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This weekend, Dean Martin’s Ohio hometown honors the King of Cool

A mural in Steubenville commemorates Dean Martin, its 'most famous son'.
Steubenville Visitor Center
A mural in Steubenville commemorates Dean Martin, its 'most famous son'.

Long before Dean Martin joined the Rat Pack, he grew up in Steubenville as Dino Crocetti. Each year, the eastern Ohio city honors his Ohio roots with a festival. The city hosts Dean Martin impersonators, trolley rides to significant sites of the singer’s childhood and even a Dino Dash 5k.

Jojo Dialbert, owner of the local Spot Bar, helped begin the festival nearly three decades ago. He said it started with just a small group of people singing Dean Martin songs together over a cassette tape. It soon grew into an event that drew thousands from all over, giving the small city a much-appreciated boost in tourism.

“One time we even had the mayor of Dean Martin’s [family’s] hometown from Italy,” Dialbert said. “I didn’t realize there were Dean Martin fans from all over the world.”

An Ohio historical marker in Steubenville
Visit Steubenville
An Ohio historical marker in Steubenville records some of the famed singer's biggest accomplishments.

Ohio roots

Before Martin was the instantly recognizable voice singing ‘That’s Amore’, he got his start as the son of Italian immigrants in Steubenville. He had a number of hobbies before performing, Dialbert said. He did a stint as an amateur boxer, fighting under the name “Kid Crochet” and even tried his hand at dealing poker in Steubenville’s illegal gambling rooms.

A black and white portrait of Dean Martin in 1958.
Wikipedia
Dean Martin became a world-renowned singer known as the King of Cool.

“He's one of many characters that came out of Steubenville,” Dialbert said.

He gave his first public performance at a local club, but soon hoped to take his talent outside of the small town. He left Steubenville at 17 to move to the bigger city of Cleveland, where he began his meteoric rise to fame.

Eventually, he made his way to New York City and met Jerry Lewis. The comedy duo landed a radio and TV show.

“The rest is history,” Dialbert said.

Remembering home

Dialbert said he became a true fan of Martin when he saw the legend perform at the Riviera in Las Vegas. He went to the show with some other friends from Steubenville, who all were “hootin’ and hollerin’” when Martin made mention of Ohio.

Security guards stopped the show when Dialbert’s brother began standing on a table.

“[Dean Martin] looks down. He says, ‘It's the same old story. You can take the kid out of Steubenville, but you can't take Steubenville out of the kids,’” Dialbert remembered.

Dialbert said he has been hooked ever since. He admires how the iconic performer often took care to reference the small Ohio city he hailed from in interviews.

“When a singer chooses a song, the lyrics may be clever, the music may be particularly outstanding, but when a singer finds a tune that has both these elements, plus the fact that it’s about his own homestate, he’s really hit the musical jackpot,” Martin said as he introduced an ode to Ohio in a recording Dialbert shared from the festival’s archive. “Oh, sweet memories of Steubenville.”

For Dialbert, the festival is just a small way to pay the favor back.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.