Ad Club was relic worth keeping

August 22, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

My witty neighbor Sebastian has a term for it: al desko.

That gives it some much-needed panache, but in the end, it's still just you and your ham-and-swiss-on-rye, at your desk and on the job rather than out for a midday meal at a restaurant with friends or colleagues. Chalk it up as yet another sign of a dying civilization, but polls show that nearly 60 percent of workers lunch al desko these days.

And that sad fact, I'm convinced, is why Baltimore's Ad Club is going to be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year as an exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, rather than as a living, breathing and lunching group.

The Ad Club - officially the Advertising Club of Baltimore, although its members eventually would come from beyond that profession - is one of those late, great organizations that used to dominate a city's civic life. But like so many civic groups, from the Rotary to the Kiwanis clubs, its membership numbers waned as times changed, people got busier with their own lives and, perhaps most of all, people started connecting online rather than in person.

In other words, Facebook and MySpace have replaced the weekly lunches, the annual banquets and the social networking of the Ad Club.

Well, not entirely, at least in the minds of those who value the kind of in-person gatherings that characterized the club, which faded away two years ago.

"There's never been anything like it before and never anything like it again," Kip Mandris says wistfully. "It unified the whole city."

Mandris, a PR guy, bar owner and man-about-town, is a former Ad Club president and still its chief torchbearer. We are - wonder of wonders! - lunching in a restaurant. There are tablecloths and waiters filling my water glass and no computer keyboard or piles of paper or half-cups of now-cold morning coffee like at my usual lunch spot - my desk.

Mandris has always had it in his head to try and revive the club, but now is working instead on a more realistic plan - to create an exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society's museum that will capture the Ad Club's role in the city's social fabric.

To page through a history of the club that the members put together some year back is to revisit a lost world, one in which the city's movers and shakers gathered regularly to schmooze, hear guest speakers like Dr. Jonas Salk and honor local luminaries like Johnny Unitas, Joseph Meyerhoff and William Donald Schaefer and national figures like Milton Berle, Andy Griffith and Walter Cronkite.

The club officially launched on Oct. 27, 1909, with five members, all men, and its mission was to promote the city. Its first president was The Sun's McKee Barclay, a cartoonist and political writer who, with the Ad Club, is credited with bringing the 1912 Democratic National Convention to town. (If you think what's going to happen in Denver this coming week is exciting, Woodrow Wilson didn't get the nomination at that convention until the delegates gathered here went through 46 ballots.) And speaking of presidents, the Ad Club managed what Hillary couldn't - it elected its first woman president some 25 years ago, the diminutive but indomitable Clarisse Mechanic, who with her late husband owned the downtown theater that bore their name and the Belvedere Hotel.

"I said to my husband, 'What do you mean, 'No women'?" she says of how she broke that glass ceiling, becoming the club's first female member in 1974 and later its president.

The group's members are hoping to collect photos and memorabilia from the club's glory days for next year's exhibit. They're hoping that past honorees will dig out from their closets the plaques they received, or that anyone who still has a "plunder box," a sort of swag bag that was filled with promotional items from local businesses, will contribute to the exhibit. Maybe there's someone out there who has an invitation to one of the annual balls, or the notification that they won the club's annual college scholarship.

The memorabilia will join the "Baltimore Truth Trophy" that the historical society already has - it's an impressive silver globe on a mahogany base that was designed and made by Stieff, which the club used to award to a counterpart elsewhere in the country that symbolized "truth in advertising" in a particular year.

"It'll bring back a lot of memories," Gerald Kavanagh, a retired banker and former club president, said of the exhibit. "There were so many good people in the club.

Many of the city's leaders took their turn in the president's seat, such as the Abell Foundation's Bob Embry and former police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, and at its peak, the group had 1,200 members and a waiting list.

"I met all these great people," Mandris said. "It opened every door that was ever opened for me professionally."

For the members organizing the exhibit, it's a chance to look back fondly, even as they try to keep the spirit of the club if not its regular gatherings.

"Let's face it, everything changes," Mechanic said. "It's a different world. But we still want to promote the city."

Anyone with Ad Club memorabilia for the exhibit can call Mandris at 410-977-5866 or e-mail him at


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