How the city's nickname came to be

Baltimore Glimpses

July 18, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

WHEN IT comes to news reporting, the old city-room edict is always: first, get the story; and second, get it right. When the writer gets it wrong, it's a mess. It gets the reader who knows better all upset, confuses history and puts an error in the record books. I know; I've had my share of errors.

Recently, the New York Times, which is known for its excellence, included what some of us around Baltimore consider a glaring error. On Sunday, July 9, the Times published an article about Baltimore in its travel section, called "What's Doing in Baltimore," by writer Melinda Henneberger. "H. L. Mencken," she wrote, "that old charmer, dubbed his hometown 'Charm City.' "

Well, Ms. Henneberger, you got it wrong.

The nickname "Charm City" traces its origins only back to 1975 (Mencken died in 1956); it grew out of creative conferences among four of the city's leading advertising executives and creative directors: Dan Loden and art director Stan Paulus of VanSant/Dugdale; Herb Fried and writer Bill Evans from W. B. Donor. As leaders of the city's largest advertising agencies, they had come together at then Mayor William Donald Schaefer's request to "come up with something to promote the city. And do it now! I'm worried about this city's poor image." Mayor Schaefer had reason to worry.

It was the Baltimore before Harborplace, the Maryland Science Center and the Aquarium. Charles Center was going up, but more was coming down. "Baltimore," native son Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated at the time, "is an anonymous city even to those who live there, a city that draws a laugh even from Philadelphia, a sneer from Washington, with a hundred tag lines that draw neither smile nor sneer from the city: Nickel Town, Washington's Brooklyn. A Loser's Town."

It was that reputation the mayor was fighting. So, the challenge was there for Messrs. Loden, Paulus, Fried and Evans. Mr. Loden recalls, "Stan Paulus and Bill Evans came up with the thought that Baltimore had so much hidden charm and started to work out how the idea might be translated into advertisements." Recalls Mr. Paulus, "It was Bill Evans who wrote the line that set it all going: 'Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight.' "

Soon, Dan Loden recalls, the four of them at work began calling Baltimore "Charm City." Indeed, a charm bracelet was displayed at the bottom of each ad; there were only about five of them. But "Charm City" had been born, and set into Baltimore legend.

The ads ran in The Sun, and featured the charm of Charm City: White steps, steamed crabs, beer, Mount Vernon, the Preakness, Mencken, museums, quiet neighborhood streets, Babe Ruth, row houses and raw bars.

Local disk jockeys created music to promote the slogan. "They gave it their best. But it was an idea whose time had not come," Mr. Loden recalls. "The city did not have the money [or, yet the attractions] to sustain the program and it died."

Mr. Evans said: "I would be flattered to have my work attributed to H. L. Mencken, if the idea weren't so absurd. Nothing could be more un-Mencken than 'Charm City.' Copywriters are not above stealing, but they aren't stupid. No one in his right mind would take credit for material originating with H. L. Mencken in a city that has almost as many Mencken scholars as we have Oriole fans."

To be charitable, according to Mencken scholar Vincent Fitzpatrick, Mencken often used the word "charm" in talking about Baltimore. An example from The Evening Sun of May 11, 1931: "The old charm, in truth, still survives in the town. . . ." But that's a long way from having dubbed Baltimore "Charm City."

As for Ms. Henneberger's getting it wrong -- hey, hon, it happens -- even among the pros.

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