Nights of the Sphinx

The Pennsylvania Avenue hot spot, a monument to community spirit, is fading into memory. With fresh information, an unlikely documentarian works to preserve its legend.

April 06, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

The faces in the old 16 mm film flow across the editing screen like visions in a dream. The black-and-white footage has a soft, almost sepia tone. There is no sound, just scenes from a Pennsylvania Avenue club.

For years these movies of Baltimore's Sphinx Club were the stuff of rumor and gossip. People remembered them, but didn't know where to find them. They had disappeared, just like the club that once helped sustain a community.

Jeff Smith, an independent filmmaker, had spent six years trying to make a documentary about the club. It was an on-again, off-again project, a long shot fed by hope. A $7,500 Maryland Humanities Council grant helped him make a five-minute overview, but there was much more to do. Holes in the story needed to be filled. People had to be interviewed before they died.

"There have been times when I've felt, `This is it. This is the end,' " says Smith, 47, who thinks of himself as a "cultural visitor," a white guy delving into black history.

Then last month he found the film, nine canisters tucked away in an old West Baltimore building. Suddenly, the long shot seemed possible. The story was brought to life. Here was black Baltimore in all its fun-loving elegance, men and women laughing together in a shared space. Some reels showed them golfing, riding horses, playing softball in Druid Hill Park against a Washington club.

The story begins in 1941 with one Charles P. Tilghman and his interest in the nightclub business. He had worked in other clubs, but wanted his own place. Using $1,800 given to him by a friend, he took over a liquor license at the run-down Golden Rod Cafe.

By 1946 he decided Baltimore's black community could use a "members only" club. The Golden Rod's location was perfect, bustling Pennsylvania Avenue in Old West Baltimore. Tilghman's place wasn't going to be some bucket-of-blood where the police showed up every weekend. The Sphinx Club was to be reputable, respectable, a good neighbor to St. Peter Claver Catholic Church over on Presstman street.

A line from the club's 15th anniversary yearbook, printed in 1961, sums up the goal: "Simply stated, it was to be the night life in its most elegant and disciplined form."

Men wore coats and ties. Women wore evening dress. In the film footage, everyone has a cigarette or a cocktail. You can imagine a member rushing in out of a rainstorm, smiling and paraphrasing Robert Benchley's line about getting out of the wet clothes and into a dry martini. It was that kind of place.

The yearbook boasts that the club's 8,000 members together earned $30 million a year and bought 1,000 new cars. That may sound elitist and self-congratulatory, but Biddy Wood, a longtime member, says the club's sense of family is what truly made it a remarkable place.

You could get a job lead at the Sphinx, pick up a few votes if you were running for office, share a laugh with Redd Foxx. Even today, obituary notices proudly mention that the deceased once belonged to the Sphinx Club.

Though the club lingered into the early 1990s, its heyday was during the first 20 years after World War II. The veterans came home with a new sense of hope. The G.I. bill opened doors and brought prosperity. The Sphinx Club became their place, attracting professionals and lawyers, such as Judge Robert Watts, one of the first blacks on Baltimore's judicial bench. "Big Daddy" Lipscomb and other Baltimore Colts were regulars.

Places like the Sphinx Club could be found all over America. Washington had Evelyn's Pastel Room. New York City had the Red Rooster. "Back then in segregation you had to know where the stop-off places were," says Wood. "Every city had its clubs."

Over the years, the place became an indispensable part of the neighborhood. And at the center of it all was Charlie Tilghman, reigning impresario and all-around friend. He often dipped into his own pocket to help someone out of a tight spot.

"He bought some cars. He bought some houses. He paid some rents, cleared some debts," says his son, Randy Tilghman, 54.

In the 1961 yearbook, the elder Tilghman wrote: "Opinions of my operation of the Sphinx Club have run the gamut. Labels run from crude, crass, uncouth, susceptible, gullible, dumb and lucky to smartest, most congenial, well liked perfect host, and most understanding `Father' and `Uncle.' To be sure, at one time or another I have displayed all of these characteristics."

Talk to Randy Tilghman about the club and his eyes light up.

"Wherever I go right now, `Hey, Randy Tilghman from the Sphinx Club!' like the club is still around the corner," he says, sitting in the basement of the Lakeview Towers senior citizens home. "People will not let the club die because it meant so much to them."

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