For the first time in months, the lights are back on at the Club Charles.

The legendary bar across from the Charles Theatre recently reopened after a 21-month hiatus, dispelling fears that it might never reopen.

One of its most famous patrons, filmmaker John Waters, spread the word during his holiday performance in Baltimore last week.

“I heard, and I pray it’s true, the Club Charles has reopened,” Waters told a fan who asked for a bar recommendation during the Q&A portion of his show.

 “I think that’s a miracle,” Waters continued. “I spent so many years there. I think it’s a great bar that attracts every kind of person, so I’m very, very happy to hear that it opened again. That’s the best news Baltimore’s had in a long time, I think.”

Waters stopped in on Sunday, after some of the regulars announced plans on social media for a reunion of sorts to celebrate the reopening. He took his old seat at the bar, right near the front door.

Other patrons said they were glad to see “Club Chuck” back – and unchanged — just in time for New Year’s Eve.

“This is a Baltimore landmark,” said Hilary Pierce, an art curator and president of Art Collector’s Athenaeum. “The people. The culture.  The things that happened here. This place was magic…There will never be another place like the Club Charles.”

It’s “the ultimate dive bar,” today’s equivalent of what the speakeasy was during the Prohibition era, said Steven Reech, president of the 1945 Insurance Group.

“I’ve been all over the world. This is the coolest bar I’ve ever been to in my life,” Reech said. “You have everyone from preppies in Brooks Brothers suits to punk rockers to housewives who came to the Charles Theater…You never know who’s going to walk through the door.”

Part of its appeal, he said, is the memories it holds and the fact that it doesn’t change.

“I walk in here and it’s like I’m 21 again.”

Over the years, the Club Charles has attracted an impressive number of celebrity patrons, many of them actors working on John Waters movies. The list includes Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Paulina Porizkova and the late Ric Ocasek. The late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain stopped in when he worked at Harborplace, before he became famous.

Located at 1724 N. Charles Street, the bar has a reputation for periodically closing for extended periods and then reopening with little notice. Managers shut it down several years ago, for example, with a handwritten sign on the door saying it was “CLOSED TO REMOVE GRAFFITI,” and then it didn’t reopen for three months. The latest closing was its longest dry spell ever.

The bartender on duty on Sunday, who gave his name as Lorenzo B, said the Club Charles closed on March 24, 2020 because “the city told us to” – a reference to then-mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s order that all city bars and restaurants close temporarily to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The city has since allowed bars and restaurants to reopen as long as managers follow public health guidelines about mask-wearing and other safety protocols.

The Club Charles reopened about three weeks ago. Lorenzo said Waters played a role because he sent a Christmas card to owner Joy Martin with a note urging her to bring it back. “That influenced her,” he said. “That really triggered something.”

Joy Martin’s mother, Esther Martin, purchased the building in 1951 when it housed a bar and restaurant called Charles Seafood and changed its name to The Wigwam. In 1981 she redesigned it and renamed it The Club Charles, aiming to attract art students, movie-goers and other young people gravitating to the area, now part of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Her transformation of the bar to a retro-chic nightspot was a success, with Waters famously saying she changed it “from the scariest bar in Baltimore into the coolest.”

Joy Martin assumed day-to-day management in the 1990s after failing health forced her mother into semi-retirement; Esther Martin died in 2003.

For now, Lorenzo said, the Club Charles will be open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., with extended hours on New Year’s Eve. The management is aiming to be open seven days a week starting in February, he said.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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