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Sphinx Club is a relic of joyous times on 'the Avenue

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the early 1960s, Pennsylvania Avenue was the cultural Nil of Baltimore's black community and the Sphinx Club shone like a diamond on that shimmering river of lights.

"The Avenue" had reached its zenith. Rhythm and blues pulsated from the stage of the Royal Theater and jazz crescendoed in the avenue's night spots.

And none of the avenue's night spots had the cozy elegance of the Sphinx, a private members-only club that booked names like Sam Cooke, Gloria Lynn, Damita Jo and Redd Foxx.

"All of the big names came to Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a mecca for blacks," recalls former Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns.

"Women would come down there with diamonds and furs. We had everything and everybody there. The Sphinx Club, it was the pinnacle for blacks," Mr. Burns says.

Today, the avenue's cultural life has dried to a trickle and the Sphinx sits like a mirage in a parched wasteland.

Earlier this week, the Sphinx was scheduled to go on the auction block, but the sale was averted when the club filed for bankruptcy.

Randy Tilghman, president of the Sphinx Club, acknowledges that the club and the avenue have plummeted from their heights, but he predicts both will emerge from the abyss.

The Sphinx, which he describes as the oldest black-family-owned social club in the country, has remained open while it reorganizes to pay creditors.

"Business had dropped down for a while, but it is picking up," says Mr. Tilghman, whose father, the late Charles Tilghman, founded the club in 1946 and operated it until he died in 1988.

"I've made some poor judgment in management. I'll leave it at that. We realized that we had to file [for bank-ruptcy] to keep things together," he says.

Mr. Tilghman says one of the club's problems is its location in a high crime area plagued with drug dealing and prostitution. Most of the clubs that surrounded the Sphinx have disappeared, and many of the buildings near the Sphinx are dilapidated.

Mr. Tilghman concedes that the Sphinx has been abandoned by some of its longtime customers who are fearful of venturing into the neighborhood. But he is optimistic that the situation will improve.

"It was bad, but now I see the neighborhood turning around," Mr. Tilghman says.

"I see people coming back. Right now, it's still a social club for older members, but we're trying to fuse in new members."

Baltimore was a segregated town until the 1960s. The avenue's clubs, restaurants and theaters flourished during the days of segregation because blacks were barred from white establishments.

White Baltimore had The Block, a strip of night spots on East Baltimore Street and black Baltimore had The Avenue, said Mr. Burns, recalling segregation.

But, slowly, Pennsylvania Avenue's clubs and bars died. The Royal Theatre, perhaps the best known of the avenue's attractions, was demolished in 1971.

"I cried when the community voted to tear down the Royal," recalls Mr. Burns, who at the time was the chairman of the city's urban affairs committee.

"I cried. It was something to preserve for the culture of black folks," Mr. Burns recalls.

Over the years, nearly 40 Pennsylvania Avenue bars closed as the area's drug problem worsened, Mr. Burns says.

"It's the culture that's killing Pennsylvania Avenue," says Mr. Burns, adding: "You saw the good times, but you don't want to go down there now. It's a sad change. It seems like always we lose. It's important as a memory to keep the Sphinx Club open."

Many of the Sphinx's patrons remember the club as a favorite watering hole and whistle stop for stumping black politicians.

Some political observers say the black community's political awareness grew from three sources: The city branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Afro-American newspaper, the Sphinx Club.

"That's because decisions for black politics were at those three places. They were and are all equally important," says one political observer.

"The community and especially the black community needs the Sphinx to do well."

A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore attorney who campaigned unsuccessfully in several citywide elections, says many black politicians still make campaign stops at the Sphinx.

"When you have a campaign, you still have a lot of candidates who come through there," says Mr. Pettit. "They can network and exchange ideas."

In addition to having much political significance, the Sphinx has al

ways had a sense of community and purpose.

"It's not just a conventional club, it's a community institution," says George Collins, a former broadcast and newspaper journalist and longtime frequenter of the Sphinx Club.

"It is far more important than a place to go to buy drinks. It served for social entertainment certainly long after alleged integration. It is a very vital community institute."

William "Little Willie" Adams, who knew Charles Tilghman whenboth were young boys, recalls operating a club near the Sphinx and engaging in a "friendly competition" with Mr. Tilghman.

"He was a very dear friend of mine," Mr. Adams says, adding: "I ran the Club Casino down the street, but the whole area has changed."

Randy Tilghman says he is trying to book big-name entertainment andattract a middle-age crowd. One act, Arthur Prysock, is booked for this weekend.

Many people who used to frequent the Sphinx Club remember the stage shows.

One night about two decades ago the tap dancer, Peg Leg Bates, gave the Baltimore premiere of the "Helicopter" spin at the Sphinx wearing a new white prosthesis.

Emma Spradley and several of her girlfriends were in the audience.

"It was so amazing. There wasn't much of a stage at the Sphinx Club and everybody kept thinking he was going to fall into the crowd because he was spinning so fast and off balance," recalls Mrs. Spradley, now 60.

"He was going around and around on this one peg leg -- one peg leg -- and we kept thinking that any second we were going to get Peg Leg and our drinks all over our laps."

Neither Peg Leg nor the drinks wound up in the women's laps. But later, Mr. Bates changed to another prosthesis and went down and sat with the ladies.

"That's the kind of club it is. We bought him drinks. It was small enough that people who were supposed to be stars mixed with the audience real nice," Mrs. Spradley says.

Mr. Tilghman says he is determined to elevate the Sphinx to its once glorious status.

"Many people say to me it's the only place we've got left," Mr. Tilghman says.

"The Royal Theatre is gone, other clubs are gone. This is the only part of Pennsylvania Avenue that is left and is still viable."

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