High-powered deli clients jam funeral

January 25, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The man who served up thick sandwiches and good conversation was remembered yesterday by the people who filled his restaurant for decades and made him an Annapolis institution.

More than 600 people -- from politicians to boyhood friends -- gathered at a Baltimore funeral home to remember Charles A. "Chick" Levitt, owner of Chick & Ruth's Delly on Main Street. Mr. Levitt, who was 67, died of a heart attack during the weekend.

In a city where strip malls and shopping centers increasingly are the rule, Mr. Levitt was one reason Chick & Ruth's remained a local landmark. Seven days a week he could be found standing behind the cash register -- a great perch from which to identify regulars who walked through the front door.

Mr. Levitt gave preference to former governors and politicians, gabbing with them as he served up vanilla fudge milkshakes and foot-long chili dogs. Mr. Levitt named sandwiches in their honor, told them risque jokes and won their attention faster than any lobbyist.

"With him, you could be yourself," said Melvin Luterman, the cantor who led the memorial service at Sol Levinson and Bros. "This was probably the best test of a friend."

Yesterday, several of Mr. Levitt's high-powered friends and customers waited in a line that stretched out the door to get a seat at the funeral.

"He was a good man," said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer as he walked out of the funeral home by himself, no entourage in sight. "He was a good political man."

With Mr. Levitt behind the counter, politics were as much a part of eating at Chick & Ruth's as food.

Mr. Levitt liked to showcase his most famous customers. Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was in Florida and could not attend the funeral, had his own booth cordoned off with velvet rope.

Former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg -- whose namesake sandwich remains on the menu -- said more people related to Mr. Levitt's restaurant than to much of the state's politics going on just up the street.

When the Jewish Times ran a five-page spread on Mr. Steinberg's nomination to be president of the state Senate, one line got a rise out of readers:

"It was the stuff about my sandwich," Mr. Steinberg said. The original sandwich was corned beef, pastrami and cheese. "All everyone could say to me was, 'Melvin, you got to have a sandwich with meat and cheese? It's not kosher.' "

So Mr. Levitt and Mr. Steinberg conspired to create a new dish the politician didn't even like -- roast brisket of beef on rye -- but that didn't violate Jewish law.

TH "I never ate it," Mr. Steinberg said. "But it was great for my ego."

7-day workweek

Mr. Levitt and his wife, the former Ruth H. Cohen, opened Chick & Ruth's Delly in 1965. After her death in 1986, Mr. Levitt consoled himself by working seven days a week. But he never recovered from the loss.

"If you ever asked Chick, 'How long were you married to Ruth?' he'd always say, 'I still am,' " said Mr. Luterman, the cantor.

"He was very busy, and he would think of her, but he couldn't picture her face when he was at the deli because there were too many people around," Mr. Levitt's daughter, Natalie Goldstein, said during the funeral service. "You would think at night he would be sad, but he loved it then because he could picture her."

Mr. Levitt's son, Ted, works at the deli and will continue to run business. Ted Levitt said there was nothing his father wouldn't do for his wife, three children and seven grandchildren.

The younger Mr. Levitt drove his father to the all-night restaurant every morning, when they would begin the day shift.

"He would always play 'The Wind Beneath My Wings,' " Ted Levitt said. "He just took the wind out of my wings."

In the audience yesterday were the long-time employees who said the Pledge of Allegiance with him every morning at 8:30 and scores of friends who knew him since his boyhood in East Baltimore.

An 11-year-old Chick Levitt used to play baseball with Louis Greenberg on Baltimore Street near Central Avenue.

The fair-skinned Chick loved the outfield, but his mother was worried he'd get sunburned so she cut two eye holes in a flour sack and made him wear it over his head, Mr. Greenberg recalled.

"Every time there was a pop fly, you'd see Chick, whipping off that sack and running to catch the ball," said Mr. Greenberg as he waited for a seat at the services. "He was quick as lightning."

Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Levitt had just rekindled their friendship after losing touch for half a century.

Sign on the door

Outside Chick & Ruth's this week, a sign posted on the front door told of Mr. Levitt's death. Maryland Vigilante, who eats at Chick & Ruth's almost every night, read and reread the note for several minutes.

She was planning on eating a Monday night special -- ham steak, glass of wine, French fries for $5.95 -- and then walking back to her apartment at Timothy House, a local senior housing development.

Ms. Vigilante, who has eaten at Chick & Ruth's for 30 years, said she thinks the restaurant's tradition will go on. She only wishes Mr. Levitt were there.

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