Arts & Culture

New Owners “Waltz In” to Baltimore’s Oldest Karaoke Bar

Say hello to the fresh faces preserving the history of Walt's Inn—Canton's beloved, century-old dive.
—Photography by Mike Morgan

For the past decade, Ron Legler has been president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home of Baltimore’s historic Hippodrome Theatre. His life partner, Andrew Springer, runs the M&T Bank Exchange, the venue’s performance and events space that opened next-door last year. Call them a downtown power couple.

On weekends, though, you’re likely to find them in Canton, particularly at Walt’s Inn, the beloved dive bar and oldest karaoke bar in Baltimore, and not just as patrons. In late February, the couple bought the century-old building and business at 3201 O’Donnell Street, in hopes of keeping customers “waltzing in” to Walt’s Inn for another century to come.

“It’s a piece of Baltimore history,” says Legler. “We want to hang onto that.”

He and Springer discovered Walt’s after moving to the neighborhood in 2017. Walking between their house and O’Donnell Square, they became regulars, getting to know the longtime bartenders, and learning about the building’s legacy along the way. T

Two years later, the previous co-owner, Terry Watnoski, passed away, and then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which left his widow, Willi, struggling to keep the bar afloat. Legler and Springer worried that a real-estate speculator would swoop in and turn their local hangout, now only open two nights a week, into a million-dollar townhome, so they decided to buy it themselves, in order to retain the bar’s staff and sense of place.

“It’s been around a very long time, and we want to continue that tradition,” says Legler, noting that the circa-1920s bar once catered to shift workers from nearby factories along the harbor. Music was commonplace, and by the 1970s, the first karaoke machine arrived.

Between then and now, it only had a few owners, and two were named Walt, including Willi’s father, who eventually passed the bar to her. The location of Walt’s has worked in its favor. It’s three blocks east of Canton’s busy commercial district, the O’Donnell Square, and surrounded by several communities within easy walking distance.

Besides keeping the name, Legler and Springer have retained the Formstone exterior with its octagonal windows and the long interior bar, likely built in the 1920s. At the same time, there have been updates, such as new speakers, a credit-card reader, and a KaraFun karaoke system, featuring more than 80,000 songs, from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ’Em.”

Prices remain low, red Solo cups continue to be the glassware of choice, and Jell-O shots carry on. They’re now open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, allowing crooners to belt their hearts out into the wee hours of the night.

“People come here just to have a good time,” says Springer.

This isn’t the first time that Legler has run a night spot. He previously worked as a Broadway booking agent, and before moving to Baltimore, he co-founded Pulse, the popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where, in 2016, a mass shooting left 49 people dead and 53 wounded—the deadliest attack against the LGBTQ+ community in U.S. history.

The new owners want Walt’s to be welcoming to all, regardless of their age, race, gender, or sexuality—let alone their singing skills.

“I once sang ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and it was not very enchanting,” admits Legler, who hopes that Peabody Institute vocal artists pop in from time to time, or visiting performers swing through after their Hippodrome shows.

They are toying with ideas like theme nights, such as musical hits, yacht rock, and Sunday singalongs, and envision installing a recording studio on the third floor.

Some days, just before it’s time to open, Legler thinks of Willi’s late husband and all he did to keep this bit of Old Baltimore alive.

“I still feel Terry around,” he says, wistfully. “I think he’s happy that someone’s caring about the place.”

The Walts probably are, too.