Schellhase's Restaurant may not have been as chic as New York's famed 21 Club, but its glittering clientele certainly was.
The restaurant, at 412 N. Howard St., near the heart of Baltimore's old theater district, flourished at that location from 1935 until its unceremonious closing in 1980.
Prominent Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors, writers, musicians and the immortals of the theater who performed in the nearby Ford's, the Maryland and the Auditorium nightly jammed its bar and tables to dine and gossip.
"In contrast to Marconi's, which still reeks of old Baltimore aristocracy, Schellhase's had an artistic ambience conducive to comfortable conversation," said The Sun at the restaurant's closing in 1980.
If Baltimore ever had an Algonquin-style round table, where wits and pundits gathered over a good drink or two, it was at Schellhase's.
Its dark, high-ceilinged rooms, bentwood chairs and circular tables once reverberated with the laughter and repartee of such 1920s and 1930s luminaries as critic Alexander Woollcott, screen siren Ruth Chatterton, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan and Edgar Lee Masters.
It was reported that sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish, while dining there with H. L. Mencken, another habitue, amused themselves by feeding their puppy samples of the restaurant's famed beefsteak tartare.
"The walls of Schellhase's hold lasting evidence of hundreds of guests who left autographed photographs behind," reported The Sun in 1954 at the time of the death of C. H. Otto Schellhase, who established the restaurant.
Schellhase, an immigrant German waiter, arrived in Baltimore in 1906 and opened his first eating house at the corner of Howard and Franklin streets in 1924.
Quickly gaining favor as a refuge for denizens of the night, his restaurant moved to North Howard Street in 1935.
It was also home for years to H. L. Mencken and his famed Saturday Night Club. They met there weekly to drink beer and play music.
Its members included such notables as Gustave Strube, founder of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Folger McKinsey, the "Bentztown Bard"; H. E. Buchholz, a publisher; Ernest Boyd, an author and British consul in Baltimore; William W. Woollcott, brother of New Yorker writer Alexander Woollcott; Raymond Pearl, internationally recognized professor of biology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital; Max Brodel, famous anatomical artist; and Louis Cheslock, Peabody Conservatory of Music professor.
"In a private dining room at the rear of the restaurant Baltimore's widely known Saturday Night Club found refreshment and good talk after weekly sessions of music," said The Sun. "H. L. Mencken was at the heart of the group of friends who made music for the joy of it and liked to linger at table and perhaps sip a beer or two."
The club's origins dated to 1902, when Mencken gathered several newspaper colleagues who enjoyed either singing or playing.
By 1904, the group was meeting regularly at a Saratoga Street violin maker's shop and, after playing music, would adjourn to dine and drink beer at the Rennert Hotel.
As the ambience of the Rennert began to fade in the early 1930s, the club shifted its operations to Schellhase's.
"Throughout the near half-century of its existence the club met every Saturday night. Only if Christmas night might fall on a Saturday, and once, to attend the premiere of a ballet by one if its composer members, did the group omit its meeting," wrote Louis Cheslock in "H. L. Mencken on Music."
Beer, not whiskey, was the club beverage, and was so immortalized on the club shield, purportedly painted by Erich Ludwig, Baron von Tinzmann. The shield's four quadrants, delineated by a line of fat bratwurst, feature several bars from Beethoven's "Eroica," a seidel of beer, a fiddle, a lobster, an onion, a turnip and a pretzel.
Members' beer mugs, with their names engraved on the pewter lids, lined the back wall of the private room where they met. Guests, who were forbidden to pay for their meal or beer, drank from seidels whose lids were engraved with the designation "deadhead," a railroad term meaning to travel without a paid ticket.
The tranquillity of the club was shattered in 1933 when two pacifists who had been drinking at the bar crashed into the back room waving anti-war and Fascist leaflets.
"They had burst in upon the club, reducing in the twinkling of an eye the level of discussions from Bach to the Bowery. Blood and beer were shed freely on the floor, but not much blood and, fortunately, not much beer," said The Sun of the incident.
"An instant change had come over the features of the members of the Saturday Night Club," the paper reported. "Now they were fighting for their honor; a member had been knocked down by a pacifist. Dr. Pearl forgot his genetics. Mr. Strube his music. Mr. Knopf, his best sellers. Mr. Mencken? They say he forgot everything, and describe that taut and wiry body chooting through a gun, chasing the pacifists, who now had flying feet. He leaped and grabbed a man by the neck. It was scarcely any time at all before both Coe and Pinkerton (the miscreants) were in the wagon bound for the Northwestern station, along with Mr. Buchholz as the complainant."
Meeting the next morning at the police station with other club members and Mr. Schellhase, Mencken arrived with a cigar firmly planted in his vest pocket and waving a copy of the Constitution, The Sun reported.
"By the latter he proved, as he said, that he would be unable to testify as a witness because the Constitution saith (only in different words) that to testify under oath in Maryland one must believe in a God who damns sinners forever."
"I don't believe it," insisted Mencken, the paper reported.
Buchholz withdrew the charges, and the case was settled in the hallway, with Mencken insisting that the pacifists sign a release indicating that both sides had agreed not to file any charges.
"If they're Communists I don't trust them," said Mencken. "They'll go back to Washington and claim they won a victory."
The club held its last meeting in 1950, when it disbanded due to old age and the death of many of its members.
Its large collection of sheet music was donated to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
"Be grateful for the music, Baltimore, and envy the fun that used to go with it. Historians, never venture to tell of Baltimore, 1905-1950, without mention of the Saturday Night Club," said The Evening Sun in 1950.
Pub Date: 4/06/97