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Little shop is full of memories; History:...


Little shop is full of memories; History: John Moscato built Baltimore's first television from a kit and put it in his store's window. About 50 years later, the business -- if not the TV -- is still in operation.

John Moscato, when he died in 1974, left wife Mary a list of firsts. She keeps them warm in her memory.

She recalls when John, who ran a radio repair shop in the heart of Highlandtown, came home one day in 1947 with a kit bought from a wholesale electronics shop on Redwood Street. It took him a month to put it together.

She also recalls the reaction of her father to her husband's tinkering every night with those tubes, wires and soldering iron.

"Pop," she told him, "a picture's going to come out of that thing."

"Never," he said, or words to that effect, and he died before one did.

But when it was finished, John and Mary Moscato unveiled Baltimore's first television set. They put it in the shop window and turned John's radio repair shop into John's radio and TV shop.

There was a small problem: Baltimore had no TV channel; Television Hill was a wilderness. So they aimed the antenna toward Washington and picked up WMAL-TV. Most of the time they got a test pattern, a picture of the Capitol with flag. But still they drew a crowd.

"People were out in the middle of Highland Avenue watching," she recalls. "Even the buses would go real slow as they went by."

Another problem was that the 7-inch set didn't have a vertical-hold control, so two men had to climb up on the roof of the Moscato home and jiggle the antenna, all the while shouting down to the street for instruction.

The crowds in front of the shop were largest when the boxing matches were on. "We had a lot more fights then," Mary recalls, almost wistfully. "I remember Joe Walcott. He was popular."

The Moscatos went from triumph to triumph: When color TV came into being, their first set again went into the window. The crowds grew larger.

Mary is now 79, a widow for almost a quarter-century. But she still holds out at 301 S. Highland Ave., across the street from their original radio shop and home. The building she's in now also holds tender memories for her. It was the drug store where John Moscato courted young Mary Fratta, plying her with sodas. They married in 1937.

The Frattas, father, mother and 12 children, lived at 3501 E. Pratt St. The Moscatos, many fewer, lived "all the way down Pratt Street" -- five blocks away.

So the corner of Highland and Gough streets was where the Frattas and the Moscatos were joined, so to speak. It's where Mary and John spent their entire married life, raised three children, and gave the neighborhood a lesson on how to keep a good thing going.

Today Mary's 10 surviving siblings still live in Baltimore, most in the old neighborhood. Her younger brother, Lou, still works in the TV repair shop, as he has for 50 years. The other helper, Joseph Drexler, has been there since 1975.

Mary Moscato, a small woman with fluffy red hair and large glasses, doesn't sell televisions anymore. She just takes them in for repair and administers the shop. The repairs are done by Lou and Joe. And even though most people these days throw their TVs out when they go on the blink rather than repair them, Mary, Lou and Joe have more work than they can handle.

The shop looks like the island of lost appliances: TVs with big screens and small screens, table models and massive floor models. There are even a few sets off in the corners that run on vacuum tubes. "Hard to get these days," says Lou. There are radios here and there among the blank screens: table models of the 1950s, floor models that go back even further, stereos and amplifiers on the shelves.

There's a lot of work to do, and no inclination to slack off. Mary likes the people who come into the shop. But she admits that her first loyalty belongs to the machines that defined her life and John's.

"Mostly, I like the radio or television to work correctly. That's the most important," she says.

John Moscato set high standards. Mary still keeps to them. At the St. Paul's School for Girls in Baltimore County, the Eclectics are bringing down the house with a medley of Spice Girls songs.

It's a fitting finale for this act, one all about fresh-faced, radiant "girlpower" poised on the edge of womanhood. This March concert by the quintet of 17-year-olds is their last bow at school.

Of course, high school friends part company every year, but this breakup will, at least for a while, leave a musical void. These Eclectics, the latest version of a group that's been an institution at the school as long as anyone can remember, are all seniors this year, about to go their separate ways.

The five have been together officially for at least two years, singing at numerous gigs, including many weddings and the Baltimore Museum of Art. But their history goes further back. Jan Smith, the school's dean of students, remembers seeing some of the girls singing around a piano together at a sixth grade talent show.

At St. Paul's, where there are just 48 seniors, it's a competitive thing to be an Eclectic. They are "almost like the cheerleaders of the school, since we don't have any," observes a classmate, Laura Sell.

For the five singing seniors, the group has been a defining experience. But they are clearly not yet ready to be wistful. They are still too busy just being girlfriends.

"We have our own little language," says Alexandra Velleggia, an alto who will attend the University of Pennsylvania.

"People call us a 'cult,' " adds Linda Thieman, the group's husky bass voice, who hopes to go to Yale.

"Any free periods and lunch periods we spend together," declares Erica Woodland, also an alto, headed for premed studies at Brown.

When they sing, though, their schoolgirl personas give way to a sophisticated onstage presence. Songs by vocalists like Madonna, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin are in their repertoire, along with some a capella numbers. "Nobody is afraid to project their voice, move or make eye contact," says Alexandra.

This year, the group faced an added challenge: The Eclectics had no adult supervision; their faculty adviser suddenly left the school last September.

So the five set out to show everyone that they could do more PTC than just sing -- that they could also produce, direct and sell tickets to their own show. They did it in much the same way they sing together: each doing her own part, but finding harmony in the result.

"I've been designated 'whip cracker,' and Candace teaches the music," says Erica, referring to Candace Beattie, a soprano who also plays the piano. Linda became the treasurer, and Jennifer Scheerer, the other soprano, emerged as "the mother."

And Alexandra? "I pick up where everyone else leaves off," she explains.

Evelyn Flory, headmistress of the small private school, recently made news for being a strong proponent of diversity. The Eclectics make a melting-pot portrait, with members of Irish, Italian and African-American descent.

After their final show, Flory told the group they had proven they were "true St. Paul's girls" by resourcefully going through the school year without a faculty member's help, Alexandra said.

For the Eclectics, though, there was a more immediate sensation in their last hurrah, a feeling Linda describes as "the adrenalin rush of being onstage, in the spotlight, this great moment flowing through everyone."

That's something to sing about.

Jamie Stiehm

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