Apr 30, 2024, 06:27AM

Baltimore’s Wigwam Bar In the 1950s

Weary travelers stopped in for the “coldest beer in town.”

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There was a big through-the-wall air conditioning unit positioned above the plate glass window that fronted the old Wigwam Bar (1951-1981). When it was chilling the bar, it’d drip water outside onto the sidewalk below as part of its normal operation, the same as thousands of other air conditioning units across the city. Stray cats and rats drank it. Nobody said anything. It was water. Today one would be sued. Fined. Shut down. Because dripping water is a hazard. There’s that rat attraction hazard. A fall hazard. Mold hazard. Pollution runoff hazard.

One day in the early-1950s there was a jailbreak south of Baltimore and the escapee was heading north. As part of his escape he managed to get his hands on a pistol. He hijacked a taxi cab while brandishing the gun and commanded the poor driver to “go to Baltimore.” As one might imagine, the driver was in fear of losing his life and every mile of the drive at gunpoint frayed his nerves even further.

In those days Charles St. ran south. When the taxi reached Baltimore, the escapee was more agitated and the driver more anxious. The escapee wasn’t giving an exact destination, just a “Keep driving,” or “Turn here,” every so often and it was too much for the driver to stand. As he was heading east on North Ave., crossing Charles, he bailed out of the taxi and ran south on Charles. The cab crashed and the escapee jumped out and started blasting at the driver.

Charles and North has always been a crossroads of surface transportation. Cars, buses, trolleys, streetcars. That means it’s usually a busy, crowded intersection. And usually with a police presence. The cops already on scene start shooting at the guy and there’s running and screaming. It was the running that drew my dad’s attention. He was working the early-evening bar shift at the Wigwam. He hadn’t heard the shots, probably because the jukebox was too loud. But when people started running past the window, he went to the door to see what was up. As I recall his telling, the escapee ran out of bullets just as the cops got close enough to grab him and take him away. Nobody got shot. But for many years there was a bullet hole in that through-the-wall air conditioning unit at the Wigwam.

My dad was a boxer in college and later in the Navy. He had huge hands from a childhood of Dust Bowl farm-work and had a reputation for one-punch knockouts. Working at the bar, he was regularly called upon to eject the unruly, protect the staff, and keep the place in line. Esther (my mother) owned the place; Kent (my father) was more like the Law of the place. No matter how fucking foul the language might be in there, it was still going to be a respectable place.

One particular patron crossed the line and my dad told him it was time to go, but he replied, “Fuck you.” My dad went to forcibly eject him, but he resisted so Dad hit the guy intending to carry his unconscious body out, but one punch didn’t work. The guy was staggered some but wouldn’t go down. So my dad hit him again and again and the guy still didn’t go down. But he was disoriented enough that Dad was able to eject him without much further resistance. After the incident, my dad’s hand was hurting and it turned out he had broken three knuckles on his right hand. Those knuckles never healed right so when he made a fist, there was a straight line from the first knuckle over to where the pinky knuckle should’ve been. He later found out that the patron involved in the incident had a steel plate in his head and my dad had been pounding away on that plate instead of skull and brain.

One night after the Wigwam became the Club Charles, there was a knock on the door after closing. We tended to ignore that sort of thing, but it was persistent. There was an older couple outside and they were out of place in that neighborhood at that time of night. I opened the door and asked if I could help them. The man said that he was Tom Spangler, an old customer of the Wigwam and was looking for Esther just to say hello. I recognized the name right away from Esther’s address book when I was a kid, so I brought them in. Esther happened to be working that night so she came out of the office and they started telling stories about the old days. Esther was sitting, listening, giggling, and saying, “That’s right, that’s right.” Tom told me that my father threw out so many people over the years that they called it “taking a ride on the Wigwam Express.” This was before Plexiglas was widely available or affordable. Some of the Express riders went through a ¼” plate glass door on their way to the station. It happened so often that I’ll bet Chaudron Glass over on Lovegrove Alley kept a spare already cut-to-size just for the Wigwam. Tom said that one time Chaudron had just replaced the glass and here came Kent with another Express rider. Tom said he jumped up from the bar, jumped in the way, and said, “Jesus Christ, Kent! No!” My dad wasn’t used to any intervention and stopped for a second. Tom opened the new door, bowed, and said, “Now.” And the Express ride was completed without breaking glass.

My dad returned from an Ocean City trip one time and as luck would have it, he was drunk. He walked into the Wigwam and Esther was behind the bar. She pointed at some motherfucker and shouted, “KENT! Hit that motherfucker!” And without a moment’s hesitation, my dad knocked that motherfucker out cold and threw him into the street. If that’s not true love, what is?

A close friend of the family we knew as Nates was in the bar when one of these fights broke out. Nates was a small Jewish man, but a fighter. Intending to help my dad, Nates picked up a heavy star-shaped glass ashtray and was about to crush some guy’s skull with it when this time my dad stopped mid-punch and put out a hand, “Jesus Christ, Nates! You’ll kill him!” Crisis averted, my dad returned to ejecting the assholes the evening had provided.

Looking up  “schooner” in a drinking glass catalog, and the most common type is a heavy goblet. The colloquial name not in the catalog is “skullbuster.”

There was one no good son-of-a-bitch that took a while to understand that my father would “cotton no bullshit.” He raised a ruckus, caused a disturbance, or was ungentlemanly in some way. My dad threw him out and came back in. Dad threw him out hard and barred him from the place. “NEVER come back.” But a few weeks later the SOB was back, harassing one of the barmaids when my dad walked in. This time he hit the guy, going for the knockout, and succeeded. He tossed him into the gutter on Charles St.

A few months pass. My dad was washing glasses behind the bar and had his head down when he heard this guy’s voice. He looks up and he’s sitting right across the bar.

My father says, “Get out. You’re barred.”

The guy says, “Hey, look, I just came in here to wish you a Merry Christmas.”  

My dad said, “I don’t want your Merry Christmas, now get the fuck out!”

The guy then says, “Well, actually, I came in here to cut your fucking throat,” and pulled out a knife.

According to others in the room, my father punched him out. Dad’s fist knocked him off the barstool and across the room into a booth full of customers. It also knocked the guy out and Kent, again, deposited him in the gutter. Blood ran from his mouth downhill towards Lanvale.

Most of the people knocked out would get up and move along after a few minutes. This guy laid there. Nobody called the cops or an ambulance. He was just spread out like any other bleeding, passed-out bum. My dad said he started worrying at about the 15-minute mark. After 30 minutes, he was sure he’d killed him. But, 10 minutes later, the no-good son-of-a-bitch finally got up, shook it off, and staggered south on Charles.

He came back one more time, confronting the barmaid, “Where’s that big-headed bastard?” Dad was in the office, a little cubbyhole beneath the mezzanine where the Wigwam kitchen was. In the office was the safe. And near the safe were guns. Dad grabbed a .45 auto pistol he’s purchased surplus and walked up the stairs from the office with the gun in his hand. He didn’t have to say a word. The guy backed out and never returned.

The most popular spot at the bar was always right in the front window, backlit by red neon, underneath that bullet-hole A/C. It’s cool, it’s the smart spot. One can watch the pedestrians as they head home with their groceries. Shopping bags, the brown paper bags with handles, were available at every store. Branded shopping bags were only available from the higher-class places, like Stewart’s or Hecht’s. Often these weary travelers would stop by the Wigwam for “the coldest beer in town.” But it was mostly a neighborhood bar in the early-1950s. Most of the regulars lived within walking distance. Weekenders might drive in from further out. My dad was an outgoing person and he knew many of the people who lived in the surrounding community. The police even asked Dad to ID the body of a Wigwam regular who’d died, his corpse decaying in the living room of his apartment. They needed help in the identification because he’d blown his own head off with a shotgun. He had nobody that knew him except for my dad, the bartender around the corner.

Another one of the neighborhood regulars had been coming in for years. My dad knew him like any bartender knows his regulars. And this regular liked sitting by that big front window, watching the people go by. He always had a couple of beers and then walked to his home up the street. He never got drunk and never caused any problems. He came in one day with his shopping bag and sets it on the floor by his barstool at the front window. He drinks his two beers and then suddenly gets a little giddy and excited. He gets a shot. And another and another. Then he starts giggling and toasting a non-existent person on the next barstool. My dad’s watching because he was a curious man and decides that something’s not right. He didn’t call the police because the man’s only crime was behaving in an unusual manner. Also, calls to the police were a black mark on the liquor license. The man starts laughing and loudly toasts a companion not present. Eventually, a Baltimore City beat cop comes in. My dad called the officer down to the far end of the bar and told him that he’s known this guy for years and he’s acting way out of character and maybe he’s lost his mind. The beat cop strolls back towards the door and stops to strike up a conversation. The cop notices the guy isn’t toasting and winking at the barstool as my dad had thought. He was toasting the shopping bag on the floor next to the barstool. And in the shopping bag was a head. It was the man’s wife’s head and relatively fresh, I was told.

My dad had a day job, working the early shift at the Westinghouse factory on Wilkens Ave. doing the modern equivalent of Quality Control on the electronic components assembled there. He quit working as a bartender at the Wigwam in the mid-1960s, about the same time he got a different job with Westinghouse that required traveling. He’d still fix the air conditioning at the bar if he could, do some cooking, and repair the plumbing, but no more serving. He said he was tired of the same old drunks. But I think it was the changing neighborhood and the new residents and new drunks that cemented his decision. There weren’t as many pedestrians walking by. More cars were driving past. Old friends were driving by and not stopping as often. The coldest beer in town was found elsewhere. The first-floor front wall of the Wigwam was rebuilt in the 1970s, removing the bullet-hole air conditioner and the Deco black-mirrored glass tiles.


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