An Early D.C. Stage For Musical Greats Has Quiet Last Call

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Before they became limousine famous, Emmylou Harris and Bruce Springsteen played in a litany of run-down, no-name joints, where small, unsuspecting audiences got that rare chance to see, hear and touch undiscovered genius.

In Washington, that joint was the Childe Harold, a cozy, wood-lined saloon in Dupont Circle, where, in its heyday, patrons filled every nook and cranny, the bathrooms reeked of marijuana and everyone talked for years after about whom they saw perform there.

Now the bar itself will become part of the city's collective memory.

After 40 years, the Childe Harold shut down Saturday for the last time. The owner made no announcement, saying he was too grief-stricken over losing something that has been in his blood since he was a teenager washing dishes in the kitchen and, later, broiling steaks for Springsteen between sets.

"This place has been my life," Hossein Shirvani said yesterday, seated at the bar as a friend removed mementos from the walls. Down came a framed copy of Springsteen's contract to play at the Childe Harold in May of 1973, two years before he landed on the cover of Time and Newsweek and became world famous.

Springsteen's payday for three nights: a grand total of $750.

Shirvani said he was forced to close because of a dispute with the property manager, real estate company Randall Hagner, which he said had wanted to nearly double his rent. When negotiations broke down, Shirvani said, the company hung a "Restaurant for Lease" sign on the building, effectively killing his chances of drawing clientele. "They forced us out," Shirvani said. A Randall Hagner spokeswoman said that Shirvani's lease expired more than a year ago and that the company could advertise the space under the terms of the agreement.

At its creation in 1967, the Childe Harold was christened for a Lord Byron poem celebrating a young man's world travels. The saloon soon became associated with one of its first owners, Bill Heard Jr., a whiskey-drinking raconteur whose brawling ways had gotten him kicked out of a host of gin joints across town.

At his own place, though, Heard was free to rant and rave, sometimes at his customers, including George McGovern, who wandered in one night in 1972 looking for French food only to get an earful from the owner about how his presidential campaign was doomed.

Heard began offering music in the early '70s at the bar's brick-faced home at 1610 20th St. NW, among the first nightspot destinations in otherwise sleepy Dupont Circle. The Ramones, Bonnie Raitt, Al Jarreau and Son Seals were among the eclectic mix that turned the bar into a well-known spot for rock, blues, country and jazz.

"If you wanted to hear great music and not get trampled, this was the place," said Christina Stevens, a longtime patron.

It was also the place to see if not the famous, then their sons and daughters. Jack Ford was a regular while his father was in the White House, and Eleanor Mondale, the vice president's daughter, tended bar.

Shirvani began working at the Childe Harold in 1971, after immigrating from Iran to study. He had planned to attend college in California, but he kept getting promoted, until 1982, when he bought the place from Heard.

Shirvani stopped offering live music, he said, because it became too difficult to book acts for an audience of fewer than 100. Where the performers had played, he opened a dining room, where he served steaks and burgers.

Shirvani said he had expected to keep the Childe Harold alive for years to come -- until he sat down to negotiate a new lease. "It's not something you want to tell people," he said of his decision to close. "It's not something you want to celebrate. It's breaking my heart."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company