Where did city get its charming nickname? Baltimore Glimpses

August 18, 1998|By Gil Sandler

THIS COLUMN has, through the years, accepted the challenges of settling disputes among the natives concerning the origins of local legends and lore.

Some examples: Was there really an elephant at the zoo that played "St. Louis Blues" on the harmonica? (Yes, Minnie in 1946, and you could look it up.) Did a prisoner dig a tunnel out of his city jail cell down and under and up onto Preston Street and walk free? (Yes, "Tunnel Joe" Holmes, in 1951.) How did Charm City get its name? That is the story we take up today.

First off, it was not H. L. Mencken who said it, despite the fact that many people think it was, and that no less than the New York Times said it was, in a 1994 column about Baltimore. "H. L. Mencken," travel writer Meldina Henneberger wrote, "dubbed his hometown 'Charm City.' "

Here's the story. Charm City's origins date to 1975 (Mencken died in 1956). The name grew out of creative conferences among four of the city's leading advertising executives and creative directors. The group included Dan Loden and art director Stan Paulus of VanSant, Dugdale (now Gray Kirk/VanSant); and Herb Fried and writer Bill Evans from W. B. Doner. As leaders of the city's largest advertising agencies, they had come together at then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's request: "Come up with something to promote this city! I'm worried about this city's poor image."

Mayor Schaefer had reason to worry. It was the Baltimore before the glitz and glamour of Harborplace, the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium, the Hard Rock Cafe, Oriole Park and the Ravens stadium, the Hyatt and Pier Six concerts.

Native son Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated at the time, "Baltimore 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, Loser's Town."

It was that reputation in the dark days of the 1970s that Mayor Schaefer was fighting. So, the challenge was there for Mr. Loden, Mr. Paulus, Mr. Fried and Mr. Evans. Mr. Loden recalled, "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." Mr. Paulus recalled, "It was Bill Evans who wrote the line that set it all going.

Soon, Mr. Loden says, the four began calling Baltimore "Charm City." The idea was carried over graphically into full page advertisements; a charm bracelet was displayed at the bottom of each. There were only about five of those ads, and their run was short-lived. But Charm City had been born, and set into Baltimore lore and legend.

The ads ran in The Sun and The Evening Sun and featured the charms of Charm City: white marble steps, steamed crabs, Mount Vernon, the Preakness, Mencken, museums, neighborhood streets, Babe Ruth, rowhouses and raw bars.

Disc jockeys created music to promote the slogan. "They gave it their best, but it was an idea whose time had not yet come," Mr. Loden recalled.

"The city did not have the money or the attractions to sustain the program. It died," he said.

Mr. Evans reflected, "I would be flattered to have my work attributed to Mencken, if the idea weren't so absurd. Nothing could be more un-Mencken-like than Charm City."

But to stretch things a bit for Mencken buffs, Mencken scholar Vince Fitzpatrick says, "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, it has to be said, that is a long way from Mr. Mencken's dubbing Baltimore Charm City."

So now, in a valley country club or Highlandtown bar, when the discussion arises about where Charm City comes from, you can set 'em straight and tell it like a true Baltimorean.

Gil Sandler writes from and about Baltimore.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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