foster and Bobby Militello, for whom the Ontario House stage was a launching pad. He often let them practice there during the day.
As a boy, jazz great Joey DeFrancesco would wait at the door for a chance to play on the club’s Hammond B-3 organ. Keyboardist Richard Kermode, who played with Janis Joplin, rehearsed his jazz band Milestones there for three months in 1979 before taking it on the road.
In Mr. Minicucci’s Hall of Fame bio, the late keyboardist Ron Corsaro, who played the club as a teen in the 1950s and continued until it closed, is quoted as saying:
“Anyone who wanted to play jazz, you hoped and prayed that you would get the chance to go there and get your start. And in my case, and a lot of cases, some of those jobs were our first jobs playing jazz.”
“I gave them encouragement and it became tremendous for musicians,” Mr. Minicucci told an interviewer in 2006. “I’m so glad I had a part in their (lives). You need a place to learn your trade. You need a place to start.”
The club thrived in the 1950s and 1960s. Ontario Avenue was a lively entertainment strip, particularly popular with Canadians escaping the restrictions on alcohol in Ontario at the time.
Ontario House also was a favorite with sports figures such as basketball great Calvin Murphy, who was among the students who came in from nearby Niagara University, and members of the Buffalo Bills, including O.J. Simpson.
By the late 1970s, however, the street had fallen upon hard times. News contributing writer Samantha Dean described the North End locale as “fairly seedy” and “dimly lit” when she visited in 1978, but found Ontario House one of its bright spots. Nevertheless, Mr. Minicucci told her that business was so poor that he was hiring musicians only occasionally.
“People regard it as the wrong end of town,” he said. “Lot of the lawyers and judges come for lunch, but that’s about it.”
One of the people who came in the 1970s was Maureen Stewart, who went on to work there as a waitress and became his companion. They were married in 1987.
In addition to his wife, a longtime administrative assistant in the State Assembly and Tops Markets corporate offices, survivors include five daughters, Lauren Minicucci Palmer, Lisa Minicucci Hoy, Lynn Minicucci Velasco, Rebecca Tichner and Tecia Monroe; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.