Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

When monkey business was a sign of spring


LET'S GO back in time to about March 1939 in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Luciano Ibolto is standing on a corner cranking out the song "Whispering" on a hand organ. It is a music box, about a foot square, operated by a hand crank; it rests on an adjustable pole.

Ibolto's performance is a busy one. With one hand he is turning the crank of the organ. With the other, he holds a leash upon which is his monkey, Julia. She wears a doll-size red jacket, a yellow skirt and a red cap with a chin strap, similar to an old bellboy's hat.

Julia collects coins from the crowd, then quickly stashes them into a deep pocket of her dress. At one point, Ibolto looks up at the sky. His eyes narrow and something stirs within. He knows it's almost time for the dogwoods to bloom back home in Baltimore, and that he must go there.

Not many days later Ibolto and Julia are in Baltimore at Howard and Lexington streets, near the downtown department stores and around Mount Vernon Place.

5) Each little whisper seems to cheer me

I know it's true, there's no one, dear, but you.

While Ibolto is grinding out his familiar "Whispering" on his hand organ, Julia is again busy with the children gathering around her. Julia crashes cymbals, smokes a pipe, picks up her hat with her tail, salutes men in uniform, preens before a mirror. All the while she is collecting coins and stashing them in her pocket.

Ibolto, who lived in Baltimore at 812 Duker Court, was one of dozens of "monkey grinders" who every year, after the dark and the ice of February and March, suddenly appeared in the sunshine of Baltimore's glorious April. It was one way Baltimoreans knew it was spring.

Ibolto and Julia were last seen downtown around 1945.

Today in Baltimore, springtime outdoor entertainment is more likely to be jugglers and mimes at the Inner Harbor. There are no more monkeys in red jackets performing on street corners for laughing children. Julia and the organ grinder and their song of love are gone.

For Baltimoreans of a certain generation, their absence takes some getting used to. For those of a younger generation, you missed it.

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