As the renovated Baltimore Eagle is poised to re-open after being shuttered for four years, there remains a feeling of melancholy and resignation within Baltimore’s LGBT community concerning the Club Hippo’s closing its doors for good. Last October 3, the end of a 43-year icon in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon gayborhood became a reality.The popular disco and saloon, which had been a must-see Baltimore destination for LGBT and straight people from all over, closed as owner Charles Bowers decided to retire. The building, which he still owns, has been leased to CVS Health, whose brightly-lit store opened a couple of weeks ago.
Several members of the community expressed nostalgia when it comes to the Hippo but also a feeling of inevitability regarding gay bar closings in general and a concern for the profitability of these establishments.“For me, the departure of the Hippo from My Vernon signaled what I already knew - that the LGBT community was too well established in Baltimore to not be constrained to just one neighborhood. I can feel comfortable by myself or with my LGBT friends anywhere in town,” explains Mara Drummond, a transwoman who points out she began going to the Hippo in 2006 when she first began her transition.
|The grand disco finale on September 25, 2015 Photo: Bob Ford|
“The decline of Mount Vernon as the hub of the LGBT community is both sad and joyous,” she says. “The community has lost some of its self-identity but at the same time has blended comfortably into a much larger community.”Don Davis the owner of Grand Central, which is situated diagonally across from the building where the Hippo had stood, notes the migration of LGBT folks to other areas and also sees the predictability of gay bars closing because the culture is changing.
“It’s sure a different world. So much of the change with the Internet’s hook up sites and apps, gays are now feeling comfortable with hanging out with their straight friends at the straight places,” says Davis, who had been the Hippo’s bar manager for a brief stint in the seventies. “It breaks my heart to see the Hippo of 43 years and 27 other gay bars close in the 30 years that I have been in business.”Davis believes this cultural shift as well as other challenges associated with owning a bar has made such businesses unprofitable. “I am off almost $25,000 from the same period that I had done last year,” Davis states. “And this is with the Hippo closing.”
Shawnna Alexander, a drag personality who had performed at the Hippo on and off for 20 years and a former Miss Hippo, is resigned to the bar’s closing but is still sad when is reminded of it. “It's strange because just as I’m getting over it as everything must change, a Facebook memory will pop up 😞😞and I get a little sad,” Alexander says. “A bigger part of me says it was a smart business move and wish Mr. Bowers nothing but the best.”
|The final last call - 1:40 a.m., October 4, 2015|
Many drag performers launched their careers at the Hippo yet feel the loss of the bar has not impacted them too negatively. Danny Carbo, a former employee and a drag performer who goes by the drag name Pamela de la Cruz, says, “The Hippo was not only my place of employment and favorite spot for a night out, it was also Baltimore’s best drag venue. In the year since its closing, we’ve seen several venues, new and old, step up to keep the party going.”Carbo offers an example. “The standout queen, Brooklyn Heights, has worked tirelessly to keep drag alive in Charm City and has brought new shows to Steampunk Alley, The Depot, and a new drag brunch at Points South Latin Kitchen. Ottobar and The Crown continue to regularly include female illusion in their eclectic events as well.”
Still, Thomas Groves, another former employee, laments the Hippo’s closing. “This past year had been all about going after my goals and dreams in life. The bar’s closing definitely left a hole in the gay community in Baltimore.”He adds, “Without the Hippo the community has had a huge void in somewhere to go and unwind, enjoy a show or just hang with friends.”