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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.

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