For 53 years, Baltimore's maven of mischief has been teaching kids the meaning of GOOD, CLEAN FUN


Virginia S. Baker stands at the crossroads of Monument Street and Belnord Avenue and looks back through the long scope of the 20th century for the magical place of her youth.

"This," she says, "is where I learned all my tricks."

Her tricks were mastered during a 1930s East Baltimore childhood spent running the streets around her family's confectionery store. Back then everyone for blocks knew the kid who ruled the sidewalks on roller skates as Queenie.

It was a world of horseplay and monkeyshines that forged Miss Baker into Baltimore's undisputed, all-time champion of fun and games -- a playground pioneer with 53 years at full throttle in the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. She is perhaps the only civil servant in America in charge of an office called Adventures in Fun.

Along the way, she has lasted through the administrations of nine Baltimore mayors, through the evolution of fun from spinning tops to virtual-reality video. She has worn out more pairs of tennis shoes than most people will ever own, while delivering entertainment and exercise to three generations of Baltimoreans.

The kids who were on the playground her first day on the job in 1940 are now the grandparents of the kids who come to her for soccer balls, board games and art supplies at the city's Clarence Du Burns Soccer Arena in Canton.

When Baltimore public-school students got their report cards in June, a note was slipped in with the grades -- a memo telling families who to call for free activities to fill the idle hours of summer.

The phone number school officials gave out rings on Virginia Baker's desk.

Fun, as Miss Baker knows it, is simple: chicken-clucking, peanut-shucking and hog-calling contests; frog hops; turtle derbys; puppet shows and magic acts; an Aug. 2 swap day at the Broadway Market Square in Fells Point, where kids can trade old toys but not their brothers and sisters; and, in the same place, the annual Aug. 16 celebration of Elvis Presley.

All of it is for kids.

You see, the children of Baltimore have always been Virginia Baker's kids -- the ones who screeched on swings, skinned their knees, and whooped and hollered and carried on outside the way they never could at home. Just the way little Queenie carried on back in an age when toys were simple and most of the games kids played came out of their heads.

In the age of Nintendo, it's hard to conjure a time when simple things were considered fun.

Yet, when Virginia Baker lines kids of the '90s up for beanbag tosses or sack races, they have a ball.

"A kid," she says, "is still a kid."

The foundation for a half-century of teaching kids how to get healthy kick out of life was laid at the corner of East Monument Street and North Belnord Avenue -- a sidewalk laboratory for a life's work of play.

And it was mixed up with enough mischief to give Huck Finn a run for his money through the narrow alleys of a long-ago Baltimore, a city fading away in old photo albums but vibrant in the memory of the 71-year-old woman who helped pioneer playground recreation in this town.

"We played every game you can imagine out here," she says during a visit back to the corner, looking around the place she called home from infancy until her father died in 1954.

"God, we had fun here!"

Queenie rode scooters.

Shot marbles.

Played tag.

Spun tops.

Made yo-yos sing and puppets dance.

She made kites out of newspapers and sticks.

"I used to fly a kite right here," she says, looking south on Belnord Avenue. "And I made the kite myself. I was 8 years old."

And she roller-skated from home to the Northeast Market near Johns Hopkins Hospital and back again.

She got black eyes from roughhousing, and the local butcher put beef on them to keep the swelling down.

Miss Baker is asked:

"Were you a bruiser?"

"Yeah," she says.

"Did you get into some scrapes?"

"Oh, yeah."

When Queenie disobeyed, fibbed, or otherwise landed her backside in hot water -- which was not infrequent -- her beloved skates were taken away as punishment.

Like the time she refused to tattle on the kid who threw a doughnut at the head of a diminutive neighborhood man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Bigger.

She says: "We used to hide behind corners and shout: 'Grow a little bigger!' "

Getting her skates back meant much to Queenie, who today remembers she wore out many wheels rolling around her neighborhood.

"Schumann's is where Queenie used to buy her replacement skate wheels. Cost me 7 cents a wheel," she says. "That's the trouble with kids today, they throw the skates away when the wheels wear out. You can go to a hardware store that sells the wheels."

Schumann's Hardware at Monument Street and Kenwood Avenue, a block from the confectionery store, is still in business today. But Miss Baker doesn't know that Schumann's doesn't sell skate wheels anymore. And Schumann's doesn't know of any hardware store that does. "You've got to be kidding," said a man who answered the phone there.

As a kid, Miss Baker collected matchbook covers and wagered hundreds of them at a time in card games of pitch, poker and pinochle down at Sprock's Garage on Lakewood Avenue.

"I'd be sitting on those white marble steps in the morning when the street-cleaning man would be coming through our area," she says. "I'd say, 'You want coffee?' And give him coffee and one of those good Czechoslovakian pastries. We became good friends. told him about my match-cover collection and every day he'd bring me about 200 match covers he found cleaning the streets."

In 1940, a year after graduating from Eastern High School Virginia Baker joined the Department of Recreation and Parks and was assigned to a Durham Street "tot lot" in Fells Point. There she began a playground ministry of making city life less harsh for thousands of Baltimore youngsters.

From Durham Street she made the rounds of playgrounds citywide; became the director of recreation in Patterson Park, where a center now is named in her honor; launched miniature boat regattas at wading pools all over town; and held Twister contests in War Memorial Plaza when the wacky tie-yourself-up-in-knots game swept the nation in the '60s.

Her knack for getting publicity swept her into City Hall in 1972 to head the Mayor's Office of Special Projects for her old buddy William Donald Schaefer.

Miss Baker's energy and gut-instinct for boosting the city made her a favorite of Mr. Schaefer back in the early renaissance days when he was mayor and "Baltimore is Best" was stenciled on every park bench in town.

In 1987, Kurt Schmoke moved her office from City Hall to the Broadway Recreation Pier. There, Miss Baker found volunteers to rebuild a battered roof-top playground; brought back the fabled "rocky boat" ride beloved by kids in the 1940s; and inspired the neighborhood to replace 410 lights that spell "CITY PIER BROADWAY" on the side of the building that faces the harbor.

When crews for Barry Levinson's television series, "Homicide: Life on the Street," made its headquarters at the Rec Pier, Miss Baker and her staff of three were moved to the Burns soccer arena, where she works to this day.

Looking back on her career, she says: "I've made a lot of kids happy. That's what I get paid for."

Virginia Baker's old neighborhood was just about new when sh was born there in 1921. It was a community of Czechs and Poles and Germans and Bohemians when her parents opened their store at the corner of Belnord and Monument.

Her father, Frank Pecinka, changed his name to Baker when he came to America from Czechoslovakia. Her mother, Hattie, was a Baltimorean of Czechoslovakian descent.

Today, Virginia Baker's former stomping grounds between the Catholic parishes of St. Wenceslaus on Ashland Avenue and St. Elizabeth's on Baltimore Street are showing their age: The neighborhood looks poorer, the streets rougher, the residents more weary. The white marble steps at the Belnord Avenue entrance to the old Baker candy store, steps that now lead to the kitchen of a combination carryout/liquor store, sum up the look.

"Oh, golly gee, they didn't have those bumps in them when I was little," says Miss Baker. "They were beautiful. I used to use a pumice stone on them to keep them clean."

Tiles are missing from the front steps; signs advertising pizza and cold beer are taped to the front of the building; and black steel grating covers all of the windows except the ones that have been bricked up.

"It used to have pretty green and black glass in the front," says Miss Baker. "I had to wash those windows and I made sure at Halloween that nobody put soap on them."

Inside, the current owners serve customers from behind walls of thick, bullet-proof plastic. Immigrants from Korea, they don't speak English very well and are too busy making a living to pay much attention when Miss Baker shows them a picture of her father behind the counter in a white pharmacy jacket, boxes of El Producto cigars and candy behind him.

"Daddy mixed the syrup for the sodas and milkshakes and Mama cooked the chocolate for the sundaes," she says. "Boy, did this neighborhood smell good!"

Now, she laments: "Look, our beautiful windows, all cemented up now. I squirted this pavement about three times a day, and if a bad kid went by who gave me a hard time, they'd get the hose. I scrubbed these steps all the time. I played jacks and ball on the steps, waiting for the mailman. I was collecting stamps and corresponding with people all over the country. That hobby made me a good geography student."

The windows used to have painted screens in them and it was Queenie's job to take new screens up to the Oktavec family on Monument Street to have pictures drawn from Czechoslovakian

postcards daubed on them.

A gaggle of neighborhood kids who wouldn't know Virginia Baker from Barbara Bush gather to gaze up at this grandmotherly-looking woman inspecting the neighborhood sub shop like it was some kind of big deal.

In a voice so provincial that Washington disc jockeys regularly put her on the radio just to let Washingtonians believe that all of Baltimore thinks and talks like Virginia Baker, she bellows:

"Hi, kids, I was born here!"

The children laugh and run away.

Miss Baker watches them squeal down the sidewalk and remembers: "My father would say to my mother: 'Oh, that Queenie, she's running the whole block!' "

She wants to come back and run it again, real soon.

She wants to make her old neighborhood jump again with a "Belnord Avenue Fun Day," a day to bring back all the days from 53 years in recreation.

A day that hasn't even been planned yet, but percolates off the top of Virginia Baker's busy head like all of her ideas.

The fun will be delivered to Belnord Avenue on wheels.

"I invented the fun wagon," says Miss Baker of the small trailer with a basketball hoop on the back, a mobile rec center packed with hula hoops and roller skates, board games, bats and balls.

"We'll rope off Belnord Avenue right here where I was born. Take some brooms along and teach the kids to sweep up and pick up glass to play safe."

A special day to relive a childhood when every day was fun day for a girl named Queenie.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad