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Storied Costume Shop Suddenly Facing Final Days Downtown

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 10/17/2001

The blond lady strides purposefully into the Rutledge Costume Co. at 317 Park Ave. and says she wants to be a Playboy Bunny for Halloween. Either that, or a sexy kitty. "Oh, we can do that," says Jay, the shop's jovial, silver-mustached part-time counterperson. He rounds up the requested costumes--ears and tails included--and scoots the woman through the cluttered store to the dressing room.

Alas, the bunny suit doesn't fit, and the customer doesn't fancy the cat costume's color. Affable Jay gets busy anew, rummaging through a crowded clothes rack where signs reading harem girls, belly dancers, and saloon girls also hang. He pulls out a Madonna-style beaded bustier in clouds of white chiffon; a wispy blue belly dancer's getup with sheer, puffy sleeves; and a skimpy faux-leather Xena rig that, he says enthusiastically, "comes with a big plastic sword." But nothing clicks until Jay produces a vintage cigarette-girl outfit--a short brass-buttoned jacket with gold and red epaulets worn over black briefs and stockings. It's pure 1940s nightclub--perfect for a round of Halloween-night barhopping.

"I love it," the lady says, emerging triumphantly from the dressing room. "It's perfect."

For decades, Baltimoreans have come to this Park Avenue storefront to dress up as someone--or something--else. Opened in 1946 as a dance-wear store that also traded in theatrical materials and costumes, it became strictly a costume- design and -rental shop when a self-taught costume-maker from Texas named Tita Rutledge took it over in 1988. More than a 1,000 colorful, creative outfits, about a third of which Rutledge made herself, fill the narrow, pink-walled space that in 1995 garnered a Baltimore magazine designation for the city's Best Costume Rental. Her costumes and vintage clothes have landed in films, on television, on stage, and on the backs of the likes of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer (the Lone Ranger), celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma (musketeer D'Artagnan), and, just last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley (Batman).

"I've been sewing since I was 7," the 46-year-old Rutledge says. "I started making costumes in junior high."

Rutledge plans to go on making costumes for a long time, but her business is in for a big change, as the ripple effects of a planned $800 million redevelopment begin to spread through the west side of downtown.

Like businesses all over the west side, Rutledge Costume is clearing out to make way for the massive infusion of private development cash shepherded by City Hall. Unlike many of those who went before her, though, Rutledge doesn't stand directly in the way of the bulldozers; she's on the periphery of the revitalization zone. The fate of her shop--fleeing to new digs a step ahead of a huge rent increase--suggests that property owners along the area's outer edges may be getting stars (read: dollar signs) in their eyes.

In August, Rutledge was notified by her landlord that her rent would be more than tripled, from $500 to $1,800 a month, effective in October. Her essentially one-woman operation (she is the only full timer) can't absorb that new cost, she says. Rutledge convinced the landlord to let her stay at the old rent through Halloween, her peak sales season. But after that she's packing up for a warehouse space in East Baltimore, a long two miles from busy downtown, and with no storefront for the window displays that are her calling card.

"I cried when I read" the landlord's letter, Rutledge says. "He must know Halloween is my busiest time. And to raise the rent that much with one month's notice, it's clear he just wants me out of here."

Building owner Calvin Chin, who bought 317 Park in 1999 for $82,500, says the rent increase was simply "a business decision." He does acknowledge having new plans for the place. The 300 block of Park Avenue was the heart of the city's now-faded Chinatown, and Chin, a Chinese-American, would like to see a renewal take place. Toward that end, he recently leased space in two other buildings he owns on the block, to a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese grocery store. Rutledge's shop, he says, will likely "become a Chinese store of some kind or another," and he's already had conversations with a merchant willing to pay the new rent.

Rutledge, however, finds the timing of the rent hike ironic. "When I first came here, there were a lot of thriving businesses," she says. "I watched it all go downhill along here--way down into disrepair and squalor. And now the rent is going up?"

Though a few new businesses have sprouted on the block--an African restaurant, a large hair salon, and a nightclub--several rowhouse storefronts remain vacant, and two buildings are burned-out shells. Despite the decay, Chin asserts that "little by little the community is getting better." He says the west-side redevelopment slated to take place just blocks away wasn't a major factor in his decision to charge more for his property, but he is enthusiastic about the city's redevelopment efforts.

Rutledge too feels a kinship with what's going on south of her shop--with the dozens of mom-and-pop businesses just south of her's that have been forced to relocate as part of the plan to remake Baltimore's old shopping district. She wonders if other property owners just outside the target area "with dollar signs in their eyes" might force other small businesses to relocate.

Three weeks ago, after much scrambling, Rutledge located that affordable two-floor warehouse space in East Baltimore's Midway neighborhood, just off 25th Street. The larger space will facilitate costume display and creation. Someday, Rutledge hopes, she might even have room enough to hold children's theater events in the new building. But she laments the building's off-the- beaten-track location, industrial setting, and warehouse facade. And she's daunted by all that she has to do between now and Nov. 15, the deadline Chin has given her to vacate.

"I have to prepare to move everything, try to clean the new place, deal with customers, and do my custom costume work," Rutledge says. "And I don't even like to think about the final move. It's just going to be so sad. I have a lot of memories here."

For costume seekers, meanwhile, it's business as usual at 317 Park Ave., for one final Halloween. No sooner does Jay negotiate the rental of the cigarette-girl outfit than a teen ducks his head in the door.

"What do you need?" Jay calls out.

"Do you have a Three Musketeers outfit?" the young man asks.

"Yeah, we got that," Jay booms. "Come on in."

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