Otto E. Schellhase, last owner of the landmark Schellhase's Restaurant, where Baltimore's notables dined for more than half a century, died Thursday at Anne Arundel Medical Center of complications from abdominal surgery. The Annapolis resident was 88.
Mr. Schellhase joined the family restaurant business in 1935 when it moved from Franklin Street to a larger space on Howard Street. Its distinctive German decor and menu drew a famed clientele, including stage actors, film stars and writers.
Perhaps best known among the customers was newspaperman H.L. Mencken, who gathered his Saturday Night Club in a private room in the restaurant for years until the group disbanded in the 1950s.
The restaurant was founded in 1924 by Mr. Schellhase's father, C.H. Otto Schellhase, a waiter who emigrated to Baltimore from Germany in 1906. After his father's death in 1954, Mr. Schellhase and his mother operated the restaurant. It closed in 1980 as the Howard Street area deteriorated and business slowly declined.
Known for its sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, oysters and cold German beer, Schellhase's enjoyed a heyday that spanned decades and attracted the likes of Alfred A. Knopf, Sinclair Lewis and Henry Fonda, who held his wedding reception there in 1931.
"It was a very busy place -- a lot of hustle and bustle," said Mr. Schellhase's son, Robert Schellhase of Severna Park, who spent much of his childhood at the restaurant. "Most of the theatrical people who came to town would come there."
Mr. Schellhase was born in Baltimore and graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 1935. Six years later, he married Frieda Gause of Annapolis, whom he met at church.
During World War II, Mr. Schellhase served in the Army Air Corps as a radio operator aboard C-47 transport planes. He flew through South America and Africa, helping carry equipment, his son said.
It was his hands-on management style at the restaurant -- he frequently dropped by tables to check on customers -- that charmed diners and helped keep Schellhase's a Baltimore institution. Its walls were lined with signed photographs of guests made famous on stage and in film during the 1920s and 1930s.
Located at 412 N. Howard St., the restaurant was often noted in Mencken's letters.
"Everyone who's grown up in Baltimore knows that name," Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of government relations at the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said of Schellhase's. "The restaurant business was in his blood."
After deciding to close the restaurant after his traditional two-week vacation to Ocean City in 1980, Mr. Schellhase became active with the restaurant association, which represents Maryland's restaurant industry. He was a past president and until recently was the association's controller.
Kitty Whittington, who worked with Mr. Schellhase at the association for 20 years, described him as shy, immaculate and knowledgeable in virtually every facet of the restaurant industry. Sometimes, she said, he would recall his nights at the restaurant -- and the stars who wandered through.
"He was an incredible gentleman -- very sweet and very kind," she said. "He could have done almost anything."
Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Barranco & Sons Severna Park Funeral Home, 495 Ritchie Highway.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by another son, Ron Schellhase of Bethesda; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.