HAZARDS OF the trade: In my last column featuring Baltimoreans who have gone on to fame in Hollywood or New York, Peggy Obrecht reminded me that I left out Remak Ramsay: "Remak, the late Carrie Ramsay's oldest son, is usually on Broadway in any given season. He just finished a successful run in 'The Heiress.' He is best known for the TV commercial he did for Noxzema. He's shaving while this Swedish model is whispering, 'Take it off, take it all off.'"
Herbert Shofer called to tell me that I left out "Baltimorean Michael Tucker. He played a lawyer in 'L.A. Law.'" Donald Rothman, father of actor John Rothman, wrote to update me: "All of the movies you mentioned that John played in are old stuff -- he is now in bigger films like 'Copycat.'"
Summer 1996 is the 20th anniversary of the weirdest, most bizarre escapade in Baltimore's long history of bizarre escapades, what is now remembered as Wally Orlinsky's ill-fated, star-crossed Bicentennial Birthday Cake.
As part of Baltimore's participation in the nation's bicentennial, Mr. Orlinsky, then president of the City Council, created what he planned to be the largest birthday cake in the world -- 24 feet wide, 65 feet long, boasting 200 candles, weighing 73,000 pounds, using 21,600 pounds of sugar, 10,000 pounds of butter, 14,900 pounds of flour and 22 gallons of vanilla.
The lighting ceremony was to be shown on network television live from Fort McHenry.
But it was not to be.
The Cake of Cakes was resting on a barge in the harbor and waiting to be presented to America, when a downpour washed 3,000 pounds of red, white and blue icing into the Patapsco. A few nights later a second rainstorm turned what was left of the cake into mush. Workers glumly shoveled the goo into the river.
Worse, Mr. Orlinsky submitted the cake to the "Guiness Book of Records" claiming it to be the largest cake in the world.
It wasn't. In the unkindest cut of all, Guiness rejected the claim.
The word is out that Baltimore may get a spectacular new Westin hotel downtown. We do a service to the Westin management by providing this brief history of hotels in Baltimore -- and the challenge Westin must meet.
In the 1950s, there were at least eight hotels downtown, and each, over the years, developed a special character, a personality that made it different in mood and function from the ++ others.
The Congress Hotel (Franklin between Howard and Eutaw streets) became famous for hosting the many theatrical guests performing at the Auditorium around the corner. The Southern Hotel (Light and Redwood -- the building, boarded up, still stands) was best known for its rooftop night club, the Spanish Villa.
The New Howard hotel was known as home-away-from-home to the many merchants come to town to buy from Baltimore's wholesale houses (including the great Baltimore Bargain House whose building still stands at Baltimore and Liberty). The Baltimore (once on Paca between Baltimore and Fayette) became the town's headquarters for Turkish bath devotees.
The Rennert (Cathedral and Saratoga, now a parking lot) was known worldwide for its bar, its food and for the many celebrity guests. The Stafford (now housing for the elderly) and the Park Plaza (now a restaurant), both at Madison at Charles, held more high school proms than all other hotels combined.
Blacks, in those days of strict segregation of public accommodations, were forced to patronize the hotels near North and Pennsylvania avenues -- the York, the Penn, and Smith's.
The old Emerson (Baltimore at Calvert) was the best known and deservedly so as the hangout and watering spot of the b'hoys -- Baltimore's Democratic politicians who met regularly there to watch election returns and to divide up the spoils. (The Republicans gathered at the Lord Baltimore.)
A part of Baltimore legend and lore is that on election eve the politicians would rent a suite of rooms there and, as the evening wore on, the "bosses" in those days would withdraw room by room, deeper and deeper into the suite, until they were all alone in the bathroom. Here, in the privacy of this unassailable sanctuary, was kept the ultimate secret -- the money, ready to be divided according to the ancient rules of the game.
We have all these new hotels downtown, fresh and innocent, without reputation and so far without Baltimore character.
The parking meter in Baltimore is a relatively new experience. The idea was first proposed in Baltimore in 1938. A newspaper story in that year showed a curbside ceremony: an attractive lady was shown putting a nickel in a meter (the nickel got you an hour). "While you're gone," the positive-spin copy suggested, "the meter will stand guard for you against any ticket-minded officer. When you come back, there can't be any argument."
The bill proposed only 56 meters. But Baltimoreans, typically, when asked to accept something new, set up a mighty roar of protest. Mayor Howard W. Jackson let the proposed ordinance die.
But the genie was out of the bottle. Every year there was pressure to get on with the installation of parking meters. It would be 1954 before it happened.
Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes requested 350 parking meters in what was then Sam Smith Park -- the whole area along Light Street from Pratt Street almost to Key Highway, where Harborplace is today. The battle in the City Council was ferocious. Not just the 350 parking meters were at stake: the ordinance was drafted so that a vote for the 350 meant that the city could install parking meters wherever it chose.
In the debate, Commissioner Barnes rose to make the point that other cities were realizing revenues from parking meters and Baltimore should, too.
The opposition called the idea "socialistic" but Barnes said that "it would put Baltimore, at long last, into the 20th century." In the end, he prevailed. The first meters, at 1 cent for 12 minutes, had a maximum time of two hours.
Today, there are 11,122 of the frightful things in Baltimore City. The revenue in fiscal year 1995 was $5,200,117. Over the last 11 months 247,156 tickets for overtime violations (issued by parking attendants, not including what the police issue) were written at better than 700 a day.
How do you like life in Baltimore in the 20th century?
Gilbert Sandler writes from and about Baltimore.
Pub Date: 8/20/96