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Obituary of Sam Glazer: Inventor of Mr. Coffee saved downtown building

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2012 - Sam Glazer never lived in St. Louis, but he became well known here during a decade-long battle with three mayors, first about leasing out a historic downtown building, then saving it.

Mr. Glazer, an entrepreneur who co-developed the Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, died Monday at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, from complications of leukemia. He was 89.

His services are today in Cleveland Heights.

When the Cleveland businessman bought and rehabbed the Court Square Building at 11th and Walnut streets during the 1980s, he did so with the understanding that the city would lease most of the building.

A leasing agreement with Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. fell through and Mr. Glazer was left with the mostly empty, five-story office building.  Later, Mayor Freeman R. Bosley Jr. and Mayor Clarence Harmon made plans to demolish the building to make way for a new city jail. 

Mr. Glazer had a written agreement that if he rehabbed the building, it would never be razed.

“He was furious,” said Richard Callow, his publicist at the time. “He loved that building, but he was more angry that they had broken their word.”

That’s because his word was his bond, said his son, Robert.

“His handshake, his word was as good as gold,” said his son, “and he was incredibly loyal.”

Saving Court Square

Mr. Glazer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was just “trying to do the right thing” when he spent more than $7 million to buy and renovate the Court Square Building, originally named the Winkelmeyer Building when it was built in 1902. 

After the city failed to lease the building for municipal employees, Mr. Glazer was successful in leasing the building to capacity to the U.S. Postal Service, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House remained a tenant. 

With leasing problems long behind him, by 1996 Mr. Glazer briefly faced a more daunting problem: a threat to demolish his building. 

He hired a battalion of lawyers, Callow said. 

"This will go down as a very, very sad day for the city of St. Louis if we lose this building," he said. "I think this sends a chilling message to other developers around the country."

In June 1998, the final round of negotiations lasted 30 hours. Mr. Glazer won, and the red brick building, which had been on the national Register of Historic places since 1985, was saved.   

But the uncertainty of the building’s future caused Ruth’s Chris Steak House to move. Mr. Glazer filled the space with his own upscale restaurant. 

He opened St. Louis Steak House in 1998; it closed several years later.

The restaurant’s opening party was packed with dignitaries, including Harmon and his wife, Janet Kelly Harmon. All contentiousness was over. 

Mr. Glazer continued to be an active presence at the steak house, coming in every other month or so, often dining with friends. He closed the restaurant when the trips became too onerous.

“He liked to see the things that he owned,” Callow said.

Mr. Coffee

Mr. Glazer owned a great many things, not the least of them being North American Systems, Inc., the maker of Mr. Coffee. Mr. Glazer developed Mr. Coffee with Vincent G. Marotta Sr., his friend and business partner since high school. 

The two began by making detached garages, becoming the largest distributor of overhead garage doors and were the original distributors of Genie electric garage door openers.  The partners moved from making garages to building the whole house, then communities. They expanded into building shopping malls and acquiring real estate throughout the U.S. 

They shed a number of businesses to begin their signature venture, Mr. Coffee, which they brought into a crowded percolator market dominated by such names as General Electric, Sunbeam and Procter Silex. It was 1972. 

By the late ‘70s, their automatic drip coffeemaker had garnered a market share of more than 50 percent and put most percolator companies out of business. Mr. Glazer’s marketing savvy was behind the sales.

He dismissed the belief that African-Americans did not drink coffee and heavily advertised on the ABC television mini-series "Roots." He also gambled and won on buying overtime Super Bowl ads – and he hired baseball’s Joe DiMaggio, who hawked the product for 14 years.

When DiMaggio died in 1999, Mr. Glazer toasted the Yankee Clipper at his steak house.  "Joe was a true gentleman,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “Critics said that no one would buy a fancy appliance that just made coffee.”

Mr. Glazer and Marotta sold Mr. Coffee in the ‘80s, but not before Mr. Glazer had given a coffeemaker to everyone he knew, often more than one.  His friend, the late "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson, begged him not to give him another coffeemaker.

At housewares shows, Mr. Glazer would sometimes help friends whose booths were not well attended by sending DiMaggio over. When customers at the booth increased, Mr. Glazer would ask DiMaggio, “Are you working for me or are you working for them?”

It was his trademark humor that friends say was matched only by his generosity.


"He was a very humble person who enjoyed being behind the scenes,” said his son. “He was a great father and a great friend.”

A family biography noted: “Sam loved to perform mitzvot (good deeds) and liked to remain anonymous.”

Samuel Lewis Glazer was born in Cleveland on Feb. 24, 1923, the last of Yetta and Isador Glazer’s four children. 

His three siblings were born in eastern Europe.  Isador Glazer came to the U.S. to start a business.  Several years after the rest of the family joined him and Mr. Glazer was born, his father died, plunging the family into poverty. 

Mr. Glazer began delivering the morning Cleveland Plain Dealer and kept his route until he was 18, when he became the youngest district manager ever at the newspaper.

After high school, he became a traveling salesman. He later attended Ohio State University and Kent State, and served stateside in the Army during World War II.

Mr. Glazer, who was previously married and divorced twice, was preceded in death by his parents and his siblings, William Glazer, Jacob Glazer and Rose Cahen Zeichick.

In addition to his son, Robert Glazer of Cresskill, N.J., he is survived by his wife, Jeanne Glazer. 

Services for Mr. Glazer will be at 3 p.m. today at Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Memorial Chapel, 1985 South Taylor Road, in Cleveland Heights.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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