September 30, 2015 at 3:54 pm EDT | by Steve Charing
Hippo’s last call
Club Hippo, gay news, Washington Blade

Club Hippo (Photo by Bob Ford)

An enthusiastic throng amasses just prior to the 9 p.m. opening of the Club Hippo’s dance side for what is billed as “The Grand Finale Dance” on Sept. 26. The first dancers hit the floor almost immediately and a half hour later, the dance floor is crammed as Rick Astley’s “Together Forever” plays. At 12:40 a.m., Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” mix plays to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd with an hour still left to go.

DJ Farrell Maddox, who first worked at the Hippo in the mid-1980s and then returned in 1997, says, “I want the final moment to be energetic and exciting. That is how I want people to remember the Hippo.”

Maddox had myriad choices for the final song at closing but he settles on the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” following a brief tribute to Hippo owner Charles E. “Chuck” Bowers.

Describing Bowers as a good friend, Maddox is touched and honored when he chose him to deejay the grand finale event. He saluted the venerable Hippo’s past with eclectic music spanning five decades. At its conclusion, the patrons cheer and hug.

After 43 years as a focal point of Baltimore’s LGBT community, a series of “last” events that stretched out over the Hippo’s final days — last bingo, last hip-hop night, last women’s night, last dance party and last drag show — lowered the curtain on Baltimore’s largest and most celebrated gay bar. These special occasions on the dance side afforded opportunities for people to bid their final farewells. The saloon and karaoke areas will close on Saturday, Oct. 3.

To the dismay and disappointment of many in the community, the building is being leased to CVS Health as Bowers, 70, is retiring. On this night, the multi-generational patrons and the employees reflected the paradoxical mood: celebratory yet somber with many in denial about the beloved club’s fate.

The Hippo, which opened on July 7, 1972, was founded by Kenny Elbert and Don Endbinder and featured one of the largest dance floors in the state, a saloon and a video/karaoke bar. During disco’s heyday, the Hippo flourished with packed crowds dancing to the beats of vintage and newer disco hits on its spacious, sunken, rectangular floor with an overhead disco ball, bathed in glimmering, colorful lights and fog effects. Many of the disco divas performed live throughout the ‘80s.

As musical tastes changed in succeeding years, so did the music and the Hippo’s deejays kept up. DJ Rosie Hicks, who played the music on hip-hop night on Thursdays, says, “As a DJ at Club Hippo for 11-and-a-half years, I know firsthand that losing this venue is an emotional blow to many of us in the community. So many memories have been made inside those walls, and despite our gratitude to Chuck for sharing it with us for so long, we will all miss it terribly.”

For some, the Hippo was a life changer. Paul Hummel, the karaoke host from 2010 to 2012 as well as a customer, says, “It was the happiest job I’ve ever had. It’s where I went when I first came out. It’s where I learned to be comfortable and proud to be me. It’s where I met the love of my life. If any one place sums up my gay experience, it will always be the Hippo. That place changed my life.”

The club’s historic significance was also remembered.

“The Hippo is the only bar in Baltimore that gave space and support events as varied as lesbian musical theater, drag pageants, leather contests, fundraisers for LGBT organizations, AIDS service providers, Pride festivals and the Baltimore Justice Campaign’s civil rights triumphs,” says Louise Parker Kelley, author of the recently released pictorial chronicle “LGBT Baltimore.”

Indeed, Bowers, who bought the Hippo in 1978 and the building itself in 2005, donated sizable amounts of money to LGBT non-profits, and he allowed other organizations, such as Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, to hold fundraising events at the club. Early in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began, Bowers was one of the first in Baltimore to help raise money to fight the disease.

Operating under the motto, “Where Everyone is Welcome,” the Hippo’s major draw was that of a social and entertainment venue, which was enjoyed by tens of thousands of people — gay and straight — including fans of drag and leather. Numerous contests and pageants were held there; its closing elicits profound sadness but fond memories.

“I’m very sad to see it closing and very happy I wasn’t born yesterday and had missed the chance to experience being part of an era that was great in Baltimore City,” says drag performer and comedian Shawnna Alexander, who was Miss Hippo 2014 and performed on the Hippo’s stage at various times for more than 20 years.

Paul Liller, a.k.a. Dimitria Blackwell, Miss Hippo 2015, found the Hippo to be an integral part of his life’s journey.

“Never would I imagine that I would eventually become not only a Miss Hippo, but the last one ever,” Liller says. “As the doors close, I feel like a part of me will be left inside those walls. Fortunately, I walk away with memories that will last a lifetime and a love for a place I was lucky enough to call home.”

Members of the leather community expressed gratitude for the many events that took place at the Hippo but noted the benefits were enjoyed beyond that community. “By allowing the leather community to hold events like Mr. Maryland and the 12 Day of Christmas, the Hippo had a hand in helping to raise thousands of dollars for charity,” says Greg King, Mr. Maryland Leather 2015. “Chuck Bowers has left a legacy.”

Nearby businesses and even competitors recognize the impact the Hippo had as it was the primary destination in Mount Vernon’s “gayborhood.” Don Davis, owner of Grand Central, which is located diagonally across from the Hippo, acknowledges that he and Bowers may have had their differences over the years, but says, “We have always been there with support of each other.”

Davis praised the way Bowers ran the club. “Chuck has always operated a first-class business and his heart has always been there for everyone. He has had the most loyal staff and customers; so many who have been there since the beginning.”

To honor Bowers and the Hippo, city officials recently named the intersection of Charles and Eager Streets where the Hippo is located, “Chuck Bowers Way.”

“The closing of the Hippo is like the closing of a spectacular Broadway show,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says to the Blade. “The performers take their last bow, the curtain comes down, and the audience departs. Thanks Chuck Bowers, staff members and patrons for making this iconic venue such a vibrant part of Baltimore’s rich history.”

In reflecting on those decades, Bowers is gripped with emotion.

“For 37 years this has been my home, it’s been my family,” he says. “Now that the Hippo is closing it has been an extremely emotional time for me because of all the friendships I’ve made here over these many years. I will miss this place.”

Club Hippo, gay news, Washington Blade

Club Hippo (Photo by Bob Ford)

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