Gil Sandler's Baltimore Stories

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Full Archive of Baltimore Stories.

On December 12, 1935, the great Sergei Rachmaninoff gave a performance at the Lyric. That same night, a young African American pianist named Ellis Lane Larkins gave his own show across town at Douglass High School. The next morning, The Baltimore Sun's music critic wrote that Rachmaninoff was not at his best. He should have been at Douglass High: no less than Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt was  there to hear Larkins.

The great flu that struck Baltimore was so deadly, contagious and debilitating that it pretty much shut down the city--schools, movies, department stories, even hospitals. But life went on for two determined and inventive young lovers who, each down with the flu and confined to their beds blocks apart, found a way to keep up their romance.

On Sunday afternoon, September 13, 1964, crowds of teenagers were circling the Civic Center, where the Beatles were set to play. They tried every ruse they knew to get through the gate without a ticket. One dressed herself in costume and told the guards she was the Beatles' personal maid and that they must let her in--the Beatles were expecting her. But the policeman in charge was no novice. 

In 1941, the Baltimore wholesale fish market on Market Place was hectic, noisy and wet. It was also filled with buyers of fish and crabs. The seasoning used for steaming those crabs was ho-hum - some would say boring - until a man named Gustav Brunn came along with the mystical combination of spices. Now known as Old Bay seafood seasoning, its formula is secret to this day.

On Sunday morning, February 7, 1904, the great Baltimore fire swept through downtown. It turned everything in its path to ashes. The only way to stop the fire's continuing destruction, firemen concluded, was to knock down whatever lay in the fire's path--thus giving it nothing to burn. The strategy put Thomas O'Neill's department store in line to be destroyed, but the Irishman had other plans.

On the night of January 6, 1965, the great Count Basie gave a performance at the Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue, then the most popular movie and stage show theater serving the African American community. The audience cheered and clapped and danced in the aisles and when the show was over, drifted out onto the street. They knew they had just heard the end of another of the Royal's big band stage shows. They also heard the end of an era.

In the 1960s, Baltimoreans were dancing the new Twist, caught up in the national craze. The wild and out-of-control dancing was, according to Chief Officer Horan of the Baltimore Fire Safety Divisions, creating safety hazards. He tried his best to get the mess straightened out. He failed - and some think only because he wasn't himself invited to twist with the dancers.

On the night of December 1, 1939, regulars of Baltimore's once-famous Rennert Hotel, then at Liberty and Saratoga streets, gathered at the bar to say goodbye to the old place. Among the group was H. L. Mencken. Though they had many fond memories of the Rennert, the farewell evening didn't work out quite the way the regulars had planned.

In the 1930s, so many kids were "hooking in" to the old Oriole Park at 29th and Greenmount that Orioles management decided to take firm action: they let the kids in free. With that face-saving gesture, they admitted defeat and started the "Knothole Gang."

Baltimoreans in 1936, walking about downtown, could sense that there was something different about the city.