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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Hippo's Last Last Call

When the lights were turned on at 1:40 a.m. on October 4, 2015, there weren’t wails or shrieks or moans or cheers.  It was a rather subdued reaction considering the curtain was finally falling down on the Hippo.  People hugged, finished their drinks and headed for the door just like any other night.  Alas, there will be no returning to the Hippo unlike all those other nights spanning its 43-year history.  This was it.
The last call moment

On this night, the saloon and Karaoke areas were packed with folks who wanted one last good-bye and enjoy one of the largest alcohol clearance sales in memory.  Patrons reminisced with one another; some who had performed drag at the club were teary-eyed; others repeated the mantra “I can’t believe it”; a few were talking about the potential re-emergence of the Baltimore Eagle; and some of the staff were melancholy but carried out their duties professionally as always.  
Yet, the sadness wasn’t as widespread as I anticipated.  True, the Hippo’s closing had been announced five months ago, and people had the opportunity to adjust to this reality.  I broke the story of the Hippo’s closing in the Washington Blade in May, which received a record-breaking number of online views demonstrating that interest in the Hippo went beyond Baltimore but also throughout the U.S. and internationally.

I also wrote about the final large fundraiser at the bar that benefitted AIDS Action Baltimore when it was also announced that the intersection of Eager and Charles Streets was re-named “Chuck Bowers Way”, the scheduled closing dates and, of course, the grand finale spectacle.  As such, I was honored to chronicle this developing story for the “LGBT Paper of Record”.  

Soon to be a CVS Photo: Bob Ford
The final night at the saloon lacked the electric atmosphere that characterized the “Grand Finale Dance Party” the previous Saturday.  Of course, dancing is far more dynamic than simply hanging around at a pub, so naturally it’s not comparable. The dance side was already being dismantled prior to this event in preparation for a spanking new CVS pharmacy poised to occupy this fabled landmark and principal destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood”. 
Therefore, with all the hype and five months to digest the inevitable outcome, people may have developed Hippo closing fatigue.  One person, for instance, griped on Facebook, “The Hippo has been 'closing' now for how long?  Gimme a break and close already!”  Nice.  He may be in the minority, however; everyone I know will definitely miss what has to be described as an LGBT institution in Baltimore.

The Hippo felt as comfortable to me as a pair of old, broken-in shoes.  Other bars do as well, such as Leon’s and Grand Central. Yet, the Hippo had been a special place for Bob and I for so many years. It wasn’t the venue I came out as others did.  It wasn’t the venue where I met Bob (Leon’s).  It didn’t provide a landmark in my life’s journey as was the case for others. 

Photo: Bob Ford
Instead, the Hippo was our Saturday night go-to place to socialize, to meet up with friends old and new and have a blast.  We danced, we hung out, and we enjoyed the staff and especially bartenders Dave, “Josie” and Gary.    
For younger folks, the Hippo was a safe haven and a place to let loose; for us it was a sanctuary in a social setting as the battle for LGBT rights was waging on, and the Hippo was in the center of it with their support for so many worthwhile endeavors. 

The Hippo’s owner, Chuck Bowers, was not there on this night, and it was reported that he was too emotional to make this final curtain.  As people routinely filed out of the bar at closing, I stopped and hugged Jess, the manager, who had been a fixture at the door for years.  We both had tears in our eyes realizing the finality of this occasion. 
It was that kind of night.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Hippo's Grand Finale

An enthusiastic throng was amassing just prior to the 9 p.m. opening of the Club Hippo’s dance side for what was billed as “The Grand Finale Dance” on September 26.  The first dancers hit the floor almost immediately, and a half hour later, the dance floor was crammed to the sound of Rick Astley’s “Together Forever”.  At 12:40 a.m.  Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” mix played to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd with an hour still left to go.
Photo: Bob Ford
DJ Farrell Maddox, who first worked at the Hippo in the mid-1980s and then returned in 1997, explained, “I want the final moment to be energetic and exciting.  That is how I want people to remember the Hippo.” 

Maddox had myriad choices for the final song at closing; he eventually settled on The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” following a brief tribute to Hippo owner Charles “Chuck” Bowers.  

A video of that number shot by Bob Ford appears below. Describing Bowers as a good friend, Maddox was touched and honored when he chose him to deejay the grand finale event.  He saluted the venerable Hippo’s past with eclectic music spanning five decades.  At its conclusion, the patrons cheered and hugged one another.
After 43 years as a focal point of Baltimore’s LGBT community, a series of “last” events that stretched out over the Hippo’s final days—Last Bingo, Last Hip-Hop Night, Last Women’s Night, Last Dance Party and Last Drag Show—lowered the curtain on Baltimore’s largest and most iconic gay bar.  These special occasions on the dance side afforded opportunities for people to bid their final farewells.  The saloon and karaoke areas will close on October 3.  
Chuck Bowers (center) waving after tribute Photo: Bob Ford

To the dismay and disappointment of many in the community, the building is being leased to CVS Health as Bowers, 70, is retiring.  On this night, the multi-generational patrons and the employees reflected the paradoxical mood: celebratory yet somber with many either in denial or the truth hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972 and was founded by Kenny Elbert and Don Endbinder, featured one of the largest dance floors in the state, a saloon and a video/karaoke bar.  During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with packed crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious, sunken, rectangular floor with an overhead disco ball, bathed in glimmering, colorful lights and fog effects. Many of the disco divas performed live throughout the eighties.
As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music and the Hippo’s deejays kept up.  DJ Rosie Hicks, who played the music on Hip Hop Night on Thursdays, said, “As a DJ at Club Hippo for eleven and a half years, I know firsthand that losing this venue is an emotional blow to many of us in the community. So many memories have been made inside those walls, and despite our gratitude to Chuck for sharing it with us for so long, we will all miss it terribly.”

For some, the Hippo was a life changer. Paul Hummel, the karaoke host from 2010 to 2012 as well as a customer, stated, “It was the happiest job I’ve ever had. It’s where I went when I first came out. It’s where I learned to be comfortable and proud to be me.  It’s where I met the love of my life. If any one place sums up my gay experience, it will always be the Hippo. That place changed my life.” 
Photo: Bob Ford
The club’s historic significance is not overlooked.  “The Hippo is the only bar in Baltimore that gave space and support events as varied as lesbian musical theatre, drag pageants, leather contests, fundraisers for LGBT organizations, AIDS service providers, Pride festivals and the Baltimore Justice Campaign’s civil rights triumphs,” said Louise Parker Kelley, author of the recently released pictorial chronicle “LGBT Baltimore”.

Indeed, Bowers, who bought the Hippo in 1978 and the building itself in 2005, had donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, and he allowed other organizations, such as Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, to hold fundraising events at the club.  Early in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first in Baltimore to help raise money to fight the disease.
Operating under the motto, “Where Everyone is Welcome,” the Hippo’s major lure was that of a social and entertainment venue, which had been enjoyed by tens of thousands of people—gay and straight—including fans of drag and leather.  Numerous contests and pageants were held there; its closing elicits profound sadness but fond memories.

Drag performer and comedian Shawnna Alexander, who was Miss Hippo 2014 and had performed on the Hippo’s stage at various times for over 20 years, said, “I’m very sad to see it closing and very happy I wasn’t born yesterday and had missed the chance to experience being part of an era that was great in Baltimore City.”

Sue Nami, Miss Hippo 2008 and Miss Gay Maryland 2009, said, “The Hippo is where I started and growing in my career in this art form of female impersonator. I call this place my home and will always stay in my heart forever.”

'Chuck Bowers Way' Photo: Bob Ford
Paul Liller, a.k.a. Dimitria Blackwell, Miss Hippo 2015, found the Hippo to be an integral part of his life’s journey. “Never would I imagine that I would eventually become not only a Miss Hippo, but the last one ever.  As the doors close, I feel like a part of me will be left inside those walls. Fortunately, I walk away with memories that will last a lifetime and a love for a place I was lucky enough to call home.”

The leather community has been grateful for the many events that took place at the Hippo but noted the benefits were enjoyed beyond that community. “By allowing the leather community to hold events like Mr. Maryland and the 12 Day of Christmas, the Hippo had a hand in helping to raise thousands of dollars for charity,” said Greg King, Mr. Maryland Leather 2015.  “Chuck Bowers has left a legacy.”
Nearby businesses and even competitors recognize the impact the Hippo had as it was the primary destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.” Don Davis, owner of by Grand Central, which is located diagonally across from the Hippo, acknowledges that he and Bowers may have had their differences over the years.  However, he emphatically states that “we have always been there with support of each other.”

Davis praised the way Bowers ran the club. “Chuck has always operated a first class business and his heart has always been there for everyone. He has had the most loyal staff and customers; so many who have been there since the beginning.”
To honor Bowers and the Hippo, city officials recently named the intersection of Charles and Eager Streets where the Hippo is located, “Chuck Bowers Way.”

“The closing of the Hippo is like the closing of a spectacular Broadway show,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “The performers take their last bow, the curtain comes down, and the audience departs. Thanks Chuck Bowers, staff members and patrons for making this iconic venue such a vibrant part of Baltimore’s rich history.”
In reflecting on these past decades, Bowers is gripped with much emotion. “For 37 years this has been my home, it’s been my family,” he said.  “Now that the Hippo is closing it has been an extremely emotional time for me because of all the friendships I’ve made here over these many years.  I will miss this place.”

So will many others. 

The very last event at the Hippo on Oct. 3-4, 2015 is chronicled here.