Jerry Herling, grocer and disco owner, dies

Mr. Herling opened Girard's, a disco that became known as the Studio 54 of Charm City.

Jerry Herling, the Lexington Market grocer and businessman who was one of the founding owners of Girard's Disco, one of Baltimore's premier dance venues of the 1970s, died July 6 from cancer at his home in the Colonnade.

The Tuscany-Canterbury resident was 85.

Lenny Kaplan, a Baltimore restaurateur and Colonnade neighbor, called Mr. Herling "a wonderful man who was generous with his spirit and time."

"He always had a warm hello and was a very gracious guy," Mr. Kaplan said. "He was delicious to be with."

The son of Isaac Herling, owner of the Victory Soda Co., and Leah Herling, a businesswoman, Jerry Herling was born and raised in Northwest Baltimore. He was a Forest Park High School graduate and served in the Air Force as an administrator.

Mr. Herling worked for a period with his brothers, who owned a meat business at the old Belair Market on Gay Street, then opened Wynn's grocery store in the mid-1950s in East Baltimore.

In 1964, Mr. Herling opened Herling's Grocery Basket, a 7,500-square-foot grocery in Lexington Market that he owned and operated for more than 32 years. It is now owned by a nephew, Lou Herling.

"While the grocery was his bread and butter, he owned several other businesses in the market, like Sip 'n Lick, an ice cream parlor," said his son, Barry S. Herling of Rockville. "He also had Herling's Cheese & Deli and Herling's Liquor Basket."

Mr. Herling also owned and operated a candy and greeting card store in Charles Center, his son said. He also owned Herling's Food Basket on Wilkens Avenue and, in the late 1970s, took over management of the old Eager House restaurant in Mount Vernon.

But what brought him lasting fame was Girard's, the charismatic, pulsating disco at Cathedral and Eager streets that he helped establish as a co-owner in 1978.

The building at 1001 Cathedral St. had once been home to an RCA sales dealership and in the mid-1930s had become an automobile showroom for such luxury cars as Cords, then Hudsons, Kaiser-Frazers, Willyses, Jaguars, Fords and Plymouths.

"Dad loved New York City, and the reason Girard's became a grand success was because he knew so many people — and he loved Studio 54," his son said. "Studio 54 became the model for Girard's, and they designed the lights and sound system. They even shared the same acts."

He added that The Sun once called his father the "Mayor of Good Times."

As the disco craze swept the country, many businesses opened discos while Top 40 clubs remodeled and even corner taverns installed spinning mirror balls and pulsating lights to create disco ambience.

"With the 1970s, people were more free and loose and looking forward to fun," Mr. Herling told The Evening Sun in a 1979 interview. "Disco gave them the opportunity to be freer. I think disco, in one form or another, will remain for many years."

It was no surprise that Girard's quickly became known as the Studio 54 of Charm City, and crowds packed the place.

Its interior walls were painted shiny dark green, and the bar was green marble. On the mezzanine were "seductive nooks," a Sun critic observed, while downstairs vases were filled with fresh flowers and patrons could relax on sleek, modular furniture. A 13-table restaurant was later added to Girard's.

"He made sure everything was properly done and that everyone had a good time," said a daughter, Wendi Paige Abramowitz of Potomac.

Sun critics Chaplain & Chaplain wrote in 1981 that "when it opened in 1978, it was a rarity in Baltimore, a place that made no compromise about style." They called Girard's the kind of place "you took your slickest out-of-town friends to."

As disco faded in the early 1980s, Girard's added wet T-shirt contests and male go-go dancers who would strip down to their briefs. A special ladies' night was added.

"All we are asking is for a night when adult women can come to a good bar in a good section of town to see this kind of entertainment," Mr. Herling told The Evening Sun in 1980. "I don't like to use the term go-go because that brings up connotations of The Block and other kinds of bars. We prefer to use just the term 'dancers.'"

Mr. Herling also established a senior citizens' afternoon, when seniors from the nearby Waxter Center could enjoy the place.

"Girard's was a big hit and it was competition for us," said Mr. Kaplan, who with his wife Gail owned and operated the Pimlico Hotel restaurant. "It put a little hurt on us, but it was friendly competition."

By the early 1980s, Mr. Herling had left the business. A fire in December 1985 brought an end to Girard's.

Mr. Herling never retired and continued to manage his real estate investments.

The former Lutherville resident, who moved to the Colonnade 17 years ago, never ate dinner at home. He and his wife of 60 years, the former Lois Beverly Bass, dined out each evening.

Among their favorite destinations were Pimlico Hotel, The Prime Rib, City Cafe, The Dizz, Linwoods, Chiapparelli's — every Friday night, family members said — and the old Haussner's.

"He had a great love for restaurants, and people were his hobby," his son said. "Any restaurant he went in, he went one-on-one with the owner and he knew all the waiters and busboys. While he enjoyed being known, he never talked down to anyone and always tipped well."

"They were terrific customers," Mr. Kaplan said. "If you saw to them, then they were very loyal."

Mr. Herling enjoyed spending time at a home he owned in Atlantic City and at a rental property in Highland Beach, Fla.

He was a member of Beth El Congregation.

Services were held Friday at Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc. in Pikesville.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Mr. Herling is survived by another daughter, Laurie Susan Van Grack of Boulder, Colo.; and five grandchildren.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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