City hatter ships 5,000 Bush/Quayle caps to Houston

August 14, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

In the days when the Hippodrome Theater booked live entertainment on Eutaw Street, Lou Boulmetis' grandfather cleaned hats for such famous Americans as Red Skelton, Bob Hope and the Three Stooges.

Mr. Boulmetis has followed in the old hatter's footsteps by providing customized lids, 5,000 of them, for the followers of George Bush and Dan Quayle.

At Hippodrome Hatters, the dying trade of cleaning, blocking, and making hats lingers toward the end of the millennium. But this Sunday the world will see a bit of its work as delegates to the Republican convention don Bush/Quayle painters' caps from the old family business.

"The Republicans just called me up out of the yellow pages one day in January, asked for a price on 250,000 embroidered baseball caps or 350,000 painters' caps," said Mr. Boulmetis.

"Most people who call up with an order like that are serious."

But so far the Republicans need only 5,000 caps, embossed with Bush/Quayle on their crowns to better catch the eye of television. They were delivered yesterday to the convention site in Houston.

"It's worth many thousands of dollars," said Mr. Boulmetis, 40, who runs the business with his wife, Judy.

A contract for a quarter-of-a-million painters caps -- which could come through if campaign offices around the country want them after the convention -- would be worth about a million dollars before expenses.

Such high-profile jobs show up now and then at 15 N. Eutaw St., where Mr. Boulmetis' grandfather moved the business in 1930 after spending 14 years at the St. Louis Cleaners on The Block.

Mr. Boulmetis has made, altered, and cleaned hats for the Barry Levinson movies "Tin Men," and "Avalon," and he gets work from theaters and people who re-enact battles from the Civil War.

And, although he has never met the man, he has sold Sherlock Holmes "deer stalker" hats that found their way to the dome-like pate of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"He's a very big size," said Mr. Boulmetis. "A seven and five-eighths."

Had he been born in the 19th century, Mr. Boulmetis could have done good work for another well-known politician who liked to shield his skull.

"My specialty is top hats from the 1800s," he said. "I can make a hat look like Abe Lincoln just took it off his head."

But he and his wife mostly clean chapeaus for the common man.

Hordes of hats come in from dry cleaners in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and right off the street, some of them hanging together with duct tape.

"Two days ago, a man came in with a hat that was falling apart, he said it was his lucky hat and he was pleading with us to clean it," said Mrs. Boulmetis.

"It was a 1940s fedora, Goodwill wouldn't have taken it, but it was this man's best friend," said Mr. Boulmetis.

"It was a religious object to this man, so we cleaned it for him," said his wife.

BTC Another time, a man came in with a hat that was run over by an 18-wheel tractor trailer.

Said Mrs. Boulmetis, brimming with pride: "Lou brought it back to life."

Just the way he brought Hippodrome Hatters back to life.

In 1983, Mr. Boulmetis was a regional manager for the General Mills corporation with a master's degree in business administration from the University of Baltimore.

Down on Eutaw Street, his namesake grandfather, who had jumped ship in Baltimore during World War I as a 15-year-old cabin boy on a Greek freighter, was spending his days cleaning hats.

Mr. Boulmetis had helped the old guy over the years, picking up the trade on odd afternoons of his childhood, and when his grandfather died at age 85 in December 1984, he took over the business.

"It started when I was a kid," Mr. Boulmetis said.

"I'd see my uncle altering suits, my father dry-cleaning and my grandfather doing the only thing that looked worthwhile to me -- cleaning hats."

He committed himself to the vocation on Christmas Eve of that year when, going through some of the old man's stuff, he found a picture of his beloved Papou cleaning hats in a photo dated Christmas Eve, 1946.

He still uses his grandfather's tools, most of them wooden and no longer made.

"Even though most people don't know a crown from a brim, I could train someone to do this in an hour," he said.

"But it takes a lifetime to master."

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