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, May 26, 2006

Almost every city now has zoning regulations, and Baltimore is no exception. You can build a supermarket in this block, but not in that block. This is mixed-use office and residential; that is zoned for commercial use.

In some ways, Baltimore pioneered (I think I just verbed a noun, there) the concept of zoning, but it was on a private scale. The next neighborhood up the street from this one was laid out and developed by a private company. Since it was intended to be a fairly schnitzy, exclusive neighborhood, "Peabody Heights" did not allow any structures that were not residential. Even apartment houses were verboten.

Of course, within a few years, people realized that they were stuck with walking several long blocks for such basic amenities as barbershops and drugstores, so the restrictions were eased a bit. To this day, though, Charles Village (the hip new name given to old Peabody Heights in the '60s) is remarkably free of corner stores and their ilk. It's still a pain in the ass to run around the corner for a Coke, because you have to run around several corners.

Citywide zoning happened in the '20s, and it was met with vitriol. Oddly enough, the first real zoning battle took place in my own neighborhood.

It seems that, in 1926, somebody decided that a movie theatre would be a nice addition to the 2400 block of St. Paul street. The houses in that block were never the most fashionable and were a bit past their prime. Besides, 25th street seemed a promising commercial district. Surely the nice--and wealthy--people of North Baltimore would be happy to have a tidy little picture palace of their own.

Yeah, right. Baltimoreans might as well have invented the phrase "not in my backyard," and the idea of a plebeian movie palace--even a small one--that just anybody might attend--in the lordly clime of St. Paul street was just too much for the Nice North Baltimore people, and they revolted, demanding that the city not allow such a travesty. Those who liked the idea replied in kind, accusing the pro-zoning people of being communists, or worse, Germans (remember, the First Great War was only eight years in the past--never mind that at least half of the Nice North Baltimoreans are German).

And zoning continues to plague us into the present. It's a wonderful idea in theory, but the practice often fails to live up to the theory's promise.

Case in point: The city is now trying desperately to revive the old North Avenue shopping and theatre district. An admirable goal: I love North Avenue. It has two pretty movie palaces and one spacy late '30s theatre, a couple of beautiful old banking houses, a really impressive Baptist church and a wide variety of other early 20th century buildings. It's one of Baltimore's widest streets and, if it weren't seedy and scary, could have the feel of a Parisian boulevard.

Unfortunately, the city government feels that the way to make North Avenue nice again is to attack everything it can find, root it out and start over. If there is one concept of public policy I truly cannot abide, it is that of eminent domain. Lately, the city has decided that it absolutely needs to claim a dowdy old place called the Magnet Bar on Charles street. Without the securing and destruction of this bar--which is very tired but isn't bothering anybody--the entire redevelopment plan is apparently doomed to failure. Now, personally, I don't see how one eighteen-foot-wide rowhouse with a bar in the first floor (particularly an inoffensive bar that caters to nonagenarian tipplers) is going to halt any grand plans, but then I obviously do not share the Grand Vision of the City. The human hair and nail palaces on North Avenue don't seem to be a problem, but God save us from the Magnet Bar!!!

Here's MY redevelopment plan. Leave the poor Magnet alone. Turn the tiny old Waldorf and Chateau Hotels into "boutique" hotels, get the Parkway and the Aurora cranking out pictures again, and sucker Target into building a store on the big empty lot between St. Paul and Calvert. Since the old North Avenue Market isn't likely to make a comeback, use its groovy '20s Spanish facade as the entrance for the New Valencia Theatre: 6500 seats, the largest movie palace ever built, with a new Kimball organ built for it expressly. The spectacular atmospheric theatre will feature architectural elements brought from Valencia itself, three large ballrooms that can also be used for convention trade, a casual tapas restaurant and a more formal seafood restaurant, and a roof garden with enough room for 200 couples to dance at any one time. The roof garden will be decorated with--what else? orange trees. The Grand Lobby will resemble the courtyard of the Alhambra Palace, while the upper lobbies--reached by staircases hung with antique Spanish tapestry--will take their design from the old Palace in Toledo. Since the entire theatre and its ballrooms will be so massive, it will bring in convention business and Broadway shows as well as the regular movie trade. The amount of business it generates will create a need for additional hotel space, restaurants and other amenities.

See, if only they'd let that poor little movie house open its doors in 1926...but I know my town, and I know what would have happened. It would have raked in the bucks for its first twenty years, tried a stint as an art cinema in the early 60s, degenerated into porn in the 70s, and would now be a boarded carcass of a building with only myself to champion its tenuous hold on existence. Maybe I'd better go down to the Magnet soon and join the old drunks for a couple of beers--I have a feeling that the place is soon to join the list of "once upon a time."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A double post, here, to make up for lost time...this one will piggyback on the Capital City Desk (which see), as I've been wont to do of late.

In a recent post there, Lisa mentioned that the younger set now eschews email as a communicative device in favor of more circumscribed connections...i.e., blogs, MySpace, LiveJournal, etc. Email, it seems, is too bogged down with spam. (Not SPAM spam, of course, but netspam. If it were SPAMspam, it would be tasty and full of delightful chemical-laden recipes and I would reproduce them here for your dining pleasure.)

Another Capital City Desk reader pointed out that real mail (now derisively known as snail mail) is more full of its own version of spam than email could ever hope. The correspondent stated that "for every piece of mail I actually read there are three that I throw out immediately." If that's all the snail-spam she gets, I congratulate her. The junk mail I receive on a daily basis must be enough to kill a patch of rainforest the size of South Carolina.

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was still in college, communication by mail was still pretty important. At the W&M of the late '80s, there still weren't phones in every room and while a lot of people had some form of computer, the Net was still infantile at best and email didn't really exist. If you got word from home, it usually came by mail. If you did need to contact somebody quickly, though, there were plenty of phones around that you could use.

Lisa pointed out that she does tend to receive some occasional "real" mail: mostly from family and friends, myself included, who like to send postcards on vacation.

I am, and have always been, obsessed with postcards. I love the cheery, happy views they offer of places that are not always cheery and happy themselves. To me, they were always something reserved for vacationers--whenever people went on a trip, they sent postcards to everyone back home. To this day, I send a plethora (I love that word) of postcards whenever I travel, despite the facts that (a) I rarely travel anyplace new and (b) most of the people to whom I send postcards have either (b') been there themselves or (b'') seen my postcard views two hundred times. What new views of Rehoboth can possibly be offered up? Crimony, the whole blinkin' town has barely changed for forty years, and the Atlantic Ocean has looked the same for a very long time. However, I do send the occasional "pin-up" postcard of the Beach Patrol to some people, and the beef-and-cheesecake does change every year.

Postcards were once an extremely important form of communication. Now resigned to a small part of the Postal Service's job (which appears to be mostly consumed with credit card offers, these days), postcards once offered a viable form of human contact. They were cheaper to mail than a letter and allowed you to get a quick point across. In an era when most big-city neighborhoods had two mail deliveries daily, they were also fairly efficient.

Over the years, I have collected acres of postcards. Many of the newer ones were sent to me at some time, but I've also amassed a fair collection of older ones as well. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most big institutions--hotels, department stores, theatres--had postcards readily available for customers. I have one card of about 1910 showing Stewart's department store in Baltimore. The message reads "Meet me in the music department tomorrow." Evidently, a postcard was an efficient missive. The recipient would have received the card on the same day it was mailed from downtown, in time to make plans for lunch on the next day.

Naturally, postcards even at the turn of the last century were considered a tourist item as well, and the resulting cliches were formed rather early. I was browsing through my collection earlier tonight and found one card of the Munsey Building in downtown Baltimore. It was mailed to someone in Duncansville, Penn'a. , which is not too far from Altoona. (The Munsey Building, by the way, is one of Baltimore's older and more boring skyscrapers. It was conceived by the famous firm of McKim, Mead and White. That firm was one of the most renowned architectural concerns of its time, but given their contributions to Baltimore, I've never been able to establish exactly why.) The printed blurb on the back of the card rattles on about the building and its amenities. The written message? "this is a grand place wish you were here"
Hmm...well, certainly to someone in Duncansville, the Baltimore of 1916 must have been rather impressive.

Just to illustrate, though, the workaday nature of the postcard once upon I time, I present this gem. It is written clumsily in pencil, on the back of a card I bought specifically because it illustrates one of my favorite theatres of all time (the now-beautifully-restored HIPPODROME). It is addressed to Mrs. Uriah Fritz of Linwood, Maryland (that's in Carroll county). This is a card written not as an invitation nor as a souvenir. It reads, verbatim:

Dear Sister you can get your butter and Uriah shirts done to you can get them Some winter time. how are you all we have colds with love Mildred

Hmm. So much for the Hipp's aspirations as a First-Class Theatre de Luxe.

Usually, it takes me a day or so to recover from the annual orgy that is the Preakness, but this year it took two extra days because I got sick in the process. Not sick as in too much julep, too much rich food, yak in the bushes sick, but sick as in sore throat and imploding sinuses sick. I spent most of Sunday a complete zombie, sickness combined with hangover, and somehow staggered into school on Monday.

I took Tuesday off.

While this year's Preakness party was not one of the larger for which I've had the delight to act as host, it had some interesting combinations.

There were a lot of old friends present; most of whom had attended all of my previous Preakness Day parties. There was, however, one old friend who'd just moved back to the country and hadn't been my guest for nearly fifteen years. John and his beautiful bride Saori were the hit of the evening (what did you expect from a Sig Ep?).

Of course quite a few newer friends were in attendance as well. I've encountered a whole new group of extremely interesting people since I changed careers, and they were well-represented on Saturday.

I had a few people who had never before encountered a mint julep and were intrigued with the idea, and particularly the ritual involved in the making thereof. They were all taken somewhat aback when they found themselves rather drunk after three of them.

The "auslander" were all surprised to learn that Baltimore is quite as obsessed with our Preakness as Louisville is with her Derby.

Since I don't impose a dress code for the party, it was all over the place. Some ladies wore pretty summer dresses; I forsook fashion for my standard-issue shorts.

I also realized, after an inordinate number of juleps and other things (a few beers before the party started and bourbon-and-cokes afterwards) that this was the tenth anniversary of this party. My first Preakness party was in 1996. I remember this because it coincided with the fifth anniversary of my graduation day. I wish now that I'd remembered that before the party, so that I could have reminded a few people of the significance, but...oh, well, there are better things to do with my time.

We seem, however, to have established a new tradition. Last year, after the party, a select few of us trooped up to the roof. This year, quite a few made it up there (after my small meltdown when it was discovered that one of the cats had gone missing--I believed that he'd escaped when some people went up to the roof, but as it turns out, he wormed into the basement when I went down to grab a couple of extra bottles of wine). This, clearly, is the new tradition of Preakness Day: those who are still able to get to the roof at midnight must do so!

As for "Barbaro" and his rather tragic race: I do feel rather bad for the horse, but--assuming a recovery--he may never race again, but he can look forward to a long life of being put out to stud. There are worse fates than spending the rest of your life doing nothing but getting laid.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Lisa, our faithful correspondent at the Capital City Desk, recently posted about a library patron who seemed inordinately fascinated with her official library nametag, which actually does feature her name.

The patron was evidently enthralled with the idea of knowing her first name and, rather disturbingly, wanted to use it.

Ever since I graduated from the College of Knowledge and entered the (sort of) working world, I have been distressed by the fascination with using first names (or, as they were once called, Christian names).

I have to give props (see! modern lingo! chalk one up for me!) to the black communities of Baltimore and Richmond, which manage to observe some proprieties that the white world has long since forsaken. If you show up to Mass at the Cathedral itself, you will see people wearing jeans. Over at St. Edward's, or St. Cecilia's--parishes which were once mostly white but are now predominantly black--the congregation appears for Mass in appropriate attire. The gentlemen wear suits and the ladies wear beautiful dresses and always wear hats. My own parish, St. Alphonsus, is sufficiently antediluvian that the ladies do remember to cover their heads for Mass, but that's about it. And, a few years ago, I temped for a few weeks at the Harbor Bank of Baltimore. What a refreshing interlude: Harbor Bank is the crown jewel of the black business community in Baltimore. All of the employees are unfailingly polite and everyone uses a courtesy title. Even as a mere temp, I was always addressed as "Mr. Gibbs."

Now, as a teacher, most of the people I encounter during the course of a day call me "Mr. Gibbs," but then they're all under eighteen.

On my rapidly-disintegrating planet, one is addressed by the family name until invited to do otherwise. Naturally, I introduce myself as "Daniel Gibbs," but I'm always horrified when someone immediately calls me "Dan." That's my "familiar" name. The only people who are allowed to use it are those who are members of my family, close friends of long standing, or someone who, for the lack of more modest explication, enjoyed an extended visit in my bedroom.

American culture is obsessed with friendliness, which is sometimes nice. I understand that European formality, or the Southern litany of family connections, might grate on the nerves of the uninitiated. All the same, I take issue with anyone who feels that his acquaintance of less than fifteen minutes justifies the uninvited use of my first name at all, much less my nickname. Most of you who are reading this are of course authorized to use "Dan," "Pulse," or "Giblet," but the rest of society is not--until I invite them to do so.

I'm always reminded of an old German joke about the newlywed couple: the hotel clerk refuses to give them a room together because he hears them calling each other "Sie" instead of "Du".
The German language, you see, has a formal form of "you." One only uses the "du" form for family, close friends and...well, see above.

If most Americans know one Austrian operetta, it is probably "Die Fledermaus," which is often performed around New Years Eve. There's an entire aria about the proper-name issue, "Du und Du," in which two people--newly embarking upon a somewhat illicit affair--invite each other to use the familiar form. If only this sort of reserve were still in fashion!

Some years ago as an employee of the crusty old Savings Bank of Baltimore, I answered the telephone to a rather miffed customer who immediately demanded to know my name. Being a good little banker, I gave him my full name, whereupon he said "Well, Dan, this is Dr. Johnson."
"In that case, Dr. Johnson, this is Mr. Gibbs."

Case closed.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Oh, my. Anniversary gifts certainly have changed over the years--and this is by no means a bad thing.

I've never quite gotten over the change in society's mindset when it comes to appropriate gifts for a significant other while courting. When I was comin' up, as it were, everyone knew that no respectable man would ever give his respectable sweetie anything except candy and flowers until they'd reached an "understanding," which was OldSouthSpeak for "engaged, but he hasn't bought a ring yet."

Really, in the Proper Old South, an engagement didn't even need to be marked with a diamond ring; Nice People felt that an "engagement gift" of some significance was quite enough. My mother, who never cared for diamonds particularly and doesn't look good in them, had a lovely triple strand of pearls for an engagement present. The Northern set might call my father a cheapskate, but my mother's friends (and WAAC mates) cooed over his sensitivity--he knew how well she loved pearls and how good they looked on her. Besides, that choker probably cost more than a good number of the cheapo diamonds then being sold on the outskirts of FayetteNam, NC, where my parents met. (Oh, and naturally, he sent up to Baltimore to have them especially strung for her. This is the guy who wanted his wife to take an eight-hour train ride so his kid would be born in Baltimore.)

Reading over my friends' blogs of late, I learn that anniversary presents have been renewed with interest. My dear friends Bill and Pam are embarking on another year of wedded bliss (eep--this must be, what, twelve years now? Note previous comments on weddings and photographs and getting older...) Bill gave Pam an engraved iPod.

Now. I am all about tradition. I don't want any potential suitors to ever give me anything but flowers and candy (red roses, and orange creams from Rheb's, if there are any USMC officers paying attention), but traditional anniversary gifts were obviously set up in the Dark Ages and should have stayed there.

The appropriate first anniversary gift is one made of paper. OK, whatever, you still need lots of stationery when you're newly married. The second is cotton. Fine, too, you can never have too many sheets and towels for random guests. The third, though, is leather. WHAT? Happy anniversary, dear, here's a new saddle? I suppose, for the kinkier among us... but, we then move on to linen, which is again useful.

Personally, I have enough bedsheets and linens to last for the next three generations, and as for paper, I am quite capable of going downtown to buy my own stationery. I prefer to do so myself because I do not trust anybody, including my mother, to ever pick out exactly what I want or to get the damned engraving right. Where leather is concerned, I don't see that I need any, or at least not that anybody needs to know about. In the declining possibility of my eventual marriage, I'd rather that my spouse/friends would give things like iPods. I'd probably have a fine time figuring out how the thing worked, but once I did, it would be infinitely more useful than a random leather doohickey.

And, Bill had the sense to have Pam's iPod engraved. I didn't even know you could do that with such things. Engraving, in my head, is reserved for silver and stationery--although I've seen a few old and very expensive pianos and gramophones that had a monogram, so I suppose it's the same general idea. An engraving just makes something special and wonderful, even if it's just paper.

My last present from a recently departed friend was a place setting in my silver pattern, which is of course long discontinued. He'd managed to find pieces with a "G" engraved (properly on the back of the handle). In very Scarlett-ish mode, I forgot to be scandalized by the extravagance of the present because I was so enthralled with its shiny repousse roses. Now that I've admitted that, it will be rather more difficult to enforce the standard of "flowers and candy only!"