Easter Saturday Excitement

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

April 07, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

I can't think about Easter shopping without missing the teeming, never-boring Lexington Street I knew in the 1950s and early '60s.

From Charles Street on the east to Lexington Market on the west, this stretch of macadam and streetcar rail was one huge mass of scurrying humanity on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.

It was as if people firmly refused to shop until that day, then they burst out of their homes for their big-time downtown buying spree. It was a spring rite.

I'm thinking of a golden period when the street still had so many shoe, five-and-dime, variety, candy and specialty shops, as well as big department stores and movie houses. Lexington Street then was unpretentious, fun, and as Baltimore as you can get. It wasn't fancy and it sure was lively.

Easter Saturday was one of the street's boom days of the year. The weather had nothing to do with ensuring or diminishing retail success. The Easter-time weather could be very moody. It could be uncomfortably warm and humid; it could be cold and windy. The clouds and humidity heightened the sense of a season changing from cold to hot.

There were certain routines to be observed. One was the annual purchase of my Uncle Jacques' Easter gift, invariably a nougat egg covered in pecans. He liked the 1-pounders sold at Maron's candy store, 12 W. Lexington St. Its high Victorian counters would be loaded with Easter novelties, including milk-chocolate rabbits covered in gold foil. The setting the fancy glass counters, the intricate tile floor, the lovely show window would have been at home in old Vienna.

Maron's candy was normally sold in a distinctive pink box, but for Easter, the eggs came in yellow and purple containers.

The confectioners here made a marvelous almond paste candy, a marzipan shaped like ears of corn, roses and other figures. This was the top of Baltimore sweets. If you received a pound of Maron's candy, you knew your Easter bunny thought very well of you.

On the opposite end of the retail spectrum from Maron's were the dime stores, with their counters full of marshmallow chickens and jelly beans.

Department-store windows were a big draw in those days. I seem to remember a Julius Gutman Co. window full of Easter hats, all priced under $5. That Park Avenue and Lexington Street store never hurt for business in those years.

By the way, if you were at the corner of Park and Lexington at noontime, you couldn't help being jolted by a loud clap of church bells. The ringing, from a high tower, sounded the Angelus prayer at St. Alphonsus Church, just a block up the Park Avenue hill.

On the Christian calendar, Easter is most sacred of the festivals. And, coming as it does so soon after the beginning of spring, it has always seemed intermixed with rebirth and regeneration.

I'll tell you, the whole life cycle seemed to be played out within the downtown environment back then. Streetside vendors would be selling baby chickens and ducks. The peeps went for three for a quarter, and more than a few shoppers bought them. The feathered babies probably didn't last more than a week cooped up in a cardboard box.

The livestock sales went on until the animal-rights people summoned the police; it was against the law to sell live chicks and ducklings in this way. There was usually a fight as the fly-by-night dealers tussled with the men in blue. The shoppers loved watching this kind of street theater.

If Easter came especially early in the year, it still would be muskrat season in Maryland.

A few hundred feet away from the baby birds would be rows of skinned muskrats. The carcasses would be spread out on racks, ready for those who enjoyed stewing this type of gamy dish. It wasn't a pretty sight but the merchants never tried to hide it.

Against this background of live fowl and dead muskrats were the movie houses, which seemed always to be presenting some wide-screen epic with a biblical theme, in Technicolor, of course.

"The Ten Commandments" played the New Theatre, at Lexington and Park, for what seemed like a longer time than Moses spent leading the Israelites out of captivity. Nearly a decade after Charlton Heston vacated the movie house, Julie Andrews began a lengthy residency there in "The Sound of Music."

That was in 1965, a few years before some high-minded planner decided to make a pedestrian mall out of that area of Lexington Street. The mall was, of course, its slow death. The last five-and-dime bravely hung on until the summer of 1995.

In its heyday, Lexington Street was an experience you would never get in what shopping centers and malls the Baltimore area then had. An Easter Saturday spent in bustling, never-dull downtown and the same day spent in the strip mall was the difference between spring and winter.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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