Gil Sandler's Baltimore Stories | WYPR

Gil Sandler's Baltimore Stories

Friday 7:46 am and 9:38 am

Gilbert Sandler is one of Baltimore's most-read and well-known local historians. For more than thirty years, through his articles in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Jewish Times, National Public Radio and his books and lectures, he has shown Baltimoreans, through anecdote and memory, who they are, where they have been and, perhaps, where they are going. He was educated in Baltimore's public schools and graduated from Baltimore City College; in World War II, he served in the United States Navy as a ship-board navigator in the Pacific. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and has a master's from Johns Hopkins.

Archive prior to December 2014.

Hula Hoops

Aug 14, 2015

 In the late summer of 1962, Baltimoreans of all ages could be seen on street corners and playgrounds, on country club lawns and back alleys, gyrating in a studied effort to keep a plastic hoop twirling about one's body while keeping it clinging. The plastic hoop was called a hula hoop, and among the celebrity hula hoopers was City Comptroller Hyman Pressman - and this is the story of how he bravely entered the City's hula hoop contest and sadly lost!


A yellow school bus moves along Dulaney Valley Road, through the lush green country side of the Loch Raven Reservoir area. At Dance Mill Road--where Peerce's Plantation restaurant used to be--the bus turns left into a narrow, unpaved country road. In minutes, the bus comes to a full stop in a parking lot and the students alight. They have come this fine spring morning in 1955 to visit the Cloverland Farms milking barn, to see--believe it or not--cows being milked.

Lizette Woodworth Reese

Jul 30, 2015

Ms. Reese was regarded by many critics (among them H. L. Mencken) as the foremost woman poet of the country and one of the nation's greatest lyricists. She was born and raised and worked in Baltimore all her life, and she particularly liked Baltimore in spring.

Famous Blue Bottle

Jul 24, 2015

In 1936, Baltimoreans walking about downtown knew something was missing. A mysterious vacuum was making itself felt. What was wrong was that the Baltimore sky line had changed - the giant bottle of Bromo Seltzer atop the Bromo Seltzer tower at 308 W. Lombard Street was suddenly missing from their view.

When Senator Mikulski heard, on the evening of Wednesday August 28, 1991, she was in her apartment on North Charles street - she dropped everything and ordered her limo downtown to a restaurant called Connelly's. The Senator had gotten the word that the old Baltimore restaurant was closing.

On the Saturday night of July 7, 1937, crowds are making their way along the Light Street below Pratt to Pier 5, there to board the moonlight excursion boat, the Bay Belle. The boat would go down as far as Fort McHenry and then turn around and come back to Pier 5, an hour or so later.

When in the fall of 1975, the Orioles were in a nail-biting playoff race with the Boston Red Sox, radio station's disc-jockey, in a madcap scheme that would make Baltimore history, persuaded National Beer to send him to Kenya in Africa - there to  persuade a witch doctor to put a hex on the Sox and insure an Oriole victory.

Mechanic Life and Death

Jun 26, 2015

On the night of Saturday, January 16, 1967 the area under the marquee of the of the Mechanic Theater at Baltimore and Hanover streets in downtown Baltimore was all klieg lights an celebrities.


Painters Mill Theater

Jun 15, 2015

When the word was out that the state was going to build a ribbon of concrete around the city, neighborhood associations in the path of it swore they would lie down in front of the bulldozers before they would allow the road to come through their beautiful neighborhoods. But the beltway was indeed completed and so the state highway gang decided to take a survey of the same residents who decided to lie down in front of the bulldozers. The results of the survey were surprising.

In 1962, the Baltimore City Department of Recreation decided to join the Hula Hoop craze and held a contest for youth in City Hall Plaza. For reasons of publicity, the Department allowed City Comptroller Hyman Pressman to enter the contest. Mr. Pressman insisted he could beat the kids and win - though he confessed that he could not do the big trick called,  “wrap the mummy.” He lost because he couldn’t wrap the mummy.

After that dark, snowy unforgettable night when the Mayflower trucks hauled away the Colts and the franchise and all that the team possessed, a furious Mayor Schaefer threatened to sue the demon Colt owner Irsay. To avoid the delay and embarrassment of a court case,  Irsay agreed to have his own lawyer and the Colts representative, Ted Venetoulis, settle the matters privately. At the end of the affair they did--the Colts got back their memorabilia and Irsay got a penalty-- slapped on by Venetoulis for "unsportsmanlike like conduct."

Ice Hockey

In the early 1940s, in what was known then as the Sports Center Ice Rink at North and Calvert streets, it was the all-girls’  Spitfires against the all-girls Glamor girls—in no-holds, rough and tumble ice hockey. The girls ice hockey teams never got to play against any of the boys’ ice hockey teams. The boys, many observers felt, were lucky.

At exactly 5pm on New Year's Eve, 1938, Captain Leon Joyce took the ferry Howard Jackson across the harbor to the foot of Haubert Street in Locust Point for the very last time in the service's 114 years of existence. The service was costing the city $25,000 a year and Mayor Jackson had resolved to shut it down. And he did - which was probably the first of his New Year's resolutions that year that he kept.

Gil recalls three gifts from Baltimore Christmases past, and concludes that if he had to choose one gift of the three to send to listeners, it would be of the Christmas window gardens of the downtown department stores so beloved by Baltimoreans into the 1950s. There was one window garden in particular that offered to all who saw it the gift of joy.

The Great Baltimore World Series of Jump Rope, 1960 edition, was going to be different. In that year's contest, the boys were invited to compete along with the girls. The girls protested - they said it wasn't fair, what with the boys reputed to be stronger. But when the contest ended, there was a big surprise. Not a single boy finished in the running.

The May 27, 1982 performance of the Baltimore Symphony was the Symphony's last show at the Lyric. The orchestra said goodbye to the venue one musician at a time: in the middle of Haydn's Symphony 45 in F Sharp Minor, each musician left the stage individually. The first violinist remained to finish the piece. When the piece concluded, the first violinist walked off the stage, leaving Maestro Commissiona alone. With no musicians left to lead, Commissiona walked stage left and flicked the light switch to "off." The auditorium went dark. It was a poignant goodbye to the Lyric after 66 years.

Famed movie star Dorothy Lamour married no less than a descendant of John Eager Howard and took her place among the city's elite in 1944. Baltimore high society may have laughed, but it was she who had the last laugh: she was perhaps the only former elevator operator ever to make the pages of the Baltimore Society's famed "Blue Book."

On the afternoon of November 22, 1936, Hochschild Kohn Department Store was feverish with preparations for the next day's Toytown Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was learned that the Mickey Mouse balloons were on a truck, frozen in, in upstate New York. They would arrive very late in the morning - too late to be inflated with the commercial balloon pumps. But the parade went on, because the Mickey Mouse balloons did get inflated - in a very surprising way.

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.

By 1955, Keith's Theater on Lexington Street had been in decline for years. Management was looking into ways to close it. To their surprise, a lead act on their stage, Bill Haley and his Comets, did the job for them...in a way nobody could have suspected. 

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