THE WORD IS out that the fine old Baltimore/Maryland brand of beer known affectionately as "National Boh" may be going off the market -- a victim of the times. If that unhappy circumstance were to come about, it would bring to an end the love affair Baltimore has with "Mr. Boh" dating back more than three quarters of a century. No city could have loved its own beer more.
National Bohemian traces its origins back through a tangled history to the old Baltimore brewery known as Gottleib-Baurenschmidt-Straus ("GBS"), which flourished in Baltimore up until Prohibition (1919). Beers officially disappeared during Prohibition and did not reappear (officially) until repeal (1933). A few years earlier around 1930 or 1931 (the deal was complicated and took several years), and undoubtedly anticipating repeal, Baltimore's Hoffberger family bought GBS and along with it, the name and the product that got to be known as "National Boh."
Jerold C. ("Jerry") Hoffberger, who later became chairman of the company, recalls that the firm brought on board a brewmaster named Karl Kreitler and a president named Arthur Deute. "Deute," Hoffberger says, "was a marketing genius. It was he who created the one-eyed 'Mr. Boh' character that would become the star of so many television commercials and sing and dance his way into Baltimore legend and lore." But all of that was to come later.
In the 1930s, and through the 1940s, the Baltimore beer market was dominated by Gunther, Arrow, American and Free State beers. National had yet to make a serious dent.
Fortuitously for "Mr. Boh" the company was looking to expand the brand at just about the time that television -- with its endless potential for entertaining and persuading -- was exploding onto the media scene. With skillful and imaginative guidance by the W.B. Doner advertising agency, "Mr. Boh" became a fixture on Baltimore TV, largely through the presence of Bailey Goss and Jim McManus (now Jim McKay of ABC), telecasting every afternoon on Channel 2 on the "Bailey Goss Show." "Boh" was also early and big into sponsorship of the Baltimore Orioles, the Washington Senators and the Baltimore Colts.
But the big breakthrough came unexpectedly, 10,000 feet in the air over the Chesapeake Bay. Hoffberger explains: "Early in the 1950s several executives -- Dawson Farber, Sydney Marcus, and I from National Beer, and "Brod" Doner and Herb Fried, from our advertising agency, Doner in Baltimore -- had just taken off in a plane from Harbor Field and I remember looking down over the bay. It was a brilliant, sunlit day, and I couldn't help saying, ' What a gorgeous sight!' Doner picked up on that. He was from Detroit, and he said, quite extemporaneously, 'This place is the land of pleasant living.' "
The rest is history.
"I would hope that the National Boh brand holds," Hoffberger says. "But if it doesn't I would like to see one of those small micro-breweries pick up the name and brew just enough for the local market. Sort of a nostalgic tie-in to the past. I think Baltimoreans will go for it."
Should the new brewers of National Boh use the one-eyed "Mr. Boh"?
Hoffberger flashes back, "They'd be crazy if they didn't!"