Club Stabile's Owner Hangs Up His Hat

September 13, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

If you wanted to dedicate a song to Christos Dardamanis to commemorate his longtime proprietorship of Club Stabile's, you could pick Willie Nelson's "Night Life" to mark the hours he has spent at the landmark country music nightspot in Highlandtown.

Or, better yet, you could choose the Oak Ridge Boys' "Y'All Come Back Saloon" in recognition of the crowds he has attracted to the bar at 3919 Eastern Ave. year after year with live music and a friendly atmosphere.

After 27 1/2 years, Mr. Dardamanis is selling the place rightfully billed as "Baltimore's home of country music." If he had his way, no one would take much notice of the pending change in ownership.

"I'm a very modest person. I don't want any big bother made," he said on a recent Saturday night in the cluttered room at the rear of the bar that serves as his office.

In a sense, Mr. Dardamanis, a stocky, bearded man who `D immigrated from Greece when he was a young man and has lived just north of Patterson Park for 40 years, argues he's not really going away.

"I'll still be coming in as a customer," he said.

But he says that it's time to move on from the operation of the club he took over in February 1965 and quickly turned into a place that is as much an institution to local country music fans as Haussner's Restaurant, a few blocks away down Eastern Avenue, is to diners.

"I'm 62 years old," he said. "It's got to be too much for me -- the long hours, the weekends that I can't have off, the vacations I can't take."

Patrons and employees of the place are saddened and a little surprised about Mr. Dardamanis' pending departure, which they paint as the end of an era.

"You're kidding!" said Evelyn Fisher, 74, who has been coming in as often as three times a week since shortly after Mr. Dardamanis took over Stabile's. "I hope it doesn't change. I really enjoy coming in here and meeting a lot of friends."

"I'm sad," said Keith Alloway, who has been coming to Stabile's for 16 years, the first dozen as a customer and the last four as the club's weekend doorman. Although Mr. Alloway said crowds have "died off a little" over the years, particularly on weekdays, he said other country bars are just "not the same" as Stabile's. "It's a Baltimore landmark," he said.

Dave Nicely, leader of the 300-seat club's house band, Southern Delight, noted that other clubs switched formats from country to Top 40 to rock-and-roll and back again depending on what was popular, but that "when you said Stabile's, you knew you were going to hear country music."

"Other clubs would close at 11 o'clock if they didn't have any business, but Chris would stay open till the end," Mr. Nicely added. "He'd say, 'If people come to the front door and it's locked, they won't come back.' "

The club's new owner, John W. Barnes, who plans to take over Sept. 20, is aware of Stabile's tradition and expects to make few changes.

"Stabile's is Stabile's," said Mr. Barnes, a contractor from Perry Hall who owns a popular nightclub in Middle River. "That's what you're buying -- the history of the place."

Mr. Dardamanis began ownership of Club Stabile's in a roundabout way -- roundabout the world.

The son of an Athenian police official, he joined the Merchant Marine at the age of 17. Listening to broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry over his ship's shortwave radio during the golden age of country music of the late 1940s and early 1950s, he developed a love of the music.

He settled in Baltimore, one of his ports of call, in 1953 and brought his younger brother Spiro over from Greece seven years later. The two ran a trash-hauling business for several years. But when Stabile's, a neighborhood tavern at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Grundy Street that featured honky-tonk music, came up for sale, the Dardamanis brothers dumped their dump trucks and got into the bar business.

"It was a redneck place," Mr. Dardamanis said of the bar he bought for $17,000. "We started to dig it out. 'You get in a fight here, right or wrong, you're out forever.' Some of them, they calmed down. Some of them, we never let 'em back."

A few months later, he booked Jeannie Shepard, the first of several big-name Nashville acts to play Stabile's. Touring artists who have played Stabile's over the years, a roster ranging from Moe Bandy to Ernest Tubb, are noted by autographed photos on a wall of fame across from the club's oval bar.

Mr. Dardamanis, who has run Stabile's by himself since Spiro died of cancer in 1980, has a favorite memory. He pulls out a perfectly preserved ticket for a show by Loretta Lynn on July 27, 1968. The ticket price is $3, a fact that launches Mr. Dardamanis on one of his few peeves: the cost of today's live entertainment, driven sky-high by the growing popularity of country music.

"She was the queen of country music at the time, and Stabile's could afford her," he said. "Now you have someone come in like Billy Ray Cyrus who has one song [the chart-topping 'Achy Breaky Heart'] and he wants $50,000 a night. And he can't even sing a song in a bucket."

Now that he is getting out of the business, he can shamelessly suggest that entertainers who have made it big set aside 10 days a year to play smaller clubs like Stabile's as a way "to promote country music."

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