Philip J. Burke, 75, bar owner known for his comedy routines

July 16, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Philip J. Burke, whose Maryland Avenue bar was often filled with colorful characters cheered by the owner's ingenious double talk, died Friday of cancer at Kindred Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The West Palm Beach resident was 75.

He had lived previously in Ocean City and in Catonsville.

Mr. Burke owned Phil Burke's Tavern, two blocks from Pennsylvania Station, a popular gathering place in the 1960s and early 1970s. He had earlier tended bar at three of Charles Street's best-known watering holes - the Chesapeake Restaurant, Longfellow's Bar at the Park Plaza and the Harvey House.

After selling his bar in the 1970s, he managed the Sheraton Hotel's lounge in Ocean City. He retired about 10 years ago.

Born in Baltimore and raised in the Park Circle section of Northwest Baltimore, he was a graduate of St. Ambrose Parochial School. He attended Mount St. Joseph High School.

Mr. Burke worked in the Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Fairfield shipyard before joining the Navy. Stationed at Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Cecil County, he often entertained enlisted men with a comic double-talk routine he perfected as a young man.

About 40 years ago, he bought a bar in the 1800 block of Maryland Ave. Sixteen feet wide and 51 feet long, it soon became a scene for practical jokes and comic antics.

In October 1966, after the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, he hired a landscape contractor to sod the floor with grass squares.

"He had a unique ability to cheer you up when you might have been down," said LeRoy E. Hoffberger, a friend for more than 50 years. "He could make you laugh at yourself - forget your cares. He was one of Baltimore's famous, lovable characters."

"He stuttered," Mr. Hoffberger recalled. "He turned it around so he was not on the defensive - he would use his speech to throw you off guard. He was saying gibberish, but his ability to make people laugh was remarkable. You couldn't be down around him. He would address whole groups with his comic discourses on football games."

"Burke is still a legend in this town," Sun columnist Michael Olesker wrote in 1981. "He looked like a combination of Jerry Lester and W.C. Fields, and he'd slip into a double-talk routine that was like listening to a revolving door."

Mr. Burke became the subject of a court trial over the issue of whether couples doing the 1961 dance craze, the Twist, subjected the bar to a federal cabaret tax. Mr. Burke claimed his bar was too small for serious dancing.

In 1972, Judge Alexander Harvey II declared that the Twist was indeed a type of dance and that Mr. Burke was liable for $6,541 in special amusement taxes.

"I run a little downtown pub," Mr. Burke said in federal court. "Most people come in to see me and hear that kind of double talk I do."

"We're not going to have any of that double talk here today, are we?" Judge Harvey asked.

"Oh, no, no," Mr. Burke replied. "I just run a fun place."

A memorial service is being planned.

Mr. Burke is survived by two sons, Donald Burke of West Palm Beach, Fla., and James Burke of Orlando, Fla.; two brothers, Monsignor William F. Burke, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore, and Charles J. Burke of Stoneleigh; a sister, Mary Duffy of Catonsville; and five grandchildren. His wife, Jean Baldwin Burke, died in 1999.

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