City's social clubs fading Tradition: Even as they vanish, Baltimore's pleasure and social clubs are celebrated for what they have meant to working-class neighborhoods.

January 02, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

On the cusp of the 1950s social revolution stood Margaret Davidson. And the picture before her was quite unsettling.

Her teen-age son and his Highlandtown friends were applying grease to their hair, listening to rock 'n' roll music, fighting in the streets and getting chased by the cops.

"One day I was ironing and the boys were sitting on the front steps," recalls Mrs. Davidson, 86. "The police told them they had to move or get arrested. It was our house! I had to do something."

Thus, the Paradise Pleasure Club was born -- in the Davidson basement on McElderry Street.

An enduring Baltimore-area tradition, pleasure and social clubs have provided tranquil islands for residents of working-class communities for more than a half-century. In rowhouses and storefronts, members have shaped a unique social culture -- together.

Whether at the Loudmouth Pleasure Club in Rosedale, the Dizzy Pleasure Club in Dundalk or dozens of others around the area, members still engage in the same pursuits that their predecessors did when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. They play cards, have a cold beer, quietly assist needy neighborhood families and discuss issues of the day.

"Every Tuesday night, we have homemade bean soup, pigs' feet and fried chicken," says George Wilson, a retired steel worker and first president of the Apollo Social and Democratic Club in East Baltimore. "It's a good night for your wife to be mad at you."

But now, these bastions of the bull roast are vanishing as members age and recruitment slows.

Loyola College sociology Professor Antonia K. Keane calls the pleasure club one of the last vestiges of urban socialization, a neighborhood symbol that is dying.

"We've become more individualistic as a society," she says. "The people in these clubs cherished the values of the common good. We're seeing people today less concerned with the other person."

Keane, a native Baltimorean, takes a bus to the North Baltimore college every day and sees "these ladies wearing windbreakers, 'Lansdowne' on the back. Well, these clubs are the next part of a community, what lies beyond the bus stop."

Informality cherished

Many clubs began informally and members are happy to remain that way.

"We started in a back yard in the 1920s, and just have fun in our private club with a little bar," says Beverly Gottlieb, vice president of the Baltimore Pigeon Fancier's Club in Curtis Bay.

While not enjoying the prominence of their more influential cousins -- veterans, church, fraternal and political organizations -- private pleasure clubs had little bureaucracy. "I've never seen anybody tossed out of a social club," says Edgemere's Doris Plumhoff, who has attended pleasure club parties for four decades.

In the infancy of most clubs, the formula was simple: organize by having enough members for two-handed pinochle and order club jackets. Most jackets were made of corduroy or satiny material, in colors chosen by members.

The jacket carried the organization's name on the back and the member's name above the breast pocket. In some neighborhoods, the wrong colors could invite a severe beating.

"Not too many guys had cars in my group; parents were scraping every penny together to send their kids to Calvert Hall or Mount St. Joseph's," recalls Mike Davidson, Margaret's son. "But we could afford jackets. They were like our gang colors, a symbol of being linked together."

Today, the clubs bear no resemblance to gangs.

"We've calmed down a bit in our 42 years," says Dick Downes, past president of the Omega Club -- named after the brand of watches given people retiring from the Lever Bros. plant. "We used to shoot pool and drink beer; now we take bus trips."

Clubs like the Paradise still have reunions, one in the 1960s a rather memorable and disorderly gathering at which a member "planted" artificial grass on the new oak floor of a banquet hall rented for a "Roman orgy party."

"The evening actually started out wonderfully -- we had wine coming from the fountains, we brought our own pillows -- but it got ugly," recalls Bob Jones, a retired salesman and Paradise member. "The artificial grass stuck to the floor but, fortunately, we settled it [out of court] before it got any more expensive."

Long-ago origins

Some larger organizations -- the Hawks P.C. of Essex, Balco P.C. of North Point and Rossville P.C. -- have thrived for a half-century.

Some, like the Dizzy on Holabird Avenue, fiercely guard their privacy. "We started in 1935, and that's all I'll tell you," President Frank Guido says.

The same policy is in force at the Loudmouth.

But James "Buddy" Mattheu, lifelong member of the Hawks, which has 240 members, is more forthcoming.

"I'll tell you everything," Mattheu says at a meeting hall table with pals Martin "Dutch" Wernsdorfer, Norman Lang and Bernie Herzberg, the club president.

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