68 years later

Time catches up with a capsule

November 29, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

On a September day in 1939, a Baltimore man poured money, a lot of hope and one regrettably unprotected box into a city block he had fallen in love with.

Yesterday, the man's son and grandson, who inherited his passion for the 1700 block of N. Charles St., dug into the concrete to unearth the time capsule that adman Louis Shecter had buried there and to maybe solve what's been something of a family mystery for nearly 70 years.

Like any respectable time-capsule burier, Shecter intended his bounty to lie dormant for a century. But because road improvements inching their way up Charles Street will soon reach the block that includes the Charles Theatre, his family figured they had better dig it up before the bulldozers did.

So with a showmanship his grandfather would surely have appreciated, Michael Shecter alerted the news media, rounded up public officials and ordered a jackhammer. Yesterday, they all hovered over a postcard-size bronze plaque, cold to the touch, imprinted with the words: "A rocket into time was imbedded here."

Alan Shecter, who was 3 at the capsule-planting ceremony, knows that his dad, who died in 1992 at age 91, would giggle to see the chic tapas bar next to the burial spot -- people sipping wine and nibbling expensive snacks, oblivious to what was under their feet. Back when Louis Shecter first bought into the block, he seemed quite bold to imagine a movie house where there had been only cable car shops and storage shacks.

Shecter's one-screen theater, the Times, eventually became the Charles multiplex, outside of which Alan Shecter, now 71, wrapped his gloved hands uncertainly around the jackhammer yesterday, aimed inches from the plaque.

The tool screamed into action, tearing into the concrete and shaking the street. Puffs of pulverized rock dusted Shecter's loafers as, finally, the sidewalk started to split. In the crowd were his wife, Joanne, and many friends of the family.

It took three big men with pry bars a while to wedge away the slab, revealing a lot of damp-looking earth.

"I don't see anything," Shecter said, peering into the hole. "Nothing."

But after scooping up shovelfuls of the dirt, careful so as not to damage anything, he hit what appeared to be the top of a wooden box. When he pushed that to the side, he uncovered a metal canister that was about a foot wide and a foot deep. "Here we go," he called out. "This is it!"

The reporters and dignitaries leaned in as Shecter reached inside the shadowy canister, still half-underground. Everyone moved in even closer when he pulled slowly back with something in his grasp.

A puzzled look on his face, he held up a yellowed ribbon of film.

"Maybe it's Hopalong Cassidy?" Shecter asked hopefully. "Maybe Charlie Chan?"

He passed the tattered celluloid to Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack, who after squinting at it in the afternoon sunlight for several moments declared it undecipherable -- but possibly a cartoon.

Shecter then fished out a soggy copy of an old Baltimore News-Post, the newsprint so waterlogged that the main headline, written in the first month of World War II, turned to mush before hitting the verb: "5 Allied Planes." 5 Allied Planes did what?

The last item appeared to be a book, which, like the newspaper, had turned into a soupy, pulpy, muddy gruel. Someone thought it might be a cookbook because she could make out the words "oyster" and the phrase "add cream."

Alan Shecter worried that something like this would happen. That he'd end up hosting Baltimore's version of the opening of Al Capone's vault -- ballyhooed shamelessly on live TV by Geraldo Rivera who ended up finding a whole lotta nothing inside.

"I was hoping for more," Shecter apologized.

His father had never told him exactly what was inside the capsule. And because he was only a tyke, his memory of the burial in 1939 is worse than hazy.

"I don't remember it as much as the many conversations about it through the years," he said. "My dad used to say, `Alan, I hope you'll be alive in 100 years when we open it.'"

Louis Shecter was a man with imagination, his son thinks -- imagination, a sense of history and big hopes for Charles Street. So close to Penn Station, and he could taste its potential.

"He was obsessed with it," Alan Shecter said.

Louis Shecter's son and grandson, who own most of the buildings on the block, including the one housing the theater, also have big hopes. They're part of a team with a plan to fortify the block with condominiums, artist lofts, shops and restaurants.

"We're still waiting for gold," Alan Shecter said.

Maybe they'll see it. Maybe the next generation will.

In the time it took the Shecters to move the wet paper and ratty film inside the tapas place, members of a work crew had re-covered the sidewalk hole with asphalt and were patting it flat with the back of a shovel.

Someday soon, the Shecters might plant another time capsule there. Perhaps before city workers redo the street with fancy brick pavers or whatever they have in mind. They're keeping mum, for now, about what would go inside. Something wrapped safely in a watertight seal though -- that much is certain.

"We're going to do this again in 100 years," Alan Shecter told the crowd. "So come back."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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