Memories of the Hippo: 'There's nothing to even compare it to'

Hippo regulars remember the nightclub: "That's where I grew up."

In May, Charles “Chuck” Bowers, longtime owner of the Mount Vernon nightclub the Hippo, announced his establishment would close for good this fall. (A closing date has not yet been named.) For many members of the LGBT community, the news marked the end of an era.

Since July 1972, the Hippo has been a haven, a meeting place, a dance spot, an events venue and much more for patrons of all backgrounds. Soon, it will become a CVS.

In honor of the Hippo’s historic run, we talked to patrons, former employees and other members of the extended family about their memories. “What will you miss most?” we asked, and these were their responses, slightly edited and condensed for readability. (Bowers said in a text message that he was unavailable to participate in the piece.)

Bruce Knapik, Raleigh, N.C.-via-Parkville

It’s a really unique place. I was a barback there for a long time. Everybody who worked there, it was a family. It was the least stressful job I ever had -- it was really laidback with like-minded people. Chuck, the guy who owns the place, is great. I love that guy. My mother was one of the managers. She was like, “Why don’t you come barback?” That was after I met my wife there. [laughs] I stopped by to say hi to my mom and get a drink. She was there visiting her brother, and he asked, “Can you keep an eye on her? I’m going to go dance.” We hit it off there. As a straight person, I never felt uncomfortable there. Everybody was just really cool. Everybody was someone I would be really good friends with. It was a stereotype-busting kind of place. You see people as people, but it’s people you like and people that like you.

Vanessa Madden, Cherry Hill

I just met a lot of nice people. I met two people that I dated there. They always treated everyone fairly. I’m African-American and I’ve never had a problem ever there. I was even there two Fridays ago, getting Charley Horses on the dancefloor. My niece does a lot of choreography for the drag shows. Here I am, coming here with my nieces years after my friends and I went!

I used to come to the bingo on the saloon side on Wednesdays. I used to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on the saloon side on Mondays. When I was younger I’d go for R&B night, and all the black people would be there. Now they have hip-hop night and it’s always packed. When you come down for Pride, there’s going to be a zillion people outside the Hippo. It’s just a nice place to go and be comfortable and relax to party. The Hippo was fully equipped; they had the best dancefloor. A nice big dancefloor. If you wanted it quiet, you could go to the saloon side. I never, never ever, out of all the years they’ve been open, I’ve never had a problem. Now you’re getting me emotional! I’ll miss just a nice comfortable place where you can enjoy yourself and just lose yourself.

Gino Cardinale (Fells Point, co-owner of City Cafe)

The first thing I’ll think of is that’s where I met my husband in 1991. His name is Bruce Bodie, co-owner of City Cafe. That’s definitely the first thing I’ll think of. There’s sort of the Hippo before the rise of the Internet and the Hippo after the Internet. When we were in our 20s, we were almost forced to get up the nerve to walk into a gay bar. In the early ‘90s, the Hippo was at the top of the stack of all the gay bars in town. It was the gay disco that was always busy. That’s how we met other gay people. It was always a diverse experience. All of these different people from every walk of life and background. All you had in common was that you were gay.

Looking back on it, that was a very important part of my life. I would describe myself as shy and introverted at that point and it helped me come out of my shell and made me more of an outgoing individual. Many of the friends I made there remain in my life today. We had this big group of friends. In our college years we all went on Thursday, that was more of a saloon side night, when you chatted about your week. I always think of Saturday nights there. The more you went, the more you got to know the people who ran the place. I remember some time in the late ‘90s, I got a Hippo card [a sign you were a regular] and my friends all got one and we all felt like we had really arrived.

Chuck was an incredibly generous business owner. As I got older, I went to other cities and most gay bars were these big clubs that often weren’t very engaged with their neighborhoods. Chuck was this very engaged guy who did all of these charity events. He was the opposite of what club owners are thought of.

Rik Newton-Treadway, Overlea, veteran producer of events hosted at the Hippo

Wow, I’ve been going to the Hippo since 1979. Emotions are mixed. We’re losing so much that the Hippo and Mr. Bowers have done and do for the communities. The Hippo has become our civic center. It’s where we produce our contests and fundraising shows. It’s one of those things that you just always thought would be there. It’s where I proposed to my husband in June of 2000. I proposed to my husband in the main bar. I’ve been producing contests for that space since 1999. The friends and the family and the people we’ve met and known and the sense of community -- it’s kind of like losing a great aunt that you were close to, if that makes any sense. [laughs] I have a million memories and not one of them is bad. Every Thursday we went dancing. It was part of our rituals and our traditions. We’re losing an asset.

Rosie Hicks (aka DJ Rosie, who has DJ’ed Hip-hop Night for the last 11 years), Hamilton

There is no club like the Hippo in Baltimore. There’s nothing to even compare it to -- the design, the sound system, the capacity. There is not going to be a replacement or anything that comes close. That’s the heartbreaker of it all. Hip-hop Night, every week, has grown into this huge event where it’s a family that comes every week and parties with us. We have regulars who have come literally for the past 11 years. The staff looks out for each other, we look out for each other. You feel like a huge part of your family is about to break up. I’m just going to miss the energy of that club. Just the excitement. I’m excited to go to work there every week and I have been since I started. I don’t think it’s going to be replaced.

Steve Charing, Clarksville

What I will remember most about it and will always miss about it is a lot of people refer to the Hippo as the anchor as the so-called gayborhood, but I see it more as the heart of it. It was the place everyone wanted to go. It’s where people would start out going, or where they’d end up but it was definitely a destination. If people had friends from out of town, they’d bring them there to take them out to the bar. It was an incredible mecca to bring a lot of people in to enjoy themselves in so many different ways. You have the dancefloor, of course, and the DJs would spin their things. They would basically stay up-to-date with the music that would change over the times. The other side was a much more relaxing saloon atmosphere. The most interesting part was the fact it had served a purpose that was beyond being just a bar. It was a community thing. Chuck Bowers has done an extraordinary job giving back to the community, doing a lot of charitable events for a wide variety of causes.

Sue Nami, entertainer, former Miss Gay Maryland America 2009, North Baltimore

I first started coming to the Hippo when I was 27. I’d always come to the drag show, and that’s before I did drag at all. The Hippo was a place for me when I first started doing drag. Now I’m performing there all the time and I love it. Basically that’s where I grew up. I’m from Indonesia. I don’t have any family here, and then I came to the Hippo and I felt like I found one. The Hippo is always supporting me, drag or not in drag. They were always there for me. I wish the Hippo would keep alive but it’s always going to be in my heart. And that’s forever.

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