Thursday, February 9, 2017

Going home again

                   Gilbert Sandler's birthplace and childhood home on Cottage Avenue

An adventure back in time
with a Baltimore storyteller

There's no place like home, but it sure has changed

William Smith is living in my sixth-grade classroom. The place where teacher Rebecca Redler once presided over the learning of some three dozen 11-year-olds, a very long time ago.

I met Mr. Smith today because of Gilbert Sandler, with whom I share the experience of having attended Baltimore's old Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 -- a generation apart. We both recently celebrated birthdays: Gilbert is 94, while I turned 71.

Gilbert's Facebook photo
Gilbert is one of my heroes. although we never really met socially until today -- excluding a couple of brief conversations during literary events at which some of his collections of Baltimore stories were being sold. He's a remarkable man, and at his age not only has all of his marbles but probably more than I do. He's well-known locally for the brief Baltimore stories he spins weekly on the public radio station WYPR.

We've been Facebook friends for a couple of years, and last week I sent him the usual birthday greeting -- wishing him 364 very merry unbirthdays to follow. He responded by inviting me to lunch. (He seems to think of me as a distinguished journalist for having survived 40 years at the Baltimore Sun, including a stint as night metro editor, before escaping with a buyout nearly a decade ago.)

Over pancakes at Miss Shirley's restaurant near his Roland Park Place seniors community apartment, we shared experiences of growing up roughly a mile apart in Northwest Baltimore, our memories of downtown when it was a place people went to shop (the department stores there are long dead) and where my father worked selling men's clothing. I showed him a few old photos of my father Ben Ettlin -- including his 1931-issued taxicab driver identification, and his many "weddings" as the groom in 1940s Hutzler Bros. department store bridal fashion shows.

Then I suggested we take a drive to the old neighborhood, and see if we could take a peek inside our elementary school, since converted to low-income senior housing, at the corner of Keyworth Avenue and Reisterstown Road -- and where, a generation apart, we had the same first-grade teacher, Esther Freilachoff (the daughter of a Russian-born Hebrew scholar, she taught for half a century -- mostly at Louisa May Alcott -- and died in 1989 at the age of 91).

But first I wanted to show Gilbert the house where I grew up at 3424 Royce Avenue, below St. Ambrose Church. I drove him across a decaying stretch of Park Heights Avenue (an area nearly a mile south of the famed Pimlico Race Course) and turned onto Woodland Avenue.

 There was an old decaying row house in the once-largely-Jewish neighborhood there that had a Star of David ornamentation on the side of a lower roof. But the house I had last seen a year ago was gone -- it and the rest of its row of dead and nearly-dead dwellings demolished and hauled away. It was a vacant lot, among many vacant lots where houses once stood on nearby Homer, Virginia and DuPont avenues. And evidence of a few other felled houses in the area remained as piles of rubble.

I drove down St. Ambrose Avenue, noticing a house which I thought was where one of my childhood friends lived back in the 1950s. It was vacant and boarded. I turned left into a narrow alley and pointed out the rickety back porch of a still-occupied house where, way back when, I played Monopoly with friends including Marsha Rofsky, whose family had owned it.

At the end of the alley we reached Ground Zero of my childhood, Royce Avenue -- where it appeared every one of the brick row houses was still occupied, and in relatively good shape.

Me on my trike, and my late brother, in front of 3424 Royce.
 On the odd-side corner facing us was the Landsman house, residence in those days of Baltimore's first Jewish police lieutenant, his Catholic wife, and their dozen or so kids (two of whom became homicide shift commanders in the same city police department). And a few doors up on the even side was my house, where the old concrete steps had been replaced  but the slate roof seemed worn and in need of repair. I should have brought along the picture of my Russian-Ukrainian grandmother sitting in its porch, holding the baby me.

We headed south about eight blocks along  Reisterstown Road, and Gilbert excitedly pointed to the old school rising into view. We passed Shirley Avenue, where we both had attended (and dropped out of without telling our parents) the old Isaac Davidson Hebrew School (it was vacant when, as I recall, an arsonist finally dispatched the building). And in another short block I turned left onto Keyworth and parked outside the entrance to the building now named Alcott Place. (Gilbert pronounces it All-Cot, while I say Owl-Cot.)

I had him sit in the warm car, out of the wind, as I approached the steps down into the ground-level entranceway. The door was locked, but a resident opened it -- and with no one at the reception desk, kindly waited for me to get Gilbert and let us in. Then another resident arrived, William Smith, and I introduced us -- me, a graduate from 1957, and Gilbert in Louisa May Alcott's mid-year February Class of 1934.

The ground floor was a lot different from our school days -- the huge (by kid standards) gymnasium and the group bathrooms (in Gilbert's day, the boys' side including a long group urinal with water cascading down its back wall) were gone, replaced by a few apartments.

 Then we rode the elevator (there was none in our days -- its shaft and an adjoining stairway were carved right through the first-floor principal's office in the building's overhaul for housing)  to the third floor, where Mr. Smith's apartment is located. It is, by my memory, the very classroom of the late Mrs. Redler where I last sat in June of '57, but now a spacious efficiency apartment.

Mr. Smith, a deceptively young-looking 71, happily showed us his home, then took us up another elevator -- one that runs between the third and fourth floors. There was no fourth floor back in our school days, but the high-ceiling space between its old exposed structural beams had a bright, new wooden floor, with a group meeting, party and sitting space, and spacious work center with computer stations for the residents.

I had visited Alcott Place maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and remembered the blackboards that had been removed from classrooms and reinstalled along the hallways. Someone had used multi-colored chalk to draw beautiful religious scenes on them. But now the drawings, sadly, were gone; a couple had what at a glance appeared to be announcements in large white chalk lettering.

But the building was immaculately clean, and a serene space within a neighborhood that otherwise appears Third-Worldly in its decay.

Gilbert was leery about it, but I wanted to drive by his old house a few blocks away on Cottage Avenue. He worried that it had become the kind of place where people get shot, but I was assuring -- it was daylight, after all, and the bad stuff more likely happens after dark.

We rode south on Park Heights Avenue and turned left on Ulman Avenue -- and there on our left side near the corner was a huge memorial of balloons, spent candles and a fashionable black derby hat, the kind of display that crops up at murder scenes in much of the city. Indeed, a peek at my old newspaper's online archive turned up the grim confirmation that a 25-year-old man had been fatally shot there six days earlier.

Ulman leads into Cottage Avenue where, as I had earlier on St. Ambrose and Royce avenues, Gilbert pointed out houses and the names of childhood pals who had lived in them in the 1930s.

Then we reached 3608 Cottage Avenue, a brick mid-row house with a white-shingled bow upper floor outcropping with three windows. Behind it was a room that had special meaning for my friend. "I was born in that bedroom," Gilbert said.

The tall windows and front door were boarded with heavy plywood, the house -- like countless thousands of others in this city -- vacant.

Then we headed back to Roland Park Place, wondering about whether one really can ever go home again.

Gilbert emailed me later this wisdom: "You can indeed go home again. You just have to understand the journey. And time and change."

Gilbert Sandler is a Navy veteran of the Pacific campaign in World War II, and earned his bachelor's degree in 1949 from the University of Pennsylvania and an MLA from Johns Hopkins University in 1967. Among other adventures, he has had careers in advertising, public relations and freelance writing, and is the founder, benefactor and proud booster of an award-winning debating program at his high school, City College. He is the author of the books "The Neighborhood,"  "Baltimore Glimpses Revisited," "Jewish Baltimore," "Small Town Baltimore," and "Wartime Baltimore."

You can listen to some of his Baltimore Glimpses radio stories at the old WYPR web site

(Addenda: Gilbert died nearly two years after our tour, at the age of 95.)


Below is a photo gallery of the annual May Day celebration on the playfield at School 59 -- these taken in 1951 when my brother was a sixth-grader there, and I was in kindergarten.

Dancing around the May pole. In the background, houses on Park Heights Ave.
That's me in the School 59 T-shirt, and my mother (pre-nosejob) in the dark glasses behind my Royce Avenue friend Howard Gersch and his mother

May Day was a big deal in those days at city elementaries.

And for many kids, it was a costume-dressy event.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

New Dawn in America


 The scene about 3:30 p.m., at the edge of the National Mall.

Inside Day One

of the Trump Resistance

Half a million strong, hear them roar in the Women's March on Washington


 WASHINGTON, Jan. 21, 2017 -- We are walking slowly near Ground Zero of the Trump years, at the low end of the National Mall directly across First Street from the Capitol. The thick, white plastic flooring put down to protect the grass is decorated with the rainbow of more than a dozen wet, abandoned ponchos.

Nearby, I find a damp invitation: "The honor of your presence is requested at the ceremonies attending the Inauguration of the President and Vice President of the United States." It is the ticket for entry to the "silver" section of the Mall "standing area" and advises, "Please Arrive Early Due to Large Crowds."

It is little more than an hour past dawn on Day 2 of the new administration, and Day 1 of the Resistance.

We had awakened before 6 a.m., to assure parking at the D.C. Metro's suburban Greenbelt station -- the end of the Green Line -- and arrived about 7 a.m. to find half or more of its 3,999 spots already filled. The system had opened two hours early to accommodate the anticipated crowd for the Women's March on Washington. We joined the flow of people passing through the entrance and turnstiles, and were directed past filled passenger cars to the back end of the subway train.

The mood was happy, mostly women aboard and many holding signs for the march that was expected to draw a crowd of 200,000 -- but dwarfed expectations. Our car reached standing room after the first stop en route to the city. We emerged from the Navy Memorial/Archives station to a misty, gray morning that would never see the sun.

Navigating the area on foot was no problem; no map was necessary. We just followed the crowds homing in on the intersection of Third Street and Independence Avenue,  where the rally was to begin at 10 a.m. with speeches and music.

We took evasive action to skirt the crowd and found ourselves on the Mall and facing the grandstand set up outside the Capitol for the Trump-Pence inauguration. It was still decked out in the red, white and blue glory of flags, banners and bunting from the rainy day before.

Rounding the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, we reached the side of the stage set up for the rally about eight bodies back from its perimeter fence. We were nearly two hours early, but the mood was already being set. A woman was exhorting early arrivals to stand with their signs next to a man wearing a giant Trump head and tell him their grievances.

Signs were everywhere to be seen -- some with low-key expressions of defense for women's rights, family planning, immigration, love and understanding, but others crude and pointed in their disdain and anger.

"If I Want the Government in My Vagina, I'll Fuck a Senator," one declared. "Pussies Against Patriarchy," read another. And there were the likes of "Peein & Putin," "Don't think about grabbing my human rights," "Prosecute sexual assault of the Predator-in-Chief," and "Lock Him Up."

From a table behind GiantTrumpHead, women were handing out free "pussyhats" -- the knitted hats with little kitty ears that have become a signature of the female opposition to the new administration. The work of a group effort through The Pussyhat Project, each was packed with the name of and a note from its volunteer maker.

 Bonnie managed to get a hat before they ran out, the demand far exceeding supply. (The maker, Danna Myers Hook in Reno, Nev., included on her enclosed note a women's issue she cares about, saying, "I want my girls to know they are not alone! We all need community!")

But thousands of people had brought their own pussyhats and made up a bobbing wave of varying tones of pink in the sea of people.

From our vantage point near the stage, we could barely see the arriving dignitaries, but recognized activist-feminist writer and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem as she walked up the stage ramp, a red scarf around her neck.

We had no idea then of the magnitude of the still-arriving crowd. But we could hear them roar -- a shout that would begin somewhere in the mass of humanity and spread like the wave of hands across a stadium.

Unable to see the front of the stage or clearly hear the opening speakers, we wedged our way for about 10 minutes to get through the packed crowd behind us back toward the lower end of the Mall.

It was about 10:30 a.m. The Mall was filling up. For most of the people, the stage show had become irrelevant. The Women's March had become about the people themselves, and they grew in numbers beyond comprehension.

Best-guess estimates numbered it at half a million. There was no way to tell. By early afternoon it had filled most of the Mall's plastic-covered center, stretching half a mile back from First Street toward the Washington Monument, whose upper third was invisible in the low gray sky.

We walked, admiring the signs, for two hours. Some people carried babies; a girl about 3 years old carried, with parental assistance, an "Equality" sign. There was a dog wearing a vest bearing the message, "Even I don't grab pussy." (Its people assured us the dog also was not a crotch-sniffer.)

We paused for half an hour to sit on a floor, unwind and warm up a little inside the National Gallery of Art. Many sought indoor toilets there, since the outside facilities (including those from a company called Don's Johns, whose name was covered up on some because of the similarity to that of President Donald John Trump) had not been cleaned or emptied. Close to a hundred people stood waiting. And a line at least of a tenth of a mile long snaked through the lobby of people trying to pass through security and leave the building.

Word spread from those following news accounts online that the formal march had been canceled because of the enormity of the turnout, but it was supplanted by spontaneous actions as uncountable thousands objecting to the nation's 45th president moved slowly along the Mall and its perimeter thoroughfares of Constitution and Independence avenues toward the giant white obelisk memorializing the nation's first. It was a surreal scene encompassing 228 years of American history, for good or ill.

At times, the flow stopped and people, pressed pretty much against each other, were unable to move because the crowd was so densely packed. Eventually, we reached the end of the Mall near the Washington Monument grounds, and tried to walk up 15th Street from Madison Drive. Ahead of us, we could see a throng appearing just as thick for blocks ahead.
We took evasive action, walking against the flow of yet another mass of humanity on Constitution Avenue and then up 12th Street where we encountered another surreal scene -- outside the Old Post Office recently reopened as the Trump International Hotel.

A security fence between the sidewalk's edge and a side entrance had been adorned with several hundred signs left by marchers -- much like flowers for the dead at a war memorial, but as derision rather than tribute. For all the hostility and disdain those signs expressed, there was at least one that stood out with remarkable humor at the end of the barrier: "I Heard There Would be Wine."

On the front side of the hotel, marchers filled Pennsylvania Avenue close to 20 abreast and stretching beyond sight -- many "flipping the bird" with upraised middle finger as they passed the building. Two men sporting souvenir Trump inauguration T-shirts bearing his picture stood outside the fence watching the marchers, while Trump security guards and District of Columbia police officers observed from its inside.

Grandstands that had been set up for the inaugural parade, and shown during the televised spectacle to be less than full, were partly taken up by wearied marchers.

The flow of people on the main routes was still mostly toward the White House, but we never got there. We had already logged six miles and most of nine hours on our feet. We could only hope there were more waves of "the roar" -- so loud that the new occupants of "the people's house" would hear them.

It was after 4 p.m., and the sun still had not graced the day.

Only the people -- the "We" of the Constitution Donald Trump had sworn a day earlier to protect and defend -- had graced this day here and in cities across America, to say nothing of those who marched in cities across the planet, in numbers both remarkable and unexpected.

It has been close to half a century in America, back to the Vietnam War era, since so strong an expression of political dissent had been heard.

We are awakened. And another sun has risen, from within.

 Wearing a pink pussyhat and Nasty Woman shirt, a woman waves from a 10th-floor balcony overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.

photo credits:  Top photo at the edge of the mall by David M. Ettlin; all others by his wife, march companion and art director, Bonnie J. Schupp.

Some notable captions: That's me posing with Big Head Trump, and with Bonnie in her selfie modeling her pussyhat. After the march and retrieving our car in Greenbelt, we drove back into the District of Columbia to visit our friend, the Rev. Darlene Kelley, pastor of the Clinton Street United Methodist Church in Kingston, N.Y., and prized student when Bonnie taught junior high English in Baltimore around 1970. Darlene, with five women friends from her bartending days in New York City, came to D.C. for the weekend to take part in the march. Bonnie gave her the pussyhat. We have since made email contact with its maker, Danna, who said she participated in the "sister march" in Reno and that it had about 10,000 participants.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Circus taking down the tent

 Bonnie and daughter FL mounted and ready (top), and Lauren with Lou Jacobs and Knucklehead.

'Greatest Show' nearing

end of its 146-year run

Memories of Ringling Bros.: Elephants,
 clowns, and the owner who bought it twice
It will be hard to say goodbye when the "Greatest Show on Earth" strikes its tent for the final time this year -- well, not really a tent, since it has been playing indoors at civic arenas for nearly 60 years. But you get the idea.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is dying. Its owners announced over the weekend that the show will end its 146-year run in May, a result of changing tastes in entertainment and, in large part, the animal rights movement that sent Ringling's elephant herds into retirement last year.

For the better part of two decades, I looked forward to the annual spring arrival of the Ringling show in Baltimore. I covered it as a newspaper reporter beginning around 1971, thanks to an offer by the late Martha Schoeps, then the Baltimore Sun features and food editor, for me to attend opening night and  write about the show.

Oddly, my story got the attention of circus owner Irvin Feld, who invited me and my first wife to see the other Ringling show when it opened at the Washington coliseum a month later -- after dinner in his family's D.C. penthouse. (There were two Ringling circus units then, designated Red and Blue, criss-crossing the nation on two-year circuits.)

Irvin, whose wife took her own life in the late 1950s, was living there with his two children and his brother and sister-in-law, Israel  and Shirley Feld. The brothers grew up in the Hagerstown area, and started their business career together in the Depression era -- selling snake oil-type remedies on the carnival circuit, according to family lore. 

Their ventures evolved into the drugstore business, recordings and record sales and concert promotions that included appearances by the Beatles. And they managed arena bookings for the circus.

In 1967, with wealthy Houston Judge Roy Hofheinz as a partner, they engineered the purchase of Ringling Bros. -- maximizing publicity by staging the signing ceremony in Rome's Colosseum.

After dinner, Israel drove his wife and brother to the D.C. arena, and I tried to keep pace, following in my under-powered Renault as he whizzed around traffic circles and did his best to get ahead of red lights. We watched the show from the owners' front row-center seats. Clowns delivered hotdogs. Irvin pointed out favorite performers, and fretted tongue-in-cheek that the cat trainer was going to "get eaten" some day.

That was the Irvin Feld I knew. Whatever underlying family secrets existed then, and came out later amid ugly legal battles between his heirs and other litigation, were not part of the equation. And I became  more interested in the circus performers, their family stories, and the view from backstage over the ensuing years.

A year after that dinner, accompanied by my first wife, I tried out elephant riding for the first of several such adventures as the Ringling menagerie was paraded  about two miles from the circus train to the downtown Baltimore Civic Center arena -- an experience later enjoyed with varying degrees of nerve and distance by third wife Bonnie and older daughter FL. (Chesapeake Bay Middle School did not consider riding an elephant in the circus parade to be an acceptable excuse for her lateness that day. Meh.) 

I got to meet and write about Lou Jacobs, the great clown who -- in his makeup -- became the face of the circus on a U.S. postage stamp (everyone else pictured on stamps had to die first), and Bonnie photographed our younger daughter Lauren sitting on Jacobs' lap with his dog Knucklehead. (In one of his routines, Jacobs was a hunter and Knucklehead, wearing bunny ears,  the quarry -- falling over "dead" at the pop of the rifle but leaping out the basket on the back of his bicycle as he pedaled out of the center ring.) Jacobs' daughter Dolly became a noted circus aerialist.

There was tiger trainer Charly Baumann -- later the performance director, timing each act from the entranceway to keep each show running like clockwork, overseeing the movement of animal herds, jugglers, acrobats and clowns as apparatus was moved in and out, trapeze nets raised and lowered, and manure swept up by roustabouts, to the beat of the circus band and cues of its conductor.

Another great was Gunther Gebel-Williams,  the blond-haired showman whose entire Circus Williams was purchased by Irvin Feld in 1968 to bring him and his performing family to America. He staged acts with elephants, tigers and horses as the star of the Ringling Red Unit. (He died of brain cancer in 2001.)

And there was Michu, billed as the world's smallest man, whose "marriage" to the purported world's smallest woman played out in every performance as a center-ring spectacle for a two-year run of the show. (I gathered that the bride was not terribly fond of the groom, who, I recall, was fond of drink and cigars.)

We attended shows in Richmond and Norfolk, Va., just before the circus would arrive in Baltimore, Bonnie taking photos that ran in The Evening Sun and accompanied my reviews in the morning newspaper. I would attend opening night in Baltimore, ready to tweak the review already being put on the press for the early edition, in the event anything unexpected happened.

One opening night, in 1979, it did -- a Hungarian aerialist was injured in falling about 20 feet to the floor from a neck loop suspended from her husband's teeth. An emergency alert from the band sent clowns into action in spotlights aimed across two of the performance rings, while paramedics rushed into the darkened center ring to get Ava Takacs to a nearby hospital.

In March, 1985, we bought a bunch of tickets so younger daughter Lauren and some of her first-grade  classmates could celebrate her 5th birthday at the circus. The whole group of children was escorted from their seats to ride in a float in the first-half-ending pageant known as the "spec."

The circus became part of the Mattel toy company in a 1971 merger valued at nearly $50 million, and a little more than a decade later the Feld family bought it back for barely half the price -- along with an entertainment division that included ice shows and the famed Las Vegas magic act of Siegfried & Roy.

"Let's face it," Irvin Feld said at a glitzy announcement of the purchase, "the good Lord never meant for the circus to be owned by a big corporation." He brought showgirls, clowns, a marching band and an elephant to his headquarters on the edge of Washington's Georgetown section for a touch of showmanship that day.

For all his business acumen in building the entertainment empire inherited by his son Kenneth, Irvin seemed to truly love the circus. The day he bought it back from Mattel, he said he wanted to preserve the circus for future generations of his family and America.

Irvin died in 1984 of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in Venice, Fla., where he had attended a memorial service for longtime Ringling monkey trainer and star performer Mickey Antalek. I remember a beautiful wagon wheel floral tribute at his funeral.

Alas, his dream of a circus tradition enduring for generations is falling a little short. The end of the storied Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was announced by two generations of Irvin Feld's family -- son Kenneth, and one of three granddaughters, Juliette Feld, the chief operating officer.

If I'm lucky, I hope to see some of the surviving Felds in April -- during the show's last stand in Baltimore, maybe in the section where I fondly remember sitting with Irvin... about 20 rows up, facing the center ring, close to eye level with the showgirls who were riding by on the elephants.
They were waving at us, and the crowd, and I always waved back.

And at the end of the show, there was always the ringmaster's farewell: "May all your days be circus days."