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Demolishing Cab Calloway’s home would be a loss for Baltimore

The former home of Cab Calloway is located at 2216 Druid Hill Ave.
The former home of Cab Calloway is located at 2216 Druid Hill Ave. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The fate of a vacant house on Druid Hill Avenue could rest on a Baltimore City Housing and Community Department hearing next week. The house is like so many deteriorated rowhouses that fill the city, except that 2216 Druid Hill Ave. was once the home of bandleader Cab Calloway and his sister, Blanche, who also led a highly esteemed jazz group.

The activists who have been championing the cause of preserving this building — it is to be razed to help create space for a park — admit there has not been a groundswell of public outrage.

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“The city ought to be looking for the opportunity to honor somebody like Cab Calloway. It should not be tearing his house down,” said attorney John C. Murphy, who represents members of the Calloway family and other preservationists.

Fame is passing. Cab Calloway was once a name that would have been instantly recognized. From the time he was a Frederick Douglass High School student, he made a name for himself as a dazzling, full-of-talent musician. At a time when high schoolers had to search their pockets for streetcar fare, he was driving a secondhand Buick. When he performed at the school’s auditorium, a reviewer in the Afro-American newspaper wrote that Baltimore would never be able to retain him.

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Perhaps Cab Calloway’s decision to make his career in New York City and elsewhere made him a little less well known in Baltimore, but maybe not. On a summer night in 1978 when he stepped on the stage of the Morris A. Mechanic Theater (another structure doomed by lukewarm preservation support), his audience went crazy. He sang his trademark song, “Minnie the Moocher,” and the walls of the playhouse shook with shouting for more. The applause and enthusiasm were not what you would expect for man whose glory years were in the 1930s.

Calloway made his name in many ways, but often overlooked is how he hit the entertainment field just as radio was coming into its own. He was heard in many living rooms during the Great Depression and World War II.

Jazz enthusiasts often say that while Cab was better known as a master showman, his sister, Blanche (1902 to 1978), was the family’s better musician. It did not take her long to make it big, with a recording contract on RCA Victor records. Jazz histories say she was the first woman to lead an all-male orchestra. The two collaborated musically as children.

The Calloway siblings were raised in this home, which was then located in a premier, but strictly racially segregated, neighborhood for Baltimore’s black families.

They called their neighborhood Sugar Hill, a reference to its affluence and the sweet life for those lucky enough to reside there. It was not so far from Pennsylvania Avenue and its black theaters and nightclubs. Very little of The Avenue’s jazz legacy in buildings has survived — all the more reason to protect the Calloway residence.

The community wants to rid itself of blighted properties. West Baltimore is now full of pockets where caving-in homes have been razed, evidence of Baltimore’s population shrinkage of nearly 350,000 people.

But does the promise of a park outweigh the achievement of preserving a home to one of the city’s most noteworthy families?

The much smaller and hard to find Edgar Allan Poe House attracts visitors in numbers disproportionate to the size of a 12-foot-wide rowhouse. The shuttered H.L. Mencken House in Union Square emerged from a decades-long seclusion last year.

“There is a clear alternative,” said attorney Murphy. “Baltimore has preserved block after block of rowhouses, and here is a place where it could be repeated. Calloway was a product of this neighborhood, and to divorce him from this place is to deny his career.”

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