Charles A. Gibney Jr., 84, leader of big band, detective, beer salesman

September 17, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Charles Albert Gibney Jr., who made his name around the city leading big bands and selling beer for area breweries, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his Lutherville home. He was 84.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Gibney grew up in Waverly and graduated in 1926 from Polytechnic Institute, where he learned the trombone and played in the school band.

After high school, Mr. Gibney formed a 13-piece orchestra. During the Depression, the Charlie Gibney Orchestra packed some of the hottest clubs and ballrooms in Baltimore, including the Alcazar, Stage Door Casino, Emerson Hotel and Dixie Ballroom.

"For me, just standing in front of that band and feeling its power," Mr. Gibney told The Sun last year. "Oh, my. It put you on top of the world."

But running a big band during the Depression wasn't easy. Sometimes the group traveled to a booking but wouldn't get paid. So Mr. Gibney and his band mates often resorted to ingenuity to get by -- such as asking for a cup of hot water at a diner, and then dumping in some ketchup. "That's how you made yourself tomato soup," Mr. Gibney said.

At a booking near the Kellogg cereal factory in Battle Creek, Mich., he and the band made sure to take the tour each morning -- to get the free samples. Eventually, the tour operators caught on and told them they had seen enough of the factory.

Looking for steadier income, Mr. Gibney launched a new career in the 1940s as a private detective. But he quickly learned that honest detectives didn't always make much.

"So you worked angles," he once recalled. "Say if you were hired to watch a guy's wife, you'd sell the information to her, instead of her husband."

At the old Sears store at Harford Road and North Avenue, Mr. Gibney was given a memorable Christmas season assignment: stake out the store Santa Claus, who was suspected of stealing money from the children on his lap. Sure enough, Mr. Gibney saw Santa slipping coins into his long black boots and had him arrested.

Another assignment was at the old Montgomery Ward on Monroe Street, which hired Mr. Gibney to work undercover to prevent employee theft. Dorothy Ricketts was cosmetics department manager at the store.

The two married in 1944. She survives him.

Mr. Gibney grew to dislike life as a private investigator.

"Once he had to arrest a little old lady who was stealing things for her children," said a daughter, Patricia D. Badore of Timonium. "He was a very compassionate man. He told my sister that he had to do some things that he really didn't like."

In 1945, Mr. Gibney began the third and final career as a beer salesman. Until his retirement in 1985, he worked for National Brewing Co., Gunther Brewing Co., Carling Brewing Co. and several area distributors, including the one that supplied the city with Budweiser.

"We all called him `Mr. Budweiser,'" said Louis J. Grasmick, owner of Grasmick Lumber Co. and a longtime friend.

Mr. Grasmick said his friend often used his industry connections for civic and charity benefits in the city.

"He was the first person to bring the [Anheuser-Busch] Clydesdales to Baltimore," said Mr. Grasmick.

Through his civic and business work, Mr. Gibney met many celebrities and athletes -- and eventually counted among his friends former Colts Johnny Unitas and Art Donovan.

"He was a very decent guy that people really gravitated toward," Mr. Grasmick said.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity, 20 E. Ridgely Road, Timonium.

Mr. Gibney also is survived by another daughter, Gail D. McGlinn of Lutherville; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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