Old hall gets its 15 minutes

Down at the venerable Commodore bar and meeting hall in Middle River, the proprietors are preparing to go Hollywood.

And already, there are whispers along the Baltimore County waterfront.

"No, I did not buy my wife her new turquoise Thunderbird convertible just because our place will be in a big movie production," said Roger Zajdel, honing his new-found humility from his brush with fame.

The Commodore Hall, which has stood since 1912 as a popular watering hole, movie theater, banquet hall and political gathering spot, will be featured in the Disney movie Ladder 49, which is being filmed in the Baltimore area.

The faded building in the 1900 block of Old Eastern Ave., with its wide gravel parking lot, is an institution for generations of working-class customers who favor the relaxed atmosphere. If you grew up on the county's east side, it's likely you had a drink at the bar or attended a wedding reception or social event in the Commodore's art deco hall.

The place was named in the 1950s for a local yacht club official - a commodore - who eschewed the martini set whenever he could to enjoy a beer or a shot at the establishment that would eventually bear his title, if not his name.

Ladder 49, starring Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta and Jacinda Barrett, is about Baltimore firefighters and the trials and tribulations of the profession, and could be released by Christmas.

The Commodore's presence should lend an interesting touch to the film-making process. When Travolta tosses down a beer during filming, he might be serenaded by Shelley Fabares cooing the 1962 hit, "Johnny Angel," the most-played tune on the Commodore's jukebox.

The building is owned by Anna Mueller, owner of nearby Buedel's Marina, and has been in her family since pre-World War I days. It has been leased by the Zajdel family since 1954, and Roger and his wife, Patti, recently extended the lease for 30 years.

"We settled on the Commodore because of its character," said Charley Baxter, location manager for the film crew and normally a resident of Los Angeles. "We were taken by the aesthetics of the place, a certain quaintness and comfort of a neighborhood bar.

"We needed a place where firefighters would go and hoist a few," Baxter said.

The Zajdels couldn't agree more.

The production company will spend about $15,000 on renovations to the Commodore. Among them will be a tin deco ceiling in the front portion of the bar, new lighting and wooden window blinds. Other alterations will be made to the funky hall where a wedding reception will be filmed.

For the film, the Commodore will become "Loonies," named after a bar in Canton on Baltimore's Gold Coast. The film's producers liked the Irish name.

The Zajdels will receive a user's fee, which they declined to discuss.

The popular watering hole and meeting hall will be closed until April 26 to alter the layout of the bar and hall. All the stars will be there for about four days during the shooting phase.

"Everyone from the movie company has been extremely nice," Roger Zajdel said.

Entering the world of Hollywood moviemaking will simply be the latest chapter in the Commodore's rich history.

During Prohibition, locals said, bootleggers moved "hooch" from ships in the bay and up Middle River - some of it passing over the lips of thirsty denizens of the local roadhouses, including one where the Commodore now stands.

Zajdel said that during the boomtown days of World War II, when Middle River ballooned from a sleepy village to a place with a population of 30,000, "rumor has it that there were some, shall we say, 'professional ladies' who entertained on the second floor of the Commodore."

'Great in those days'

Donald W. Southworth, a resident of Hawthorne, remembers more innocent days in the early 1940s when he would jump into his speedboat and zoom up Middle River to the Commodore when it housed the tiny Midway movie house.

"It was great in those days," Southworth said. "I could go to movies in my speedboat, go to the old Kenwood High School in my speedboat. ... I was 15 years old." The school was on Old Philadelphia Road, a short walk or bus ride from where he parked his boat.

In the early 1950s, the movie house was converted into a warehouse. When the property was leased by the Zajdel family, the space was converted into a hall with art deco touches.

Meeting place

Since then, the Commodore hall has served as a meeting place for social, veterans and citizen groups. The hall, with full catering facilities, is used for wedding receptions, bull roasts and crab feasts.

Two years ago, local residents opposed to a government-sponsored bill revitalizing much of the east side with property condemnation power, made the mighty Commodore their headquarters. The legislation, known as Senate Bill 509, was defeated and redevelopment of the east side is progressing without condemnation.

"If these walls could talk ... ," Patti Zajdel said.

While insisting that the filmmaking experience is not going to his head, Roger Zajdel admits to a revealing conversation he had last week with members of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, who met in the hall.

"I just told them that nothing has changed, ... that they will be welcomed back here next year," Zajdel said. "Only thing is, they will have to wear coats and ties."

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