Steven J. DeBellis: Self-Proclaimed ‘Screwball Entrepreneur’ Was Local Historian, Preservationist
Steve DeBellis, the deliberately eccentric publisher of a tabloid that reported decades-old stories as if they happened yesterday, under headlines that defied passersby to ignore them, died Saturday.
Typical of Mr. DeBellis’ wit and dramatic flair was a World War II story about a surprise attack on skinny-dipping Germans headlined “Greeks Battle Nude Nazis.” The story appeared in the first edition in 1986 of The St. Louis Enquirer, renamed The St. Louis Globe-Democrat after the daily’s demise.
A year later, many were stopped in their tracks by the front-page headline “August A. Busch Sr. Dies Suddenly At Grant's Farm.” Few noticed the “Sr.” and presumed it referred to August A. “Gussie” Busch Jr., who was very much alive at the time. The story was about his father, who died in 1934 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Local television and radio stations, along with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, furiously fielded calls about Gussie Busch before the source of the rumor was tracked back to Mr. DeBellis’ nostalgic paper.
Mr. DeBellis, who lived in south St. Louis and had been hospitalized with an infection on Wednesday, died Aug. 2, 2014, at St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights, where he’d been born 59 years earlier. He had refused to take time for his health and “worked himself to death,” said his brother, John J. DeBellis.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated Thursday morning at Seven Holy Founders Church in Affton.
Use it or lose it
Mr. DeBellis delved in various enterprises, including manufacturing historic T-shirts, bringing historic beers to market and, of late, raising money to restore the Goldenrod Showboat. But most of all, there was his historic newspaper.
“Why old news?” he asked rhetorically in the St. Louis Journalism Review in 1987, and answered, “Because it’s interesting and entertaining.”
He claimed his bi-monthly was “the world’s largest one-man newspaper” because he researched, wrote (always in longhand) and edited the retro newspaper. It was only available in newsprint; there is no digital version of the paper.
At first, he also did the layout, marketing and delivery. It was distributed free at hundreds of local businesses, mostly bars and restaurants and all Wehrenberg theaters, and sold by subscription.
The Enquirer name was dropped 12 years after the long-time Globe-Democrat ceased publishing. He even used the Globe’s distinctive masthead along with his tagline: “Where history repeats itself.”
"With any trademark you have to use it or lose it," he told the Post-Dispatch in 1998. "And no newspaper had been published under that name for 12 years."
The oddity of the move did not escape him. He referred to himself in the Post-Dispatch story as "St. Louis' most screwball entrepreneur.”
To the amazement of his friends in the journalism business, he said the paper turned a profit with the third issue.
His first edition under the newly appropriated name featured the year 1977. “Elvis Presley Found Dead Inside Memphis Mansion” was the front-page banner. Another cover story was the death of one of Mr. DeBellis’ idols, comedian Groucho Marx, whom he dressed as during high school and college. There was also a local story on the closing of the 127-year-old Falstaff Brewery.
Drink or die
Mr. DeBellis had more than a passing interest in breweries.
Over the years, he contracted with small breweries to make private-label beers. There was a Mizzou Brew, Joe Edwards' Rock & Roll Beer at Blueberry Hill, a VP Fair Beer and a series of suds honoring famous St. Louisans, from former Mayor A.J. Cervantes to former U.S. Rep. William L. Clay.
He named his micro-brewery Lemp Brewing after claiming the rights to the long-defunct beer company’s label.
His newspaper often covered the bizarre history of old St. Louis brewing families, including the Lemps, who once owned the largest brewery in St. Louis.
There was plenty of fodder. The Lemp family was plagued by mental illness, drug abuse and suicide. Three family members committed suicide at the old Lemp Mansion, now a dinner theater, which once sold his micro-beers.
The beer business was a natural move for a man who once had the largest beer can-collection in the U.S.
“His whole basement and half the upstairs was beer memorabilia,” that finally demanded warehousing, said his brother.
Mr. DeBellis also manufactured T-shirts that honored old St. Louis professional teams and other sports souvenirs, which he designated "officially licensed products" of the NSL – the Nostalgia Sports League. He gleefully tweaked the often strictly licensed professional organizations.
His wicked sense of humor was on full display in a T-shirt that promoted his beer. It bore the likeness of William J. Lemp Jr. and a bottle of Lemp Lager; the inscription read: "Drink Lemp or I'll kill myself."
Saving a treasure
“He had a passion for anything historic,” said his longtime friend Greg Pantazi.
That’s why Mr. DeBellis got involved in trying to resurrect the 105-year-old Goldenrod Showboat.
“It’s about saving a national treasure,’’ he told the St. Louis Beacon last September. “It survived for 100 years, and we’re going to let it go down now?”
The showboat floated on Midwest rivers for nearly three decades, until it was permanently docked on the Mississippi in St. Louis in 1937. There the Goldenrod remained until 1989, when St. Charles bought it and converted it to a dinner theater on the Missouri River. That ended when low river levels caused damage in 2001.
In 2008, Mr. DeBellis set up the nonprofit Historic Riverboat Preservation Association to take ownership of the long-idled showboat.
When the opportunity to spearhead the restoration effort came along, “Steve was all in,” said Pantazi, who offers his accounting expertise to the preservation group. “Anything that was good for St. Louis or St. Louis history got equal energy from him.”
Master of trivia
Steven Joseph DeBellis was born July 1, 1955, the oldest of Frank P. DeBellis, a professional photographer, and Catherine DeBellis’ three children.
After graduating from Christian Brothers College High School in 1972, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in in history and communications from Saint Louis University.
In 2006, he wrote 100 Years of Reel Entertainment: How Wehrenberg Theatres Became the Longest-Running Picture Show in America, a book commissioned by Wehrenberg Theatres.
Movies were a specialty of the man Pantazi deemed “a walking trivia contestant.” A life-size Marilyn Monroe statue graced his living room; and he had corresponded with former St. Louisan Vincent Price. Upon Price’s death in 1993, his family sent Mr. DeBallis a letter of thanks.
In addition to his brother, he is survived by his mother, his companion, Donna Perrino, and his sister, Marie A. (Joseph) Moore, all of St. Louis.
Visitation will be 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Kutis Funeral Home, 10151 Gravois Road, in Affton. A prayer service will be at 9 a.m. Thursday at the funeral home, followed by a funeral Mass at 9:30 a.m. at Seven Holy Founders Church, 6741 South Rock Hill Road, in Affton. Burial will be at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
Memorials would be appreciated to the Historic Riverboat Preservation Association at goldenrod-showboat.com.