Brothers Ernie and Gene Fodor remember their father, Jerry Fodor, and his orchestra playing in front of huge dancing crowds at The Gypsy Camp Nite Club at 1956 Front Street, Birmingham. The Gypsy Camp was originally named Strick’s Hall when it was built in 1902 and renamed The Playdium in the 1940s.
It was a lavishly designed recreational center equipped with a theater, bowling alley, and other activities for the Hungarian community, but it served people from throughout Toledo and Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan. Jerry Fodor(fourth from the right) and his orchestra at the Playdium. The bar, which can be seen at far left, was constructed of wood imported from Hungary.(Photo courtesy of Gene Fodor) The Playdium was built in Second Empire Style with Hungarian embellishments — serving as a landmark for the Birmingham community for over a century. “It was all Old World — Hungarian,” said Gene Fodor, a retired police detective. “They had the hall upstairs, which was an old hall with a stage, and I was married upstairs there in 1954. There were some good people, including an opera star who sang at my wedding.” In recent years, the building has been vacant and fell into tragic disrepair. On January 25, the City of Toledo gave an emergency demolition order, calling it unsafe, dangerous to human life, a fire hazard, and structurally unsound because the roof had collapsed down to the first floor. Exterior walls were pushed out and were in danger of falling to the street below. Immediately after the order, the 40,800 square foot structure was demolished. “Nobody knew,” Gene Fodor said. “My former brother-in-law called me and said, ‘Gene, they are going to tear the Playdium down. I didn’t see anything in the paper. My wife went over there the other day and we picked up a couple bricks.” The owner is listed as Michael Mossing of South Avenue, Toledo, who bought it from Valued Homes LLC for $1,500 on Nov. 1, 2010. In late 1999, the building was appraised by Lucas County at $199,000. In 2006, after nine years of ownership by a non-local holding company, Jeeva, Inc., the now-defunct River East Economic Revitalization Corporation put a bid of $22,000 at an auction, but it never closed. At that time, East Toledo business officials along with then chief financial operating officer of Tony Packo’s Café, Rob Horvath, had a vision of creating a Hungarian village to emulate an historic German village in Columbus. After touring the building, they feared the wrecking ball was coming soon, and they were right. Horvath, a cancer survivor, compared the condition of the building to a cancer victim, adding that he does not want to offend anyone who has lived with cancer. “Restoration costs are easily seven figures,” Horvath said. “It’s well over a million dollars. It’s probably two million dollars. I don’t think you can make the numbers work with putting that kind of money into that building.” Ernie and Gene Fodor remember the Playdium under different names, including Front Street Gardens. Later as the Gypsy Camp, it was owned by their grandmother, Mary (Fodor) Horvath, and their uncle and aunt, John and Irene Virag, who managed it prior to World War II. The Playdium facing Front St. in 2006. (Press file photo by Ken Grosjean) An advertisement promoting The Gypsy Camp in a Hungarian publication. Their grandmother was in charge of the food — which was known for its Hungarian flavor. The waitresses were decked entirely in Hungarian “gypsy” skirts and embroidered blouses. Ernie and Gene were children at the time, and Gene recalls cleaning tables and washing dishes while their mother, Mary, and aunt, Betty Kinsey, served tables. Their father, Jerry Fodor, was a swing violinist who led an orchestra that also played at other popular venues across Toledo, including Frankie’s Nite Club, The Flame Room, the Rose Room, and Tony Packo’s Café. At the Gypsy Club, if you were lucky, a violinist would approach your table in Hungarian style and play a romantic tune. “Downstairs was a restaurant colored with Hungarian colors and theme and curtains. The crowds were very good. People came from all over the city of Toledo to eat there,” Gene said. Ernie adds, “It was a swinging place. It had upstairs a big auditorium and dance hall, and they had a balcony and they would put on plays and shows up there — what they would call grape festivals that the Hungarians celebrated. They rented the upstairs out for weddings and private parties and all kinds of things like that.” It also hosted beauty contests, vaudeville acts, and the original bar was worth a considerable amount of money because the wood was imported from Hungary. During its Gypsy Camp days, it was tended by John Virag. “That bar was a classic bar,” Ernie Fodor said. “It was solid walnut and cherry, and they bragged about that begin there. It was a work of art with a lot of design, including carved and engraved woodwork.” Strick’s legacyDr. Ted Ligibel, Ph.D. Honorary Co-founder of the Maumee Valley Heritage Corridor and director of Eastern Michigan University's Historic Preservation program, wrote that prominent immigrant and builder John Strick, a native of Abauj County in northern Hungary, was keenly interested in the welfare of fellow Hungarians. East Toledo historian and author Larry Michaels said the Playdium has “that Hungarian flavor to it,” and Dr. Ligibel confirms that’s where the architecture originates from. Dr. Ligibel believes the architect of Strick’s Hall was David L. Stine, also the designer of the Lucas County Courthouse, the county jail and sheriff’s residence, and the Libbey House. Stine also designed Strick’s summer home on Lake Erie. After settling in Cleveland and then Toledo seven years later, Strick participated in a variety of religious and secular activities in both cities. The book, Hungarians in America, describes Strick as “a very generous contributor to the church as well as every other worthwhile institution, and his participation in any welfare or cultural movement assured its success.” Dr. Ligibel wrote, “It is not surprising that he built a large hall, originally known as Strick’s Hall, to serve the social and cultural needs of his fellow immigrants. Strick’s Hall became the secular counterpart to the church. The hall served not only as the major tavern of the neighborhood, but offered recreational amenities as well, including a second floor meeting hall with stage and balcony and a basement bowling alley.” According to Dr. Andrew Ludanyi, professor of history at Ohio Northern University and an authority on Hungarian culture, the building’s design and pale yellow brick have direct, Old World Magyar antecedents. “Indeed, the graceful arches with quoined surrounds on the second floor and the heavily Renaissance-inspired cornice are hallmarks of many public and religious structures in Hungary,” Dr. Ligibel wrote. “Close inspection, however, reveals the most remarkable aspect of Strick’s Hall — that of its fantastic array of Hungarian ethnic symbols situated within the deteriorating tin cornice of the building’s roofline. Here, among Renaissance-inspired parapets and dormers, are the most revered symbols of Hungarian culture — the national coat-of-arms, the crown of St. Stephen, and the Hungarian cross.” Dr. Ligibel says even though the structure was architect-designed, “there is no better example of ethnic-influenced vernacular architecture on a secular building in the area.”