For 53 years, Baltimore's maven of mischief has been teaching kids the meaning of GOOD, CLEAN FUN

July 25, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,RAFAEL ALVAREZ is a reporter for The Sun.

Virginia S. Baker stands at the crossroads of Monument Street and Belnord Avenue and looks back through the long scope of the 20th century for the magical place of her youth.

"This," she says, "is where I learned all my tricks."

Her tricks were mastered during a 1930s East Baltimore childhood spent running the streets around her family's confectionery store. Back then everyone for blocks knew the kid who ruled the sidewalks on roller skates as Queenie.

It was a world of horseplay and monkeyshines that forged Miss Baker into Baltimore's undisputed, all-time champion of fun and games -- a playground pioneer with 53 years at full throttle in the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. She is perhaps the only civil servant in America in charge of an office called Adventures in Fun.

Along the way, she has lasted through the administrations of nine Baltimore mayors, through the evolution of fun from spinning tops to virtual-reality video. She has worn out more pairs of tennis shoes than most people will ever own, while delivering entertainment and exercise to three generations of Baltimoreans.

The kids who were on the playground her first day on the job in 1940 are now the grandparents of the kids who come to her for soccer balls, board games and art supplies at the city's Clarence Du Burns Soccer Arena in Canton.

When Baltimore public-school students got their report cards in June, a note was slipped in with the grades -- a memo telling families who to call for free activities to fill the idle hours of summer.

The phone number school officials gave out rings on Virginia Baker's desk.

Fun, as Miss Baker knows it, is simple: chicken-clucking, peanut-shucking and hog-calling contests; frog hops; turtle derbys; puppet shows and magic acts; an Aug. 2 swap day at the Broadway Market Square in Fells Point, where kids can trade old toys but not their brothers and sisters; and, in the same place, the annual Aug. 16 celebration of Elvis Presley.

All of it is for kids.

You see, the children of Baltimore have always been Virginia Baker's kids -- the ones who screeched on swings, skinned their knees, and whooped and hollered and carried on outside the way they never could at home. Just the way little Queenie carried on back in an age when toys were simple and most of the games kids played came out of their heads.

In the age of Nintendo, it's hard to conjure a time when simple things were considered fun.

Yet, when Virginia Baker lines kids of the '90s up for beanbag tosses or sack races, they have a ball.

"A kid," she says, "is still a kid."

The foundation for a half-century of teaching kids how to get healthy kick out of life was laid at the corner of East Monument Street and North Belnord Avenue -- a sidewalk laboratory for a life's work of play.

And it was mixed up with enough mischief to give Huck Finn a run for his money through the narrow alleys of a long-ago Baltimore, a city fading away in old photo albums but vibrant in the memory of the 71-year-old woman who helped pioneer playground recreation in this town.

"We played every game you can imagine out here," she says during a visit back to the corner, looking around the place she called home from infancy until her father died in 1954.

"God, we had fun here!"

Queenie rode scooters.

Shot marbles.

Played tag.

Spun tops.

Made yo-yos sing and puppets dance.

She made kites out of newspapers and sticks.

"I used to fly a kite right here," she says, looking south on Belnord Avenue. "And I made the kite myself. I was 8 years old."

And she roller-skated from home to the Northeast Market near Johns Hopkins Hospital and back again.

She got black eyes from roughhousing, and the local butcher put beef on them to keep the swelling down.

Miss Baker is asked:

"Were you a bruiser?"

"Yeah," she says.

"Did you get into some scrapes?"

"Oh, yeah."

When Queenie disobeyed, fibbed, or otherwise landed her backside in hot water -- which was not infrequent -- her beloved skates were taken away as punishment.

Like the time she refused to tattle on the kid who threw a doughnut at the head of a diminutive neighborhood man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Bigger.

She says: "We used to hide behind corners and shout: 'Grow a little bigger!' "

Getting her skates back meant much to Queenie, who today remembers she wore out many wheels rolling around her neighborhood.

"Schumann's is where Queenie used to buy her replacement skate wheels. Cost me 7 cents a wheel," she says. "That's the trouble with kids today, they throw the skates away when the wheels wear out. You can go to a hardware store that sells the wheels."

Schumann's Hardware at Monument Street and Kenwood Avenue, a block from the confectionery store, is still in business today. But Miss Baker doesn't know that Schumann's doesn't sell skate wheels anymore. And Schumann's doesn't know of any hardware store that does. "You've got to be kidding," said a man who answered the phone there.

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