The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Friday, February 28, 2003

Not usually a big TV fan, I have nonetheless succumbed over the past few years, along with every thirtysomething, to the National Broadcasting Company’s Thursday night lineup. I am beginning to question my viewing faith, as the quality of the shows — never “good,” but always fun, sort of like American theatre — is sinking rapidly.

I am particularly taken aback by the use of near-profanity on broadcast TV. I can remember a time when the networks were fussy about letting a character utter the word “pregnant” (which, in retrospect, does seem ridiculous). Last night, in the space of one hour, I heard “ass” several times, “tit” once and a sprinkling of hells and damns. Earlier this week, a King of the Hill character very audibly farted. I don’t particularly have anything against profanity; if my tongue is silver there’s a lot of tarnish around the edges. I’m nonetheless taken aback when I hear TV characters referring to a fine ass.

Imagine my horror, then, to see the public awareness campaign launched by the State of Maryland to cut down on teen pregnancy. It features a variety of pleasant young ladies saying, “If I wait to have sex...” and then listing a litany of their potentials. Dear God, this is Maryland! We are a respectable old state. We have sex a lot, but we do not talk about it.

My personal stuffiness aside, this is one of the more ridiculous ad campaigns I’ve ever seen (it goes hand in hand with a series of billboards that read, “Teach Abstinence”).

In the typically schizoid fashion of the ’90s, and apparently of the ’00s as well, we are telling the next generation that sex is naughty bad while blabbing about it through every possible medium. Does no one remember Prohibition and its effects on national drinking habits?

A few years ago there were similar ad campaigns promoting safe sex. This is apparently no longer acceptable. I think I know why; some years ago I recall a horrified woman gasping in reaction to such an advertisement: “But that’s like saying it’s okay for teenagers to have sex!” No, you idiot, it’s not. Saying it’s okay is saying it’s okay. Saying, “Use a condom,” is saying, “I trust you to be able to make your own decision. However, if you choose to have sex — which you probably will because you are a normal 16-year-old — have the sense to make sure you don’t get pregnant or contract AIDS.”

“Teaching Abstinence” is an idiotic way to control teen pregnancy and disease. This campaign is telling parents to wag their fingers and say, “Bad teenager! No nooky!” Which of course to any marginally sentient teenager translates to, “Go out and screw till you drop.” In most cases, it’s also extremely hypocritical. It would be laughable of me to tell my child not to go trying to sleep his/her way through the entire Atlantic Fleet when I’m trying to do precisely the same thing.

Every teacher I’ve ever known has pointed out that teens respond best to being treated as equals. After all, they aren’t toddlers anymore. If you want to discuss your moral values with your kid, great, but much better to instill in them enough responsibility to take control of their lives and make intelligent decisions — not just whether to have sex or not, but whether they want to (they probably do) and how to take care of themselves.

Regarding the Atlantic Fleet, the armed forces still have sense enough to show those lousy training films that explain various venereal diseases. The State of Maryland is too busy being a maiden aunt to do the same.

Monday, February 24, 2003

The “storm of the century” that just unloaded two feet of snow on the middle Atlantic states proved conclusively just how useless modern news media are. First bone of contention: “Storm of the Century”? The century is only three years old and they’ve been three mild years; even if we’d had a lousy ten inches of snow it could technically have been the storm of the century to date.

The newspapers seem to have been out in their Happy Places, because their reporting of the storm was random and ineffectual. Neither the Baltimore Sun nor the Washington Post managed to completely convey things that people needed to know — i.e., snow emergency routes and what to do if your car is trapped on one, plowing schedules, what to do with your trash, which institutions will be closed. The Sun roundly ignored the near destruction of one of the city’s major landmarks — the roof collapse of the gigantic old B&O Roundhouse garnered precisely one article — but six days later gave several column inches to the collapse of a Toys “R” Us in Lanham. This paper’s priorities are, to be blunt, screwed.

Radio has always been one of my favorite technologies. Even in the face of HDTV and fiber optics, the idea that you can somehow pull sound out of thin air seems amazing. I still get a charge out of firing up the ancient floor-model radio and discovering that I’m able to pull in a station from Fargo, or someplace similarly exotic. The actual content of radio broadcasting doesn’t offer the same excitement. It doesn’t even offer usefulness. During the actual storm, most of the local stations broadcast the same list of school closings over and over, interspersed with one of their hapless reporters telling the audience via remote that he was standing on Eastern Avenue (or Liberty Heights, or Gilmor street) and that yes, indeed, it was snowing. Good thing, too; we’d never have figured that out without help from WCBM. Once the storm was over and the digging-out process under way, you’d have hoped the radio stations would provide some information, but obviously the need for testosterone-addled jock doofs was higher, and it was right back to sports talk and widespread fear of “tax-and-spend Liberals.” This is pretty much par for the course on Baltimore radio. Even when we’re not buried in snow the radio is worthless, providing blips of news and weather — never any traffic information — only when there’s a lull in calls from unemployed men with nothing better to do than calculating batting averages and relaying said information to the radio station, which then broadcasts it to other men with nothing better to do than calculating batting averages.

Because the TV is the most omnipresent news drone these days, it’s also the most annoying. The radio just tells you that it’s snowing; the TV insists upon showing you. Again, no pertinent information that could possibly benefit the viewer; the stations simply send the low man on their totem pole out into the blizzard to show you that it’s snowing. Over and over, all day long.

Snowstorms must be a boon for the media in this part of the country. They know that everyone will be panicking and will turn on the TV or radio, and will cross ten-foot drifts for a late edition paper. There’s no actual work required on their part; they just have to keep telling people that it’s snowing. I think that people are really only listening for four words, exciting or ominous depending on age: “Baltimore City Schools: Closed.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

The typical response to a giant snowfall now is abject panic. I have yet to understand why. Even in a snowfall of the magnitude that has just befallen Baltimore and Washington, there’s very little likelihood of being trapped for more than a couple of days. And, when you live in the city, you might be prevented from driving, but surely you can walk to stores, restaurants and bars. I simply cannot comprehend the rush for milk, bread and toilet paper. If you didn’t have enough milk, bread and toilet paper to last for two days, you really needed to go to the store anyway, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

I firmly believe in self-sufficience, or at least to the extent that one can be self-sufficient in a major city. Sure, I can’t actually raise enough of a crop in my tiny little garden to support myself — therefore, it’s given over to roses and other pretty things that will ease the heat of brutal Maryland summer. (One of those pretty things, though, is an annual crop of nasturtiums, whose seeds and flowers can be pickled and turned into a very nice relish.)

From the city’s bountiful markets — Lexington, Cross Street, Hollins, and Northeast, primarily — I can get the best cuts of meat twelve months of the year, fresher and better dressed than any chain store has ever dreamed of offering. The greengrocers at those same markets don’t offer — or offer with some reluctance — wan vegetation off the fast trains from Florida, but remind me that a good Maryland table is seasonal. I might not be able to serve good fresh spinach to my wintertime guests, but I can give them the best local turnips and parsnips on earth.

What I cannot buy in the winter, I buy in the summer from our markets, and especially from the beloved “new” tradition of the Waverly farmer’s market. The lovely old neighborhood of Waverly spawned this market back in the ’80s, thanks to a convergence of earthy hippie types, Middle Earthers and unreformed Communists that had invaded the once WASPy area. In good Baltimorean tradition, everyone else recognized a good thing when they saw it, and before long the farmers’ market was full of Guilford ladies in furs and heels, Charles Village matrons tight with a dime, and Calvert Street queens of the not-so-royal variety looking for the Very Latest Thing. They all mixed with the former Commies (there’s still one unreconstructed Red there, trying desperately to sell copies of the International Worker) and a city institution was born.

When I shop there in the summer, I get all of the best vegetables from Baltimore, Harford, Cecil, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties. Everyone for two blocks knows when this happens, because I form piles of things in the backyard. Friends know to avoid because I announce my canning procedure ahead of time — they are usually smart enough to distance themselves from the process. Once I have the stuff I want laid out in the garden, the real fun begins... pickle of every sort! Mustard, Icicle and Bread and Butter. Chow Chow, Tomato relish and Cauliflower pickle. Then the fruit preserves. Mmm — there’s nothing quite like a good dollop of Cantaloupe preserve on your Christmas morning rolls.

Naturally the best way to approach your canning is with a good mint julep in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It’s the only real way — but try, if you can, not to ash into the mixture as it will lend an odd color to your jars.

A small bit of preparation, and a roomy cellar, should leave you without worry in the incidence of several feet of snow. Snow should be for fun — a few days off from work or school, steaming pots of tea and chocolate, and camaraderie. Every time it snows, I meet new neighbors. Tonight, however, I’m chilling a bottle of good Rhein wine in the drift on my steps and am planning a surreptitious sledding run to Suicide Hill.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Argh! I can’t take this anymore, and if I have to hold out much longer, I’m going to make a serious try for Austrian citizenship. (As many of you know, this is something I’ve been threatening for years, so it’s probably no big leap of faith.)

James Lileks is a columnist whose views on culture I respect deeply. He’s a few years older than I am, and his dissections of ’60s and ’70s foibles — and heedeeyous architecture — are beyond reproach.

Ungluecklich, he’s fallen into the War! War! War! camp. There’s a slavering Palestinian with bombs behind every tree; Iraq is one ahead of Satan himself, and al-Qaeda is lurking behind the 7-Eleven.

I will agree that this is a rather frightening time for the United States. We’ve not had to deal with completely foreign (see previous post) attacks on our soil in anyone’s memory.

What frightens me is that Mr. Lileks said to his wife: “Did you ever think you’d live to see the day when Eastern Europe was our ally, and France and Germany our enemies?”

Well, first off, on his own website he gets pretty violently anti-German. And wastes no opportunity to poke fun at France.

Germany and France are not our enemies. They’re older and wiser. They’ve lived through having their roofs burned over their heads and are trying to tell us that it’s not a picnic in the park.

Obviously, we are in a touchy situation here. What our European allies are attempting to say is that we shouldn’t fire blindly in the dark. To prove their point, they have only to show us the citizens of Dresden suffocating as their beautiful city was firebombed, or Nurnberg shelled to unrecognizable bits, or Londoners huddling in terror in the subway.

Is this mania emblematic of American distrust of any but its own? Do we still think of France as a touchy land of incomprehensible food? Of Germany as an empire of evil brute force? Evidently, there’s something, because we’ve claimed them for allies for years and yet won’t listen to their advice.

Until the rest of the world gains some sense I am tying my claim to Austria; it’s always time for a waltz.

One of the conveniences of being a creature of the night is that you get to read all of your friends’ blogs and comment upon them after the fact. This nominally saves me the effort of digesting actual news, but sadly in order to confirm information I have to run screaming back to the Sun and Morning Call and Times-Dispatch to see just what the hell is happening, anyway. (Got a great shoofly pie recipe from the Call, though: it involves pecans. Sort of a food bridge between Allentown and Lynchburg. Does it get better than that, I ask?)

Bill and Lisa both touched on the “fuschia alert” , although given the timbre of the current administration, I think it’s more like the Taupe Alert. For one thing, taupe is about the extent of Baby George’s personality, and it’s beyond the extent of Konigin Laura’s fashion sense. My God, if we have to have a piece of nouveau-riche trash at the nation’s helm, couldn’t he have at least had a gorgeous and awe-inspiring consort? Remember the Second Empire of France? There was Napoleon III, an unattractive doof if ever God made one, with about all the political savvy of the now rather soggy olive in my drink. Oh! But the Empress Eugenie! Only one woman in all of Europe was more beautiful, and the Kaiserin Elisabeth of Austria was so ethereally gorgeous that she transcended mere beauty. After all, she was Bavarian, and beer and the good Bavarian mountain air do wonders for the complexion. Eugenie was gorgeous, and stylish, and patriotic. She contributed much more to liberté à la française than did her ineffectual Imperial mate.

Sadly, we have no Elisabeth or Eugenie to rally our booboisie; we’ve only the dowdy Laura. At least Marian the Librarian got good costumes.

Now that the nation has sounded a Chartreuse Alert, I hear from the Washington front that antiaircraft guns have been placed around the city and that jarheads with shoulder mounts are stationed in the subways. Even Richmond has managed to ratchet security up a bit; the Virginia Museum is apparently checking ladies’ handbags.

Thank God that Baltimore is exercising its usual sangfroid. I stopped in the railroad station on the way home tonight to pick up a paper and a couple of postcards, and it was business as usual. No one on the campi of Johns Hopkins batted an eyelid today, and the city transit flowed as smoothly as ever.

Now, lest anyone think that Baltimore is not a terrorist target, let’s review: This is the second-largest port on the east coast. Wipe out Baltimore’s port and the U.S. will be very effectively handicapped. Wipe out Baltimore’s rail connections — every major east coast railroad has to pass through here — and you’ve cut off North and South as effectively as the Recent Unpleasantness of 1861.

We have history on our side, though. Only once in its history has the United States ever been invaded by a completely foreign power. Although I will stand to my death for the brief sovereignty of the Confederacy, the Confederacy was not actually a foreign power — merely a separate state of a like race, comparable to the Union in America as Braunschweig is to Sachsen in Europe. That invading power was not the devil Japs nor the evil Germans, nor was it the godless red Russia. It was our own mother nation, sainted England herself, our closest modern ally. In the 1812 War England burned, raped and tortured her way up the Chesapeake, flaying men alive at Hampton, butchering the populace at Havre de Grace and Queenstown. England made a fatal mistake at trying to take Baltimore, which hadn’t much love for the mother country anyway, and was already insanely proprietary. Perhaps foreseeing her future as a haven of German immigrants, Baltimore’s people defeated the invading English at North Point on land and at Fort McHenry by sea. These cutting victories were the only battles, other than the too-late battle of New Orleans, that were decisively set to the Americans.

And — discounting the concept of foreign invasion — Baltimore has been an occupied city. In the War between the States, Baltimore voted overwhelmingly for Secession. The Union president wisely (for his part) realized that Maryland’s secession would leave the Union capital high and dry and, perhaps worse, would grant a major industrial port city to the Confederacy. Therefore, acting in not-quite-genteel but very practical terms, he enforced the occupation of Baltimore. The city remained under Federal military law for the duration.

Though Defender’s Day is little remembered now, and nobody knows why there is a Wells & McComas Monument, and outsiders wonder why our city symbol is the weird old Battle Monument instead of the Washington Monument... We seem rather secure in ourselves. If someone invades, I know where to find water. I am perfectly capable of canning my own vegetables. I’d hate to have to cut down an old elm in the Park for firewood, but I suppose I could if I had to.

The Viennese have a saying that they’re “muddling through” — not doing well, perhaps, but they’re doing, and not so badly. We Baltimoreans are the same; we’re not necessarily doing well, but we make out. I’m sure we’ll still make out in the face of bombing and invasion. We already have.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Because I’m the only person left alive that likes the kooky popular music of the late ’10s and very early ’20s, I usually play my beloved Grafonola when I’m home alone. The big Viva-Tonal Grafonola, of course, comes into play at every party, since it’s capable of playing the more up-to-date recording processes used in the late ’20s and ’30s. It’s when I want to hear the somewhat deranged strains of “Mummy Mine” or “When Buddha Smiles” that the older Graf gets drummed into service.

Apparently, the last time (oh, say, two days ago) that I had one too many shots of bourbon and decided to bond with 1921, I played a record of “Doodle Doo Doo,” because that’s what was sitting on the turntable when I wound up the record player. Feeling lazy, I just flipped the record and played the other side, a nice but forgettable little foxtrot called “Back In Hackensack New Jersey.”

Hackensack??? Who the hell rhapsodizes about Hackensack? Admittedly, being a rootbound Marylander, I’ve only seen the place once, but it was best (and most kindly) described as benighted. Oh, sure, there are indications that it was a nice suburban locale once upon a time, but that time is easily forty years past. It’s now a rotten, half-destroyed downtown core with a ring of frowzy and run-down ’50s and ’60s shopping strips. In other words, suburbia gone wrong.

What is truly sad is that the song I heard tonight is waxing poetic about a rural town. In 1921, Hackensack was still a nice little farm and market city several miles from New York’s bustle, much as modern Hanover is to Baltimore. Over the years, as New York’s suburbs engulfed millions of acres per decade, the pretty little market town became first a fringe suburb, then a mainstream middle class suburb, and finally a ruin as the middle class fled from Hackensack as surely as they’d once fled the South Bronx. In the space of seventy years, this poor town has gone from someplace so sweet and idyllic that it merited a Tin Pan Alley paean to someplace so blighted that it merits nothing but a pained groan from people of fashion.

This is, apparently, the American way. Observe Towson, Maryland; once the sleepy seat of Baltimore County, it has been transformed into the new downtown of the metropolitan area. It first became a suburb; then as suburbs moved farther and farther out, it became a major business district in its own right. Now people actually don’t want to live in Towson because it’s too urban. Or Pikesville, the hearthstone of Baltimore’s Jewish community — which has gone from being a country town to the height of Hasidic fashion to someplace undesirable. Pikesville has gone as far downhill as its southern neighbor Pimlico. The children who grew up in Pikesville of the ’60s now grimace when they admit the fact; they live in Owings Mills now, or are building a new shag-n-sheetrock palace in Finksburg (do you really want to admit to living in a town called Finksburg?) because Pikesville is so outré. Washington is going through the same skin-shedding; once-fashionable Silver Spring gave way to Rockville. Now, that former sleepy town that houses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s shuffled mortal coil is becoming the realm of run-down garden apartments as the booboisie move inexorably outward.

Some, evidently, are seeing the light, and are moving back toward the cities, perhaps realizing that their three-hour-each-way commute is not worth the bigger house or the huge lawn.

A while back a guy I know who’s driven a Baltimore cab for years told me that he was retiring to Cockeysville (known to many city folk as Kookysville). Once a sweet little town with a rye distillery and named for the lordly Cockey family, it too has been swamped with vinyl-sided terror. He said bluntly that after forty years, he “deserved more than a Kavon Avenue rowhouse.” I had to wonder. He’ll trade up, surely, to a Candy Cane Lane or Gandalf Garth house... which will have three bedrooms on one floor, much smaller than the three on Kavon... and no porch... and a giant backyard that will have to be mowed constantly... with neighbors who don’t know you... the closest market a two-mile drive instead of a one-block walk, your parish church six miles off instead of around the corner... no shady trees, no neighborhood block parties, no community picnics. I wonder how long he’ll live there before he learns the names of his next-door neighbors? From what I’ve seen of new suburbia, the poor man will be dead in his grave before any of them know who he was. And, he’ll probably be buried out of the Shrine of the Little Flower church, right around the corner from the house where he lived for forty years. His old neighbors will be there in droves, but the new neighbors in Cockeysville won’t even know he’s dead. Sure, he’s trading up; he’s getting vinyl instead of honest red brick, and he’ll be in the stylish place for middle-class folk to be now. Still, I wonder how often he’ll sit out in his backyard and wonder why there’s no one saying hello across the fence anymore, like there had been in town.

Sure, cities have problems. But don’t think that suburbs don’t have them too. Worse than city crime is suburban encapsulation and separatism. Damn the occasional noisy party or plastic bags in the trees, give me Kavon Avenue.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

It is most odd for residents of large cities to really see a starry sky. In summer it’s always too hazy; in winter on the Atlantic Coast, grey skies and rain perpetually clog the sky, the city lights reflecting back on the clouds. Only on a completely clear, chill night does the city dweller gaze on the starry firmament.

Imagine my surprise when, walking home tonight, I could look up and actually see stars. Lots of them! And in the middle of a pretty, inky-blue night sky, with a few puffy clouds drifting over. It looked as though the Valencia Theatre had exploded its walls out, and left a giant 1920s-techno-atmospheric ceiling over the whole city.

Then, I saw the Evil Cloud. A particularly odd-shaped cloud in nature, it was — well, it was a mushroom cloud. Since I am still alive and there was no boom nor subsequent fireflash, I knew that we weren’t under attack. It was unnerving, all the same, and called to mind some signs I’ve seen on Hopkins campus lately.

Remember those quietly ominous yellow and black signs? The ones with the three inverted triangles and the euphemistic legend “Fallout Shelter”? Now they’re mostly brown and black, the paranoid caution-yellow of 1960 faded into resigned 1995 obscurity.

I’ve actually started looking for these things. No, I don’t fear an attack from Russia. We’ve already got so many Russian cab drivers and dry cleaners in Baltimore that if Russia declares war on the United States, we’ll get dispensation from attack as a home of Russian expats. Besides, Russia has better things to do. And, despite prevalent Arabophobia, I don’t think any of the supposed renegade nations are quite ready to take on the United States, and I believe that for the most part they probably don’t really want to do so anyway. I am looking for these signs from an archaeological perspective.

When I was a third-grader at Immaculate Conception School, we actually still had air-raid drills. They were a bit half-hearted; I think everyone knew by then that if the Big One hit even one of those die-hard steel Catholic school desks (still with a hole for an inkbottle, thank you) wasn’t going to help. And we got to watch the famous “Duck and Cover” public-service trailer, the one that shows the happy picnicking family recognizing the attack and ducking under its picnic blanket. If the Pittsburgh steel desks wouldn’t help, I can’t imagine that twelve yards of gingham would do much for you either.

Which brings us back to the fallout shelters. Some of them seem well-placed — for instance, the old 1880s building that was the former headquarters of the Mercantile. The squat, hideous Victorian edifice survived the Great Fire of 1904 completely intact, not to mention the Panics of 1893 and 1907 and the Great Depression. I can’t imagine that Big Nukes would faze it too much, though some of the evil-looking gargoyles might need sunglasses. (Best of all, it’s lately been converted to a nightclub, the Merc having long ago moved to more commodious if not more beautiful headquarters. If you’re gonna be stuck in one building for months on end, in this one at least you’ll have a full bar.) The Fidelity Building has a similar solidity that reassures war-panicked citizens as much as it was intended to reassure twitchy investors.

Certain other Fallout Shelter buildings don’t inspire quite so much awe. The old Hopper-McGaw store on Charles street is, in theory, a shelter. Now, it’s a pretty well-built thing in all likelihood, but it has mammoth plate glass windows; it’s only three stories tall and as far as I can tell doesn’t exactly have six levels of subterranean refuge. Even more perplexing is JHU’s Remsen Hall. Named for one of the Victorian era’s captains of chemistry, it is indeed home to the University’s chemistry department. Well built or not — we’re supposed to ride out nuclear holocaust in a building full of beakers containing green caustic goo? No, thanks.

Of all buildings in Baltimore that proclaim themselves with those fading signs to be fallout shelters, there is precisely one that I would trust, and not simply for its massive granite construction and deep catacombs.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, seat of the Archbishop of the Holy See of Baltimore and premiere Cathedral in the United States, is a fallout shelter.