Paint and Powder to admit women

March 19, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

For 101 years, some of Baltimore's most powerful men have kept a lock on a private club where members take the stage once a year to sing, dance and dress up like women.

This week, they decided to allow real women in the club.

Historically white, male and socially well-connected, the Paint and Powder Club has allowed a move by its board of governors to stand, thus deleting the phrase "a member of the club shall be a male" from the group's bylaws.

"Some of the older members were against it; the younger members are generally for it," said Robert S. Maslin III, 50, the club president. "We need to make changes to keep the club going. Quite frankly, women have always done a lot of the work."

Baltimore's Paint and Powder Club began putting on variety shows for charity in 1893, a day when the city's bluest blood lived in Mount Vernon and Eutaw Place, servants were called upon to help with costumes, and "proper" women did not appear on stage. Men took female parts in the show, and relished the fun of it.

Similar clubs formed for the amusement of the social classes existed in other parts of the country, like the Wig and Mask Club, which continues in Philadelphia. Baltimore's troupe is believed to be the longest-lived.

"I think it began out of plain boredom because society was [expletive] dull," said Arnold Wilkes, 79, who joined in the late 1940s. "So they decided to put on a show and had so much fun they never let it go."

While the show goes on -- this year's performance of "Twice as Good!" will be held April 29 and 30 at the Scottish Rite Temple of Free Masonry on North Charles Street -- change has taken its toll on the club.

"This show once played 11 states and performed for President Cleveland, but a lot of people don't even know what Paint and Powder means in this town anymore," Mr. Wilkes said. "There was a time when the picture of a very prominent banker dressing up as Queen Isabella for a charity production of '1492' was hilarious in 1911. Today, people wouldn't even look across the street to see something like that."

Once the domain of privileged, dashing young men looking for kicks and cut-ups, the group is now decidedly geriatric. In the past decade, attrition has lowered the number of members from about 220 to 160. When Mr. Maslin spoke of younger members agitating to bring women into the club, he was talking about men in their 50s.

"We have eight or 10 older people die, retire or drop out every year and maybe only five new members," said Harry Silverwood, 59, the club parliamentarian. "We didn't even put [the issue of admitting women] to a vote Tuesday night because not enough members showed up for a quorum."

Where American homes once boasted pianos -- which required a human who knew how to play it if there was going to be music -- tape decks and televisions now provide home entertainment. The wail of electric guitars has nearly relegated the banjo to the status of artifact and most women are too busy working to support their families to consider the propriety of appearing on stage.

Only the two world wars and the Depression have kept the group from putting on shows, the singular purpose of the club. Women have appeared in the productions since 1932, according to Mr. Wilkes, but were never allowed to join the club until Tuesday, when a board decision to permit women failed to come up for a vote during a membership meeting at Roland Park Presbyterian Church.

"I would hope they include women for more reasons than just wanting the group to stay alive," said Bernice "Bernie" Cook, the longtime musical director for the show and one of about a half-dozen women who have submitted applications for membership.

"A lot of people love the tradition of the men's club and I can understand that, but why should we be content to do the work of men without the self-esteem of being a member?"

Mrs. Cook also believes that the historically hand-picked, members-and-by-invitation-only club must open itself to the public if it is to have a chance of surviving. So far, the club has persevered in honoring the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, but those traditions may spell its doom.

"They're still publicizing the show by word of mouth and that's not enough anymore," she said. "If you're going to raise money for charity, you need an aggressive marketing campaign, not a show you put on for yourself and your friends."

In 1893, the group raised $10,000. Last year it raised $6,000 for the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, members said. This year's beneficiary, which is helping to sell tickets, is the Hilgenberg Children's Center for speech disorders, a Masonic charity.

Said Mr. Maslin: "We don't raise as much money as we used to, about five or six thousand dollars, and because of that some charities aren't even interested in us anymore. It's almost become a self-serving affair for a bunch of businessmen who like to get out on stage and make fools of themselves."

And a big part of the traditional foolishness is going out in drag, which survives in about four of the show's 20 numbers.

"We had a three-act Broadway show in the olds days," remembered Mr. Wilkes. "And afterwards we'd get out of our makeup, put on black tie and go to the Belvedere for a party that started at midnight. The thought of bringing your car downtown at midnight in this day and age is enough to make you. . .

"Well," said Mr. Wilkes, "Let's just say the world has changed."

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