Performers in roller skates congregate outside the former Stewart's Department Store at Howard and Lexington streets.
Performers in roller skates congregate outside the former Stewart's Department Store at Howard and Lexington streets. (Amy Genevieve Kozak / Roving Media Productions)

For the first time in decades, flouncy, flowered dresses, hat boxes and shopping bags filled a storefront window at Howard and Lexington streets, once the center of Baltimore's retail district.

Ladies in pearls and long gloves, wild-haired hippies and a giant bag of Utz potato chips whirled around the first floor of the former Stewart's Department Store Sunday afternoon — on roller skates.

The performers, part of Fluid Movement, a Baltimore group best known for its elaborate and creative water ballets, staged a play on skates commemorating the area's history as "The Hub," the center of city shopping in the era before malls.

"I just can't stop thinking about the way things used to be," narrator Sylvia Kleinman, played by Sarah Jennings, said at the beginning of the performance.

The performers, swooping around the now-vacant floor of the former store, conjured up a time when Baltimoreans streamed off streetcars to browse the racks of Epsteins, Hutzlers and Hochschilds. They also paid homage to the Morgan State University students who held a historic sit-in at the lunch counter of what was then Read's Drug Store, which led to the desegregation of the chain.

"I love being part of a show that's not just fun and festive, but telling about a part of Baltimore's history," Karen Stultz, a Fluid Movement board member, said after the performance. Wearing a jaunty hat and a dress printed with bright cherries — with a $16 price tag attached — Stultz played the part of a skating mannequin.

The performance, sponsored by Westside Renaissance, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office and PNC Bank, is intended to raise awareness of the area's rich retail history. It will be repeated next Saturday and Sunday.

Some of the stately buildings have been renovated, such as the Stewart's building, which holds offices for Catholic Relief Services. But others remain vacant. City officials hope to spur the redevelopment of the Superblock, a large parcel of vacant or dilapidated shops across the street from the Stewart's building, but the project has been delayed by legal challenges.

Among those who took part in Sunday's performance (sans skates) was "Mr. Tom the Hippodrome Hatter," Tom Boulmetis, whose father opened a haberdashery across from the nearby Hippodrome Theater in 1930. Boulmetis took over the store a decade later and watched the area's slow decay in the 1970s and '80s — and revival in recent years — from inside the store's windows.

"I'm glad to see it rejuvenated. It's about time," said Boulmetis, 89, who was accompanied by his wife, Gloria. Their son now runs the shop.

One of the younger performers, 17-year-old Alex Barry of Lauraville, said he learned about the area's history over the past two months of rehearsals.

"I really didn't know that much about the West Side," said Barry, a City College senior who played a hippie marching for peace and tolerance.

The play brought back memories for friends Virginia Sills and Mary Kay Shock, who watched the latter's daughters perform.

"You used to be able to have everything you wanted on these four corners," said Shock, of Tuscany-Canterbury, pointing out where the May Co. and Hutzlers once welcomed customers.

Sills, a Towson resident, recalled visiting the stores in the 1930s and '40s. She would take the streetcar down after Mass on holy days, when Catholic schools let students out early.

The stores had restaurants — Hutzler's had a formal dining room and "The Quickie" for snacks; Stewart's "had the good Chinese food," she recalled.

After the hour-long play, the actors — some dressed as treats from Lexington Market, such as Berger cookies and Pollock Johnny's hot dogs — led the audience into the street.

"This area can have a renaissance, right here, right now," performer Sarah Jennings shouted. "Who is ready to be part of Baltimore's West Side?"