Answering Calls For Curtains

It's A Busy Time For Local Shop That Supplies Schools And Other Institutions With Its Handiwork

July 26, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

It's curtains for Mount Washington Elementary School. Also for Lombard Middle School, the Johns Hopkins University and the Bethesda Naval Hospital.


In the case of Mount Washington Elementary, the draperies in question are new, permanently flame-retardant and the most gorgeous shade of royal blue. They adorn a heavily used stage where pupils perform plays and concerts before captive parents, and where community groups gather.

These curtains - along with sets for the other institutions mentioned above - were recently or soon will be handmade and personally installed by Baron Stage Curtains/Karma Corp., a mom-and-pop shop in South Baltimore. It has been in Baltimore since 1930. For the past 31 years, the company has been owned and operated by Hank and Betsey Slanker. He's a former investment banker and she used to be an elementary school principal.

It's midsummer now, crush time for Baron/Karma's employees. They have just a few weeks to complete and install 43 sets of oversized curtains in local schools and churches before the academic year begins. And, after a year in which the depressed economy delayed purchases of even necessities, orders are suddenly rushing in.

"Schools let out later in June than they did previously, and they return earlier in August," says Betsey Slanker, the company's president. "We're just slammed."

About a third of Baron/Karma's business comes from the Baltimore area and another third from the Mid-Atlantic region. The final portion consists of curtains the company sews and ships to auditoriums nationwide, but doesn't personally install.

Though the company occasionally crafts or repairs curtains for professional theaters, the Slankers chose to specialize in schools, partly because of Betsey's professional background.

She was principal of the Gibson Island Country School in Pasadena for three years in the 1970s, and before that, she taught French. And as far as she's concerned, the curtain business is merely the final phase of her lifelong career in education.

"When the Hippodrome Theatre was renovated, Baron/Karma was invited, and in fact encouraged, to bid on installing the new curtain," she says.

"But, it would have taken over our company for months and we wouldn't have been able to sew curtains for our elementary schools. I love talking to my principals and the heads of parent organizations about what they're going through to educate these kids. We're a very small part of that process. But, when you give the kids the right tools, like a new, clean set of curtains, it makes them feel wonderful. They know they're being taken seriously. It increases their feeling of accomplishment."

At Mount Washington Elementary, the curtains had deteriorated to the point where they could no longer be cleaned or repaired. "They hadn't been replaced in 20 or 25 years, and they were awful. They hung funny, and they didn't close," says Sue Torr, principal of the school for pupils from kindergarten through fifth grade.

The school, with the help of its Parent Teacher Organization and the Mount Washington Improvement Association, spent $10,000 on a complete set of the velour coverings, which were hung in January.

"They're absolutely beautiful, and it's changed the way the kids treat the stage," Torr says. "They know someone paid for them, and they're more respectful of the curtains now."

Still, when Slanker fields a frantic, last-minute plea for help from a theatrical producer, she has a hard time saying no.

About 15 years ago, she and her newest employee, Carolyn Pettyjohn, raced to the Mechanic Theatre just hours before a performance of a touring Broadway show. The two women perched atop tall stools and hurriedly tried to repair a huge rip as the stage crew set up scenery and lights all around them. "They kept asking, 'How much longer until it's fixed?' " Slanker says. "We didn't finish until an hour before the performance was supposed to begin."

Then, four or five years ago, Slanker received a desperate phone call from country star Willie Nelson's road manager. The band had recently performed in an auditorium in New Mexico, and the stage manager had jotted down the name of the company that had made the curtains.

It seems that Nelson's poker-playing buddy, Carl Cornelius, was building a theater in the two-road town he'd incorporated in the mid-1980s to give truckers a place to eat, sleep and buy a beer. The country star was scheduled to play a big Fourth of July concert opening the new venue in a matter of weeks, Nelson's technical crew was helping out with the construction details.

"When the road manager called, there was panic in his voice," Slanker says. "He needed new curtains, and he needed them by July 1. It was a real rush job, but I take pride in saying that we made the stage curtains for the theater in Carl's Corner."

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