The Block in its heyday

R. H. Gardner

May 19, 1992|By R. H. Gardner

,TC I ARRIVED at Camden Station on a sweltering September Sunday in 1941. I had just graduated from college, where I had become imbued with an insatiable lust for knowledge. I had heard that Baltimore was the birthplace of both H. L. Mencken and "The Star-Spangled Banner," which struck me as a fantastic combination. Then there were all those monuments, art galleries, concert halls, libraries and museums waiting to be explored, and I was itching to get started.

So the first thing I did after dropping off my bags at a Cathedral Street rooming house was go to a burlesque show.

The Block at the time boasted three theaters devoted to the ecdysiast's art, of which only the Gayety, located in the 400 block of East Baltimore Street, offered "first-class traveling burlesque." Its headline strippers sometimes came here directly from Minsky's in New York.

My visit to the Gayety that Sunday so stimulated my adolescent libido that it prompted a return to The Block the following Friday night. I was standing outside the Horn and Horn restaurant among a motley assortment of bookies, racetrack touts and other sporting types picking their teeth while awaiting delivery of The Sun's bulldog edition, when an incident occurred that made almost as deep an impression on me as had the earlier show at the Gayety.

A young woman with long blond hair and dressed in a tight white sweater swung out of the restaurant's revolving doors and, without looking right or left, moved all the teeth-pickers (including me) across the street to the stairs leading down to the Gayety. There, apparently in anticipation of her coming, fingers snapped, chairs were pushed around and beer appeared like magic on all the tables, while everyone held his breath for the woman's reappearance in the role of second stripper. Too bad she wasn't good. She lacked what Block veteran Diane Berton, inventor of the fur G-string, called "finesse."

Directly across East Baltimore street from the Gayety was the 2 O'Clock Club, later made famous by Blaze Starr. Starting as a teen-age waitress, Blaze had just decided to become a stripper when I met her in the early '50s. She knew she had all the necessities but an animal to accompany her act. The stripper Zorita had popularized the notion that nothing was so erotic as contact between soft female flesh and the scales of a hideous beast. Zorita used snakes. Blaze chose a baby alligator.

"But it's so expensive," she told me in an interview in a booth at the back of the 2 O'Clock Club. "First, I've got to have his teeth pulled. Then I've got to have his toenails clipped. It's going to cost a fortune before I even begin."

Like many such communities, The Block tended to create legends. The oldest was of Willie Gray, who reputedly passed out under a table at the Oasis one night and never left. The most notorious of block emcees, who achieved immortality through his ability to insult the customers, Willie had his own list of legends, which he loved to enumerate while relaxing in his club cellar, sipping a glass of rye.

There was Mickey Steele, a 6-foot female acrobat who, as bouncer at the Oasis, always ascertained where an obstreperous customer came from and then hurled him in that direction. There was Robert (Frenchy) Sommers, a tattoo artist who rendered the entire British fleet -- battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines, all proceeding at full speed -- around a sailor's middle. There was Sweetcakes Dorsey Calk, a bookie who owned so many clothes he felt compelled to go up to his hotel room and change every hour.

Finally, there was the Folly -- a combined hotel, theater and cabaret legendary for, among other things, a story about how The Block got its name.

"In the old days," explained Willie Gray, "hookers used to sit around tables at the Folly waiting for a sucker to drop in. Outside a guy named Shipley kept a couple of limousines, and for two bucks a man could rent one for a five-minute drive. The driver went slow so the customer could get his money's worth, whatever that might be, and they always went the same way: south on Front to Lombard, east on Lombard to the Fallsway, north on the Fallsway to Baltimore and back to the Folly again. They called it taking a ride around the block."

Then there was the legend of Bettye Mills. She was a woman determined to pull herself up by her G-strings to a position of importance and respectability. Through her manipulation of a series of Block nightclubs, in which she performed as headline stripper, she managed to buy a house in Roland Park and send her daughter to an exclusive finishing school.

She became a benefactor to people in trouble -- ex-cons, girls down on their luck, men whose wives didn't understand them. At last, she figured, she had made it. And she had.

And then she died.

But that was not the end of it. Not quite. Despite a cancer that, among other things, caused her to go blind, she was able to plan her funeral -- the clothes she would wear and the route the procession would take.

On April 22, 1956, led by a police motorcycle escort, the procession wound through the downtown area. As it neared the row of neon-lighted clubs in The Block, the doors (according to the legend) burst open and girls, still in their stripping regalia, flowed into the street and stood at the curb, crying and waving handkerchiefs in fond farewell.

Now that The Block apparently has reached its last days, everyone old enough to have been there has a favorite memory. For me, it will not be so much a memory as an image -- of a line of half-naked girls standing at a curb waving tear-stained handkerchiefs at the hearse carrying the body of their friend and colleague. She was 48 years old.

R. H. Gardner, the retired drama and movie critic of The Sun, is author of "Those Years," his recollections of his early years in Baltimore.

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