Jun 18, 2024, 06:27AM

The Life and Times of The Club Charles Jukebox

Music to my ears.

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The most popular song on the old Wigwam’s jukebox over the years was Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” That song was probably on the jukebox there from its release in 1959 until the business became the Club Charles in 1981. The Club Charles’ number one jukebox play was definitely Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” That reproduction jukebox had a digital control panel and was able to record the number of plays and other data.

Most bars have an arrangement for their coin-operated amusement machines. In exchange for what’s usually a 50-50 split, a pinball, poker machine, or jukebox provider will place a machine in a bar or bus station if they can see that it’ll get some use. It doesn’t make sense for a bar to own its pinball machines because patrons get bored quickly with the titles. The machines get rotated out regularly and few bars can afford that kind of investment. A machine guy has enough resources and inventory to take out the less-played games and move them to less-trafficked but still profitable locations.

A good jukebox guy will be in at least weekly to update the selections and count the money. The owner, my mother Esther, would sit with them while they counted. Some of the machine guys would dump the money onto a table and use two fingers to quickly pull coins into their hand to build a coin tube’s worth of coins. Esther knew they had tricks, counting by two’s so fast that it’s easy to lose track and the roll is now only 36 quarters, but she’d stop them and ask them to start over. “Goddamn, Ess. You think I’d try to cheat you?” They’d sometimes shoot the coins past their hands, dropping instead into the bag at their feet, counted but not shared.

A lot of this is understandable when you know that in the early part of the 20th century, the machine guys were almost always in the mob. That changed after WWII when many returning veterans got into the business. Some machine guys would try to bring in a hand-cranked coin counting device so that there’d be less questioning of the totals. It looked like a coffee grinder; a wooden box about 10 inches square with a crank on top. Esther learned that most of these devices had a shunt that directed every 10th quarter into a false bottom. She insisted on hand counts, observed by her.

The Magnet Bar was a couple of blocks north of the Wigwam. The owner was the Wigwam’s machine guy when I started working there. He wasn’t a music person but chose the Wigwam’s jukebox selections based on Billboard’s top songs lists with a preference for country tunes. The records played on a jukebox are considered consumables, like rags in a commercial garage. They’re not inventory for tax purposes. Once a 45 disc comes off the jukebox, it’s trash. Esther was a child of the Great Depression, dustbowl Oklahoma, and she threw nothing away. In our basement while growing up we had cases and crates of these old 45s. Thousands. I got in a lot of trouble using them as disposable Frisbees. I was about 10 and my dad watched through the back window as I shattered dozens of the records on the chain-link fence. He sent one of my sisters to get me. Once inside, he asked if I was throwing records at the fence. I lied. “No!” He wasn’t as angry about the destruction as about that lie. He grabbed a handful of welding rods and made a fascia with them about two inches in diameter and 15 inches long. That was the worst beating I ever got from my dad.

Just a few doors down from the Wigwam there was a multi-story parking lot. One of the attendants, Bill White, started coming in during his shifts to buy a “shorty,” the equivalent of two miniatures. We talked music, specifically New Wave and punk. We wanted to see a younger crowd around the place. The Wigwam had become a dive bar and not in a good way. Bill was an artist, a painter, and frequently went to New York City. He moved there and became a well-known painter. Before that though, he asked if I’d put some records on the jukebox that he was going to buy at Bleecker Bob’s. I said sure. Esther didn’t need much convincing because she liked Bill. “He’s good, honey.” No higher recommendation. Our jukebox guy was troubled because imports and obscurities didn’t come with pre-printed labels for the selections. He was going to have to type or hand-write them in an unreadable script. I offered to do that myself and all was well.

I remember the first batch included Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” and the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster.” That would make it 1979. The Wigwam was the first bar in Baltimore playing “Rock Lobster.” Right alongside “El Paso.”

Esther claimed Native-American heritage and her nickname was “The Chief.” The Chief and I had creative differences about the Wigwam’s direction. She was set in her ways and ran the bar in survival mode. I’d hoped to modernize, advertise, and reset from survival to growth. The neighborhood was complaining about our clientele. Most of Baltimore’s bums passed through the Wigwam at some point. Tired of arguing the same old arguments, I re-enlisted in the service in 1981 and was gone for a few years. During my absence, the Wigwam became the Club Charles. The Liquor Board was coming down hard on Esther because of the bum problem. This is when Pat Kahoe bought into the place and a renovation and revamp was initiated. The transformation required a lot of changes: the décor, the brands sold, the prices, etc. One change was a new jukebox guy. The décor had a throw-back feeling because of the restored 1930s mural recovered from an old theatre. A jukebox matching that feeling was desired.

The poker machines were replaced with pinballs and their management and service stayed with our old machine guy. But for the jukebox we started working with Stan. Stan owned and maintained a stable of vintage jukeboxes and he brought in a beautiful old 1960s Seeburg. He was a good mechanic and kept it running. He was also able to get more of the more obscure 45s through his sources that normally required a trip to Bleecker Bob’s in Manhattan.

Stan was gay and estranged from his family for a long time because of that. Stan’s partner was black and that cemented the estrangement. Stan’s partner’s name might’ve been Leo. I may be wrong; it doesn’t feel right when I say it. Stan and Leo were kind, gentle people. Always helpful and quick to respond when the machine would suffer a failure.

That old Seeburg machine and its playlist led to the Club Charles’ jukebox recognized several times by the City Paper as the best in Baltimore. One year, Baltimore Magazine also named the best. Unfortunately, that honor came with a year of constant and condescending pressure from their advertising department. Esther never believed in spending money on advertising so we declined. The following year Baltimore didn’t even include the Best Jukebox category.

Stan was fighting AIDS for a while before it began to affect his jukebox business. He began to bring Leo along for collections and song updates, teaching him the business. Deliveries had to be outsourced to stronger people. Stan made it clear to us that he was leaving everything to Leo and that at some point we’d be working with Leo exclusively. Leo was trying his best to take care of Stan while learning a new business. Service and collections became less reliable.

We went without a working jukebox a few times because of this. And then Stan passed away. We needed maintenance and Leo was understandably chaotic in his grief. We wanted to be patient, but the Club Charles bit the bullet and reluctantly went to a jukebox dealer in Cockeysville. We bought a reproduction Wurlitzer “bubbler.” It was new! It held 100 CDs versus 100 45s! It accepted dollar bills!

My then-girlfriend, now wife, put the jukebox on her credit card. She said she must’ve really trusted me or was a complete idiot. The jukebox made enough to pay the bill within a year. We no longer had to split with a machine guy.

My good friend Bill Skinner was a low-voltage expert, especially with sound systems. He wired up some great speakers, a microphone, and volume controls for the mezzanine and ground level behind the bar. For the first time the Club had a functional house system.

We had to move the old Seeburg to the second floor of the Club to protect it in its period of disuse. It was Stan’s/Leo’s. Two bartenders and I picked it up and carried it in our hands slowly up the stairs. At the top of the stairs somebody slipped and I took the weight of the whole box on my tailbone. But there was no damage to the jukebox.

The new Wurlitzer had a simple keypad and a coded digital interface. Enter a code to see Top Song in descending order. A different code to see busiest times of use. Another code to reset the counters. I’d put anything on the jukebox. I preferred compilations, greatest hits, etc., because there might be as many as 20 tunes on the CD with few duds. On road trips to Bleecker Bob’s, I grabbed obscure CDs because I liked the band name or the album art. If a patron or employee had a CD and asked for it to be put on the jukebox, I would with the caveat that if its numbers were bad, I’d pull it.

There was a lot of complaining about the new box. Although it provided better sound quality and a much wider selection, the general consensus was that it detracted from the ambiance. People don’t like change. Having invested a pretty big sum in that new bubbler, we weren’t rolling back. The next “Best of Baltimore” City Paper was due to come out and we were resigned to a poor review. It didn’t happen. That first year with the new CD jukebox, the reviewer said that although they were prepared to hate it, they liked it. We were once again “Best of” and thus ended the patron complaints.

When Stan died and Leo was transitioned to the role of jukebox guy, we didn’t know Leo was served with a cease and desist order. At the news of his death, Stan’s estranged family suddenly decided they were very interested in Stan’s life, especially the business with all the vintage jukeboxes. Leo came to us during his legal struggles. Esther and I gave depositions supporting Leo’s claim as per Stan’s wishes, but partners in a gay relationship had zero rights then. We haven’t come far enough since. It took a year for the dispute to work its way through the “justice” system and Stan’s family got everything, every jukebox, every 45. Leo got nothing.

We were eventually sent a demand letter from Stan’s family for the 1963 Seeburg that was sitting untouched for over a year upstairs. They had an awful attitude in our communications as though our jukebox arrangement with Stan was the one that somehow caused his homosexuality. They were evangelicals, and hinted that the repairs necessary on the box were our responsibility. They didn’t know the business.

They came to pick it up in a box truck with a lift gate on the back. Club Charles people carefully carried the jukebox down the stairs and rolled it to the front door, lifted it over the threshold onto the sidewalk and turned it over to these estranged kin of Stan’s. They took possession of the jukebox. They moved it over onto the lift gate and proceed to raise the lift. They weren’t well-trained in loading trucks. When the lift was about a foot off the ground, the jukebox shifted, slid off and smashed into thousands of pieces (mostly glass) onto Charles St. It was totaled. We offered them a broom and dustpan. But Leo still got nothing.  


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