The night they closed Keith's with Bill Haley

Baltimore Glimpses

July 05, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock,

Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock.

-- From "Rock Around the Clock," popularized by Bill Haley and the Comets, circa 1955.

THE King of Rock and Roll was in town that night to shut down the Queen of Lexington Street. The King was Bill Haley, the Queen, old Keith's Theater, the night, Dec. 3, 1955.

Keith's had been at 114 W. Lexington St. since 1915, and through the years had become a favorite among the downtown theaters. The big bands played there -- Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, Paul Whiteman. On its stage the great Irish tenor Morton Downey sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

The big movies opened there: "The Girl on the Barge," among the very first talkies; "Shane," the first film to be shown on the extra-wide screen.

Keith's opened as the "Garden" with a movie theater downstairs and a ballroom ("Jardin de Danse," known to non-Francophone Baltimore as "Keith's Roof") and was fourth largest among the city's big downtown movie houses, the others being the Hippodrome (which opened in 1914), the Century (1921) and the Stanley (1927). The interior was richly furnished in red and gold damask, with walls of white marble. In 1927 the name was changed to Keith's.

In 1945, television was keeping one-time movie-goers glued to ,, their new sets, and downtown Baltimore was being generally abandoned for the suburbs. By the 1950s, attendance at Keith's (and at all of Baltimore's downtown attractions) was waning.

Which brings us to that night in 1955, and the appearance at Keith's of Bill Haley and the Comets.

Bill Haley came on the scene in the early 1950s. It was said of him that "he came up so fast, he doesn't know what happened to him, like one of his comets." But in helping to bring rock 'n' roll to the world, plenty happened to him -- and to the audiences and theaters and concert halls where he played. The audiences went berserk, clapping and screaming to the ear-shattering twanging of the new music. And many of the theaters and concert halls where Haley played were shut down by the police in mid-performance; Haley's rock 'n' roll was found to be incitement to riot.

The civil government in Barcelona, Spain, canceled all showings; the same was true in West Berlin and in cities throughout the country and the world. By the mid-1950s it was even money that any concert hall where Bill Haley was playing would be closed before the end of the performance.

The movie that long-ago Baltimore night was "Return of Jack Slade," starring John Ericson, and it was about 8:30 when the movie ended and the stage show began. The curtain rose to wild cheering; and there, stage front, were Bill Haley and his Comets, putting out that ear-shattering, twangy, cacophonous, weirdo electric sound that made him and helped make rock 'n' roll famous. An audience of what were known in those days as "bobby soxers" stood on their seats and screamed and cried for more. Haley gave it to them.

At 9:13 p.m. the curtain fell, Bill Haley and the Comets disappeared, and the shouting of the teen-agers faded into the night. It was over. Keith's, which had been entertaining Baltimoreans for 40 years and had seen its glory days turn the gray of a dying downtown, was closed forever. The Century would go on until 1961; the Stanley (Stanton) until 1965 and the Hippodrome until 1989, though a few movies ran at the house after that.

Sometime in the middle of the Haley performance, a member of '' the management asked the rock star how he felt about being the last show to play Keith's. Haley replied, "We've closed a lot of theaters, but this is the first one we've closed for good."

In a sense, though, Haley didn't close Keith's. That was accomplished by those who abandoned downtown.

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