In a wink, Baltimoriana gone forever

February 25, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

It's either charming or dotty, but mostly just inescapable: Baltimore's obsession with its past. Whether the lament is for the long-lost Colts, the Wellesley fudge cake at Hutzler's or the way the McCormick building once spiced the downtown air, life in Baltimore is one long Proustian look backward.

So as Baltimore begins to celebrate its 200th birthday -- when reminiscing about the past would actually be warranted -- the city finds itself in a most ironic position: The City Life Museums, Baltimore's official attic, is threatening to hold its breath and close its doors unless the city helps it pay off a $2.5 million debt.

Imagine: A terminally nostalgic city with nowhere to put its ever-growing stash of things that were better before.

In fact, the museum's threatened closure comes at a time when much of what makes Baltimore Bawlamer, as one City Life exhibit termed it, is slipping away and should be archived before it's lost forever.

As in every other metropolis, franchises and ersatz experiences are steadily replacing the authentic: The shopping center that once housed Johnny U's Golden Arm restaurant now sports a Starbucks. The lineup of the Orioles changes whimsically year to year, and now there's even talk of -- cardiology, stat! -- Cal Ripken becoming a free agent. And when was the last time you ate at a Polock Johnny's instead of a Johnny Rocket's, or cracked a crab from the Chesapeake, not North Carolina?

As Baltimoriana becomes ever precious, here are some local icons -- going, going or already gone in just the past year -- that City Livers of the future may have to go to a museum to experience.

The last can of Natty Boh to come off the line: Nov. 11, 1996

National Bohemian, promoted by the winking, mustachioed "Mr. Boh" singing the praises of his "land of pleasant living," was long a favorite (and cheap) beer during Baltimore's bluer-collared past. It was a victim not so much of the '90s predilection for the microbreweries' expensive and sometimes fruit-flavored concoctions as the mega-brewers' need to consolidate operations and downsize. The task of brewing Natty Boh was transferred to Pennsylvania.

Jon Miller, Voice of the Orioles, 1982-1996. The witty, rotund Miller brought the action from the ballpark to radios across the region. His smart, stream-of-consciousness broadcasts -- somehow managing to call the plays and still do accents, impersonations and riffs on a cast of both real and imaginary characters -- were the aural highlight of summer nights in Baltimore. He was let go after a blood test, administered by team owner Peter Angelos, proved he bled neither orange nor black.

Femme, R.I.P., 1996. For years, Baltimore ladies shopped on Charles Street downtown, home to boutiques and shops on a smaller scale than the big department stores a couple of blocks away on Howard. But as suburban malls grew in popularity, and national chains surpassed locally owned stores, Charles Street lost most of its glad rags. Femme was among the last, a boutique that carried Cynthia Rowley and other up-and-coming designers.

1911-1995. On the first Wednesday of May, the increasingly wizened ladies of the Women's Civic League erected gaily striped canopies and white booths on the cobblestone circle around the Washington Monument. They sold flowers, crab cakes and "lemon sticks," a half-lemon with a peppermint stick stuck in the middle as a straw. To great outcry in 1995, the mart was moved to a less felicitous site, War Memorial Plaza downtown, then simply canceled the following year.

Circa 1999. Baltimore once had rather quirkily stocked bookstores; they weren't reliable, but they had personality. VTC Starting in 1992, though, the killer Bs invaded -- Borders, Bibelot and Barnes & Noble, veritable book theme parks with tens of thousands of volumes and CDs and coffee too. Baltimore truly became the city that, if it doesn't actually read, certainly likes to hang out, pull a book off a well-stocked shelf and peek over at the cute guy in the bio aisle.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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