Jewish group tries to solve sketch mystery

October 17, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The club members had names like Singing Sam, Hairsey, Bulldog and Long Shot Louie.

But specific details are few about a thriving gambling fraternity that flourished on The Block 50 years ago. Except for a pair of large ink sketches that were recently donated to the Jewish Historical Society, little is known about the cigar-smoking poker players whose likenesses have survived on two cartoon-like panels.

The society would like to shed some light on this minor mystery.

Does anyone recall a club run by a man named Meyer Atkins? His daughter, Phyllis Atkins Neuman, who lives in Pikesville and donated the pictures to the society, recalls its name as the Young Men's Hebrew Democratic Club.

An inscription on the panels calls it Myer [sic] Atkins' Democratic Club. She says that the club met in a room in the old Gayety Theatre building at 405-7 E. Baltimore St.

"When we were children my mother kept us detached from the card playing that went on there all day," she says. Her parents, Meyer and Rose Atkins, lived at 2130 E. Baltimore St. 50 years ago.

The pictures are signed and dated. They bear the signature of Eddie Levin, and are dated Feb. 24 and 28, 1944. More than 25 faces are shoehorned into each panel.

The men, depicted in humorous poses, have names such as Stoddie, Primrose, Whitey, Big Abe, Yudie, Little Caesar, Happy, Maxie, Woppie, Buzz King, Hambone, Staminga John, Yonkel. Some have full names: Gus Askin, Joe Gobby, Joe Moses, Morris Lott, Harry King and Mike Goldstein.

There is a group identified as the Four Horsemen: Joe Beard, Willie Fisher, Harry Gilden and See Me.

There's also an Ike Rice, Times Square Frankie, Bruno, the Rebel, Dodo and Barkeep Eddie.

The man listed as George Goldberg is possibly a man of the same name who was president of the Century Athletic Club on The Block, a locally famous fixture on the gaming strip.

The man drawn as Salisbury is probably Julius "The Lord" Salsbury, a Block figure who disappeared more than 25 years ago in one of the city's more celebrated criminal cases.

Morris Gordon, a volunteer at the historical society, remembers the man called Singing Sam as a Block figure who often sang outside the old Horn & Horn Restaurant at Baltimore Street and Guilford Avenue.

The Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, which is headquartered at 15 Lloyd St. a few blocks east of downtown, has collected some 8,000 objects and 500,000 documents.

Many relate to Jewish life in Baltimore. And many are clearly defined as to subject matter and origin. A few, however, lack proper explanation. This is one of those unsolved riddles -- an established card game in a setting seemingly lifted from the pages of writer Damon Runyon.

"There is a whole world that falls beneath the historical radar. These pictures show a floating Jewish world that people knew existed and wouldn't talk about except to themselves," says Bernard Fishman, director of the historical society.

He compares the gathering of men to play cards who probably all knew each other by nicknames to the group of older gentlemen who met each morning for breakfast at Miller's delicatessen on Reisterstown Road.

"It is these social groups that vanish without much of a trace, yet they are very much a part of life," Mr. Fishman says.

Each year the society mounts large shows pertaining to Jewish life in Baltimore and Maryland. And one of its most challenging tasks is to record and show life in Baltimore as it was actually lived.

"We don't have a single photo of people enjoying themselves at Nate's and Leon's," says curator Barry Kessler of the delicatessen on West North Avenue that was jammed with customers from the late 1930s through the 1960s.

But thanks to artist Eddie Levin, whoever he is, the scene at the card club has been recorded. If anyone knows some details, please call Barry Kessler at the Jewish Historical Society, 732-6400.

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