Charles' champion: Cusack rides to the rescue of art theater

February 24, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

It figures that James "Buzz" Cusack would step in with his nephew to save the Charles Theatre.

He's the guy who sells Christmas trees in arctic conditions to benefit his local elementary school's string orchestra, even though his daughters are not students there.

He's the guy boiling bagels in his new cafe at 5:30 a.m. because ice and snow have deterred the baker.

He's the guy who helps the local pastor collect food for the hungry.

He's the guy who took his lumps on the Baltimore City school board, driven by an untempered commitment to public education.

He's the guy who refuses to give up city living, at a time when peers head for the counties in droves.

And now, Mr. Cusack -- a successful general contractor -- and nephew John Standiford are taking a Baltimore institution under their wing, in the name of tradition, good movies and a commitment to city life.

"Living in the city is a responsible way to live, environmentally, resource-wise and socially," Mr. Cusack says. "You don't just leave because things aren't perfect."

Some may call him a dreamer, but that label is rejected with all the force this mild-mannered, unassuming, obstinately modest man can muster. He's no Don Quixote, tilting idealistically at city ills, he says. At a time when urban real estate is a bargain, his efforts as a general contractor, cafe owner and now, theater manager, are simply the "sensible thing to do," Mr. Cusack says.

Yet he has worked hard to carve a niche where social awareness and business sense merge in a pragmatic whole. "I'm committed to the city and I'm doing my best to make that commitment worthwhile," he says with a shrug, as if his motivations should be self-evident to any sane person.

Mr. Cusack discusses his low-key quest to make the city livable as he sits at a glass-top table in Cusack's, his gleaming Bolton Hill cafe, open less than a month. With bushy black hair, a salt-and-pepper beard, and striking blue eyes, Mr. Cusack doesn't come close to looking 52, which he is. His Charles theater partner and nephew, Mr. Standiford, sits next to him, sipping a frothy cappuccino and munching bagels.

Morning sunlight floods the corner storefront, Bob Dylan's on the sound system and Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman's colorful portraits and landscapes grace the walls. Jewel-hued vinegars and tony pastas line the shelves, "Buzzy's blend" of coffee beans brim in a burlap sack and a jar of Berger's Cookies ("A Baltimore Tradition") sits on the counter, an invitation to partake of the city's quirky glories.

"Everybody's different," Mr. Cusack says. "Everyone operates in what they perceive to be their best interests. But what kind of world will we leave for our kids if we keep doing things the same way?"

Marvin Bigham has known Mr. Cusack ever since the two men and their families moved to Bolton Hill during the urban pioneering days of the early 1970s. "Buzzy is my hero," he says of his good friend.

A strong business sense

Mr. Cusack has never let his astute business instincts interfere with his heart, says Mr. Bigham, a guidance counselor at Dundalk High School. "I don't see [Cusack's] as a great money-making effort," he says. "But he's getting a thrill out of it."

As a general contractor, Mr. Cusack oversaw the renovation of the South Baltimore firehouse occupied by Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "I don't know anyone who is more committed to this community," Mr. Lehman says. "He's very concerned about public services in Baltimore. He has worked very hard as a member of the school board. He's very community-oriented and that is what has led him to help save the Charles."

With the exception of four pre-adolescent years spent in California, Mr. Cusack has lived in Baltimore all his life. He grew up in the Northwood community and attended City College and the University of Baltimore.

Since moving to Bolton Hill, Mr. Cusack has worked to circumscribe a small, walkable universe for himself and his family which he tends with the devotion of a mother hen. "I believe in putting all your eggs in one basket and sitting on them," Mr. Cusack says.

His wife, Nancy, is co-owner of Shenanigans, a Roland Park toy store. His daughters, Kathleen and Elizabeth, attend Friends School, a fact that makes Mr. Cusack, a public school champion, visibly uncomfortable.

He remains involved with his neighborhood Mount Royal elementary school, where he has helped to launch and support a string orchestra pilot program.

Mr. Cusack has little to say about his term on the city school board and professes not even to remember the years he served (from 1990 to 1992.) Enigmatically, he says the public school system's "political environment doesn't lend itself to solving problems. It lends itself to managing problems which can't be managed." Friends say Mr. Cusack became discouraged by the school board's refusal to follow up on community concerns.

Problems traced to racism

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