May 11, 2015 at 11:22 am EDT | by Steve Charing
Last dance for Baltimore’s Hippo
Club Hippo, Baltimore, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

Baltimore’s Hippo nightclub is expected to close sometime after summer.(Washington Blade file photo by Pete Exis)

The Club Hippo, one of Baltimore’s oldest and most iconic LGBT institutions, is poised to close its doors after 43 years.

As confirmed at a meeting with employees on May 9, Hippo owner Chuck Bowers has negotiated to convert the building at the southwest corner of Charles and Eager streets into a CVS store.

The negotiations between CVS and Bowers began early in 2014. Under the arrangement, Bowers will retain ownership of the building and lease it to CVS. There is no date set for the anticipated last dance, but it will likely take place sometime after the summer at the earliest.

Upon completion of the deal with CVS, it would mean an end of an era for an establishment seen by many as the epicenter of Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.” Recently, that area has also been jolted by the closing of Jays on Read, a piano bar that had a loyal LGBT following and Comprehensive Car Care, a long-time staple on Eager Street.

The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972, is home to one of the largest dance floors of any club in the state. During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with huge crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious rectangular floor bathed in glimmering, colorful lights. As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music and the Hippo kept up.

The club also features a popular video bar where karaoke and weekly show tunes video presentations are held and a saloon area that was renovated several years ago. Those renovations dispensed with the two pool tables near the bar’s large glass windows and added more seating at tables within the saloon.

Through the years, the Hippo, whose motto is “Where everyone is welcome,” hosted such extravaganzas as the Miss Gay Maryland pageants and Mr. Maryland Leather contests as well as Twelve Days of Christmas, an annual affair that benefits local non-profit organizations. The Hippo had also served as the venue for Gay Bingo—a weekly event in which non-profit organizations shared in the proceeds. To broaden its appeal, the Hippo has held weekly hip-hop nights the past few years.

There have been numerous specialty events held at the Hippo with well-known DJs and drag performers entertaining the masses. Many of those individuals began their drag careers at the Hippo.

The club’s Halloween celebrations are legendary, showcasing the community’s creativity, and the Hippo’s annual New Year’s Eve gala has always been a popular stop that attracted local celebrities—LGBT and straight—to the club.

The Hippo hosted fundraising events throughout the referendum battle in 2012 in an effort to secure marriage equality. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who appeared at some of those events, customarily spends her birthday at the Hippo for one of the charitable bingo nights.

Bowers, who recently turned 70, has donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, primarily to Baltimore Pride and its sponsor, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland. The Hippo has been one of the focal points for the annual Pride block parties along Eager Street.

In addition, he has allowed other organizations to hold fundraising events at the club. Early in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first to help raise money to fight the disease.

There has been a decline in gay bar patronage over the past few years for a variety of reasons, and the Hippo was impacted by that trend as well. Nonetheless, many folks in and out of Baltimore’s LGBT communities view the Hippo as more than just a bar. It was a popular go-to destination for visitors who discovered Baltimore as a gay-friendly city.

To others, it meant much more. “The Hippo is an anchor of LGBT openness in Baltimore,” Tree Turtle, a Baltimore resident, told the Blade. “It routinely brings together a broad cross-section of Baltimore of all colors and creeds. Regardless of the progress of LGBT human rights, regardless of the mainstreaming of queer people, and no matter how tough the economic climate is, we still need community havens. We still need people to love us for our difference. Yes: we are both same and different.”

She added, “Where would we be but for the openness and distinctiveness of the leather daddies, the drag queens, and the drag kings? That’s why we need to be accepted for our work as well as our play. That’s why we need the Hippo, the Baltimore Eagle, the GLCCB, and all LGBT refuges in Baltimore.”

A person identified as 1/619K commented on Baltimore Brew, an online news journal, “With The Hippo’s presence on Baltimore’s major artery, straight Baltimore has had a slice of gay life mainstreamed into their everyday experience for 40 years. Early on, that really mattered. Chuck Bowers’ vision and tenacity created something groundbreaking and important. Gutting it for a CVS just doesn’t seem fitting.”

As for Bowers, there is much nostalgia.

“When I come into the bar on a daily basis it’s quiet, no one is here yet. I walk through the building and look around. I hear the music, I see the lights, I hear the glasses clinking and then I stop,” he said in a statement.

“And then I see the people whom I have met over the years.  This is to me, the most valuable asset this club provided me.  Their laughter, their smiles and more importantly their friendship over these years. I want each and every one of you to know how much you have meant to me and for your ongoing support and friendship that has encouraged me to keep the club open for you.”

  • Wow what memories I had their in the 80’s and then attending the charity events there as well as the drag shows. Its a memory I will cherish always. Thanks Chuck

  • I was at Jay’s on Read less than two weeks ago. Are we sure it’s closed?

  • To lose the Hippos to a pharma-chain like CVS feels like sacrilege. Shame on you, Chuck! Maybe I’m like the orangutans who are wary of changes in their cages (to mis-qoute Paul Simon), but I feel like first, losing Jay’s, and then having the Hippo become a drug-cum-unnecessary-plastic-items store bodes ill for the Mount Vernon area in particular, and Baltimore’s LGBT community in general.

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