Hard-core nostalgia: Gardner remembers old Baltimore

On Maryland

December 12, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

THERE WAS once a Baltimore where one could walk the streets without worrying about getting mugged, where one traveled by street car, when real people lived in the city and those in Glen Burnie or Cockeysville were farmers; when one could drop down to The Block for a couple of beers to leer at a young Blaze Starr or guffaw at Battleship Maggie without worrying about one's moral fitness.

It was a time when television was something dumb and fuzzy on a round screen in a big box, nothing dazzling like the store windows on Howard Street. It was a Baltimore where newspapers were printed with real ink in a dozen editions on thunderous machines, and journalists picked up their police station telephones to call for "rewrite," just as they did in the twenties. Reporters in the fifties mostly didn't wear twisted felt hats, however, and they didn't shout.

R. H. Gardner, once the theater critic for The Baltimore Sun, brings back those days of civility in a 233-page book of memoirs. It is written with his well-remembered clarity and easily digestible prose, rising to elegance when it's required. For anyone who cares about Baltimore's past, Gardner's book will be a treat. For anyone with a glimmer of curiosity, Gardner rewards with dozens of vignettes about his town in his youth. His long overdue work is called simply, "Those Years: Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman." It was published by the Galileo Press, Sunspot Books, and costs $14.95 in soft cover.

What Gardner has done is to successfully shuffle together what could be three books, one on his newspaper days, another on the life on a critic and one of his early life and family.

He writes with an honesty that escapes some memoir writers. And of course, he writes more about the people in the news business than those in other fields. He follows the rule that journalists find each more interesting than those who make the news. Gardner tells tales of The Sun's mighty editors, the legendary Charles H. (Buck) Dorsey, Jr. and Edwin P. Young, Jr. and Clarence Caulfield. There are real stories about many long gone and those few who remain. Walking through his pages are John Goodspeed, Janetta Somerset, Patrick Skene Catling, Ned Burks, Frank Porter, Jay Spry, Joe Ridgely, Russell Baker, David Lee Maulsby and Albert Sehlstedt among many others.

Gardner doesn't gloss over the hard-drinking habits of many of his old colleagues, though he clears them of being cursed with alcoholism. He maintains that while "the alcoholic drinks to escape reality, the old-time newspaper man drank to celebrate it." Those gatherings among journalists at the old and long-gone Press Club were a replay of the day's struggles with the news, editors and sometimes each other. But Gardner does paint portraits of some who were plainly escapees as well.

A comparison of Gardner's memoirs with those of Russell Baker's "The Good Times" is inevitable. The two were contemporaries. They cover the same period in their opening chapters. They write extensively about many of the same people -- Dorsey, Young, Caulfield, Somerset and Catling. Both are confirmed romantics. But their characters come differently. Baker worked with pastel images; Gardner drew more sharply in sort of pen-and-ink sketches. His people have added dimensions, sometimes with warts and all included, though Gardner does not resort to any malice.

Gardner, like Baker, was essentially a loner. His writing reflects inner thoughts, but unlike Baker, he was also an explorer of the night side of the city. And his book includes sketches of Baltimore institutions like The Block, the Oasis Club with the incomparable Willie Gray, Martick's during several of its phases as well as every theater, from its infancy.

He includes characters who should not be forgotten -- like zTC Douglass Hall, the old-fashioned publicity man and some his sure-to-produce news gimmicks, like a statue honoring Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Or Lorry Quakenbush, the semi-literate pool hustler and philosopher, whose letters remain gems of common sense.

"I am a liberal in everything but art, in which, alas I am a reactionary," Gardner wrote. And he explains why. And he brings back some of his biting criticisms aimed at such greats as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. There is rich theater lore related including encounters with personalities from Oscar Levant to the Gabor sisters.

It is all hard-core nostalgia, memories and insights, the stuff of not one life but many. Cheers.

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