"Turkey Joe" Trabert had an extensive collection of baseball memorabilia and snow domes.
"Turkey Joe" Trabert had an extensive collection of baseball memorabilia and snow domes. (HUTCHINS / Baltimore Sun)

Joseph C. “Turkey Joe” Trabert, a former Fells Point bar owner and Baltimore personality who headed the city’s Film Commission, died of an apparent heart attack Thursday at his Northeast Baltimore home. He was 83.

The Baltimore native, the son of Joseph C. Trabert Sr., a church sexton, and his wife, Louise Towles, was born on Milton Avenue and raised in the southwestern part of the city. He was a graduate of Baltimore City College and earned an education degree at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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After teaching in the Baltimore City schools system, he opened Turkey’s Joe’s, a bar in the 700 block of South Broadway. This taproom opened in 1972 and was part of the original group of pubs that flourished there as the neighborhood changed from a largely Polish community to a destination known for restored homes, bars and restaurants. These pubs had a regional, rather than strictly neighborhood, appeal.

“It was a character bar and Joe was the the main attraction,” said a friend, William Payne “Baseball Billy” Jones.

“Joseph was a great promoter. As customers, he had attorneys and judges and newspaper people. On Saturday, in the fall, we’d have oysters on the half shell and clams casino. I remember seeing Judge John Prevas and [former City Councilman] Mimi DiPietro and [Colts players] Joe Ehrmann and Mike Barnes. [Baltimore state’s attorney] Billy Swisher would come in too.”

Mr. Jones said the bar had a stuffed turkey. He gave his customers nicknames — and they had to be on guard for Mr. Trabert’s quick wit.

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“Turkey Joe’s was a meeting place for the 25-45 crowd,” said Mark Walker of Fells Point. “Women especially liked it because they were treated with respect. The bar was well known for its metal storefront and octagonal window.”

He said Mr. Trabert used white shoe polish to write witty remarks on that window.

“I don’t remember there being a television because people didn’t go there for that. People went there to talk and meet friends,” Mr. Jones said.

After he sold the bar, he was a regular at a Cross Street bar where he greeted friends on Saturday afternoon.

“Turkey loved the Orioles and followed them closely,” said Mr. Jones. “He would have buses from the bar that went over to the games. He loved Baltimore — not just the Orioles. He loved the quirkiness of Baltimore — the painted screens, the Museum of Industry, the city markets — he loved going to Faidley’s. He loved the people and their personalities.

“When we went to Northeast market, he knew all the merchants and called out their names — and they responded,” said Mr. Jones.

Mr. Trabert’s collection of Baltimore beer memorabilia — cans, bottles with fancy labels and advertising pieces — began when a customer brought in a few vintage beer cans and Mr. Trabert nailed them on a wall. When other customers told him he had injured their value, he went out and sought replacements.

He also made a detailed study of 19th-century Baltimore breweries, including those along Belair Road and in Darley Park, which he mapped.

“He had more stories than the Pratt Library,” said Rob Kasper, a former Sun columnist and friend. “He had an exceptionally fine collection. He knew pre-Prohibition beer but he was really good on the Gunther, National, Free State and American breweries.

“Joe also told me he would go with his father to Bugle Field, the Edison Highway home of Baltimore’s Elite Giants of the Negro Baseball league, the games sponsored by Arrow Beer,” said Mr. Kasper ” The baseball was very good as Joe recalled, and the home plate umpire was a comedian.”

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Mr. Kasper said that Mr. Trabert used to go “dumping.” looking for discarded beer cans in abandoned sites, including former gas stations in Virginia. He said that National Bohemian tried out a lot of their new containers, including aluminum cans, in Virginia.

“As a college student at College Park he spent summers in Ocean City, where he built ‘beeramids’ structures similar to the pyramids except they’re made out of empty beer cans,” said Mr. Kasper.

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Mr. Trabert sold the bar in 1980 and joined the staff of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who named him the city’s film commissioner. He helped production companies find locations for the films “Hairspray,” “The Accidental Tourist” and “He Said, She Said,” among others. He held the film commission post until 1990 and was later the Maryland Department of Transportation recycling coordinator.

After living in Southeast Baltimore on Chester Street, Mr. Trabert and his wife moved to Hamilton.

A 1997 profile described them as devoted gardeners who had a vegetable plot, shared and canned their annual harvest and made pickles in their basement.

“He collects beer, Elvis, nautical and baseball memorabilia, opera recordings and movie books,” The Sun’s article said, also saying that Mr. Trabert had a collection of snow domes. “Several hundred fill shelves built in front of an eastern-facing window that catches the morning light.”

"When folks heard that we were looking to buy a house in Hamilton, they thought we were strange, " said Mr. Trabert in 1997. "I kind of think of it as a poor man's Roland Park, a living Christmas garden.”

Friends recalled that Mr. Trabert was articulate and ready with a funny line.

“The tomato season was like a cheap suit. It looked great at first, but quickly fell apart," he said in a 2004 Baltimore Sun article about his backyard garden.

On another occasion, he described a typical Baltimore resident: "You eat sauerkraut with your turkey on Thanksgiving. ... You save extra-large frozen orange juice cans, cut out the tops and bottoms, and use them as hair rollers. … You went to the Baltimore Coliseum to see wrestling, roller derby, boxing, the old Bullets and jazz concerts. ... You either had a Mr. Ray's Hair Weave or at least know what one looks like."

Funeral arrangements are being made through the Leonard J. Ruck Home in Hamilton.

Mr. Trabert is survived by Sherry Mullen, his wife of nearly 40 years, who manages a native plants greenhouse; and nephews.

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