The Hippo, longtime anchor of Baltimore's gay community, to close this fall

The Hippo, a longtime anchor in Baltimore's gay community, is closing

After more than four decades as an anchor in Baltimore's gay community and the Mount Vernon business district, The Hippo will close this fall and the site will be converted into a CVS Pharmacy.

The nightclub first opened as a gay establishment at the corner of North Charles and Eager streets in 1972. CVS plans to open a drugstore in the space in late 2016, the club's longtime owner, Charles L. "Chuck" Bowers, confirmed in a club statement Monday.

A date has not been set for the club's last night, though it will come after the city's big Baltimore Pride festivities this summer, and events still are being booked through the summer and early fall.

Bowers, the club's sole owner since 1978, will maintain ownership of the building but will lease it to CVS Health. The Rhode Island-based chain has agreed to keep the club's historic exterior — the building started as the Chanticleer Club in the late 1930s — "basically intact" through the changeover, the club's statement said.

The lease agreement was signed last month. Michael DeAngelis, a CVS Health spokesman, said the company is in the "early planning stages" for the new store.

The company has nearly 30 locations in Baltimore and employs more than 500 people in the city.

Bowers, who was not available for comment Monday, recently turned 70 and made the decision to close the Hippo's doors with "truly mixed emotions," the statement said.

Gilbert Morrisette, the club's longtime director of operations, said the club held a meeting on Saturday for its staff — about 45 people if you include all the disc jockeys and performers who frequent the club — to explain Bowers' decision.

Since then, there has been an outpouring of support from members of the community and longtime customers, Morrisette said — with everyone reminiscing about good times spent there.

"Our motto was, 'Where everybody is welcome,' and it's held true over the years," Morrisette said. "It will be missed."

Located across the Charles and Eager intersection from Grand Central, another longtime gay establishment, The Hippo has helped to serve as a central meeting point for the LGBT community for decades.

With few exceptions, including last summer's events, the city's annual Baltimore Pride block party has revolved around the intersection, bringing LGBT and allied people from around the state to Mount Vernon and through the Hippo's doors.

Morrisette said he and other members of the staff aren't angry at Bowers for the decision to close, even though the club is still financially viable. If anything, they are appreciative of Bowers' long commitment to the community, he said.

"He's sunk his life into it," Morrisette said. "He's probably done more for the community than anyone I've ever met."

Bowers purchased the club in 1978 from its original founders, Kenny Elbert and Don Endbinder.

As the AIDS epidemic spread during the 1980s, Bowers stepped up to provide support for gay men who contracted the disease. Through the years, he has supported many of the city's nonprofit organizations doing similar work — from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore to Moveable Feast, which provides meals to people with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, including HIV.

Bowers also made the Hippo available through the years to performances by Broadway cast members as part of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organization.

Chris Adkins, president of the GLCCB board of directors, called Bowers a "great supporter" through the years, and said the center is "definitely going to do something to wish Chuck a fond farewell" during this summer's Pride festivities — though the details haven't been set.

Don Davis, owner of Grand Central, said Bowers "has run a first-class operation," but business just isn't what it once was for gay bars and clubs.

"People are meeting each other on the Internet. And gays feel more comfortable now drinking with their straight friends in Federal Hill and Fells Point," Davis said.

Davis said he isn't quite sure what the Hippo's closing will mean for Grand Central. "It may help a little bit in the beginning," he said. "But people don't want to go to the same place every night."

The closing follows the shuttering last year of The Quest Bar on Fleet Street in East Baltimore after nearly 15 years.

In the club's statement, Bowers thanked the people he has met through the club for their "laughter, their smiles and more importantly their friendship," saying he will remember those things the most.

"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," Bowers said.

Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said the neighborhood group has not taken an official position on the closure, but members have met with CVS and the city's Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, to ensure all changes to the building are in compliance with rules for the historic Mount Vernon district.

"There is nothing for the community association to do to stop it," Curtis said of the Hippo's closing.

CVS Health's plans to open a new location in Mount Vernon follow an announcement last week that it will reopen two stores that were looted and burned during the recent unrest in Baltimore following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

Gray sustained a severe spinal cord injury while in Baltimore police custody, and his death sparked unrest in West Baltimore and protests across the city over police brutality.

The firm has not set a time frame for reopening the two damaged stores, which are located at 2509 Pennsylvania Ave. and 2560 West Franklin St.

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