THE TELEVISION shows of 45 years ago were fairly tame fare compared to what the networks and cable deliver today. But certainly when this medium was relatively new - and the arrival of a fresh set in the neighborhood was still something of a novelty - gathering around the black-and-white screen was an event.
No more so for me than on Saturday evenings, when our family friend and neighbor played host for the "Perry Mason" show. Mr. Mason, of course, was the fictional attorney who defended the falsely charged against murder raps. The series, based on Erle Stanley Gardner novels, ran for years.
At the show's height, it was very popular in Baltimore. I can recall one Halloween night when I was with a schoolmate who lived in Rodgers Forge. At every house we called at, the residents were watching Perry.
So too on Guilford Avenue, where kindly Dorothy, who lived alone and had no children, found herself with a house full of children come Saturday evening.
Dorothy's airy apartment was on the third floor of the rowhouse immediately next door to ours. Its windows, which faced west and north, made the place seem larger than the corresponding rooms in our home. Hers was a corner house, too, ever the premium address on those rowhouse blocks.
Somehow, we worked out a deal with our parents and Dorothy to go next door to watch the legal drama each Saturday evening. Four, five, six - or whatever - trooped up the stairs. We were supposed to keep the noise down as we passed the doors of Clarence and Mary Dankmeyer, the older couple who owned the house and resided on the first floor, and of Marie Fredericks, the second floor's occupant.
Dorothy was waiting when her audience arrived. Dorothy, who had degrees from Goucher and the University of Pennsylvania, did what she could to make the evening into a bit of a learning session.
In the living room was a white, freestanding wooden bookcase crammed with reading materials. Every Saturday she had her hair washed and set at the Hochschild Kohn department store at Howard and Lexington streets. This chore out of the way, she took off for the book department and bought a fresh mystery paperback - hardcover editions were an extravagance - for her reading pleasure.
She didn't much like the Perry Mason novels - but she did like the show. And she always interested the batch of children who lived next door in reading. The paperback mystery novels traveled back and forth across the porches all the time, and once thoroughly read on Guilford Avenue, they were often transported to the cloistered Visitation nuns who taught us in schools.
Dorothy invented a game to keep our attention focused on the screen. Atop her bookshelf was a Seth Thomas clock, one of her parents' wedding gifts. The clock, one of Dorothy's most cherished possessions, struck the hour and half-hour with a sharp, pleasant ring.
We played a game. When the clock went off - accompanied by a mechanical grinding sound - the first time after the show began - 30 minutes into the story - we all placed our guesses as to the murderer's identity. At the show's end, when the guilty party usually confessed under Perry's courtroom hammering, we had a winner. The prize, which Dorothy set, was a nickel - no more, no less.
I think my family, who lived on the south side of the brick wall that separated these two houses, realized what a kindly chore Dorothy's Saturday night crime-solving session was. Just as regular as the chime on the Seth Thomas clock, there would come a sharp rap on the wall. It was Aunt Cora with shoe to the plaster, reminding us to get home, the show was now over. Hospitality had it limits.