Last New Year's Eve at the Club Charles

Baltimore Glimpses

December 29, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

ON New Year's Eve, when the nostalgia can flow like champagne, Baltimoreans who were around in the 1940s and '50s tell stories about the Club Charles.

For a decade, the Club Charles -- the one at Charles and Preston, not the 1990s John Waters favorite "Club Chuck" a few blocks north -- was Baltimore's claim to nightclub fame.

Ordinarily, New Year's Eve at the club was a scene of extravagant New York-style stage shows, complete with big-name stand-up comics (Martin and Lewis), big bands (Ted Lewis), celebrity vocalists (Sophie Tucker) and, of course, funny hats, confetti and noise-makers.

But when the clock struck midnight Dec. 31, 1951, a few people in the Club Charles knew they were saying goodbye to more than the old year; they knew there wasn't much time left for the club. The nightclub business in Baltimore had fallen victim to changing tastes, particularly to the city's attraction to that new entertainment medium, television.

The club would close by spring. Lou Baumel, one of the owners (and now proprietor of the Harvey House), was there that New Year's Eve. He was one of those who knew the Club Charles was on its last legs. So did Sidney Weinberg, the club's accountant, who lives today in retirement in Florida.

The Club Charles had brought to Baltimore the biggest stars in America's entertainment galaxy. But on this New Year's Eve, the fare reflected the hard times. A less-than-famous comedian named Joe E. Ross (he later starred in the TV show "Car 54, Where Are You?") was the headliner. He was backed up by the similarly less-than-famous band of (Baltimorean) Norman Brooks.

There were two shows that night, the first at 7:30, the second, a New Year's Eve spectacular, at 11:30. The cover charge was $25 a person. On the menu (accompanied by appetizer, two vegetables, dessert and coffee): crab imperial ($2.50), Maine lobster ($4.50), 16-ounce steak ($5).

Guests that night were greeted at the curb by a smartly uniformed doorkeeper -- Archie Williams, who doubled as bouncer with his brother Johnny. Once inside, patrons checked their coats and hats with Mary Perry, a fixture in the place who came around later in the evening to take photos. Guests were shepherded to three bars. One was the popular "Punch and Judy," where a puppeteer named Johnny Horn entertained with puppets while patrons partook of the potables.

The show started that night as every show at the club started: The 12-woman June Taylor chorus line came dancing, six to the left, six to the right, down 10 stairs to meet and form one long high-kicking line at center stage.

Then out came Ross himself -- with jokes then making the rounds of New York and Las Vegas. Before his applause died down, the June Taylor "girls" high-kicked their finale and disappeared up the stairs they had descended.

About 90 minutes into 1952, when Ross' last joke had faded into memory and when the June Taylor dancers had disappeared into the dark at the top of the stairs, it was all over.

So, symbolically, was an era in Baltimore, an era of the Coronet, the Blue Mirror, the Chanticleer and, especially, the Club Charles.

Happy New Year from . . .

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