The Famous Ballroom is empty again, except for the memories. It has plenty of those, and therefore was probably an appropriate place for the "Visual AIDS" art exhibit that closed out last year's bookings. Now the crowds have left for good. This is the ballroom's night without music.
There is something melancholy about a deserted dance floor. The old bandstand is gone, the banquettes cleared out, the overhead clouds and star taken down. Even the revolving mirrored globe that sprayed light over the crowd has disappeared. The bathrooms are nailed shut, the bar is bare and the old band room and kitchen padlocked. The last paying tenant, the proprietor of Godfrey's Famous Ballroom, who said he would carry on the tradition when he moved in five years ago, didn't, and left, after losing his liquor license and lease and removing most of the improvements, none too carefully.
"It's deconstructive space," said George Ciscle, of the Museum of Contemporary Arts, which sponsored the "Visual AIDS" exhibit, along with the Maryland Institute. Jann Rosen-Queralt and Bill McQuay caught the mood nicely with their installation that featured formal dress shirts, stitched together over the big front window, tables and glasses, dance programs and glitter, while a tape of Ellington, Basie, Gillespie, Parker, Monk and Milt Jackson played in the background. "The ballroom serves as metaphor," read the label, "for the blurring between fantasy and reality, past and present."
Certainly the past was glorious. For nearly half a century, the Great American Songbook received a brilliant reading on the second floor of 1717 North Charles Street from the nation's greatest bands and jazz artists. Alan Shecter knows the story. His family has owned the property since the early 1930s when it was the 100-lane Charles Bowling Center.
Before that it was an automobile showroom. It included the Times Theater, now the Charles. Shortly after World War II, following a fire, his father Louis converted part of the second floor to the Famous Ballroom, patterned on New York's Roseland. Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw played there. "They had ballroom dancing several nights a week," recalled Alan Shecter. "TV hadn't taken over. People went out dancing."
Later on, the space was leased to a local bandleader, Bernie Allen, who provided the dance music and rented the room for private events. The major tenant during this period was the city's venerable Left Bank Jazz Society, which still holds concerts at Coppin State College. But for an amazing 18 years, from 1966 to 1984, the Famous and the Left Bank were synonymous. Every Sunday afternoon at 4, hundreds of Baltimore jazz fans climbed the stairs and filtered out through the half-light to the tables in the ballroom.
There, for a few hours, the harsh realities of the outside world drifted away. It was a democratic, truly American cultural event. People arrived with picnic baskets of food and drink. They were seldom shared, but the conversation always was, among students, activists, neo-politicians, big-band sidemen, members of the city's demimonde. Music was the common language. Lasting interracial friendships began at the Famous and an entire generation of young Baltimoreans, black and white, started off their musical educations with the real thing.
The scenes are indelible: John Coltrane, at one of his last concerts before his death in 1967 -- this was well in advance of the Baltimore riots -- lowering his horn and beating his chest with his fists on an atypical angry afternoon; George, a weekly fixture, dancing to internal rhythms near the bandstand with such frentic energy that sometimes even the musicians couldn't take their eyes off him; Lee Konitz, the accomplished alto saxophonist earnestly answering the questions of music students after the set; a ravaged Chet Baker, his voice and trumpet miraculously unimpaired, recounting the details of his drug bust in Lucca, Italy, in the band room. Next door was the kitchen where Willis and his staff served superb soul-food dinners of chicken, greens and barbecue. The line was always long. One Sunday a hulking man demanded a plate of ribs. "Who are they for?" he was asked. "The bass player," said Charles Mingus.
Vernon Welsh, the Left Bank's emcee, recorded it all. Whom did he record? "It's easier to say who wasn't recorded," he said. The society now has a treasury of 800 jazz concerts on tape. Made with the artists' consent and the understanding that they would not be used commercially, the tapes are presently in storage.
Among them are true gems. Once Duke Ellington arrived promptly with his traveling partner, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, but minus his orchestra members who were on the bus and thought the concert started at 7 p.m. So Ellington, with his customary aplomb, gave a solo recital. "He played for an hour and a half," remembered Vernon Welsh." 'And then I wrote this,' he would say. It was the most intimate thing between him and the audience, different than anything Duke had ever done."
Baltimore looks for its soul in strange places. Recently Billy Bob Barnett, a Texan, was going to present Billy Bob's Baltimore at the old Fishmarket. It was the usual collection of ersatz clubs and eateries. Why does the city that gave to the world the greatest jazz vocalist who ever lived, Billie Holiday, need anyone to present it? Not to mention composers such as Eubie Blake; bandleaders Chick Webb and Cab Calloway, (who was raised here); tap dancer Baby Laurence; singers Ethel Ennis and Janet Lawson; pianists Albert Dailey and Ellis Larkins; alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, and many other fine jazz musicians.
Alan Shecter believes in North Charles Street. However, the ballroom, "a great, unobstructed space with a lot of rich history," he says, requires a $250,000 renovation. Meanwhile, swing dancing is on a roll in Baltimore with no fixed location, rehearsal bands are active around town, and there is occasional talk of a jazz museum. Certainly, the Left Bank's concerts on tape deserve a public airing. But the Famous Ballroom needs more than a Texan to put it together.
James D. Dilts is a free lance.