The Block: Hey, what a heyday!

January 18, 1994|By James M. Merritt

THE massive police raid on The Block Friday night may spell the end of Baltimore's sin strip. But The Block already had been greatly diminished morally and physically.

In its heyday, it spread for three blocks along East Baltimore Street, anchored on the west by the Gayety Burlesque Theater at Holliday and, on the east, by the popular Miami night club on Harrison Street. In between was Max Cohen's famous Oasis, the "world's worst night club," at Baltimore and Frederick streets.

I was not a regular on The Block but, being in business at the old Marsh Market at Lombard Street and Market Place, I was friendly enough with (though sometimes apprehensive about) my neighbor. Often, I had to send an emissary to roam The Block in search of an errant truck driver whose boss down in Dixie with melons or lopes to load was screaming for his trailer.

But I was a fan of the ecdysiasts who headlined the shows at the Gayety, not to mention the famous comedians who began their careers in burlesque: Phil Silvers, Abbott and Costello, Rags Ragland, James Barton and Harry Conley (who always explained why he wanted to be buried in a paper coffin).

My interest in the striptease was not prurient. I considered the exhibition to be an art form in which each of the queens developed distinctive nuances. For instance, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and Margie Hart performed in front of the curtain. Smiling demurely, they strolled slowly back and forth while disrobing with great elan and while their popeyed devotees moved closer to the edge of their seats. They gave me the impression they were performing a not-very-pleasant civic duty like voting for a candidate whose competency was in question.

However, one of the ecdysiasts approached her work differently. Her name was Hinda Wasau, and when she came on, the curtain was raised because she was going to need the whole stage.

She strode about laughing lustily while unhooking the integral parts of her costume and tossing them away contemptuously. The joie de vivre she exuded was contagious. Suddenly, she would stop, spread her legs and, with her back to the audience, clasp her hands behind her flaming red hair. She would then palpitate her cheeks, singly or in unison, in perfect time with the ,, orchestra's martial tempo.

From these descriptions, it should be clear that I approached these exhibitions with the objective attitude of an art critic called to judge a recently discovered cache of nudes by Rubens. How else can I explain the ringing in my ears every time I think of Hinda's act? I firmly believe the great state of Wisconsin named a town and its insurance company after its favorite daughter.

On the northeast corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets was Lubin's, possibly the first motion picture theater in Baltimore. There were other movies along The Block called "scratch houses," one of which was the Wilson, which was for men only, and where smoking was allowed. A down-front seat was imperative if you wanted to read the subtitles through the haze.

The Wilson Amusement Co. enlarged its theater in the early '20s and renamed it the Rivoli. Smoking was out. With an entrance on Fayette Street available, people from all sections came to enjoy the most beautiful movie theater in Baltimore.

It boasted a fine orchestra under the direction of Felice Iula, and I remember leaving the Gayety after a matinee and crossing the street to the Rivoli to catch the world-famous composer Victor Herbert leading an augmented orchestra in his own compositions. The Rivoli was also the site of the Waring Pennsylvanians' first theater gig.

No group "doing" The Block in those days failed to visit the Oasis, where Willie Wood, the longtime master of ceremonies, and his chorus line of 200-pounders held forth. Wood's abrasive style blazed a trail for Jack E. Leonard and Don Rickles.

After the show the group had the choice of going to the old Horn and Horn restaurant on Baltimore Street just east of Guilford Avenue or St. Vincent's Church on Front Street for early morning services. Horn and Horn's chicken or ham biscuits were out of this world, and its coffee was the best in the world.

But those offerings could not hold a candle (literally and figuratively) to St. Vincent's. Perhaps the 500 coppers the other night should have taken those dangerous criminals around the corner and up the street to St. Vincent's. Still, these many years later, it offers spiritual refreshment.

Octogenarian James W. Merritt lives in the Charlestown Retirement Community, which this month is publishing a collection of his essays for Other Voices.

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