A look at untold tales Harborplace harbors

Employees: If visitors are the lifeblood, then these employees are the heart and soul of Harborplace.

Harborplace At 20

July 02, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

On a glorious weekend of bright sun and cool breezes, throngs of people came to Harborplace, pushing strollers along the brick promenade, slurping down homemade lemonade, hanging out on benches and watching boats on the water. They came for the food, the stores, the museums.

Many residents deride the Inner Harbor as nothing more than a tourist spot, and just blocks away, the relaxed feeling, the perfect landscaping, the ringing cash register fade into struggling neighborhoods. But today, as Mayor Martin O'Malley and other dignitaries cut a huge cake to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harborplace, few may grasp that this spot has become a community all its own.

Young men propose in the paddle boats. Mothers living in housing projects bring their children here to learn about boats. Retired Baltimoreans arrive each day to sit on benches and enjoy their patch of peace. People who started out here years ago as trash boys or awkward teenagers on their first jobs never left and turned Harborplace into a career. They've made fast friends. They feel like they're someplace special.

"At certain parts of the day, when the sun hits the water a certain way, I catch myself and say, `This is beautiful,'" said Kevin Harrison, 37, a West Baltimore man who manages the paddle boats.

This is where Orioles' fans celebrated the 1983 World Series win, where the city unveiled the name of its new football team, where thousands come every July to see the fireworks. It's the place that many come to feel good about Baltimore.

In the last few years, the two green-roofed pavilions at Light and Pratt streets have been renovated, with air -conditioning upgraded and new escalators installed. New restaurants have opened. Workers from the Department of Public Works replaced hundreds of bricks. And the people keep coming: from 10 million a year in 1996 to more than 15 million a year now.

The complex that made Baltimore a tourist town harbors stories they don't even realize.

Fun with fudge

One of the most sought-after jobs for young people in Baltimore is at Harborplace's The Fudgery. At this store in the Light Street Pavilion, young workers serve up song and dance along with the 15 flavors of homemade fudge. They croon and wriggle and laugh and cajole hundreds of customers into buying 420 pounds of fudge a day.

To even get an application form, a person must be willing to step up impromptu and sing a song to the dozens of customers milling nearby. A worker rings the brass bell, and regional manager Paul Lewis calls out, "Ladies and gentleman, this person is about to sing for an application!"

About half the potential applicants lose their nerve and leave. The rest step up and belt out their tunes. If they make this cut, then they must perform before the skeptical crew, first singing a regular song and then a "fudge" song with fudge lyrics. (These include replacing the words from "Tomorrow," from the show "Annie," to "Free sam-ples, free sam-ples, there's always, free sam-ples...")

Some teens will sing gospel, or rock, or even opera. Because they're technically on stage all the time, making the fudge in full view of everyone, they also must demonstrate acting talent, performing a monologue or miming. At the end of the audition, applicants must tell two jokes, because along with their voice, they must have a "fudge" personality, meaning they have fun all the time.

The competition is fierce. At any one time, regional manager Paul Lewis has more than 80 applications for just two slots. Some youths are so desperate to get in that they get Lewis on the phone and serenade him, although many don't realize they're tone deaf. One girl did cartwheels and then a series of flips down the cool gray tiles of the pavilion.

"We like to think of it as an off-Broadway product," says Lewis, 25. Two singing groups that began at The Fudgery have made records.The Rosedale man tries to let in some of the shy, awkward boys that remind him of himself at their age. At 17, he and his friends from Randallstown used to laugh at the "corny" guys singing at The Fudgery. But he needed a job and couldn't find one anywhere else, and his sister worked there. Lewis struggled to shape the loaves of rich fudge, and when he sang, his voice came out thin and wobbly. A few weeks into his work, he overheard a manager saying, "This kid's not going to make it."

From that point on, Lewis decided to be the best. He stayed there, growing in confidence, working his way through Towson University. He even delayed law school to take his current position, overseeing five stores, including Harborplace's.

"It's the only job where you get paid to have a good time," declares Lewis.

Lifelong performer

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