Mad Men Go Baltimore

Z ON TV

The '60s Drama Travels To A Sexy And Sophisticated City, But, Alas, That's Not How These Baltimoreans Remember It

August 16, 2009|By DAVID ZURAWIK

Let's get one thing clear from the start: I love "Mad Men," and this stylish series about life on Madison Avenue in the 1960s is by far the best drama on television.

It's steeped in authentic period detail while still speaking more eloquently than any other TV drama to America today. But there is historical detail, and then there is historical detail. And when it comes to keepers of the historical flame in Baltimore, this is a city that loves its past and can be downright picky about it.

"Mad Men" opens Season 3 tonight at 10 on AMC with a business trip to Baltimore. When I first wrote about it last month, several readers with strong ties to the places re- created in tonight's episode offered their services in critiquing the historical accuracy.

I swear, I went into this piece hoping these folks would tell me that "Mad Men" got it absolutely right. But these Baltimoreans aren't as forgiving of Don Draper and company's slip-ups as, say, their leading ladies, Emmy voters and, yes, TV critics.

One of them, Jonathan Myers, the former president and CEO of the company that made London Fog raincoats in Hampden, is portrayed in tonight's episode as a young executive working with his father, Israel Myers, who founded the firm. How could I not talk to him?

And am I ever glad I did. I would not have missed the chance to get his take on the scene in which Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), two admen in the series, go to his father's office to talk about the London Fog ad campaign. When I asked the now-69-year-old Myers as the scene ended if Draper was the kind of Madison Avenue ad executive he did business with 40 years ago, Myers said, "I would have thrown him out. In the three agencies we dealt with, we never had characters like that. ... They weren't dressed in three-piece suits. They weren't slick. ... And by the way, my father and I never smoked, and the people who called on us never smoked."

Titled "Out of Town," tonight's episode is written by series creator Matthew Weiner, who was born in Baltimore and attended Park School before his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 11. Robin Veith, an Emmy-nominated writer on the series, also was born and raised in Baltimore. She has been promoted to executive story editor this season. That history has contributed to several Baltimore references over the first two seasons.

As the title suggests, the trip to Baltimore plays a large role in the episode, with Draper and Romano eating dinner at Haussner's, the late great Highlandtown restaurant, spending a night at the Belvedere Hotel and the next day at the London Fog factory. The two admen head down to Baltimore for a little hand-holding and consulting with their London Fog clients, Myers and his father.

I will try to say no more about the plot; the folks at AMC and "Mad Men" have become quite serious about not giving away any details. But Veith was kind enough to offer some background on the thinking behind having the characters travel to Baltimore and the research done for historical detail.

"As you said, Matt and I both grew up there, and on the show it's said that Sal [and his wife, Kitty] are from Baltimore," Veith said. "Matt likes to draw on personal experience, and likes the rest of us to do so as well. That being said, it was quite natural for Baltimore to come up in 'Mad Men,' as Matt lived there until he was 11, and I lived there until I was 17."

Veith said the Haussner's scene grew out of Weiner's memory and the efforts of researchers working for him - which included a call to The Baltimore Sun for archival evidence as to what kind of uniforms the waitresses wore.

"Matt had a very good memory of Haussner's, as does anyone, I think, who grew up in Baltimore," Veith said. "It was an institution. Our researchers did look into it; we wanted to get as many details right as we could.

"As far as London Fog and the Belvedere go, my mom lives off [Interstate] 83 at Cold Spring, so we deputized her to take some pictures of those buildings," Veith says. "The old London Fog factory is now her gym. She also lived in Hampden growing up, so she told us a lot about those buildings in the '60s and what they meant."

I suspect no one knows more about the old London Fog factory buildings on Clipper Mill Road. than Myers. He and his wife, Bev, generously took me on a tour one day last week, pointing out the rooms where his father's office was housed and the vast spaces that held the cutting and sewing operations for the raincoat that defined functionality and style for many Americans in the 1960s. Myers brought the high-ceilinged history so vibrantly to life, I felt as if I could hear the sewing machines hammering away.

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