Monday, February 10, 1997
Ribs King can still jest despite fire

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The day after one of his castles burned down, the Ribs King was telling jokes.

''Did you hear the one about the parrot and the cat burglar?''

Not waiting for a reply, Ted Gregory told the story en route to the sunny shores of southern Indiana, land of riverboat casinos and hungry gamblers.

He was off to Indiana to mix pleasure with a side order of business.

Ted Gregory likes to gamble. He also likes to be around hungry people. They eat the ribs that have made his Montgomery Inns famous. They're so well-known, the riverfront Montgomery Inn Boathouse ranks as the nation's 16th-highest grossing independent restaurant.

His Indiana mission to see whether ribs and riverboats go together put Ted Gregory in the right place at the right time. He was feeling lucky. Very lucky.

The night before, his Montgomery Inn East burned to the ground. The fire broke out Tuesday during the dinner hour.

The blaze started in a malfunctioning sign atop the Cherry Grove restaurant. That very sign had been worked on by a repairman earlier the same day.

At the first sign of fire, everyone was evacuated from the restaurant. No one was injured.

''That's the main thing,'' Ted Gregory said. ''Thank God everyone got out safely. We were so lucky.''

Bad news, good news

Last week's fire leveled what Ted calls, ''my bastard child. I never went out there much because I got a DUI ticket once while driving to the joint. I figured I was bad luck. So, I stayed away.''

On the night of the fire, he was watching TV at home. The phone rang.

''They said the fire was in the sign. I figured: 'What the hell. They'll put that out in a few minutes.'''

Not giving the fire another thought, he went to bed. The next morning, he woke up at 6 and turned on the TV.

''I saw pictures of the joint burning down. God, did that hurt. I was in tears.

''See, that's a piece of my body out there. It's our family's business. I put my heart and my arm in that.

''That reminds me,'' he said.

''Did I ever tell you about the guy with one arm? He was struggling to open a door and. ...''

Lost signatures

Since the fire, Ted Gregory's phone has not stopped ringing. Callers say they're sorry to hear about the fire.

Ted thanks them and says, ''We'll rebuild and make it twice as big.'' He even tells them a joke or two.

Then they try to commiserate with him over losing a restaurant decorated with wall-to-wall sports memorabilia.

Barry Larkin's Reds uniform went up in smoke. Oscar Robertson's signed basketball melted. Photos of Arnold Palmer at the U.S. Open became framed ashes. Cal Ripken's autographed baseball bat turned into a stick of charcoal.

''All I keep hearing,'' Ted said, ''is: 'Oh, the loss of memorabilia.'

''That's a bunch of bull.

''What does that stuff mean? What's an autographed baseball bat? Signed photos?

''All that stuff can be replaced. You can't replace a human life.''

When he said this, he wasn't laughing. He explained why. Twenty years ago this May, fire destroyed the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate. The flames, the smoke and the pandemonium claimed 165 lives.

Ted Gregory knew two of the victims. He was supposed to meet them that night at the supper club.

''My wife was working at the Montgomery Inn in Montgomery,'' Ted recalled. ''I was going to sneak away. But I kept fooling around and never did go. I guess that was the best thing that ever happened to me.''

He laughed nervously. Then he gave this piece of advice:

''Never lose your sense of humor. Always leave them laughing.

''Listen. This is a good one.

''There's a bar full of people, all guys and one babe. And. ...''

A fire breaks out. Everyone gets out alive.

That's no joke. But it has a great ending.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.