The good memory of a reader puts Lyceum in its place

February 22, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The arrival of the blue envelope spelled trouble.

It was a letter from Mary Griepenkerl, a woman with a tenacious memory about her city. She had located an inaccuracy in this column:

" . . . I can't believe," she wrote, "that you could make such a factual error in your Feb. 15 article about Mardi Gras in Baltimore. The Lyceum Theatre was not just north of the corner of Charles and Chase streets in the 1920s, it was firmly ensconced in the block of Charles between Biddle and Preston, east side of the street. I lived as a child on East Biddle Street between Charles and St. Paul; in fact, I remember well the night the Lyceum burned . . .

"In those days, the block of Charles between Chase and Biddle was occupied by individual rowhouses on the east side with a couple of stores -- notably Irvin's Confectionary, or rather ice cream parlor -- among the brick or gray stone houses on the west side," Mrs. Griepenkerl stated in her note.

Right you are. I missed the location of the Lyceum by a city block.

"On a busy matinee day, I remember all the people outside the theatre. When I was roller skating down the street, I had to be careful not to roll into them," Mrs. Griepenkerl wrote.

She also described Irvin's ice cream parlor, another Charles Street institution.

"They made ices, ice creams, cakes and meringues. It was definitely not a carry out place. There was a very proper [man] who waited on you. He reminded me of the butler on the 'Upstairs Downstairs' television show. If you ordered ice cream for a party or Sunday dinner, he delivered it to your house in a freezer. The next day he'd come back and pick up the freezer," Mrs. Griepenkerl wrote of an earlier, more genteel era of Baltimore retailing and service.

The Lyceum Theatre, also known as Albaugh's, was a curious institution. It was much the uptown playhouse that catered to a society crowd. Maryland-born actor Edwin Booth, for whom the Booth Theatre in New York is named, was on its opening bill in "The Merchant of Venice," Nov. 3, 1890.

The Lyceum also had a popular bar where many a Baltimorean put down some Maryland rye.

"Artists, musicians and journalists met there daily to view with each other in good fellowships and play practical jokes," The Evening Sun said of the theater on April 25, 1925, the day the Lyceum burned.

In its heyday, the Lyceum, which sat 1,300, booked the top stage productions.

In the mid-1920s, the Lyceum seemed to be in trouble. Some of the local clergy were preaching against its selection of material. A play called "Seduction" was booked. The leading man was about to make good on what was promised in the title, but he hesitated.

"A pang of conscience hit him and he cried out, 'Oh, God, I can't.' There was a moment of silence and some wiseacre in the balcony shouted, 'Aw, go ahead,' " writes local theater historian Robert Headley in his book, "Exit."

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