One-eyed Natty Boh reappears in the Land of Pleasant Living

A local couple, Pa. firm are selling stuff with beer mascot's image, from dog collars, T-shirts, cozies, to a Natty Broh with an Afro

October 15, 2005|By CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Mr. Boh is back.

What's that? You don't know Boh? You must not be from around here.

Mr. Boh, no first name, is the grinning, winking mascot of National Bohemian beer, or Natty Boh.

The beer - which was, as its advertising jingle once boasted, "brewed on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay" for more than a century - hasn't been made in Maryland since 1996. (It's now owned by Pabst Brewing Co. of San Antonio.)

But Mr. Boh persists, adorning everything from T-shirts to luxury condos in Baltimore, where he was born just after the repeal of prohibition.

Now a Towson couple has brought him home.

Todd Unger and Robyn Roth-Unger acquired the rights to license the popular character earlier this year, and are opening a store dedicated to all things Bohemian in Fells Point this weekend.

The couple, in partnership with Pennsylvania beer merchandise company Ale Trail, licensed the rights from Pabst to market Mr. Boh in Maryland.

Their company, Natty Boh Gear, offers Mr. Boh in a variety of guises. A beehived Boh welcomes you to Baltimore, hon; Natty Broh sports an Afro. He winks from dog collars and grins from beer cozies.

"Boh knows" any number of subjects from football to horse racing to crabs to, of course, beer.

Unger, a sports fanatic, said he started by printing up a few Boh-themed shirts to wear to Ravens games, and was amazed at the responses he got.

"We walked into the stadium and we were inundated with questions," he said. Curious Boh fans followed him to the parking lot.

About that time, a 36-foot-tall Mr. Boh went up at the site of the former brewery in Highlandtown - now a trendy development in the renamed Brewers Hill - and a light bulb went on for Unger.

"You could just see the trend changing," Unger said. He realized, "this has the potential to be really big."

The couple, both 37 and with business backgrounds, took out a second mortgage to get the exclusive Maryland rights to the trademark, partnering with Ale Trail, a Pennsylvania-based beer merchandise company.

"We pretty much mortgaged our lives to do this," Roth-Unger said. "And then some."

Natty Boh Gear is selling briskly, they said, although they are too busy filling orders from their home office to count up the sales.

In addition to the store, they have a nattybohgear.com Web site, three kiosks in local malls, vendors at football games, and they've attended more festivals in the region this year than they can easily remember.

Mr. Boh's popularity comes as no surprise to Herb Fried. He first saw the icon on a billboard at a Washington Senators game shortly before he went to work for the W.B. Doner advertising agency in 1955. Fried handled Mr. Boh's business during National's heyday.

In the 1960s, he said, the company had a 50 percent share of the Baltimore market and a 30 percent share of the state, and he credits a lot of that success to the mustachioed mascot.

"It's a great icon," Fried said. "That one-eyed man with a big mustache. It was a great symbol in its day and it's still a great symbol."

Boh brings back memories for a lot of Marylanders. Tim Fowler, 50, is a lifelong Baltimore resident whose uncle, Buck Fowler, ran a tavern on Belair Road.

"To me," Fowler said, "It harkens back to a time in my youth, watching Orioles games with my dad on the old black and white TV. It's probably one of the first beers anybody my age got a taste of - possibly an illicit taste."

A few blocks from the new Boh store, Tiel Arnot was working on his sailboat. A painted Boh peered up at him from a porthole. The boat's home port - the Land of Pleasant Living (what else?) - is painted on the stern. Arnot, a carpenter and bartender in Fells Point, had Mr. (and Mrs.) Boh on his wedding invitations.

"It's definitely a regional thing," Arnot said. "Even after the brewery left, it became hip. It held on."

Unger said he understands the feelings people have for the character, and he's careful what he does with Mr. Boh. He's constantly on the lookout for new ideas, all of which have to be approved by Pabst. That means nothing even resembling a kid's product.

Mr. Boh with devil horns? Noh. The popular bootleg shirt "Natty Ho?" Unger didn't even ask.

Whatever he's saying or wearing, and wherever his signature product is made, Mr. Boh and his beer, it seems, will continue to inspire loyalty from his fellow Marylanders.

"It's the best beer with crabs," said Fowler. "On a hot summer day - I don't think that can be beat."

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