Burlesque and the Girl on the Sign at the Gayety Theater

Gayety Theater at Baltimore and Frederick Streets, as it appeared in its heyday. Perennial birds, which sometimes short-circuited marquee, can be seen on roof.

I Remember… Burlesque and the Girl on the Sign at the Gayety Theater

By John H. Nickel, The Sun Magazine, 5/31/1970

"Bud" Nickel

I don’t have much heart to go down to The Block anymore. The flavor of it has been gone for me since the Gayety Theater burned on the first day of Christmas week.

I drop by now and then to see my friends. But the spirit of that whole section seemed to die when the kicking girl — our animated neon sign which was almost four stories high — quit kicking.

The baggy pants comedians and the pretty girls still put on a sort of the old Gayety type burlesque in a smaller theater nearby, but there isn’t much stage room there for them to really give out, and the stripteasers are taking it all off to phonograph music, with a drummer sitting in to accentuate the bumps and grinds.

For 60 years the Gayety brought to Baltimore this country’s finest burlesque talents — strippers like Ann Corio, Margie Hart, Hinda Wassau, Blaze Starr, Valerie Parks, the Carroll Sisters, and such funny men as Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Joe Penner, Rags Ragland, Red Skelton, Billy Hagen, Hap Hyatt, Billy Boob Reed. It was known all over the world, its fame spread throughout World War II by practically every soldier, sailor and Marine who ever did a week on the town in Baltimore.

United States senators, diplomats, admirals and generals have sat among the Gayety’s patrons. Easily 30 percent of the clientele were women.

My father, John Nickel, made the Gayety what it was.

He had come to Baltimore around 1898 when his mother brought her family of four sons and a daughter over from Germany. My father had been christened Johann, and although he changed his name to John on this side, his friends called him “Hon” all his life.

His mother bought several acres on Colgate Creek, near the site of the old Riverview Park, and for some time operated a dairy farm. But my father, despite his lack of education, had another life in mind for himself. He was a terrific promoter, and as a young man somehow came into possession of the Natpins, a small hotel (later to become the Commercial) at Baltimore and Frederick Streets.

This was an inexpensive place much patronized by traveling theatrical troupes, and here my father learned that he loved show people. He had the reputation of never turning away down and outers, and his attitude won him many lifelong friends among performers.

In 1910 what was to become the Gayety was broke, in the hands of the receivers. My father bought it with not much more than a handshake. He had practically no money, but he had the infectious ability to promote. I strongly suspect that one thing which helped him operate in the early years, when money was so scarce, was the loyalty of his show people friends.

I was born in 1918, and was running errands and making myself useful around the theater when I was a grade schooler. Show people there gave me the name of “Bud .” When I finished school at Calvert Hall, I went right to work, selling tickets. Before long I began helping my father book the acts, and I learned the business that way.

We had the best burlesque in the country. We booked mostly through the Hirst Circuit, out of New York. The Wheel, as show people called it, took in Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Pittsburgh , Boston, Youngstown, Scranton, Allentown, Cleveland, mostly one-week runs, with one and two-night stands at smaller towns along the route.

A thousand people filled the Gayety — orchestra seats, balcony and boxes — and we sold out quite often. When Ann Corio came to town we turned away customers. She was a big enough draw that she could demand her own terms, which often amounted to $1,200 plus a house percentage which boosted her to $2,000 a week — big money now, and much bigger in the 1930′s and 1940′s.

A show ran about 2 ½ hours. There was a star stripper, a No. 2 and often a No. 3 stripper, and three minor take-it-off performers. There’d be a big name comedy team, possibly one or two other comics working alone. There was a house singer, who did two numbers each show, usually as accompaniment for a costume number staged by the traveling chorus of 12 showgirls.

Practically every rainy day and clear night meant good business. On rainy days the theater would be packed with customers whose work was hampered by bad weather, mostly salesmen. There was continuous entertainment from noon to 5 P.M., 8.30 to 11 P.M. The place was open seven days a week, and it closed only during the hot spell from late May to early September, for it had no air conditioning.

The Gayety nightclub opened shortly after the theater, and it ran until Repeal on soft drinks and near beer. At the end of Prohibition it became a great deal more profitable business, much of it from theater patrons. We had a ladies’ wash room in the theater, but the men’ s room was downstairs in the night club. Most of the gentlemen who went down there stayed over for the floor show, more burlesque entertainment.

After my father died in 1950, I ran both the theater and the club for a while with my sister, Mrs. Marian Nickel McKew. Later we leased out the theater and spent our full time managing the club.

But the big old burlesque house was our first love. What a pain in the neck the big animated neon kicking girl sign was. Pigeons and starlings picked it as a roosting spot because they liked the warmth of all the lights. The mess they created was forever short-circuiting the wiring in the sign. But, because it was a landmark known around the world, we never thought of replacing it.

Like many other Baltimoreans, I miss the kicking girl. I don’t think The Block will ever be the same without her.

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25 Responses to Burlesque and the Girl on the Sign at the Gayety Theater

  1. Dave Beaudouin says:

    Thanks, Scott: Perfectly timed. Because nothing ever happens in Baltimore once. So, true or rumor you are related to the Nickels?

  2. joanne says:

    Nice Scott. I also remember, when my father was a real Baltimore Cabbie, and let me ride w/ him. He would take a dancer to work there, with me in the CaaaB

  3. I’m a Nickel. Huffines is my stage name.

  4. Jim Fox - el Zorro says:

    I was just writing friends of the wonderful times in the late-50s/early-60s, when I’d take the Grayhound bus north to Balimer’s East Baltimore Street for a late-night adventure — first seeking under-age-beer in the dark taverns, pizza slices from store-front vendors, people-watching — and the marvelous experirnce of real theatrical vaudeville burlesque at the Gayety Theater.

    The ladies -with real talent, the bump-and-grind band, the MC cracking jokes. It was a special experience, giving me precious memories of adventures my folks never would have imagened. I remember a few times sitting above, in a right-side box.

    Visiting the area last year, I drove East Baltimore street. Yes, it’s changed (or have I?) — I didn’t even want to park and walk the block, now depressed in a different way. Too bad, so many good memories — perhaps, best left as such.

    – Thanks for the background, and reality-check.

  5. Victor S. Travis says:

    Hope you have articles about my late sisters…JoAnn & Jean Carroll.
    They worked together until Jean got married.
    Billy “Boob” Reed was my brother-in-law. He later was billed
    as Billt “Zoot” Reed.

  6. Victor S. Travis says:

    Whoops…Make that BILLY…Billt !

  7. Victor S. Travis says:

    Whoops…Make that BILLY… not Billt ! Forgive the typo…It’s
    late and I’m OLD ! ! ;}

  8. I don’t have any ads for that period at all, my grandmother was renting out the Gayety at that point in time and then it burned a few years later… The News American archives might have ads but I haven’t gone to research them yet.

  9. Martin Horowitz says:

    Well, it’s been a long time since I helped my Dad, Sam Yorker, the theatre’s manager, in the box office. Dottie Flagg was his assistant. “Big Wally” up on the spotlight used to give me candy and Happ Hyatt used to make me laugh and gave me many big balloons. I remember snagging some costumes on the old dusty floors back-stage while hurrying back to my mom’s (Flash O’Ferrall) dressing room. Those costumes were expensive and I am told fetch quite a lot of money today. Those were the days, the early 60′s .. .. .. thanks for the article. I still have a cartoon done by Eddie Levin in 1957 that was treasured by my dad. It depicts several “show people” including my mom & dad. Pricele$$.

  10. Jane Allen says:

    I remember the ads for Gaiety Burlesque in the Baltimore Sun, and other burlesque theaters. The ads for Blaze Starr intrigued me. I was in elementary school and I wondered whether she was really named Blaze Starr and what exactly she did. I went to parochial school, and as a 9 year old, I remember how “naughty” those ads seemed. The archives of the Sun woud have these ads on microfilm.

    • A great resource for photos/articles about the Gayety Theater and the old Block is the News American photo archives, which are kept at the University of Maryland College Park library. They’re absolutely amazing! And, for nothing but the dime it costs to copy them, the helpful staff there will copy as many of the photos as you’d like. It’s where I did most of the research for the 1970s Block scenes that went into my novel “These Days,” a coming-of-age story about the daughter of a jazz musician who dreams of a show business life for herself. Would it be a spoiler to say she ends up in show biz, but it’s not exactly the show biz she’d always dreamed about? To read an excerpt please visit my website.

  11. Jane Allen says:

    This was in the early 60′s.

  12. Love this site and this article! I happened upon it while researching links to information about the once-stylish Block. This article captures perfectly the enduring charm that was once the Gayety Theater and the 20-some other clubs that comprised the Block.

    I’m a writer of novels that feature nostalgic backdrops and creative but fallen characters who yearn for the limelight. To read an excerpt of These Days, which takes place largely on The Block, visit my website.

  13. Charles Christian says:

    As a young Sgt at Andrews AFB in the summer of 1952 after two years in Alaska , some of us would run up to Baltimore at times to see the girlie shows. I remember Evelyn West and her treasure chest, and someone else and her twin .44′s. Heady stuff back in those days for a boy in the big town after a sheltered life. USAF then was all sweet, clean cut, innocent boys in the lower ranks. (LOL) Most got out after 3 or 4 years before they were ruined by the older career NCO’s.

    FYI: Alaska had brothels openly until 1956.

  14. mike palmere says:

    ah was fortunate enough to play with the band ther a few times as a ah young young man 17 16..forever thankful for that experince…out the back door and up the alley to ziggy”s saloon for a shot and a beer between comics and strippers…by the way..does anybody remember the american beer neon sign on the top of buildin” northeast corner of broadway and fayette st….it was a beautiful gas of a neaon sign..can”t find nobody that remembers..please let me know…thanx.

  15. Ed Mazerski says:

    The age requirement was 18 to get in, but when we were 16 they let us in, a few of us were always going and when we graduated from school in 1967 about 10 of us went there, it was great, usually it was about $2.50-5.00 to get in, and when the show was over we always went to either the Little Tavern or Pollock Johnny’s across the street, They were the good old days.

  16. Pingback: Grimacing Gargoyles greet history buffs on Baltimore Heritage walking tour - Baltimore Post-Examiner

  17. Mark Bartholome says:

    In the mid 1960′s I met Bud Nickel. I was in junior high school with his two sons who became my best friends. Bud was a very interesting man. He drank a bit and had this small crazy dog named smokey. Well me and his sons would smoke a little weed in the back room. One time Bud opened the door and yelled ” What the hell you smokin in here”. “Where’s Kenny, I heard Kenny in here?” Kenny was not allowed to hang around with Bob anymore. He was in the closet smokin weed. Came in through the back window.

  18. mike palmere says:

    who was the manager m,c, .. ah vaguely remember his name as nino or somethin” close to that.

  19. Pingback: Rites Set For J. H. Nickel, Former Operator Of Gayety | Nickel For Your Memories

  20. Stu Hyatt says:

    Scott,
    I started going to the Gayety when I was about seven years old (now 80). My father took me and my brother there to see our uncle Hap Hyatt. He would always use our names in his act. One year, we gave most of the chorus line Chicken Pox. I remember Peaches, Queen of Shake. While I was attending Ga. Tech, I came home and went down to the Gayety. I visited her in her dressing room and she gave me an autographed picture. Extremely nice woman with two very successful sons. Had some great times there. If you do not know about my uncle’s early days, give me a call and I hope you might be able to confirm this (360-676-1056).
    Stu Hyatt Bellingham,WA

  21. cynthia schaub says:

    nice article – am doing research for historical novel — 1908 gayety — also researching eve tonguay — anyone know if she appeared there? and was the sign always “burlesk”? was it ever burlesque?

    thanks.

  22. Always “Gayety Burlesk”.

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