First Thursdays show downtown doesn't close at 5 AN URBAN SCENE

October 06, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

Charles Street at dusk:

Cross dressers in midriff tops dance to a Latin beat, their heels clicking on the cobblestones. Senior citizens, a block away, order hot dogs from a makeshift barbecue. And in the C. Grimaldis Gallery, art students in rumpled sweat shirts and jeans gaze at $10,000 paintings and sip free Sauvignon Blanc.

This can mean only one thing: It's First Thursday in Baltimore.

For the last 10 years, these quirky collisions of urban life have defined the monthly happy hour-cum-art openings along Charles Street. Merchants and gallery owners have extended their hours to showcase new wares; restaurants, offices and even hair salons have put on "art shows." All have hoped to remind people of a sometimes forgotten fact: There is life downtown after 5 p.m.

But First Thursdays haven't always had it easy. The dwindling local art scene, the whims of retail, a long recession, tipsy patrons and panhandlers have hurt these events at times, causing some guests and merchants to see them as win-lose propositions.

And yet amid controversy, they have survived -- as tonight will most likely attest -- evolving into such a social scene that some art lovers now avoid the crowded galleries on these nights, and ** some couples credit their marriages to chance encounters by a watercolor. "I've had people drop by and say, 'We met here six years ago at First Thursday. Now we're married and here are our two kids,'" says Steven Scott, owner of the namesake gallery in the 500 block.

Several doors away, Steve Appel, co-owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods, a furniture and accessories shop, says: "It's anything-goes night. You can have a guy looking at a $2,000 couch, and college kids ripping through postcards."

For stockbroker Mark McGrath, who has attended the last six years, these nights reassure him about the quality of life in this town.

"Baltimore doesn't have a reputation for being in the know," says Mr. McGrath, 37, who lives in Mount Washington. "But on First Thursday, that corridor acquires a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. It shows there is an undercurrent here."

Helping lead the undercurrent is Billy Crush, a security guard for Louie's The Bookstore Cafe who oversees the entertainment on the parking lot next door.

Dressed in a top hat and tie-dyed T-shirt, Mr. Crush eyes the crowd listening to the acoustic band and drinking Rolling Rock. It's small but growing, and Mr. Crush -- whose nickname is the Mad Hatter -- likes what he sees.

"We get anybody from skinheads to bank presidents," says the sometime-actor who was cast as an extra in "Forrest Gump." "These groups would never come together if it weren't for nights like these."

His boss, Louie's owner Jimmy Rouse, believes there's a subtle but important message being delivered in First Thursdays.

"Our challenge is to reverse people's perceptions of downtown," he says. "We want to help them realize this is a safe and exciting place to be. First Thursday is part of that."

More than 10 years ago, merchants met with the then-Charles Street Management Corp. (now the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore) to brainstorm about ways to cooperatively market the area.

With the plethora of galleries, promoting art seemed a logical idea. And within two months, First Thursday was born.

On any given month, several hundred drop by between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. During its prime in the mid-1980s, roughly 15 galleries were involved, says Laurie Schwartz, president of Downtown Partnership. And its worst days in 1991, as few as five merchants participated. At last count, 10 gallery spaces were involved tonight, though that count included office art exhibits and more distant locales like the Gomez Gallery in Federal Hill.

The early years

Several years ago, Ms. Schwartz tried discontinuing the event during the slower months of January, February and August but got so many complaints that she reconsidered.

"There were some years when we struggled during the recession, but I feel it's coming back to life," she says.

Artist Robert Floyd isn't so sure.

"It's completely different than it once was," he says. "There are fewer people involved. There's significantly fewer galleries. It's hit a small scale."

No one denies that the event has changed. But it's often been at the public's request.

Several years ago, Downtown Partnership conducted informal surveys and found that patrons often attended for social rather than cultural reasons. To meet those needs, organizers added bands, barbecue grills and dancing in recent years. Tonight, Rhumba Club is giving an outdoor concert and instructors will be offering dance lessons.

If imitation is a measure of success, then First Thursday organizers have reason to feel gratified.

Restaurants and galleries in Southwest Baltimore began organizing First Sundays about three years ago. And this winter Fells Point began a First Tuesday event. Other cities -- including Philadelphia and Portland -- have followed Baltimore's lead, organizing First Thursday-type events.

In other cities

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