Baltimore glimpses: When there were fireworks on the Fourth

June 18, 1996|By GILBERT A. SANDLER

IN A RADIO commercial for the Ravens, a gravel-voiced tough bellows out, ''We're talkin' football -- not City-Poly but real-l-l football.''

Is that so? Obviously, the writer of that commercial never met the likes of the City-Poly players we knew. 'Cause we're talkin' real-l-l football: City's Lou Kousouris, Charlie Rudo, Dick Working, Irv Lansman, and Poly players of equal girth, savagery, ferocity. Good thing, too. Talk like that would get that writer on the permanently disabled list.

The 300 block of the Block -- East Baltimore Street, north side between Guilford Avenue and Gay Street -- is doomed to the wrecker's ball, and in its stead the city will build a parking lot. When those ancient buildings come down, a lot of Baltimore history is going to come down, too. In particular, Horn and Horn's restaurant.

The place is now part of Baltimore legend and lore. It was known for its waitresses who memorized your order and got it right every time; for being open all night; and for being the most popular and eclectic meeting place in town. Every day, every night and through the night, you could always find button-down business types, lawyers from the nearby office buildings and politicians from City Hall elbow to elbow with bookies, vaudevillians from the Gayety down the street, showgirls from the Block's clubs, sport figures, people who couldn't sleep and town characters who wanted a piece of the night.

The place closed in 1977. And you have to wonder: Where did everybody go?

Do you remember that heady, haunting aroma of spices that perfumed all of downtown? It emanated from what used to be the McCormick Building in the Inner Harbor, and was made up of a mystic blend of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. It wafted over the area from the time the building opened in 1921 until 1978, when McCormick moved its manufacturing to Hunt Valley.

McCormick's moving out of downtown is its own business, but the aroma belonged to us. They should have left it.

On July 4 you can celebrate in lots of ways, but you can't shoot off fireworks. That prohibition came to a head on June 30, 1943, when John N. Gontrum, state insurance commissioner, issued a stern notice: ''The use of all kinds of fireworks is prohibited under terms of a law enacted by the state legislature in 1941 and enforced for the first time last year. And no section of the state is exempt. The law prohibits use of fireworks except for a public display in cases where a permit has been issued.''

The commissioner had reason to be stern. Until 1941, shooting off fireworks on one's porch (front or back) or lawn in Baltimore was thought to be a sacred right. But over the years and with ample reason, the public had grown less tolerant of fireworks, especially in the hands of children. There had been loose regulatory ordinances in Baltimore for many years; the city had attempted to get at the problem circuitously, by prohibiting the storage of fireworks, or by limiting usage to sparklers, but the ordinances were ineffective. In 1941 the state legislature, under public pressure, outlawed all fireworks statewide.

Before that prohibition, on every Fourth of July as dusk approached, every neighborhood was suddenly a fireworks display -- house by house, lawn by lawn. Every kid knew the names: firecrackers, sparklers, rockets, Roman candles, torpedoes, grenades, signal lights, snakes, pinwheels, spinners, devil chasers. All were to be had for the asking at the corner grocery store.

Come dark -- POW! Everything would go off in sudden and sporadic outbursts of noise and lights and cheers. A tin can flew 20 feet in the air, launched by a firecracker set off by a 5-year-old.

The rest of the story

Every year, the next day, the newspapers would carry the tragic story of people who had been injured -- burned and blinded -- by fireworks. Community groups that wanted fireworks banned had confront the powerful fireworks industry, which sought to have the ban rescinded through referendum in the 1942 general election. The courts found irregularities in the procedure, called off the referendum and declared the state's fireworks ban in order.

So if you want to celebrate July 4, you can watch fireworks, go to the ball game, have a cookout, march in a parade.

5) But don't try shooting off fireworks.

When you think of fast food today you think of the the speedy in-and-out and the superduper specials of McDonald's, Burger King, Roy Rogers, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. But 20 or 30 years ago in Baltimore fast food meant something quite different.

Harley's Sandwich Shops: The first one was at 211 McMechen St. and featured Harley Brinsfield's famous ''submarine sandwich'' (he claimed he invented it). There were as many as eight Harley's around town.

Hooper's: There were about five of them. The most popular were at 511 Gorsuch Ave. and Fayette and Charles streets. Limited menu, wholesome food, family-oriented.

Toddle House: No more than four in Baltimore in any one year. Mostly hamburgers and only counter service.

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