Mencken's Thanksgiving: When in Little Italy . . .

November 19, 1996|By Gilbert Sandler

"MOST EVERY Thanksgiving when he was living in town as a bachelor," Maria Allori once told us, ''H. L. Mencken would come here for his dinner.'' Mrs. Allori was the owner and operator of what was easily the most famous of all of Little Italy restaurants in its day, ''Maria's.''

Her name and brassy, show-biz style of hosting brought many a celebrity to 300 Albemarle St. ''Mr. Mencken used to come in here with his brother, August.'' Asked what the Menckens ordered in an Italian restaurant on Thanksgiving, Maria responded quickly, ''Spaghetti! Of course!''

For most of its 51 years, Miller Brothers (1912 to 1963), about where the entrance to the Omni Hotel on Fayette Street is today, was Baltimore's premiere restaurant, dominating the restaurant scene as no Baltimore restaurant does today.

Thanksgiving was the big day. According to long-time maitre d' Bud Clunk, ''We'd serve somewhere around 1,200 turkey dinners between noon and 8: 00 p.m. when we closed. Every Thanksgiving the employees would have a lottery going -- the person who came closest to guessing the number of turkey dinners we'd serve that day took the pot. I always played numbers close to 1,200 -- 1,197 1,240, 1,186. But I never won.

''I worked at Miller brothers 21 years and I oversaw service of something like 14,400 turkey dinners and I never won that lottery.'' The Thanksgiving parade formed up about 10: 30 on Charles Street, near University Parkway. Spectators lined up five and six deep (not counting the kids sitting on the shoulders of moms and dads). High school bands played ''Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,'' and drum majorettes strutted. ''Santa's elves'' wheeled mailboxes along the curbs for kids to mail their letters to Santa.

Two-story-high balloon characters were hauled by Hopkins students: Mickey Mouse, Goldilocks, Noah and His Ark.

Shopping hub

The parade proceeded south down Maryland Avenue and through downtown, where, some three hours later, it arrived at Howard and Lexington, the heart of Baltimore's shopping district in those bygone years. Concentrated in that immediate area were Hutzler's, Stewart's, Hecht Co., May Co. (and a few blocks east) O'Neil's, and on the northwest corner, Hochschild, Kohn's.

''Thanksgiving was the time we started the Christmas shopping season,'' Walter Sondheim, a former Hochschild's vice president, recalled, ''and presented our Christmas windows.''

In their Lexington street window was their famous ''Laughing Santa.'' ''He was life-sized,'' Mr. Sondheim said, ''and when he belted out his 'HoHoHo' his belly shook and his head rolled from side to side and his eyes moved up and down. He was for more than half a century a Baltimore institution.''

Window displays

The highlight of Christmas shopping downtown was the Christmas windows. All day and into the evening crowds stood six and seven deep watching the mechanical extravaganza. ''We actually had to put up barricades,'' said Bob Eney, who worked on those displays for Hochschild, Kohn.

''The most popular, and typical, too, were the 1953 windows. The theme was, 'The Littlest Angel.' The story took up eight windows along Howard Street. Each depicted another chapter in the story. The angel-characters would flap their wings, wave their wands, fly, shake their head no, nod yes. In the final window, the Littlest Angel presented his gift to the head angel, who, having rejected all the other angels' gifts, accepted this one. It was the gift of joy.''

The laughing Santa and the Littlest Angel are gone these many years; and sadly, so is Hochschild, Kohn.

"Elevator girls"

The store won a reputation for hospitality through such customer amenities as the Tea Room restaurant and its soda fountain on FTC the first floor -- and the famous ''elevator girls.''

''Mezzanine, men's furnishings . . . ''

Until 1946, on the elevators in Hochschild's, uniformed operators cheerfully announced which departments were to be found on a floor as the elevator arrived at it. You did not have to look for and then study a directory -- the elevator operator was the directory.

''Second floor, curtains, linens, sheets, towels . . . ''

Those operators (all female) knew their business. ''Every Tuesday morning,'' Louis Kohn II, of the founding family, told us, ''we would have a storewide meeting for the personnel. We'd brief everybody about what was going on in the store that week.''

Cold voices, broken tapes

''Third floor, ladies and misses dresses . . . ''

''When we changed over to the automated elevator system, we installed pre-recorded tapes to call out the floors and the departments, substituting for the operators. But the voices seemed cold, and the tapes always broke down. They just couldn't take the place of those old-time elevator operators calling out the floor and the departments . . . ''

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