From 1989 until it closed in 2006, Mr. Curtis presided over the Yacht Club, located in a basement of a Holiday Inn on Woodmont Avenue in downtown Bethesda, miles from the nearest navigable body of water. Nevertheless, an evening at the Yacht Club was considered a “cruise.”
He thought of himself as a coach, giving the pregame pep talk, orchestrating the plays. A marriage of two Yacht Clubbers was the equivalent of a touchdown. He gave varying estimates of the number of marriages that began with Yacht Club introductions, the highest being “more than 200 . . . and several ‘Yacht Club babies.’ ”
He didn’t count divorces. “Bad publicity,” he opined.
At its peak, the Yacht Club was drawing 2,000 customers a week. Fire marshals set a 299-person limit on capacity. It was usually full. Mr. Curtis liked it that way — easier for people to meet and hard for them to isolate. There was usually a line out the door and down the sidewalk.
Mr. Curtis would go out to assure customers that their time in line would be worth the wait.
“Folks,” Washington’s City Paper once captured him saying, “I want to tell you we have a smooth cruise going tonight and I’m going to get you all in. Now, I want you to look to your left and to your right, gentlemen. You’re looking at Washington’s best and brightest ladies. We’ve had 54 marriages and engagements at the Yacht Club, and two of them met in line.”
As the Yacht Club’s ranking officer, Mr. Curtis had a range of ploys to bring people together. Men, who had to abide by a coat-and-tie dress code, always had titles. They were introduced as “Admiral” or “Congressman” regardless of whether they’d ever served in the Navy or held elective office. Complimentary drinks were served to women sitting alone — beverages sent, Mr. Curtis would say, by an unidentified man just across the dance floor.
In a 1995 Washington Post profile, he was described as “relentlessly self-promoting, good-hearted, exasperating, charming, shameless, shrewd, corny. Everyone gets greeted at the door and every woman, without fail, gets a compliment. He notices hair, clothes, jewelry.”
“Just like Larry King flatters his guests, I flatter mine,” he said.
Thomas Franklin Curtis was born in New York City on Jan. 12, 1945. He was a grandnephew of Harry Cohn, a founder of what became Columbia Pictures. (Tommy’s father, a film and advertising executive, changed his surname to Curtis.)
He graduated in 1962 from the private Choate School (later Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Conn., and in 1966 from Yale University.
He then came to Washington to enter law school at American University and took a job as a waiter at Whiskey-A-Go-Go, a discothèque in the Georgetown neighborhood. But he was fired for paying too much attention to the good-looking women who walked in the door and not enough to selling drinks, said Frank Polar, who would become Mr. Curtis’s business partner and financial business manager over the next four decades.
Mr. Curtis stood 5-foot-6 and had a compelling “gift of gab,” Polar said, and he could “charm anybody.” He dressed well, usually a double-breasted blue sports coat, gray slacks, and “a shirt and tie that always looked brand new.”
Polar and Mr. Curtis ran Wayne’s Luv, a nightspot in downtown Washington, from 1967 to 1971. (“Wayne” was a creature of Mr. Curtis’s imagination.) In 1969, Mr. Curtis tried to parlay his skill at glad-handing into a seat on the D.C. school board, claiming that he would represent “the forgotten student.” He spent $10,000 from one of his trust funds on his campaign and lost by two votes.
Into the 1970s and ’80s, he invested and ran other clubs, including Annie Oakley’s, Club Zanzibar and P.T. Barnum’s. He did radio and television shows on WMAL, arranged Super Bowl parties at sites around the country, organized concerts at RFK Stadium in Washington and helped his brother Bruce produce films. Among them were “The Seduction” (1982) starring Morgan Fairchild and “Dreamscape” (1984) with Dennis Quaid.
On a dinner date in the late 1980s, he got the idea for a place that would cater to middle-aged singles. Having finished their meal, Mr. Curtis and his date wanted the evening to continue. But “there wasn’t a place where someone over 35 could go to have a drink, do a little dancing, maybe hold a lady in his arms,” he told City Paper.
Everything they tried was “either too casual, too loud, or just too young.”
But why would anyone want to spend an evening at a place like the Yacht Club?
“Frankly, I don’t want to run into my kids,” a divorced woman in her 50s once told The Post.
The world, Mr. Curtis often said, “is a singles bar.”
Renovations to the Holiday Inn building closed the Yacht Club in 2006. It was resurrected briefly on a monthly basis in 2009, but the revival did not last.
Over the years Mr. Curtis had several female housemates, partners, and significant others. But he never married, Bruce Curtis said.
To the City Paper, Tommy Curtis explained, “I never met anybody who would put up with me on a daily basis.”
A relentless salesman, he hawked “TTM” (talk to me) lapel pins, indicating availability and interest for $49.95. Those initials also stood for Tommy the Matchmaker.
He also claimed to have originated the phrase “meet and greet.” Post columnist John Kelly checked it out with the Oxford English Dictionary. The phrase went back at least as far as 1833, he found.
“At least I popularized it,” Mr. Curtis said.
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