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A platterful of fond Connolly's memories

Even though Connolly's Pier 5 Pratt Street seafood house served up its last crab cake platter in 1991, Baltimoreans near and far still fondly recall the old, no-frills restaurant and wish that such a place still existed.

In the week since my Connolly's column was published, my phone has rung off the hook, and my e-mail basket went into meltdown.

Folks anxious to talk about the loss of the rattletrap seafood venue that defied the march of time and Inner Harbor development were more than willing to share a few memories of long-ago meals there.

Robert I. Cottom, owner and publisher of the Chesapeake Book Co. and a Roland Park resident, wrote to say that he and his wife, Barb, had many happy memories of summer evenings at Connolly's.

"I can never forget how cold their air-conditioning was, or those 22-ounce tall glasses of frosted Bud and the saucy waitresses. Forcing Connolly's out amounted to a crime against civility," he wrote.

"One evening some young, toney and ignorant Washingtonians sat next to us. Clearly out of place in Connolly's. They looked around and gazed upon our steamed crabs with an expression that said, 'How disgustingly provincial,'" Cottom recalled.

"The waitress came over, in her Fifties retro black dress, and they asked what was fresh?

"The waitress tapped her foot, cracked her gum and without looking up from her pad dismissed all pretension with a flat, 'It's ALL fresh, hon.'"

Risselle Rosenthal Fleisher, who lives in nearby Scarlett Place, was also a customer.

"I used to go to Connolly's, not every week like Mayor [ William Donald] Schaefer and his mother, but from time to time. As I recall, everything there was fried," Fleisher said in an e-mail.

"Even so, I was sad at the time to hear that it had closed. It was really one of the last of those faded entities in a class with a 55-year-old former prom queen and the like," she wrote.

Connolly's inadvertently became a wedding backdrop for Jim and Marianne Eddins, former Baltimoreans who now own and operate Perdido Vineyards Winery in Perdido, Ala.

Eddins and his soon-to-be wife, who both worked at International Business Machines in Baltimore at the time, accompanied by their best man, Joe Byrnes, got hitched in a noontime City Hall ceremony in 1968.

"After the brief wedding, my new bride, Marianne, and I invited Joe Byrnes to have a seafood platter at Connolly's. It was a special meal to us, and then we returned to work at IBM," he wrote in an e-mail.

"For 40 years, it has become our special wedding anniversary tradition to seek out a small seafood restaurant wherever we are that day for a seafood platter and the memories of dining at Connolly's." he wrote.

Even though Connolly's is gone, Eddins added, "the memories, sounds and smells of the old waterfront remain.

"The night life in the harbor was accented with the sounds and lights of traffic, the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats, the welders in the shipyard striking arcs, the aroma of McCormick Spice Co. and trucks unloading produce."

He concluded: "Along with a glass of wine, it was a romantic place to spend a summer evening."

Mark Chalkley, an instructor at Baltimore City Community College, moved to Baltimore in 1984.

In an e-mail, he wrote, "So, there is more than nostalgic significance to remembering the Connolly's era. Places like that were characteristic of a Maryland where the environment had not been so poisoned as it is now, and the 'gigantic protein factory' of the Chesapeake Bay was still functioning."

At the time, Stan Heuisler was chairman of the Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, which eventually replaced Connolly's Pier 5 location.

One day in 1990, Walter Sondheim Jr., the late civic leader, picked up the phone and invited Heuisler to lunch at Connolly's, where the topic of discussion was to be its fate.

It proved to be a memorable luncheon in more ways than one.

"We met and walked east along Pratt. Crossing the street at Market Place a truck came swinging around the corner and narrowly missed Walter, who fell to the pavement, slightly scraping his hand," Heuisler wrote in an e-mail.

"As I helped him up I thought, 'Christ, I almost killed Mr. Baltimore.' We walked into the restaurant and Mrs. Connolly came over with a napkin and some ice cubes for Walter's hand and fussed over him while we had crab cakes."

Heuisler said the deal struck with the Connolly family allowed them to keep the restaurant open until construction began on the Columbus Center and they would be paid a $250,000 relocation fee; according to Heuisler, all the kitchen equipment was out of date and the Connollys never looked for another location..

It was raining the day demolition began, Heuisler recalled.

"Both Connolly ladies stood in the rain under umbrellas to watch those walls come down, because they both swore the place was haunted and they wanted to be there to see the ghost go," Heuisler wrote.

Connolly's was certainly haunted by not one ghost but two, according to Karene Naomi Connolly Smith, a great-granddaughter of founder Thomas J. Connolly, and granddaughter of Sterling and Naomi Bond Connolly.

Her mother, Karen Naomi Connolly-Lawless, who also worked in the business, died earlier this month.

Smith, 41, began working in the restaurant when she was 9.

"The place was haunted by 'Lady Eva' or 'Miss Eva,' who was my great-grandfather's mistress, and Sterling, my grandfather. I hear those ghosts have now moved over into the Columbus Center," said Smith, a Westminster resident.

"We saw them all the time, and Sterling would be everywhere in the restaurant. I remember a new waitress barreling through three dining rooms like her tail was on fire the first time she saw my grandfather," she said.

"You could hear him rattling his key ring as he made his way nightly through the restaurant at closing time to make sure all the doors were locked and the stove burners were turned off," she said.

Smith was there with her mother and grandmother the day the demolition began.

"It was raining and when the walls came down, suddenly a rainbow appeared over where the roof had been," she said. "It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up."

And that's the way Heuisler remembers it, he said in a phone interview the other day.

"I just wanted to let you know that not all of Connolly's is gone," wrote Jan Purnell in an e-mail. "Shortly after the restaurant's contents were auctioned off, my late husband and I were able to acquire the neon sign from the front window. It now resides proudly in my kitchen."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

The name of the seafood restaurant was misstated in the headline of an earlier version of this article. The Sun regrets the error.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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