Vintage photos recall glamorous, 'Guys and Dolls' Block


March 21, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Readers are invited to examine the eyes of Rose La Rose. She apparently was an entertainer who performed at Baltimore's famous Gayety burlesque back in the heyday of The Block, LTC which to most minds means the age before television, before the retailing of Swedish sex manuals, before men gave up hats and strippers gave up pasties. In other words, it was a very long time ago.

For those of us who have known The Block only as that sleazy, cheap glow coming from the aching heart of Baltimore, there might be in the eyes of Rose La Rose a reflection of the mysterious bygone Block that once was supposedly more innocent and more fun, more dignified and certainly more glamorous. If Baltimore had guys and dolls, they thrived on The Block, and in particular at Hon Nickel's Gayety.

That once-great theater, the people who were drawn to it and the scene that resulted must have been downright Runyonesque -- that is, a lively entertainment joint spiritually connected to the Broadway of Damon Runyon, who chronicled the affairs of showgirls and gangsters, hustlers and hussies, the whole gallery of "Guys and Dolls."

As a matter of fact, in one of his long-ago newspaper columns, Runyon visits the horseplayer, Horse Thief Burke, at a hospital in Maryland, where he was being treated for an injured foot.

"Horsie was driving a truck," Runyon explains the injury, "and he slipped behind the wheel and sustained a terrible bruise, his attention momentarily distracted from his duties by a roadside billboard proclaiming the glories of the burlesque beauts at the Gayety in Baltimore, where Horse Thief used to hang out. I can just imagine the nostalgia that overtook my friend when such a billboard loomed up out of the mist."

Sort of like the curiosity that overtook me when the photograph of Rose La Rose arrived in the mail.

Frankly, see, I don't know so much as wonder about this particular flower.

She came to me in a plain, white package with a couple dozen other sepia-toned faces, collectively described in an unsigned letter as "strippers and comedians who came through Baltimore with shows at the Gayety Theatre."

They must have been among the hundreds of performers Nickel, the great promoter, and theater manager Gus Flaig brought to Baltimore Street a lifetime ago.

All the women in the photographs have a kind of glamour-girliness in their eyes, as dreamily sexy as allowed in those days. The photos, all professional studio portraits showing the dancers in exotic and revealing costumes, are of Vicki Wells, Amy Fong, Marian Miller, Mildred Harris, Charmaine, Valerie Parks, Patricia Perry and Gertrude Beck, whose studio photograph is dated 1938. Most of the old photos are autographed, and the salutation is always, "To Frances."

Of course, I have no idea who this Frances is, or was. A costumer? A makeup girl? Another dancer? "Lots of happiness thruout your marriage!!!" is how Valerie Parks inscribed her photograph for Frances. The flip side of another photo bears the name "Frances Warnick," but that's as close as I come to speculation about her identity.

There's a photograph of a slim, dandy-looking man in a straw boater; he could have been a music hall comic, or tap dancer, or both. "To Frances," the note on the photo says, "A sweet little girl. Hope to see you soon again. Oceans of luck and happiness. Sincerely, Dudley Douglas."

There's a Tommy Dorsey autograph in the pack, and at the top of Dorsey's portrait a tiny hole through which once, it's my guess, this Frances pushed a thumb tack. Maybe into a hotel room wall.

A flat-nosed, funny-looking guy named Max Coleman, with a face from silent movies, signed the back of his photo on Christmas Day 1939.

There's an unsigned photo of Ann Corio who, along with Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and Blaze Starr, were among the big-name dancers who played the Gayety.

The rest of the women in the mysterious package, which arrived at this desk smelling of attic, were probably dancers who ran the East Coast circuit -- every city had a burlesque house -- or they might have been one of Fred Irwin's "Majestics," who I understand from Robert Kirk Headley's history of theaters in Baltimore, were a regular feature at the Gayety. They must have been the kind of women who, as Runyon guessed, inspired the lustful longing in Horse Thief Burke, distracting him and causing him injury while driving a truck through Maryland.

This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday Letters should be addressed to The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. The phone number is 410-332-6166.

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