Like his friends and neighbors, I was stunned to learn that Jim Herget, 83, who was affectionately known as the "Mayor of Brooklyn," had been robbed and stabbed to death in his home last week.
I did not know Jim well, but I spent several pleasant hours interviewing him at his home for a project I was working on two years ago. He recounted happy memories of Brooklyn, the south Baltimore neighborhood he moved to as a teenager and never left, except for a stint in the army from 1953 to 1955. Cambria Street, where Jim lived, is a short block of compact two-story rowhouses, where the neighbors live in such close proximity that they can't help but know one another. The two men arrested in his murder lived in the same block.
When Jim Herget was growing up in this working-class community, hemmed in by the Patapsco River and Curtis Bay, neighborhood doors were left unlocked, and the pungent smell of kielbasa and horseradish wafted from the open windows of the houses occupied by Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. They joined fresh arrivals from West Virginia and Kentucky, all drawn by the plentiful wartime jobs at Curtis Bay. Even in recent times, Jim sometimes left his doors unlocked when he patrolled his block, picking up trash.
I met Jim in 2014, when I was collecting oral histories in Brooklyn for my photo book, "Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore's Forgotten Movie Theaters," which will be published next fall by Johns Hopkins University Press. Seeking memories about the Patapsco and the Victory, two former movie houses on the busy commercial street of East Patapsco Avenue, longtime residents directed me to Jim. He had worked as a machine operator and shipping clerk, but without a doubt, his favorite job was being an usher at the Patapsco and Victory thee-AY-ters, as he called them.
At age 15, in 1948, Jim landed his dream job as a movie usher at the Patapsco, an 800-seat Art Moderne theater. His duties included changing the marquee, seating patrons, selling candy and tickets, and maintenance work. The Patapsco was four and a half blocks to the west of its competitor, the Victory, a 1,000-seat theater that had also opened in 1944. When Louis Tunick, owner of the Patapsco, bought the Victory, Jim worked at both theaters.
After his army service, Jim found employment at Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, and later, Kennecott Copper Refining, but he continued to work part-time as an usher. He had a terrific memory. He described both theater interiors in detail, as well as their flashy exteriors: red and green neon and blinking lights framed the Patapsco sign with its big "P," and a patriotic glow of red and blue neon illuminated the Victory. Jim filled the nickel candy machines with Juicy Fruits, Boston Beans, Good & Plenty and Red Hots, and if a kid only had 4 cents, he'd give them the candy anyway. Occasionally in the 1960s he would "bicycle" films, which meant transporting the shared 20-minute movie reels by car back and forth between the Patapsco and Governor Ritchie Drive-In on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie.
The Patapsco was the last theater to close in Brooklyn, in 1977. Jim was downhearted and wistfully said that if he had won the lottery, he would have reopened it. He kept the memories alive in his cramped but tidy house, where he proudly showed me his 1963 poster of "Lassie Come Home," photos of the Victory marquee and a staff Christmas party in the 1950s, and a $5.00 ticket book containing10-cent admissions to the Patapsco, Victory, Hollywood and Brooklyn theaters. In his basement was the pièce de résistance: a remnant of the carpet from the Victory, still bright orange with a black and gold leaf pattern.
I think back on these treasures that Jim shared with me and try to imagine what valuables the thugs who took his life were after. The items they stole were meaningless. What they took was a life, the life of a kind and gentle man who helped others and loved his neighborhood movie houses.
Amy Davis a photographer for The Baltimore Sun; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.