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Kitsch and Tell

A Trip Down Baltimore's Tacky Treasure Trail

Sam Holden
A portion of the Paper Moon Diner's collection of naked baby dolls
Sam Holden
Sam Holden
Ronnie and Charlie Hemler at the Jessup beer hall/dance hall Blob's Park
Sam Holden
Blob's Park regulars (from left) Ann and Tom Signiski and Catherine and Joe Sporney clap to the polka beat.
Sam Holden
A lawn deer stands guard over Eastern Avenue.

By Joanne P. Cavanaugh | Posted 4/15/1998

Kitsch: (kich) n. 1. Pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts. (G. kitschen, to put together sloppily.)--The American Heritage Dictionary

Kitsch: (kich) n. 1. "I don't believe there really is such a thing as kitsch. It's a German word for camp. To me, it mean[s] two older gentlemen in an antique shop under Tiffany lamps speaking about Rita Hayworth movies."--John WatersIf you want to define kitsch for yourself, go see Fat Elvis.On a Friday in March in the commercial heart of Hampden, Joe Leatherman stands in his store, lifting things out of a cardboard box. Maybe there'll be a popsicle-stick lamp inside. Or a poodle made of shells. Or a plastic wall clock flanked by a lion and a unicorn. It gets even better--or worse.

"Want to see a light-up 'Last Supper' I just got?" Leatherman asks. He walks over to the wall and inserts a plug in a socket. The image of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting illuminates, the screw-in bulb glowing over Jesus' head.

Leatherman has started collecting "Last Suppers." There's the jigsaw-puzzle one. And the 3-D versions. There are gold-trimmed commemorative plates. And, of course, Jesus and his disciples are immortalized in paint on black velvet.

Many of these gems, and much of the stock of antiques and quirky collectibles at Leatherman's West 36th Street store, were discovered at local yard sales, estate auctions, and flea markets. Whatever you call such American cultural fallout--campy, low, tacky, garish, fun, beautiful, endearing, folksy, ridiculous--Baltimoreans seem to revel in it. To some, we live in the City of Kitsch.

"In Baltimore, everyone is friendly and the people are not pretentious at all. They like to keep things around, to have family things. It's like they never left the WWII optimistic era," Baltimore native David Martin says as he flips through racks of vintage clothing at Fat Elvis. "This is the only town I know where at Christmas you can see Santa's sleigh on the roof of the Nativity scene."

Some of Baltimore's fanciful habits and icons are well-known. Many came into being as the trimmings of a mostly working-class, underdog city trying to dress up its urban view. There are painted screens, Virgin Mary window displays, red house paint striped to look like brick, Cadillac parades, Christmas gardens, and Easter Bunny tableaux. There's the Statue of Liberty atop Liberty Roofing Co. on Huntington Avenue and the beloved, faux-Florence Bromo Seltzer clock tower. Even the Block is hokey for a city red-light district, a tiny bastion bordering Baltimore police headquarters and guarded at the corner by the Big Top Circus Show Bar.

"I enjoy what most people call Baltimore kitsch," says Michel Pratka, a native and former owner of Style-A-Rama, a now-defunct store that sold 1950s-style furniture and décor. "I generally feel there is no good taste or bad taste. Anything that's truly creative is not kitsch, it's an outpouring of the heart.

"Baltimore is a grimy, blue-collar city, and there are lots of things wrong with the city," she continues. "If you go down drab streets and see a painted window screen, it gives you a smile, it gives you hope. People are breaking out of the molds."

Some of these expressions are Baltimore's brand of folk art. Elaine Eff, director of the Cultural Conservation Program for the Maryland Historical Trust, explains: "Folk art was originally a functional commodity, art made within a community for use in the community. Certainly painted screens are that." Eff characterizes Baltimoreans as practical people with a penchant for personalizing fads. Case in point: "Window decorations. People who live in rowhouses live in a finite space, yet they have this staging area. The statements are never boring, and highly personal."

But Eff and other Baltimore-philes are starting to get nervous about the creeping edge of modernization, especially in old but increasingly upscale neighborhoods such as Canton, South Baltimore, Fells Point, and Hampden. The Wal-Marting of America could hit even a city as slow-changing as this one.

"The John Waters quirkiness that made things so special is being bought out or appropriated as people die or get out of town," Eff, formerly the city's official folklorist, says. "We are losing that quality that really makes us what we are."

To define this quality--and, perhaps, get a glimpse of it before more disappears--you need to investigate the concept of kitsch Baltimore-style. That means journeying to Fat Elvis and Killer Trash, to Blob's Park beer garden and Turkey Joe's lair, and, very briefly, into the mind of John Waters. These are but a few of the places where the elements of taste are tested.

"There's a sense of style, and there's a lack of style," says Tim Potee, owner of the vintage-clothes boutique Dreamland in Mount Vernon. "I never thought there would come a day when I would sell polyester disco shirts."

There's bowling!" cries Keith Merkey, part of the trio of kitsch purveyors at Fat Elvis.

"Oh, I love bowling kitsch," Leatherman says.

Leatherman, who recently sold a bowling-pin lamp ("I mean, someone actually had the pin drilled," he says), defines kitsch this way: "A lot of it comes from excess. You take mass-produced objects that get reproduced 100 times, a million times. There's also something about the cheap quality of stuff."

Cheapness is translated into hip among the connoisseurs of kitsch. Ugliness is a virtue. Bad is good. Silly is celebrated. There are even subcategories of collectibles: beach kitsch, souvenir kitsch, bar kitsch, '50s kitsch, '70s kitsch. "The Romans were very kitschy," Merkey says. "And we always try to kitschify Jesus and Mary."

Yet there is seriousness where others see frivolity. Take the ubiquitous statues of Jesus, Mary, and other religious images gracing the front windows of rowhouses in Southeast Baltimore. "You don't really want to make fun of it," Leatherman says. "A lady in Highlandtown would take it very seriously, where we may take the same situation and look at it with humor."

Such cultural paraphernalia is all around us. Golf-ball ashtrays, crab-shell ornaments, early National Bohemian beer glasses, old bowling shirts--now collectors' items of sorts here and elsewhere. At the Baltimore-area boutiques and restaurants that make kitsch their shtick, favorite-old-toy décor is offered up alongside "Mom's Meatloaf" or clothes that call to mind early John Travolta or TV's Shogun. One generation's nostalgia triggers are another's ironic statements.

"I think kitsch changes with every decade, every generation," says Pat Moran, the Baltimore-based movie and TV casting director (Waters' films, Homicide). "In my mother's era, we would never have a Tiffany lamp. We wanted to be very modern and Tiffany lamps were already everywhere. My mother would say, 'I would never have this gloomy lamp around.' But Tiffany lamps are certainly not kitsch in 1998."

On the other hand, some items--such as big plastic flowers on fake grass lawns--are always a bit tacky. "It's like a timeless funkiness," says Merkey, one of the "pickers" for Fat Elvis and other local stores (he found Leatherman's light-up "Last Supper"). "When you love something so much, you have to have it all around you. . . . Sometimes, it's like, I can't believe somebody actually made that."

Philip Merrill, owner of Nanny Jack & Co., which makes history presentations at schools, is researcher of Baltimore's African-American history and culture--both high and low. "People take old tires off their cars, paint them, and turn them into flower pots. Drive around today and you'll see them out by their curbs or their marble steps. In my mind, that's a cheesy, tacky part of black Baltimore," Merrill says. "But it shows the people that drive by that these people are trying to spruce up and beautify their neighborhood."

So, there's intended kitsch and ironic kitsch. Waters, so worshiped as the King of Kitsch that he at first declined to be interviewed for this article ("I've done it ad nauseum," he says), questions the impact of images he's made famous. "A real pink flamingo made of plaster in front of a real trailer is almost beautiful, but when yuppies put it on their lawn, it's almost offensive. It's like sneering at a different class," Waters says from Los Angeles, where he's editing his latest film, Pecker. "I hope I celebrate another class, not make fun of it."

Kitsch as a concept, it seems, gets stretched to fit each person's point of view; defining and commenting on it can become a highly subjective form of cultural observation. In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Czech author Milan Kundera mined kitsch metaphysically, deconstructing the word and what it represents (beauty or ugliness? intellect or sentiment?), and finding in it a sprawling metaphor for modern life. J. Carter Brown, chairperson of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, found it in the Iwo Jima Memorial, irking more than a few U.S. Marines, members of Congress, and traditionally patriotic Americans last month when he described the bronze monument to military triumph as kitsch. ("It is by a sculptor . . . who is not going to go down as a Michelangelo in history," Brown said, according to media accounts.) Baltimore painter Ruth Pettus finds it in high art rendered in modern terms, citing a piece by artist Jeff Koons in the 1995--96 Contemporary Museum exhibit Going for Baroque: Koons "did a bust of [King Louis XIV]. That's normally done in marble, but it was made of a very shiny metal, stainless steel. That's pure kitsch."

That's also something of an artistic joke--ready-made kitsch, if you will. Artists, formal collectors, and critics have not yet spun their take on the objets d'art found in Baltimore's thrift and secondhand stores. At Kobernick's Furniture Co., a rather straight-laced used-furniture store in Hampden, you can pick up a snarling, green-eyed ceramic tiger for $49.95. But don't go after the four-foot lamp with a base made of gold-spray-painted metal-pipe fittings--a pink sticker marks it as sold. "I never thought I would ever get that out of here," store owner Jerry Kobernick says. "I'd have people come in here and say, 'What in the world is that?' It's amazing someone even had the guts to make it. But then a guy whose brother is a plumber bought it as a gag gift. It's pretty cool-looking, for a gag gift."

Lisa Simeone, host of the National Public Radio program Soundprint and a longtime Baltimorean, was one of the folks who supported a losing campaign a few years ago to keep welcome to baltimore, hon on a highway sign after an anonymous fan kept scribbling it there. She says Baltimore's homey quality--the "hon" greeting, the long-"O"--accent make the city's quirky accouterments real and human. Labeling something "kitsch" might be giving an outsider's torque to the authentic and sincere. "If you laugh at it," Simeone says, "you might be holding yourself superior to it."

"Baltimore does low best," says Waters, who has made a career out of presenting to the world Baltimore-brand archetypes and collectibles. "New York is terrible at doing low. They do faux low. We do it not to be chic. They do it with irony. It's making fun of it, it's turning it around on real people. Irony is basically a luxury."

However you want to define it, kitsch has become a marketable commodity for some Baltimore businesses. "Gourmet junk," Paper Moon Diner general manager David Briskie says of the "kitsch explosion" (a patron's description) that makes up the Remington eatery's décor. Ceiling fans there are strung with mobiles of naked Barbie dolls, and sprinkled throughout the diner are Matchbox race cars, Lava lamps, a Pebbles Pez dispenser, and a Mrs. Beasley doll.

It's not irony or satire or artistic commentary, according to Briskie, who placed the decorations--it's nostalgia. "People come just for that. I wouldn't say people come for our food, even though our food is good--we are not a four-star restaurant. People see things from when they were kids. It'll trigger a memory. And that's kind of neat."

At Killer Trash in Fells Point, Elaine Ferrare sits behind the boutique counter wearing a short brown polyester dress with big daisies on it. "Kitsch is my middle name," she says. On her jammed racks are crinoline-skirt-and-tube-top ensembles, baby-blue satin kimonos, and brocade fringed vests. This is a place where leopard skin is always in. "It's dressing up and doing the party thing," Ferrare says.

On a warm Monday, 28-year-old Jeffrey Hogan and a few friends walk into the Eastern Avenue store and overhear the Baltimore-kitsch discussion. "I like tacky ashtrays and things I grew up around in the '70s," Hogan says. "I think it's subconscious. It gives you a yearning for your youth. You get older and unsure of yourself in life, and it's like seeing something that reminds you of a time when things were more comfortable.

"And today, I think it's a reaction to the early-90s tasteful, minimalist look," Hogan adds. "If it's so garish, and so ugly, and so wrong, it's wonderful."

Ferrare, who opened her store five years ago, says twentysomethings such as Hogan have been asking for platform shoes and men's bowling shirts for years: "The kids are ahead of 'in vogue.'" She declines to give her age: "Let's just say that I lived in Las Vegas in the 1970s where I had a clothing store. I helped Elvis find clothes; I'd get things for him and his entourage of girlfriends."

Ah yes, Elvis: kitsch's patron saint, the celebrity worshiped most via mass-produced collectibles. ("Once I found a toenail clipper with a picture of Elvis on it," Merkey recalls. "I thought, If you love him that much, don't cut your toenails with him.") Elvis' ghost hovers over any journey through Baltimore kitsch, a trip that unfortunately no longer stops at Miss Bonnie's Elvis Shrine and Bar. The Canton watering hole, which closed after proprietor Bonnie Hunt's death in 1993, was stuffed with Elvis memorabilia. Elvis lamps. Elvis posters. Elvis photos. Elvis mugs. Elvis snow domes.

David Key, co-owner of the Daily Grind coffee shop, remembers the bar, and Miss Bonnie, well. "Miss Bonnie used to say, 'People are prejudiced against me because I'm a hillbilly.' She was just into Elvis," Key says. "She didn't think it looked tacky. She was genuine. If you used the word 'kitsch' with her, she would think you were talking about her kitchen."

Key, who opened his coffee shop in Fells Point seven years ago, has watched the area change a lot since Miss Bonnie's day. "I lean towards genuine places and it's getting hard to find those things. I just know a lot about Southeast Baltimore and there used to be lots of really unique people and unique things. New people moving into the neighborhood are more mainstream than the old-timers."

Another former Fells Point bar owner, Turkey Joe Trabert, is probably the best-known purveyor, collector, and protector of local Baltimore novelty. Screen paintings adorn his Hamilton house's windows; a propane tank-cum-turkey guards the front porch. (Turkey Joe says he inherited his nickname from a guy who was known, for anatomical reasons, as Turkey Neck Johnson--when Turkey Neck died his bar buddies looked for someone else to tag "Turkey.")

After getting a phone call from a reporter about Baltimore's kitschy singularity, Trabert sat down with a palm-size yellow notebook and wrote down all things Baltimore, whether kitsch or not. Some harken back to the traditions of Baltimore's ethnic enclaves, be they Italian, Polish or German. ("I've got your headline: 'That's as Baltimore as sauerkraut on Thanksgiving!'")

At his home one Saturday afternoon, Trabert, wearing measuring-tape suspenders, reads off of his list as his wife Sherry shouts possible kitsch tips from the kitchen (sour beef is made with gingersnaps!). Over his head is a screen painting of the Patterson Park pagoda by Johnny Eck, the legless man who appeared in the legendary 1932 movie Freaks. "That seems so Baltimore," Trabert says, "a freak who lives in Baltimore and paints screens."

Trabert mentions a few other things that put the "O" in Baltimore (see "Turkey Joe's Kitsch List," page 23). There's O-go's Sales Co., a party-supply store in Essex: "The women there always have a cigarette in their mouths. If you go in there, they wouldn't be surprised by anything you asked them for. If you asked them, 'Do you have any lions that pass wind?' they'd say, 'Sure, hon. Right down there.'" Then there's Eastern Avenue, which he calls "Kitsch Avenue" for all of the windows filled with rosy-cheeked, round plaster dogs, Bavarian-boy liquor decanters, hand-blown glass dragons, Infant of Prague statuettes, or big conch shells with shiny pink insides.

He's not poking fun, as a tour through his house makes clear. "I'm not sure what 'kitsch' means," he says. "Some people will look at something and say it's tacky, and I look at it and I think it's attractive. I like tacky-looking things. But I know not everyone could live here because it's so busy. Then another person will come in and say, 'Hey, I hadn't seen that yet.' It's decorative."

Part of the fun for collectors such as Trabert is simply showing off their finds. Dotting the walls in his house are landscapes fashioned out of butterfly wings. A snarling-tiger flowerpot rests beside a miniature table with two stuffed dead frogs drinking out of tiny beer bottles. A Carta Blanca label is shellacked on top. One of the frogs is broken, so its head flops back--"like he's drunk," Sherry Trabert says. She bought it for 50 cents.

The Traberts' office and attic are filled with shelved displays of cheese shakers, snow domes, cookbooks, shot glasses, Orioles memorabilia, and beer cans and growlers left over from Turkey Joe's, the bar he ran from 1972--1980. "When I owned the bar, I wanted something to decorate it so I said that anyone who gave me an old beer can I didn't have, I'd buy them a drink," he says. "Next thing I knew, I had 2,500 beer cans."

Sherry has a few pieces of her own, and, as the adage goes, it's all a matter of taste. In a small room on the second floor she shows off a painting and a wall hanging, the first a rendition of a leopard attacking a peacock, the second of a lion and lioness in a muted brown-green weave. The animals are all a bit out of proportion. "Dumb, dumb," Turkey Joe says, then tells the story of the painting: "We went into a place and I said, 'You are not going to buy that thing.' And she said, 'Look at all the crap you have.' I had no defense whatsoever. . . .

"Everyone finds their own treasures. It's helpful that my wife likes this sort of thing."

Trabert's taste for the wild and wacky has made him quasifamous. The recycling coordinator for the Maryland Department of Transportation, Trabert has dabbled in acting, playing a cop with a thing for women's underwear in Waters' 1977 freakscapade Desperate Living. As Waters explains, "People say to me, 'Your films seem so insane,' but then they come to Baltimore and say, 'Now, I see your films are documentaries.'"

Despite the modern American urge toward gentrification, suburbanization, and Tommy Hilfiger­style brand-name worship, Baltimore--like fewer and fewer places across the country--unabashedly holds onto its character. Little Castles, a film that premiered last month at the Maryland Historical Society, documents locals' affection for the building material Formstone, which was created in Baltimore and is common here. "I think that quirkiness is a wonderful thing," says Lillian Bowers, the film's producer. "I'd rather live in a Formstone house than in the suburbs."

In recent years such characteristics have been played up in films that use Baltimore's quirks and urban traditions--diners, garish used-car salesmen, body dumps at Leakin Park. In the Barry Levinson movies Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon, and in the television show Homicide, the city's novel visual and cultural décor sets scenes and moods, functioning almost as another character. They seem, at least to the uninitiated, to be surreal glimpses into another time.

Any journey through Baltimore novelty inevitably leads to Blob's Park. A huge amusement-park-style sign flanking the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Jessup announces your arrival. The Tudor-style gymnasium's parking lot is full of cars. As you walk to the front door you can stop at a Teutonic totem pole of sorts to admire its flat wooden figures of beer wagons and Germans dancing in lederhosen.

Max Blob founded Blob's Park in 1933 as a place where he and his friends from the old country could get together and drink. There was a bowling alley and a few tables; over the years it has become a regionally famous German beer garden and polka hall. Inside women wear dirndls, frilly skirts with tight bodices. Men in blue polyester suits and white patent-leather shoes spin their partners gracefully across the wooden dance floor. In a festival this June patrons will celebrate the first day of summer by jumping over a bonfire. Blob's Park is now run by Max Blob's niece Katherine Peters, 80, a diminutive, kind lady some regulars call the Iron Maiden. She takes $4 for tickets at the door.

On a Saturday in March, young couples and old perform German, Polish, and Czech dances as the band Stanky and the Coal Miners plays upbeat tunes with lyrics such as, "No beer today/ Can't buy beer on Sunday/ Better come back on Monday. . . ." (Actually you can buy beer here on Sunday, as well as your fill of sauerbraten, Wiener schnitzel, bratwurst, bockwurst, knockwurst, bauernwurst, and crab cakes.)

At Blob's, people simply enjoy themselves. Paper accordion-style disco balls hang from the ceiling. Dusty-headed Elvis liquor decanters join Ben Franklin and John Hancock bottles on the shelves behind the long corner bar. Four-decade regulars keep their own beer steins behind the bar too.

"Something you should understand about Bavarians," says Bob Wiedel, 65, who has been coming here with his wife Gloria since they were married 46 years ago. "We drink beer for breakfast."

Some of the trimmings are certainly frivolous. Aside from the decanter figures there are four stuffed deer heads on the walls, and the requisite cuckoo clock over the door. But is it kitsch? Blob's patrons don't care. At a long table in the center of the hall there's a centerpiece of five plastic, multicolored, two-foot-tall lighted sabers, which occasionally serve as dancing props. "I don't know what you call those," says Charlie Hemler, who is celebrating his 65th birthday.

"They're like the sabers in Star Wars," says Tom Signiski, 56. "We just put them there so we can find our table. You get so turned around out there," Hemler says pointing to the dance floor, "that you can forget where you are sitting."

Hemler and Signiski and their wives, Ronnie and Ann, are flipping tiny, homemade wooden clappers in time to the music. Cowbells sit between the baskets of pretzels and steins of German beer. Under the table is Ann Signiski's bag full of red and white pompoms, which she'll shake during the final dance number. "They are red and white for the Polish," Charlie Hemler, a Catonsville resident of German descent, explains. The Hemlers and Signiskis come here because they like to dance, like to drink, like to hang out with friends they see every few weekends and to make new ones. "Some of my kids, it doesn't turn them on," Hemler says, "but they think it's a lot of fun that I have a good time for such an old man."

Baltimore's Polish churches and clubs don't sponsor polka-style dances as often as they used to, Hemler notes. They're among the vanishing species of quirky local customs--kitschy to some, perhaps, but just plain Baltimore to others.

"Maybe it's too unsophisticated for them," Hemler says with a quiet sigh. "Everybody has their niche, I guess."

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