Cy Bloom went back to another war. Half a century ago, the city was filled with kids in uniform and middle-aged parents sending them off to battle, and Cy was giving everybody their last laughs.
It's different now from his day. This time around, the nation sits by television sets as it sends its people off to war. A long time ago, they flooded Cy Bloom's Club Charles and drank to better days, and those who were there say it had the feel of a tipsy party on the last night of the world.
They buried Cy Bloom the other day. His life gave out in his 80th year, but in his days and mostly in his nights, he created a party atmosphere that looked for a while as if it might last forever.
Sophie Tucker would come in and sing to all these kids in uniform, half of them scared out of their minds and the other half caught up in the romance of the moment. Kate Smith did a week and sang "God Bless America" every night. And Milton Berle did his shtick there, and Jan Murray and Louis Prima and Harry Richman, too, and the music and the laughter and the smoky noise would get everybody through the night during nervous times.
Cy got Georgie Jessel to play for nothing, back when almost nobody was bigger than Jessel. And Jerry Lester came in, and Ted Lewis, and all these chorus girls who'd scrounge for a living and save pennies by living four to a room at Herman's Rooming House, St. Paul and Preston streets, and look for some fellow with a few bucks in his pocket to buy them a meal here and there.
The chorus girls helped make it dazzling. The Club Charles had been modeled after New York's Latin Quarter, with staircases coming down from the balcony and all these beautiful girls descending and the crowd going, "Aaah" every night.
Cy Bloom was a man who moved with the generations, who stayed friends through the years with show people like Jackie Gleason and Dick Shawn and Zero Mostel. When the Club Charles closed, he opened places like the Blue Mirror and the Cadillac Lounge and The Place in the Alley until the subway construction obliterated all his business in the alley off Baltimore Street just a decade ago.
Always, though, his story went back to the war years and the Club Charles, and all those nights when you couldn't get into the place without a crowbar.
"Oh, there was nothing in this world like it," Betty Levy Harrison was saying yesterday. She should know. She was one of the Wally Wanger dancers at the Club Charles during the war years, and then she married one of Cy's partners, Moe Levy.
"Cy was such a special person," she said, "and that club was so special. I remember the night Pearl Harbor was bombed. The place was jammed. It was the place to go, because you didn't want to be alone. It was chaotic, and everybody got drunk that night."
She was at the funeral the other day, when people who hadn't seen each other in years gathered to say goodbye.
"If we all would have had a drink in our hands at the funeral," Betty Harrison said wistfully, "it would have been the Club Charles."
"Cy was the richest poor man in Baltimore," his brother-in-law, Bernie Reichman, said yesterday. "He gave to everybody and everything. Guy needed a job, Cy gave him one whether he had an opening or not."
"One girl at his funeral," added Cy's sister, Bea Reichman, "said Cy paid for her honeymoon. Another said he gave her the down payment for her house. He was the most giving person there ever was. And he loved show people."
The names alone evoke several eras of nightclub stars who went on to bigger stuff: The comic Joe E. Lewis became legendary here. He'd just finished 13 weeks in Miami at $5,000 a week, back when $50 a week was a lot. First thing he did was seek out one of Cy Bloom's partners, Tom Shaw, and hit him for a $500 loan.
Sid Caesar played here, and Buddy Hacket and Joey Bishop and Tony Bennett, and later there was a kid comic who did 10 days for $200. His name was Lenny Bruce, and he fell in love with a stripper from The Block named Honey Harlowe, and the whole thing was memorialized years later in the movies.
And there was this skinny kid who played the Club Charles, too, a crazy loon out of Newark, N.J., so young he had to have somebody named Irving, who was a cousin or an uncle, along to chaperon.
Kid's name was Jerry Lewis. He did mostly bip-bip verbal slaps, good-natured insults aimed at people at the bar. Melvin Souder was playing the piano back then, and any time a woman got up for nature's call, Lewis would shriek, "Melvin," and Melvin would play something saucy while a spotlight followed the embarrassed woman all the way to the ladies' room.
When the show was over, Lewis would run over to the Club Chanticleer, where a young singer was working. He'd join the singer on stage, and they'd make up stuff as they went along. The singer's name was Dean Martin. They were inventing an act that became the hottest thing in show business.
Television changed everything for the nightclubs, of course. People stayed home at night and watched entertainment on their sets, the way we now watch portions of a war on our sets. And then downtown itself changed and, for good measure, they threw in the Baltimore subway construction that cut off business altogether for the people like Cy Bloom.
To several generations of Baltimoreans, though, Cy was like the host of a nightly party that stretched across a few decades and sometimes seemed to go on forever.