Those were the days

Monday Book Reviews

December 17, 1990|By Noyes DuBedder

THOSE YEARS: Recollections of a Baltimore Newspaperman. By R.H. Gardner. Sunspot Books, Galileo Press. 233 pages. $14.95.

THOSE WERE the days, my friend," the singer laments in "Cabaret." "We thought they'd never end."

But they did end, and so did "those years," the 33 mostly marvelous, enchanting years Hal Gardner spent toiling for The Sun as reporter, rewrite man and critic.

Those years began happily in 1951, when he joined the paper after a professionally unspectacular decade in Baltimore as aircraft worker, insurance man and aspiring playwright. They ended sadly in 1984, when, feeling unappreciated by new management after the paper's sale, he retired.

But during those years between, Gardner carved out a niche matched by few in the long, often bright history of The Sun. At the height of his career he was recognized by those behind the footlights and by audience members alike as a theater critic of rare perception, analytical insight and gifted literary expression.

Many of Gardner's thoroughly entertaining recollections embrace this aspect of his work. He not only influenced the ticket-buying of an entire generation of Baltimoreans; but he helped shape the life of the city's theater itself.

For evidence, there is the volume of letters frequently generated by his review of a play. But Gardner gives virtually as much prominence to critical letters as to those praising him. For example, there is one from a reader disagreeing with Gardner's appraisal of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" and calling the Gardner review "untalented tasteless smut." Then, referring to Gardner's own disappointing attempts at playwriting, the correspondent post-scripts, "Tenn. Williams was writing quality plays long before you failed."

Gardner's inclusion of the post-script -- as well as his dissection of his own misadventures as a dramatist -- indicates a forthrightness always welcome but seldom found in such works.

Further evidence of Gardner's effect on the health of Baltimore theater can still be found at Calvert and Monument streets, where Center Stage flourishes as one of the nation's finest regional playhouses. Gardner saw the need for such a place and lobbied openly in print and in person to help make it a reality. But after its opening in 1963, despite his natural desire to see it succeed, he demonstrated commendable objectivity in critiquing its efforts like a stern uncle monitoring a frisky nephew.

Fortunately, this lively account of Baltimore theatrical institutions goes beyond the theater. It includes also the waystops and watering holes that seemed magnetic to a young, foot-loose Gardner exploring a city culturally alien to his native Mayfield, Ky., or the Southwest of his days at Texas Christian University.

Among such institutions were the old Press Club on Fayette Street and those two notorious fleshpots on The Block, the Oasis ("world's worst show, world's best time") and the Gayety. To the Gayety Gardner allots a classic chapter, reviving the stupendous sights and jarring sounds of undulant strippers, drummers' rim-shots, lumbering candy butchers and barkers' pitches.

The pages of "Those Years" are peopled by many of the famous performers Gardner interviewed: Danny Kaye, the Gabors, Melvyn Douglas, Tallulah Bankhead and Oscar Levant. Discussing these, he refuses either to fawn or to take the cheap shot.

But his softer treatment is reserved for the less widely acclaimed. There is Willie Gray, the raunchy Oasis emcee who insults customers by night to support his daytime existence as a typical Baltimore row house family man and father of three. There is Lorry Quakenbush, an admitted second-echelon pool hustler and handyman whose letters to Gardner are laced with the basic wisdom of a sidewalk Socrates but who literally runs from efforts to convert him into a celebrity. There is Morris Martick, who is known to some as a hard-bitten keeper of a Mulberry Street saloon-turned-French-cafe but who is revealed by Gardner as the dewy-eyed, desperate savior of a disabled pigeon about to be crushed by a truck. There are also stark passages involving his father's misfortunes in business and his valiant mother's last illness.

Gardner helped spark a Baltimore journalism at its free-wheeling best, at a time perfectly blending a reporter's literary creativity with factual responsibility. But, he now observes, that time has faded.

"In the last decade or so," Gardner says in explaining his retirement, "much of the fun has passed out of newspaper work." He blames, at least in part, the "unimaginative martinets" who came to run Baltimore papers. Gardner persuades us that newspapering has, indeed, changed much since "those years" -- and that not all the change has been for the good.

Noyes DuBedder is a Baltimore writer.

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