A journey down memory lane, to the Baltimore of 50 years ago

Jacques Kelly

December 19, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

As Baltimoreans wrote the last of their Christmas cards 50 years ago tonight, radios were broadcasting singer Kate Smith, orchestras led by Fred Waring and Abe Lyman, comedians Amos 'n' Andy and tenor Frank Parker. The hit of the day was "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire -- I Just Want to Start a Flame in Your Heart."

People still traveled by public transit -- mostly the streetcar. They came in colors. The newest ones were streamlined, a dark forest green, with an orange stripe and cream top. But the fleet's backbone was the swaying yellow wooden car of World War I vintage.

Traffic lights were scarce. In late 1941, the city was digging through its pockets for the cash to put signals at Light and Lombard, Hanover and Pratt, Paca and Pratt, and Calvert and 33rd. Baltimore sidewalks still had hundreds of gas street lights which cast a soft light.

Baltimore fretted about traffic congestion. A rule went into effect banning the colorful tradition of outdoor vendors (Christmas trees, fruits, hard candy) along Lexington Market's sidewalks. People complained that more of the old city was falling victim to cruel efficiency.

Demolition crews knocked down two landmarks during the fall and winter of 1941. Cola Brothers leveled the masonry tonnage of the 1885 Rennert Hotel at Saratoga and Liberty streets. The salvaged lumber, window sashes, marble flooring, stained glass and doors were for sale.

And, at the northeast corner of Calvert and Pleasant, St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic was coming down. Built as a Universalist church, the structure housed two national political conventions. In 1844, the Whig Party nominated Henry Clay there. In 1848, the Democrats chose Lewis Cass.

The city wore a layer of coal dirt. Most homes were heated by it -- $10 a ton delivered. Factory smokestacks added to the soot and fly ash. Downtown was busy, a thicket of two-way streets and uncertain paving. At the harbor's edge, at the foot of Federal Hill, cargo ships were being outfitted with guns at the Bethlehem Steel ship repair yard along Key Highway. There was light manufacturing peppered all over downtown -- breweries, canning houses, pajama factories, lumber and coal yards.

Baltimore's new municipal airport, Harbor Field in Dundalk, had opened just a few weeks earlier. Three carriers called there -- Pennsylvania-Central, Pan American and Eastern.

Movies seemed to be everywhere. "The Shadow of the Thin Man" was showing at the Parkway, North and Charles; "Honky Tonk" at the Aurora, also on North Avenue; "The Little Foxes" at the Capitol, in the 1500 block of W. Baltimore St.; "Bad Man of Deadwood" at the Lord Baltimore, in the 1100 block of W. Baltimore St.; "Dive Bomber" at the Lenox, in the 2100 block of Pennsylvania Ave.; "Appointment for Love" at the State, Monument and Chester, and "Weekend in Havana," at the Senator on York Road.

A show of Mary Cassatt paintings drew a Sunday afternoon crowd to the Maryland Institute on Mount Royal Avenue. Pratt librarian Joseph Wheeler recommended these novels: "Restless Are the Sails," "Saratoga Trunk," "Random Harvest," "The Captain from Connecticut," and "The Hills Beyond." And the Central Library was open until 9 o'clock Sunday nights. Reginald Stewart had just been named director of the Peabody Orchestra.

The Baltimore Orioles ice hockey team played at Carlin's Iceland at Park Circle. During the afternoon, soccer games dominated the neighborhood fields. St. Casimir played St. Elizabeth. A Hauswald's Bakery team met at St. Bernardine's. Social Security tackled Stonewall. Duckpin bowling was everywhere.

Maryland was emerging from the Depression and builders (Awalt, Welsh, Novak, Palladi) were busy once again. New homes were ready at Colonial Village (Reisterstown Road and Seven Mile Lane), at Walther and Echodale (northeast Baltimore), in the neighborhoods of West Hills and Hunting Ridge (on the west side) and along Chesterfield Avenue, between Belair and Harford roads.

Housing was a serious issue. War workers were flooding into the city from Virginia, West Virginia and South Carolina. The movement was called an "exodus." There were angry charges that landlords overcharged and took unfair advantage of the situation. Housing remained segregated and there was pressure from the black community for change.

People met friends at the corner drugstore. Read's was the city's largest chain. A chocolate sundae was 10 cents. A grilled cheese, 10 cents. Cream cheese, date and nut bread, 15 cents. An egg malted milk cost a quarter.

Mal Hallett's orchestra played at the Belvedere Hotel's Charles Room. Johnny McGee's group was at the Chanticleer, Charles and Eager. Comedian Jan Murray appeared at the Club Charles. Lawson Vessels delighted the ivories at Little Willie's Inn on Druid Hill Avenue.

The other night clubs -- the Piccadilly (Fayette and Hanover), the Blue Mirror (900 block of N. Charles St.), the Pirate's Den (Mount Royal and Charles), Kibby's (711 Poplar Grove), Doc's (1817 N. Charles) and the Two O'Clock Club on The Block -- had their followings.

Eutaw Street's Hippodrome still was offering vaudeville acts with the feature movie. Earlier in the month, the live entertainment

consisted of a unicycle act, the Milt Herth trio (organ, piano and drum) and singer Jerry Cooper. He sang, "Beguine the Beguine," "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," and "Kiss the Boys Good Bye." The ventriloquist's radium-lighted doll sang a vocal of "My Man."

Along Lexington Street, the 10-cent store sheet music counters had copies of December's big sellers: "Tonight We Love," "Shepherd Serenade," "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Elmer's Tune" and "This Love of Mine."

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