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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

You cannot, of course, judge a book by its cover. You’re usually wrong when you do and besides you will automatically violate the American Lexicon Language Cliche Act of 1952, which clearly states that such folksy maxims should guide everyday interpersonal operations.
With this in mind, I tried to wrap my mind around the woman in front of me in the supermarket checkout line yesterday, who was buying Lean Cuisine and prepackaged everything, frozen this and preservative-laden that. I’d have expected such purchases from a twenty-something, probably starting in her first apartment, or a harried soccer mom. This was the ultimate hippie holdover woman, though–right down to the graying, butt-length hair, Jesus-sneaker sandals, and a dress that I could only describe with two words: Holly Hobbie.

Why, oh why, do I remember poor Holly Hobbie? I tried to use her name to describe the dress to a slightly older friend, whose childhood predated Holly. He didn’t get it at all. I’m sure that if I used the same reference to one of my own twenty-something friends they’d be equally lost.

Since I’m sure that a few of you reading this are not in the 25-45 age bracket beloved of marketing agencies and insurance companies, I’ll take a moment to enlighten you. Holly Hobbie was a character/doll/line of merchandise in the ‘70s. She was a cute little homespun girl in long calico dresses and sunbonnets, always surrounded by wildflowers. Obviously designed to cash in on the longings of those who’d just graduated from the Summer of Love into parenthood, she embodied the schmaltzy unreality of the Good Olde Tymes when girls wore things like calico and sunbonnets. (Even as a child, I didn’t buy it. Who were these sunbonneted people, anyway? The ancient photographs of my Baltimore and Missouri relatives all showed women tricked out in silk and lace, or at the very least, bombazine and crepe. Calico was evidently Not Our Kind, Dear.)

I’ve heard another maxim–that there is nothing sadder than a broken toy. Personally, I believe that there’s nothing sadder than a forgotten toy. Your same correspondent who doesn’t blanch at reading graphic descriptions of the Rape of Nanking gets weepy over a dusty teddy bear in an estate auction. Whatever happened to the little kid who played with the bear? Did he grow up to be a baseball player, like he wanted to? Did she end up having the fairy-tale wedding that she dreamed about while she dressed the bear up as the groom? Or did he end up in jail; did she get smacked around by the groom from the fairy-tale wedding? What made these theoretical kids close up their old toys in a box and forget them?

So, you see, Holly Hobbie makes me rather sad. Not only are the toys themselves forgotten, but the entire idea is forgotten. I’ve also notice lately a lot of Miss Beasley dolls in yard sales and junk shops. Miss Beasley was derived from the early ‘70s TV show "Family Affair." I always thought the dolls were creepy, but all the little girls my age loved them. Either the little girls grew up to agree with me on the creepiness factor, or they just have no sentimentality for their old toys.

Fortunately, I never had any terribly faddish toys, because my parents were extremely pragmatic (and extremely tight-fisted). I had pretty traditional stuffed critters and enough toy soldiers to invade Russia, if they’d been real. I also had a barrage of toy tanks, artillery pieces, cars and fire trucks. I’m still quite nostalgic about them all. I wonder how I’d feel now if my parents had given into advertising pressure and given me "Stretch Armstrong" for Christmas one year? Poor old Stretch: I’d probably still dust off my stuffed bears and kitties and keep my little soldiers polished, but Stretch would just be a joke at the expense of an era gone–in questionable taste–forever.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

This Saturday last, my friend and neighbor Jacques Kelly dedicated his column in The Sun to his amusing habit of walking Baltimore’s alleys. I’ve been doing the same thing for years. A city’s alleys can provide a wealth of interesting information.
Scarlett O’Hara once famously learned that "eavesdroppers often learn highly entertaining and instructive things." Alley walking is to eavesdropping as movies are to radio.
I learned the pastime not in my native Balto, but in the drowsier clime of Richmond. A city possessed of lovely and elegant residential neighborhoods, Richmond provides one of the nation’s most hospitable pedestrian scenes. Its beautiful streets are full of gracious houses, from Monument Avenue’s gigantic palaces to the cozy little rowhouses of Mulberry street. Every house in that city seems to have been built with domestic charm in mind. Richmonders are therefore justly house-proud. What one can see from the street is invariably well-decorated and well-manicured, and thus beautiful but not necessarily informative.
In an old city, the backs of houses are not always as lovely as the facades. There may be a pretty garden or a spacious back porch, but never is that porch quite so grandiose as the one in front. The bricks and marble and carved wooden curlicues are saved for the street front; the back of the house is reserved for the prosaic virtues of family, privacy, and laundry.
Even patrician Richmond dirties its clothes and has garbage to throw away, so after I spent my first months in the city marvelling at its immaculate front porches graced with wicker summer furniture, I moved into the alleys and began to inspect the truth behind the facades.
Upon returning to the frumpier regime of Baltimore–a city not without elegance, but more imbued with Teutonic efficiency than Richmond–I resumed the same habit. It’s fun to stroll Baltimore’s "social streets" --Charles, St. Paul, Maryland and Calvert–and peer through parlor windows at the stylishly-turned-out rooms within. For the record, Richmonders are rather more exhibitionist; the grand houses of Monument and Grove avenues are more likely to have their blinds raised at night than those of St. Paul and Calvert. In Baltimore just as in Richmond, one learns from the alley immensely more than from the street.
What you see in a city backyard tells you who the person is. What you see from the front windows tells you what the person wants you to think he is. The front of my house will tell you that I am rather pissily formal, that I am fond of cut-crystal vases, and that I like music but (if you listen) that I play the piano rather badly. The back of the house, on the other hand, tells you that I like homemade pies (if there’s one cooling on the window ledge), that I am obsessed with roses (the garden is full of them), that I think landscaping is a foolish extravagance (since none has been evidently employed back there), that I like mint juleps (since the only herb that is growing really well is mint), that I have cats (since there is always a bag of poop gravel waiting for trash pickup), that I am too cheap to operate an electric dryer (since there is invariably a line of wash drying in the breeze), and if you examine the aforementioned laundry, that I went to William and Mary (there are always W&M and Sigma Phi Epsilon t-shirts in my wash), that I prefer snowy-white boxer-briefs (somebody always does take note of that sort of thing) and that I’m still, after twelve years, divesting myself of the bizarre things that the previous occupants left in the house.
In my travels I have also learned: That the perfectly respectable old lady down the street who never left the house without a hat and gloves liked her bourbon even more than I do mine; that the seemingly-respectable Hopkins students two doors up had some VERY bizarre tastes in pornography, that the delicately beautiful female nursing student down the street wears Army-issue boxer shorts, that the burly cop on the other side of the block either wears NO underwear or is too modest to dry it on the line, and that one of the tenants in a nearby apartment is secretly harboring a covey of pigeons.
The beauty of any city is measured in the face of its residential streets, but the reality is usually seen on the back of the outfit. This is better than any psychoanalysis–whatever you see in the alley is the sometimes pleasant, sometimes grim, but always entertaining reality of a neighborhood.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Once again I find myself thanking God for His dubious wisdom in allowing Scan-Tron to come into existence. As I've mentioned before, I hated those stupid things in high school--they didn't allow me to show off my knowledge, nor did they allow me to fudge my way through information I didn't know. As a teacher, though, they're manna from heaven, or at least a box of Rheb's chocolates. Multiple-choice tests are hard to write (think of all the wrong answers you have to invent), but you can "check" one hundred tests in about ten minutes. It takes about five hours to grade one hundred short-answer tests and I won't bore you with the saga that is the grading of real essay exams.

I am now taking a break from the writing of my multiple-choice Scan-Tron nightmare, to be administered tomorrow.

Today, I took a break before I even started work.

When people in the abysmally-hot cities of Baltimore and Washington wanted relief in years past, they went to the beaches. Unless, of course, they couldn't afford it or didn't have a car or (see previous post) didn't want to fart around for hours on the various forms of transit that could get you there. For those seeking less complicated respite from city heat, there were amusement parks.

Mostly built by the streetcar companies as a means of boosting revenue, amusement parks in the pre-theme-park era were generally right outside city limits, but were still cooler than the city streets. Most of them were in nice shady spots, preferably near water of some kind. You got on the streetcar, packed a picnic lunch and your children, and went for the day.

Baltimore had little amusement parks all over the place. There was Gwynn Oak with its famous Dixie Ballroom; Carlin's, which had the best funhouse around; Bay Shore Park--probably the most exciting, since it had a nice sandy beach, and two or three lesser establishments. All of them are gone now and mostly obliterated by time, although there's still a little bit of the beach left at Bay Shore along with the park's old central fountain, and the trolley station still waiting for a happy throng of visitors that will never again disembark from the #10 car.

Washington, which in those days tended to lag behind Baltimore in amenities, only ever had one amusement park. Glen Echo Park always advertised itself truthfully as "Washington's Only Pleasure Park!" and it is, more or less, still there. Now a National Park, all of the old rides are gone except the park's crown jewel, a beautiful carousel with a giant Wurlitzer band organ. It still has its brass-ring machine too, but in these litigious times the park service doesn't dare actually use the thing.

Today, some of our crowd went over to Glen Echo to have a picnic, cool off and dance in the newly-restored Crystal Ballroom. Don't let anyone tell you that it's really the Spanish Ballroom. People call it that now because it's decorated in that goofy 20's-Spanish-Valencia-Theatre style, but in the Park's heyday it was the Crystal Ballroom, because it was right next to the Crystal Pool (which, today, we heartily wished was still in operation). One of the group mentioned that she could now understand why people once flocked out to Glen Echo--it really is a nice cool spot.
Almost every amusement park had a ballroom, since dancing was one of the favorite entertainments in the days before the second War.

Until, that is, you start dancing. The Ballroom was restored VERY faithfully--right down to the exclusion of air conditioning. There are lots of nice, wide-open windows. I noticed several things as we danced. One--people stick to what they know. When a tango is played, not too many people dance because no one knows how to tango anymore. The band played "Ich bin von kopf bis fuess aus Liebe eingestellt" (oh, sorry--American title, "Falling in Love Again") as a waltz. It's normally played as a foxtrot so everyone just went right ahead foxtrotting and falling over their feet because the rhythm wasn't right. Two--the Crystal Ballroom is evidently designed so that one circuit around the dance floor is about exactly the length of an average '20s popular song--about three minutes, or the length of a 78 rpm record. Three--a foxtrot or a waltz will make you sweat when it's over 90 degrees, but a Charleston will cause you to enter complete meltdown.

The shady picnic grove at Glen Echo is very pleasant and certainly a lot cooler and nicer than Baltimore's currently-broiling rowhouses, but after two hours' worth of dancing in 1926, I was once again thankful for the occasional modern convenience. All the way back to the city, I blasted the air conditioning in my modern Buick.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

I have recently updated my life with a new computer which, though it is far from the top of the line and though I have not yet purchased half of the wingdings and thingajiggies that will make it perfectly up to date, makes my old computer look like a hand-shaped stone tool. Hopefully this means that I will a)be more productive in developing lesson plans and tests for my li’l darlings, b)will blog more often and c)will be able to more readily access naughty pictures.
This is one of my rare concessions to modern convenience. Most often, I find the time-saving developments and life-enhancers of the last fifty or so years to be either extraneous or annoying. It doesn’t take much more time to hang clothes out than it does to load a dryer, and my clothes have such a nice fresh smell. I’m anal about things like table linens, so I’d iron them even if I did have a dryer. I’m not anal about other things, like khakis, so I don’t iron them even though I probably should, since I don’t have a dryer. Air-conditioning–well, you all know my feelings on that. It’s fine for movie houses but for people houses, it’s expensive and I’m convinced that it poisons people with nasty uncirculated air. Besides, being hot is a very good excuse to sit down with a gin-and-tonic and a trashy novel.
I will accede to a few other innovations besides computers (and cell phones, which I still find marvelously novel and amusing). I deplore our car-centric culture for what it’s done to beautiful forms of transit, like Baltimore’s famous streetcars or the C&O Railroad’s George Washington Limited. On the other hand, it sure makes it easier for me to get to the beach.
Despite its status as one of the country’s most important ports, Baltimore is a damned long way from the ocean. The Chesapeake Bay isn’t at our front door–it is our front door. The Atlantic is a different animal and it lives a long way off. Even in my childhood, in order to get to the ocean, you had to leave the city via Ritchie Highway, spend nearly an hour getting through all the suburban traffic lights to Annapolis (nearly two hours on summer Saturday mornings, as you joined the ocean-bound horde), sit for another hour in the traffic backed up to cross the Bay Bridge, and then wend your way down the Eastern Shore–not so bad for those Rehoboth-bound folk, but the Ocean City devotees got stuck again in traffic at the narrow bridge at Cambridge and once again getting through downtown Salisbury. In the high season, it took nearly five hours to get to OC.
At that, we were lucky. In my father’s day, the roads were the same, but you had to fart around waiting for the ferries that preceded the Bay Bridge. Each one held about twenty cars and the Bay crossing took forty-five minutes. Then, it took about seven hours to get from the city to the Atlantic.
In my grandfather’s era, things were even tougher. (Now, to be fair, that generation had the option of taking a Wilson Line or Old Bay Line steamer to one of several bay beaches, too.) If you wanted to get to the ocean, you had to: Find your way down to the Light street wharves, catch a steamer for the Eastern Shore, catch the Pennsylvania Railroad, and sit back in the excruciating heat as the train piddled its way through every jerkwater town (there are a lot of them) to one of the beach resorts. In 1915, it took Granddad about twelve hours to get from Mount Royal avenue to the Hotel Atlantic.
This Sunday, I went down to Rehoboth and came back all in one day. I-97 has made Annapolis a twenty-five minute trip; new bridges over the Kent Narrows and the Choptank have decimated problems on the Shore. I am now happily tanned, have eaten Grotto Pizza and have been knocked ass over teakettle by a couple of waves that I didn’t see until it was too late.
There was one rite of summer that I didn’t observe, though, and I regret it. Although I only spent about eight hours on Delaware’s silver strand, I should have found the time to send postcards to everyone back home.

Friday, June 03, 2005

I am finally recovered from the annual Preakness Day festivities.

I understand that, during the course of a party, many people lose their drinks. To that end I have long proposed the development of a drink beeper, which will be voice activated and can recognize individual voices. It will then play the drink owner's favorite song, or something. Hence, when my drink hears my voice, it will play "Valencia;" Jacques' will play "Out of the Dawn," and Mom's will play "Cruising Down the River."

Therefore, it makes sense that a party of thirty-five people somehow produces ninety-three dirty glasses. People lose their drinks and then get a new glass. I have yet to understand, though, why people insist on losing their drinks in very strange places. One week after the Preakness, I was still discovering glasses that had been lost a)in the bathrooms, b)under the piano, c) in fireplaces and most intriguingly d)in the basement. (Whoever you were, I hope you had fun in the basement, and I certainly hope you had fun with somebody else, because I can't imagine why else you'd have gone to the basement in the first place.)

All things of this sort are to be expected at a Baltimorean party. Our mission, here, is to provide lots of drinks and food. I tend to specialize in a combination of Old Maryland food and weird stuff that I've culled from '30s cookbooks; it's nothing unusual here to see ham biscuits alongside some freakish gelatin mold. (I am particularly proud of the multicolored cream cheese/gelatin/fruit glop that I served this year. Not too many people ate it, but it was really pretty.)

Any respectable party is based on the host's particular preferences and skills. As I'm a Marylander and a Southerner (they're certainly not mutually exclusive; see previous posts) my Preakness beverage of choice is a julep. (See also previous posts concerning the creation of a julep.)

Evidently, at some point in recent history, commercialism invaded private parties as well as hotel bars. Somewhere in the '70s, the Maryland Jockey Club decided that drinking the traditional Maryland-style julep (with rye, that is) was just not quite the hallmark they wanted. After all, everybody in Louisville was drinking juleps (with bourbon, thanks) on Derby day. (Nota bene: much of Louisville aristocracy has Maryland roots.) In a burst of idiotic individualism, the Jockey Club decided that a new drink must, like Aphrodite, be born out of the foam at Pimlico. The Black-Eyed Susan was thus created.

I have no idea what is in a Black-Eyed Susan and I have no intention to learn. I did hear once that it involves Benedictine, which is a perfectly good liqueur, but not something that I normally include in my drinking procedure.

The Black-Eyed Susan was born purely out of an inferiority complex, and I want no truck with it. Old Maryland people have always had juleps on spring and summer racing days, so who am I--or, who is anyone--to buck tradition? And why should Pimlico have an inferiority complex, anyway? Those picture hats that the Louisville ladies wear went out in 1921, even though I do find them lovely. Baltimore ladies wear pretty hats too, and some of them were purchased in this century.

This week I ducked into Pimlico after school to catch the last three races of the day. I only made $10.50 on my bets, but it was well worth it. When I went to the bar and asked for a julep I got one and it was just right, made with rye, and nobody acted as though there was anything even slightly odd about the request. Vivat Baltimorea antiqua.