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A Bar With a View

Unflappable Esther Martin Has Run the Club Charles Since 1951. Who Better to Tell of Her Block's Boom, Bust, and Possible Rebirth?

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Esther Martin was a fixture on Baltimore's nightlife scene when she opened the Wigwam, the precursor to today's Club Charles, in 1951
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/16/2000

"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn."
-- Samuel Johnson

It's the sprawling, penciled scrawl of a young sailor. A lonely sailor. A serviceman on the eve of shipping out to an uncertain fate in the Pacific waters of World War II.

"To a swell girl," he writes, "I'll remember you always and hope we meet again soon--real soon. Your tops, Hun, I only wish I could spend more time with you. Please think about 'Pinky.' "

Esther Martin squints down at the message and the accompanying black-and-white photo, now turning sepia with age. It shows a radiant young girl with a Colgate smile and brunette tresses tumbling over her shoulders. This much she recognizes--it's herself, 55-odd years ago when she was barmaid at the Band Box, a nightclub that once enlivened the 1300 block of North Charles Street. Across the bar from young Esther perches a grinning, fresh-faced seaman in dark sailor suit and neckerchief.

Martin squints a little more. Then a smile creeps across her face. "Well, I don't remember Pinky," she says, lifting her eyes and emitting a chuckle. "There were a lot of sailors around in those days."

"Those days" were the 1940s and early '50s, the golden age of Baltimore nightlife, when Mobtown rocked after dark: in nightclubs, cocktail lounges, cabaret. A time that lives on only in Esther's fading memories and the stack of fading, dog-eared souvenir-photo frames and menus now arrayed before her. Ghosts of good times past, emblazoned with long-gone names: the Chanticleer ("America's smartest theater-lounge"); the Pan American Casino ("Baltimore's only Spanish nite club"); Hennessy's Band Box ("Baltimore's most intimate night spot"). Martin as pretty young brunette figures in many of the photos. There she is sitting with another sailor. There she is beaming a like Cheshire cat beside an alto-sax player with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

"I worked them all," she says. "I was a hatcheck girl, barmaid, and a waitress."

A little gray has creeped into Martin's dark locks, but she doesn't look her age, whatever that is. ("You're not going to put that in the paper," she says succinctly. End of discussion.)

But of all the Baltimore nightclubs where she mixed martinis and Manhattans, she's worked the longest at her own place, a bar she bought back in 1951 on the 1700 block of North Charles Street, across from what was then the Times Theatre. Today we call the movie house the Charles Theatre, and her bar the Club Charles.

Martin is largely retired these days; her daughter Joy pretty much runs the show. She was coaxed back to the club this evening by the prospect of sharing her tales with a reporter. It's early on a weekday evening, and the club is quiet. The lone bartender dutifully fills a plastic tub with sliced limes. Occasionally one of the handful of customers punches in a selection on the Wurlitzer CD jukebox. Come the weekend, a boisterous, largely twentysomething crowd will pack the place, smoking Camel Lights and downing Rolling Rocks. Few realize the bar dates back to the Truman presidency, or that its feisty founder was once in the center of the city's halcyon high-life days.

Martin has seen a lot though her bar's front window. She remembers when a large bowling alley resided across the street, one whose lanes were open until the wee hours to accommodate shift workers. There were "friendship dances" at the Famous Ballroom next to the alley, Stan Kenton blasting out the rhythms for a floor full of dapper couples. And the Chesapeake Restaurant, once one of the snazziest restaurants in the city, known for crab imperial and char-broiled steaks, the place Bob Hope liked to dine when in town. ("Cut your steak with a fork, or else tear up your check and walk out," its proprietors boasted.)

But Baltimore's war-boosted economy eventually began to fade. The Jones Falls Expressway went through through a block to the south, helping shuttle people to a life beyond the city line. Then Baltimore's painful integration process erupted into riots. By the '70s, the venerable Chesapeake shared the stretch with a seedy bookstore offering 25-cent peep shows. The small hotels that catered to Penn Station train travelers became flophouses for the destitute. By 1980, Martin's own bar--then called the Wigwam--was viewed as a wino-drawing menace by neighborhood activists aspiring to clean up this stretch.

And now? Things seem to be rebounding on the 1700 block and its environs: a new live theater, an expanded Charles Theatre, new restaurants, new life. Martin sees this too.

"They kept telling me, 'This area is going to come back, this area is going come back,' " she says. "Well, I'm still waiting and watching." Call it guarded optimism--just the sort of response you'd expect from a women who has, quite literally, seen it all.

Esther Martin's saga begins far from Baltimore's bright lights and bar rails. Martin is Native American, or mostly so. Her father was born in what was still called "Indian Territory"--by the time she was born, it was called Oklahoma. She came to Baltimore in 1940 to study nursing at Johns Hopkins University but was soon diverted by the allure of the clubs. She worked first at places in Dundalk; one, the Airport Grill, catered to the China Clippers that landed nearby. These giant seaplanes, built by the Glenn L. Martin Co. out at Middle River, ushered in the era of air travel. Flying then was still a romantic adventure.

"We'd get all the pilots and travelers coming into the place," Esther Martin says. One of the clipper pilots took a real shine to the dark-eyed Oklahoman. He wanted to marry her. Martin emits another hearty laugh as she tells how her then-boyfriend "kidnapped" her and took her to Baltimore. Once downtown, she found work as a hatcheck girl at the Club Charles--the original Club Charles, at Charles and Preston streets--checking fedoras and Homburgs for pocket-change tips. It was a big, swanky supper club with a spotlit stage that hosted everyone from Dean Martin to Jackie Gleason to Lenny Bruce.

"People got dressed up back then," she says, slapping the table for emphasis. "Oh my god, they got dressed up--cocktail dresses and such. You had to look sharp to go out. Nobody wore jeans. I was probably the only one who wore pants."

Martin moved on to other night spots, moving up the employee hierarchy to where the better money was. While working at the 21 Club--later called the Copa, located where the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre stands today--Ella Fitzgerald asked Martin if she'd look after the star's fur.

"You're damn right I kept an eye on it," she says. "It was a mink. I didn't take my eyes off it go the bathroom."

Fitzgerald was friendly. But when the vocal group the Ink Spots played the 21, Martin noticed they disappeared downstairs right after their set, not pausing to meet folks and sign autographs.

"I asked Sam Adams, who cleaned up around the place, what was going on downstairs," she says. "He said, 'Whoop, I got's them!' 'Sam,' I said, 'are you shooting craps with the Ink Spots?' Well, he was. He even sent one of them home for more money."

So many glamorous nightclubs. So many chances to rub shoulders with celebrities. "Billie Holiday was as wonderful lady--I loved her," Martin says, and she calls Joe DiMaggio "a friend."

In 1951, with a decade of club experience under her belt, it was time to venture out on her own. She bought Charles Seafood, a bar and restaurant at 1724 N. Charles St. A bar stretched along the south side of the first-floor room (the same bar that's there now); an upper room had paper-covered tables for eating hard-shells.

"We left it Charles Seafood for a long time," Martin says. "But everybody started calling it the Wigwam because we were part Indian. The customers, they named the place." (Martin says she never encountered much prejudice over her Native American origins. She just shrugged it off when it happened--"It's just ignorance, you know.")

She adopted the Wigwam moniker with gusto, lining the walls with paintings of Oklahoma chiefs and hanging a tepee-shaped sign out front advertising GRUB AND FIRE WATER. It was a tidy little spot for a bar. The streetcar forever rattled past, and New York trains pulled into nearby Penn Station every hour. Dancers from the Famous Ballroom, along with a stray big-band leader or two, came over to Wigwam to wet their whistles. (Later, when the Left Bank Jazz Society started holding jazz shows in the Famous, it wasn't unusual for Dexter Gordon or Dizzy Gillespie to slide over to Martin's bar for a pre- or post-show bracer.)

But as the years wore on and the Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett 45s spun away on the Wigwam's jukebox, Baltimore itself began spinning downward. And Martin's block was not immune.

The bar's neighborhood is officially known as Charles North, but by the late '70s the old nightlife district had acquired another moniker: the hole in the doughnut.

Public-relations man/real-estate developer Alan Shecter may have been the first to employ the metaphor. The stretch was a black hole of inactivity surrounded by burgeoning action in Mount Vernon and Charles Village, neighborhoods where the back-to-the-city/ gentrification/urban-renewal movement was taking hold and bearing fruit.

Shecter's family has deep roots in the block, having acquired most the properties on the east side of the strip back in the '30s. The Charles Theatre, the former bowling alley, the ballroom--everything save the Chesapeake Restaurant--is owned by the family firm Bowling Inc., of which Shecter is vice president. Indeed, his father founded the Famous Ballroom back in 1947.

"He tried to replicate the old Roseland Ballroom in New York during the era of ballroom dancing--when men held the woman when they danced," Shecter says of the Famous (which, like the adjacent theater, was carved out of an erstwhile trolley-car barn).

But now the block was in a tailspin, with businesses closing or moving on. Shecter had assets to protect--and, if possible, money to make on a revival. In 1979, when the Charles Theatre went dark, Shecter took a major step toward changing the character of the block. He brought in a Washington, D.C.-based company to reopen the first-run movie theater as an art house.

"A renaissance was happening all around us, but the city was ignoring [this stretch]," Shecter says. "But we believed in the block."

But then there was the Wigwam. If the 1700 block was the "hole in the doughnut," many viewed Martin's bar as the hole in the middle of the hole. The Wigwam of this era wasn't about cocktail dresses, mink wraps, and Dean Martin in a dinner jacket. " 'Winos' and 'undesirables'--I don't want to use those words," Shecter says. "But there was a history of alcoholics connected in some way with the Wigwam."

Not everyone was down on Martin's bar. John Waters had just recently finished his 1977 film Desperate Living when he discovered the Wigwam. Friend Pat Moran (who now does casting for his films) was managing the Charles Theatre; together they were lured into the Wigwam because of its reputation as one of the scariest bars in Baltimore.

"As much as I love the Club Charles--which is still my favorite bar in the whole country--it was even better when it was the Wigwam," Waters says in a phone interview. "How can you top this: I saw a man bite off another man's nose in there."

Martin has mellowed some with age, but she still occasionally displays what Waters calls a "cheerfully foul mouth," the by-product of a life in the saloon trade. And she emits a stinging string of blue words when discussing this troubled time, when it seemed the whole world was coming down on her little bar. And it was her bar; while Martin eventually married one of those sailors, with the time he spent at sea and, later, operating an electronics business, she was largely left to run the Wigwam herself. And run it she did. Back in the day, this pint-size lady wouldn't hesitate to kick a 200-pound drunk to the curb. ("Oh, I had to do that many times," she says, with perfect nonchalance.) For years, there was small sign tacked behind the bar that distilled the owner's reputation: BEWARE OF ESTHER.

"She's my heroine," Waters says, "a great, great lady who was a huge influence on me and remains one of few people I'm still in awe of. She ran the place with an iron fist. If she liked you, she could be wonderful. And if she didn't like you . . . you almost had to get out of town."

A City Paper reporter penetrated the Wigwam's murky netherworld in 1981. Warming the stools on the reporter's visit was Henry, a blind man who sold papers at the train station; Don, "a weather-beaten" fellow missing fingers on both hands; and Dave, who hobbled about on crutches, his left leg having been amputated at the thigh. Essentially, the place catered to men--the clientele was mostly male--that the world and/or time had forgotten: racetrack touts, soldiers who had seen too much, sporting types long gone to seed, garrulous geriatrics lamenting the faded era of nickel beer and rye shots. Most were quite harmless. Many liked to drink.

"A lot of them were good guys," Martin asserts. "Many of them [were] ex-servicemen that needed some help--veterans who couldn't get straightened out. You couldn't just throw them away, they were people. They're who won the war. Hell, they all had medals."

One somewhat damaged Wigwam regular, Martin recalls with a cackle, liked to boast that he was a 10-star general. "We loved him," she says. "In fact, his ashes are downstairs."

Then, as now, a buzzer was rung to gain entrance to the bar.

"It was the opposite of Studio 54," Waters says. "You only got in if you were scary--and maybe if Esther had control of your soul. It was Esther's world in there."

The hat-checker to the stars had become den mother to the dispossessed. She looked after her otherwise friendless patrons--driving the old soldiers to the Veterans Administration hospital, making sure they took their meds and such. When she was hauled down to the city liquor board in 1980, charged with disturbing the peace and serving drunks, the panel's chairman admitted as much: "You have a big heart," he told Martin, "and are trying to help these people . . . but you're creating a problem for the society."

The "society" troubled by Martin's men consisted primarily of an urban-renewal-driven community group, the Penn Station-North Avenue-Charles Street Planning Council, whose most active members were Shecter and David Goldbloom, who ran a since-closed clothing store at Charles and North. Martin posits with full salty-tongued bravado that Shecter was turning up the regulatory heat in order to force her out and nab the bar's liquor license for himself (a charge Shecter denies). In any event, the Wigwam didn't seem long for world.

But Esther Martin could see change through her window. There was new blood on the block: An arty young crowd drawn to the Charles Theatre and, later, the Aurora Theatre (around the corner on North Avenue), which also screened art flicks. In the last days of 1981, Martin bought her building (previously she only owned the business and leased the space) and transformed the Wigwam, last stop for the down-and-out set, into the Club Charles, must-stop for the bohemian smart set.

She reached back into Baltimore's days of nightlife past for more than just the name--the interior is a study in retro chic, dominated by a massive art-deco mural from a Brooklyn, N.Y., movie theater.

"Esther did the right thing," Waters says. "She changed it from the scariest bar in Baltimore into the coolest."

Even nemesis Shecter was impressed. "To their credit, they realized that it was more profitable to reinvent themselves," he says. "I'm very happy with how it turned out."

On a dank January morning, a crowd gathers at the Charles Theatre--not to watch a movie, but to vent some anger. A host of area business owners are here. So are the police and City Council President Sheila Dixon. Esther Martin isn't on hand, but her daughter Joy is. (And, as one Club Charles bartender puts it, "Joy is very much Esther's daughter.") The topic for discussion: the 1700 block of North Charles. And the chatter isn't always very friendly.

The business owners scream for a greater police presence. The police shoot back that they don't have the manpower--besides, crime is actually down 18 percent in the area over the last two years. The merchants gripe about grime, complain about parking, blast the parking-lot owners they contend use vacant blacktop for tow traps.

If the voices are sometimes shrill, it's probably because there's more at stake along the 1700 block these days. The block hasn't quite returned to the bustle of Esther Martin's heyday, but it's certainly trying. The Famous Ballroom is gone, replaced in April 1999 with four new screens for an expanded and revamped Charles Theatre. Next door, where the walls once echoed with the clatter of flying bowling pins, one now hears the words of Tennessee Williams and Nöel Coward--the Everyman Theatre has been presenting acclaimed live theater in the former alley since 1994. The Martins have also been busy. Aiming to tap the swelling theater crowds, two years ago they converted a burned-out former business next to the Club Charles into the Zodiac Restaurant, with a retro interior dominated by a period mural (again, from a New York movie theater) and an art-moderne bar salvaged from Charles Village's old Merendino's Restaurant, torn down in the '80s. (Joy Martin bought the antique bar off the back of a dump-bound city truck.) Inside the Charles Theatre complex, hammers are banging away on the site where prolific restaurateurs Spike and Charlie Gjerde are adding another bistro to the their culinary empire. The Depot, a small dance club that was all the rage in '80s, is open again too.

But the slew of new developments are up against the same old urban problems. Crime is down, but unsavory perceptions of the neighborhood linger. "It's just hard to get people to come into the city," Charles Theatre co-owner Buzz Cusack says. He recounts a telling recent incident: While browsing in a music store, he overheard someone explaining that they don't go the Charles Theatre anymore because their car was broken into on their last visit. Without identifying himself, Cusack asked about the incident and was told it happened 10 years ago. Bad memories die hard, and it only takes one smashed windshield, or one late-night, cash-draining trek to a grimy impound lot to fetch a towed vehicle, to put a person off a place.

The police koban installed at the southeast corner of Charles and Lanvale streets in December 1998 was supposed to help. The little metal-and-steel booth with the word POLICE across its top wouldn't look out of place in the film Metropolis. Video cameras mounted throughout the area are hooked to a bank of screens inside, enabling one police officer to watch a wide swath of the neighborhood. But area merchants complain that it's haphazardly manned. Worse, the video cameras are mostly broken and the city is dragging its feet fixing them.

Midtown Special Benefits District director Charles Smith acknowledges that "three or four" of the 12 video cameras are broken or malfunctioning, adding that an additional four cameras that were to have been installed have been sitting in storage for more than a year. "The [Department of Public Works] has been unable to provide us a technician," he says of the delays. Nevertheless, Smith calls the Koban "very effective" at reducing auto larcenies and other crimes in the area. He says it is manned Monday through Friday, from 5 A.M. until 1 A.M., with police or security personal from the city, Amtrak, the benefits district, the University of Baltimore, and the Mass Transit Authority all taking turns monitoring the video screens and/or patrolling the neighborhood.

"The businesses in the area would like the koban manned on weekends as well, which presents a big dilemma," Smith says. "Nobody has the budget to do that."

But of all the issues facing the strip, perhaps the most potentially pernicious won't kick in until April Fools' Day. That's when Charles Street will be shut down between Mount Royal Avenue and Lanvale Street for two years while the city repairs the 89-year-old bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway. Currently, more than 10,000 cars a day motor through the 1700 block of Charles; come April, that will likely drop to a trickle.

"It's uppermost in our minds to cause as little disturbance as possible to the people who have businesses, institutions, or homes in the area," says Kurt Kocher, Department of Public Works spokesperson. Plans call for diverting traffic up Calvert Street and Maryland Avenue, which will be made two-way from Mount Royal to North Avenue. This configuration will actually make it easier for southbound JFX motorists to reach the 1700 block of Charles--they can exit Interstate 83 at Maryland Avenue, head north across its bridge, hang a right on Lanvale, and be right there. The challenge is to get the word out.

"We're looking into creating some signs that will tell motorists and pedestrians that the businesses are open north of the Charles Street bridge," Kocher says. "We want to bring as much traffic as we can to along Lanvale Street to Charles." One approach being considered involves creating an illustrated character--"Charles"--to appear on signs along the detour route and guide travelers to the businesses immediately north of the bridge.

The bridge repair isn't the only major construction issue facing the block. The city is considering plans to move the Greyhound bus station from downtown to a new terminal to be built on the Amtrak parking lot on the south side of Lanvale Street, perhaps as soon as mid-2002. The plans include a huge parking garage, which could be a boon to the area, but there's skepticism about the larger project.

"Show me a neighborhood that was ever improved by a bus station," Joy Martin deadpans.

But you don't have to look very hard to find folks on the block who aren't all doom and gloom. "We're very happy here," says Everyman Theatre's artistic director, Vince Lancisi. "We had a 74-percent growth in subscribers last year, and now have 1,400 subscribers. I think that's a testament to the fact that people feel safe here and will come to this block." Everyman is exploring the possibility of expanding, adding another performance space in the former bowling alley.

"Now," Lancisi says, "if we could just get the darn Chesapeake [Restaurant] opened, we'd really be in business."

It's a sentiment shared by many of the block's stakeholders. Bob Hope wouldn't recognize the Chesapeake today--an empty relic, with a shattered sign and missing windowpanes, looming forbiddingly over the south end of the block.

The former four-star eatery began as a small deli/grocery opened by the Friedman family in 1918. The Friedmans nurtured its growth and reputation through the next six decades. A fire swept through the Chesapeake in 1974, destroying a priceless collection of Babe Ruth artifacts and uniforms that were on display; it was rebuilt but soon had more debts than customers. The restaurant closed for good in the late '80s, not long after lawyer Robert Sapero acquired it from the Friedmans.

Sapero, whose Baltimore real-estate holdings include properties on Key Highway and in Federal Hill, hears the carping. "Where's the beef?" he responds. "Who's paying the freight? I'm not going to open [the Chesapeake] myself."

The legacy he now holds isn't lost on Sapero. His parents took him to the Chesapeake when he was a kid; he remembers its reputation. But he stresses that he's a lawyer, not a restaurateur. He's waiting for the right operator to approach him about running the old grand dame. He maintains he's doing the neighborhood a favor by holding out for an entrepreneur who can run the restaurant right, and for the long haul. The national Ruth's Chris Steak House chain and local restaurant magnate Lenny Kaplan have toyed with idea of turning the edifice's lights back on, Sapero says, but no one's "paid the freight" yet.

"I don't want to open the door unless I know it's going to be successful," Sapero says. Rundown as the Chesapeake looks outside, the facilities inside are in good shape, he says, estimating that the right operator could get the place serving again in 30 days' time.

That optimistic assertion draws laughs from folks in the area who have watched the place molder for the past dozen years. But even the likes of Joy Martin recognize the signs of a second coming for the block.

"It's getting better around here," she concludes. "At the same time, I don't want to be here for the next 50 years watching the block go up and down because certain people hold onto their commercial property and refuse to do a goddamn thing with it."

The recent gains are having a ripple effect through the surrounding area. Dick Horne, co-proprietor of the American Dime Museum, says the 1700 block's rebound was "absolutely" a factor in his and partner James Taylor's decision to open their collection of side-show memorabilia and artful fakes a block away on Maryland Avenue last fall. "It's a nice draw for people," says Horne, whose quirky museum has garnered press coverage as far away as Japan. "The area is coming up, and it's what Baltimore needs--to show that things can happen away from the Inner Harbor."

"It's so incredibly important to have a block like that," says Waters, still a frequent patron at both the Charles Theatre and the Club Charles. "It helps people to decide to stay in Baltimore. People leave town because there isn't good movie theater or a good bar to go to."

Alan Shecter still uses the hole-in-the-doughnut analogy when discussing the block, but he's altered the image. "Now we're filling that hole with sweet jam," he says "It's going to be a jelly doughnut."

Ask Esther Martin what the main problem is along the streets beyond her bar's window today, and she answers quickly, resolutely: "The bums." This might seem a strange response from a woman who was accused of attracting bums to the area 20 years ago, but it cuts to the core of issues before the neighborhood. One of the problems Baltimore faces when trying to establish nightlife is the lack of day life--jobs, opportunities, decent schools. In a rust-belt seaport struggling for relevancy in an age when factory jobs and union paychecks are increasingly archaic, there are more displaced and directionless people than ever before--and many are hooked on things more pernicious than screw-top wine and cheap beer.

Nevertheless, though prickly issues remain, the view beyond the Club Charles' martini-shaped neon sign is more promising than it's been in decades. And when Martin is asked if she'd like to get back behind the bar--to work the cocktail shakers, to swap stories across the rail--her face lights up. She fairly gushes her response.

"I wanna come back," she says. "I miss it. Oh my god, I miss working--you know, I worked all my life."

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