Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!



Famous TV siblings Chip and Ernie Douglas of "My Three Sons" are the real-life sons of a Baltimore Block stripper who performed during the Great Depression under the name Marilyn Primrose.

This and other obscure and marvelous facts of Baltimore burlesque fill pages in the personal history of 81-year-old Bernard Livingston, lawyer, author, United Press International photographer, filmmaker, and favorite uncle of Stanley "Chip" Livingston and Barry "Ernie" Livingston.

"You got it," said Mr. Livingston, in Baltimore this past weekend to screen one of his documentaries in a film festival at the Orpheum Cinema on Thames Street. "Chip and Ernie's mother was a strip-teaser, and I'm their uncle."

And like two of his brothers, Mr. Livingston married a stripper from his old man's burlesque, the Clover Theater on East Baltimore Street known to clients from around the world as the Scratch House.

"Russell Baker told me he saw his first naked woman in the Clover Theater," said Mr. Livingston, remembering a conversation with the Baltimore-raised columnist for the New York Times. "I guess plenty of guys who grew up here could say the same thing."

The Clover Theater building, now home to the Club Miami, still stands at 412 E. Baltimore St. Nearby, a pawnshop continues to cast the Livingston name along what is left of the fabled Block.

But the family is scattered, and any connection to the decades when the Livingstons rubbed shoulders with the riff and the raff exists mostly in the memories of Bernard, author of "Papa's Burlesque House."

His earliest recollections of Baltimore go back to the 1920s when he led his blind maternal grandfather, Philip Mogulevski,to an Orthodox synagogue.

"I'd walk him every Saturday morning to a synagogue at McElderry and Eden streets," Mr. Livingston said. "He didn't speak much English, and I didn't speak Yiddish but he taught me two words on our little walks: arif, which meant step up, and aruf, to step down.

"One Saturday morning I said 'arif' when I should have said 'aruf,' and he stumbled and fell. He got up and belted me. He was furious, shouting: 'What kind of Jew are you? Your father runs a theater with naked women and dirty jokes, and he doesn't teach his children Yiddish.' "

Mr. Livingston's father, who spent six months at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup for sending strippers to private parties around the state, didn't always run a strip joint.

He was an out-of-work accountant during the early Roaring '20s while his Uncle Isaac was doing a good business as a Baltimore Street pawnbroker. Isaac held the mortgage on the Clover nTC Theater and was looking for someone to run the business after a previous owner failed.

"My Uncle Ike told my father there was nothing to it, all you do is sit in the booth and sell tickets,'" said Mr. Livingston. "My father planned to stay six months and he stayed almost 30 years. He hated it but made good money, the place was always packed. My mother came from a 'respectable' Jewish family and didn't like the idea at all. But she always said: 'Children, don't say bad things about the place that feeds you.' "

The place that fed them changed the Livingston family forever.

"My older brothers were pretty much grown when my father got the business and they married neighborhood Jewish girls from Park Heights," said Mr. Livingston of his brothers Harry, a salesman, and the late Dr. Sam Livingston, a well-known Hopkins doctor specializing in epilepsy. "But the three boys who were youngsters when Dad got the burlesque all married strippers. I guess you could say we were 'exposed' to these girls," he said.

The stripper he fell in love with was named Nina Slovik, a nice Polish girl from Eastern Avenue, to whom he was married for about eight years.

"These were wonderful women. . . . , " he said. "Many of them were poor girls from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee who took the first job they could get and sent money home to their families."

When Benjamin Livingston first took over the business, he forbade his family even to visit him on Baltimore Street.

"But he dropped that, and we were down there all the time," said Mr. Livingston. "If we wanted to see our father, we had to go down to the Clover."

Soon, he said, the entire family was all but living in the ticket booth to the burlesque theater.

The family spent so much time there, Mr. Livingston said, that his mother hung a mezuza -- lines of Scripture directed by Jewish law to be displayed in all homes -- on the wall.

"It was essentially our home," he said. "My mother would bring a kosher Sabbath dinner to my father on Friday night while he was selling tickets to the burlesque show -- roast chicken and potatoes, sour pickles, barley soup."

After a while, he said, even his mother and sisters began to work the ticket booth.

"Mom even devised a method for fooling the police. She had a button under her feet that buzzed backstage, and the girls would start putting their clothes back on until the cops left."

The Livingston family owned the theater from about 1922 until 1948, four years after Benjamin Livingston died. In 1948, his widow, Bertha, and most of the children moved to California, where Bernard's brother Hilliard and his wife had their sons Chip and Ernie.

By then, Mr. Livingston was already established in New York, where he worked as a news photographer before making documentary films about thoroughbreds and writing books on his childhood, America's horsy set, and zoos around the world.

"I had a childhood experience that most young men didn't have. I was a bag man for my father's bookie operation, and I saw nude women day after day from the time I was 12 years old and I was the envy of all the boys at Forest Park High School," said Mr. Livingston. "But I was also estranged from my peers. I came from a family of criminals, and there was a stigma to the Block. To compensate for coming out of this raunchy porno background, I turned to intellectual pursuits. I began to read Keats and Shelley and hang out at the Pratt Library downtown.

"Eventually," he said, "I made it from the infamous Scratch House on the Block to rubbing shoulders at cocktail parties with the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts. . . ."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad