Block habitues of 50 years ago tell bit of sketch

October 27, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

&TC Last week this column related the story of cartoon sketches recently donated to the Jewish Historical Society. Artist Eddie Levin used pen and ink to record the gambling action along The Block in 1944.

But more than drawings about men playing poker, they were records of men with names like Hambone, Hairsey and Big Abe. Specific details about the dozens of men crammed into the cartoons remain as sketchy as their likenesses.

A few people familiar with The Block in the 1940s have provided the society with some information.

One of the men in a cartoon was bar owner Mike Goldstein, who died at 71 in 1967 and owned the Miami Club, the 408 (E. Baltimore St.) and the Circus on The Block.

"If there was a card game on The Block, my grandfather was in it," says Stephen Earle of Mr. Goldstein. "In those days, The Block wasn't about filth. It wasn't vulgar. It was adult," says Mr. Earle, a salesman who lives in Annapolis.

"The men were not the rabbinical type but they were well read in the scriptures," he says.

At the time of his death, Mike Goldstein was the subject of a letter written by Ben Katz of Pine's Pharmacy, another Baltimore Street fixture. Mr. Katz wrote News American columnist Louis Azrael and described his friend:

"For an ex-cab driver, carnival man and ill-educated night club owner, he read a great deal and retained more than many who had college degrees. . . . Mike was unhappily free from the vanity of modesty. . . . He dressed and walked like a boulevardier. He said of himself, 'When I go, life won't owe me a thing.' "

Another informant of that era is Charles Lipsey, 78, who was a traveling salesman. He was also a pitchman who took to the stage of the old Gayety burlesque house at intermission.

"Hold your seats, you've only seen the first half of the show," he recalls his spiel. "The second act goes on in a few minutes. During that time we will have young men -- we gathered them up at Oriole Park -- who will wait on you with cold drinks, ice cream, candies, cigarettes and cigars."

Later in the intermission, Mr. Lipsey again worked the audience.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we take this time to offer a box of candy. For the inducement of buying -- every box will contain a gift -- cigarette lighters, wallets, fountain pens and many other gifts too numerous to mention.

"The common term for them, for the fellows who worked the aisles, was candy butchers. They sold the surprise packages. We had some terrific grosses at the Gayety," he says.

Mr. Lipsey warmly recalls Eddie Levin, the artist who sketched the gamblers in 1944.

" We heard he came from New York. He knew all the acts. His talent was unbelievable. He could cartoon anybody," Mr. Lipsey says.

"He lived at the Armistead Hotel [at Fayette and Holliday streets] and was always broke. He never had a quarter."

The artist had a studio above a penny arcade in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. He painted sandwich boards, signs and ads for restaurants in the neighborhood.

"His talent was there but he never had a quarter. . . . Nobody could ever figure him out," Mr. Lipsey says.

The Block was host to several permanent card games, he recalls. "The Gayety building had a room with one. So did the Midway Bar and in an arcade next to the Rivoli," Mr. Lipsey says.

Lenny Fried, 76, a clothing salesman who works in Timonium, remembers the Meyer Atkins card game at 413 E. Baltimore St. Singing Sam, one of the men sketched, was Sam Fisher, who dressed so shabbily that some people called him a hobo. "Sam Fisher was typical of the characters The Block had then," Mr. Fried says.

One of the most diligent sleuths in the Meyer Atkins riddle is Morris Gordon, one of the most able volunteers at the Jewish Historical Society. He thinks people remain silent about the games 50 years ago, because they prefer not to admit they had vices.

"I think there are people still living who played cards there," Mr. Gordon says.

He has made photocopies of Eddie Levin's cartoons and what information is available and distributed them at several restaurants along Reisterstown Road that are frequented by some of the fellows who once were regulars along The Block. "They look at it but they still won't talk," he says.

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