Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Marble Bar (1978-1987)

(The following was written for Tim Hinely's "Dagger Boy" magazine.)

Baltimore City Paper writer Michael Yockel described it best: “Dark. Dank. Sweaty. Fetid. Subterranean. A physical eyesore in the basement of a once posh hotel long gone to seed. In other words, the perfect rock venue." He could have been talking about any number of grubby clubs providing refuge for rock and roll misfits and their bands, but he was talking about Baltimore’s answer to CBGBs, The Marble Bar

The Congress Hotel, 306 W. Franklin Street

Buried in the basement of the Congress Hotel (306 W. Franklin Street), a once swank venue that had become a fleabag hotel by the late ‘70s, the Marble Bar became a mecca for punks and New Wavers under the management of Roger and LesLee Anderson from 1978-1985. 

LesLee Anderson behind The Marble Bar (photo by Jim Moon)

“Talk to any Baltimorean who was a punk in the late ’70s and ’80s, and they will wax rhapsodic about the Marble Bar,” Kendall Shaffer and Hope Tarr observed in a May 2022 Baltimore Magazine retrospective. 

What’s in a name? The iconic Marble Bar

"It was a dump, no two ways about it,” Adolf Kowalski (Thee Katatonix) recalled, not quite rhapsodically, in a 2000 City Paper profile ("Glory Hole" by Brennen Jensen, City Paper, December 6, 2000). “In the summer it was blistering hot, in the winter it was freezing cold. It was dark, dingy, and stunk like piss." 

Maybe so, but it was also the only game in town for aspiring local indie bands like Da Moronics, Judie’s Fixation, Thee Katatonix, The Accused, Food For Worms, Infant Lunch and countless others - not to mention nearby DC-based acts like Bad Brains, The Razz, Black Market Baby, Tru Fax & The Insaniacs, Root Boy Slim, The Insect Surfers, Teen Idles and especially The Slickee Boys, who adopted the Marble as a second home. Roger and LesLee Anderson themselves played there with house band The Alcoholics, who were fronted by David Wilcox (aka Steptoe T. Magnificent), a veteran musician (Pooba, Rockhard Peter, Problem Pets, Pang Pang, Chelsea Graveyard) and artist who, along with his brother George, created many of the club’s iconic flyers. Even Baltimore native David Byrne’s Talking Heads played there in their early days. “At that time, the network of clubs where emerging acts could play was spotty and limited,” Byrne told Baltimore Magazine. “We played Marble Bar when Talking Heads just had our first record out [1977], which allowed us to play outside the handful of NYC clubs that had supported us.”

David “Steptoe” Wilcox and LesLee Anderson of the Marble Bar house band, The Alcoholics (photo by Jim Moon)

And it was also a haven for Baltimore weirdos of all stripes, be they from the ‘burbs or creative types from the nearby Maryland Institute of Art.“It was a refuge for a lot of people, and nobody judged you,” Wilcox said in a 2022 interview with Baltimore Magazine. “You knew you were hiding in a safe place to be who you were. If you had a two-foot-high mohawk, nobody was going to bother you, but you walked out onto Eutaw or Howard Street and somebody might hit you in the head with a rock.”

Probably the highest-profile alumni of the Marble Bar scene is Gina Schock, a Dundalk gal who went on to find fame playing drums with The Go-Gos after playing there in Scratch 'n' Sniff and backing John Waters's underground film star Edith Massey in Edie and the Eggs. “It was like the hippest, coolest place,” she fondly recalls. “If you were a musician, that’s where you wanted to go.”

And then there were all the national acts that came to town, from Bauhaus, Black Flag and Butthole Surfers to The Stranglers, The Undertones and X (the latter featuring baltimore native John Doe). Many were standing room only affairs, including Iggy Pop, The Psychedelic Furs, Squeeze, Simple Minds, The Cramps, Dead Boys, 999, The Ventures, A Flock of Seagulls, Johnny Thunders and The Dead Kennedys. Who can forget: Dead Kennedys' singer Jello Biafro almost getting electrocuted when his microphone shorted...Katatonix frontman Adolf Kowalski writing "Huey Lewis SUCKS" on the men's room wall just as Huey Lewis came in to take a leak - and then shaking his hand and giving him a Katatonix button!...Mark “Harpo” Harp (Null Set, Cabal, etc.) shaving his beard onstage with the Casio Cowboys...Rootboy Slim passing out in the dressing room...Judie's Fixation singer Ben Wah (Vaughn Keith) opening beer cans with his teeth...Da Moronics singer Don White banging his mic and ad-libbing "Spinal tap, I got a spinal tap" during technical difficulties...Edie Massey doing her "punk" show with a last-minute pick-up band to open for Eddie & The Hot Rods...Half of the Sex Pistols (Steve Jones and Paul Cook) showing up as The Professionals…A well-medicated Johnny Thunders vocally abusing the crowd throughout a shambolic set until someone plunked him in the head with a beer can and he abruptly pulled his band offstage...The Butthole Surfers taking a dump in the electrical closet and wiping their asses with (local band) Grey March flyers...So many memories of performers there spring to mind, covering all styles and skill levels, from the comedic performance art of Oral Fixation and the Motor Morons to the guitar artistry of Jorma Kaukonen and Chris Spedding…and from  the prog rock stylings of Allan Holdsworth and Pierre Morlen’s Gong to the hardcore thrashings of Fear of God and the Circle Jerks.

Goodbye Marble Bar poster listing all the bands that played there

“The Marble Bar had its own fanzine, Tone Scale, and its own after-hours restaurant, the Renaissance Room,” Michael Yockel wrote in a 1987 City Paper appreciation. ““Both were crummy. Both were cool.” The Marble Bar also played host to open mic nights, jam nights, poetry readings and film screenings like John Ellsberry and Michael Gentile’s Dead Strippers that was shot in Baltimore’s famous red light district, The Block.

When Roger Anderson passed away following a sudden heart attack in 1984, LesLee carried on managing the bar for one more year before calling it a day. She then passed the baton on to others. Ed and Robin Linton ran the Marble for another year until closing the doors for good on May 9, 1987 with a final “Goodbye Marble Bar” gig featuring Da Moronics, Thee Katatonix and Human Remain.

The final show: May 9 1987

Many people lost their marbles at the Marble Bar and the club lost a number of regulars as goodbyes would follow to many who once called it home. Edith Massey died in 1984; Vaughn Keith (Judie’s Fixation) died in 1990; “Stoc Markut “(Scott Marcus, Fear of God) died in 1995; Mark Linthicum (aka “Harpo” and “Mark Harp” of  Null Set/Cabal, Beatoes, Casio Cowboys) died in 2004; City Paper writer and Marble Bar chronicler Pam Purdy died in 2007; Tom “Pope” Croke (Infant Lunch) died in 2012; Chris Dennstaedt (Poverty & Spit, Beatoes, Casio Cowboys) died in 2020; David "Steptoe" Wilcox - who probably fronted more bands at the Marble than anyone - passed away in June 2022; Keith Worz (Iowa Basics) died in October 2022; and Adolf Kowalski (Ross Haupt, Thee Katatonix) died in March 2023.

"The only reason any scene ever happened in Baltimore was because of the Marble Bar,” Wilcox said after the lights went out for good in 1987. It truly was a place and a scene etched in time that may never come again. Or, as Baltimore Magazine’s Kendall Shaffer and Hope Tarr concluded: “It was the coolest place, with the coolest bands, and the coolest vibe—like nothing that came before it or since. Either you were lucky enough to have been there in person, or you missed out—your loss.”

Friday, March 04, 2022

A Stinch In Time Saves Music Minds

How the Stinch Stole Tuesdays on WKHS (90.5 FM)

WKHS volunteer DJ Charlie Stinchcomb

DJ Charlie Stinchcomb owns the airwaves on Tuesday nights when he spins records from 6-10 pm on WKHS (90.5 FM) at Kent County High School ("The Voice of the KCHS Trojans") in Worton, MD. That's when the volunteer jock hosts two must-listen shows dedicated to two very different music genres: Doo-Wop and psychedelic-tinged '60s Garage Rock.

  • "Voices In the Hallway" (Doo-Wop), 6-8 pm
  • "Psyched Out," (Psych-Garage), 8-10 pm

WKHS has been "serving the shore since '74" and Charlie has been spinning old R&B and "Doo-Wop" platters from his personal collection (over 6,000 LPs and 10,000 45s) there since 1992 on shows like "Voices from the Hallway" (originally co-hosted with Bucky Murphy) - not to mention his previous stints hosting "R&B Alley" on WYRE 810 AM and his long-running "oldies" show "The Time Machine" on WNAV 1430 AM in Annapolis. 

Charlie Stinchcomb tunes "The Time Machine" for WNAV 1430 AM

The retired Anne Arundel Health Department worker is one of the many talented volunteer jocks who take over the airwaves at the student-run station on nights and weekends because they not only know "Who put the Bomp in the Bomp" - they love the Bomp! (As well as the lama lama ding dong, the bop shoo bop & the dip da dip da dip!) Or, as Charlie says, "I love the music. You just have to have a passion for the music, and radio. I mean no one's getting rich doing this."

Charlie Stinchcomb in the WKHS studio

(The “music jones” must run in the Stinchcomb family bones, because Charlie’s vinyl junkie brother Bart operates Bart’s Records in Chestertown MD, as well!) 

Every Tuesday starting at 6 pm, Charlie Stinchcomb hosts “Voices in the Hallway," a two-hour block devoted to what is generally called "Doo-Wop" (though purists would probably prefer calling it "Group Vocal" or "Group R&B"), a fascinating genre that existed from the late 1940s up through the early 1960s and featured predominantly Black vocal harmony groups (typically two tenors, a baritone and a bass singer, often with alternating bass and falsetto tenor vocal solos) backed by minimal R&B instrumentation. (In fact, the term "doo-wop" wasn't ever used as a title during the genre's reign, making its first appearance in print in a 1961 review of The Marcels' "Blue Moon" - just as vocal harmony groups died out and groups with guitars took over the airwaves).

Whatever one calls it, the music from this period provided the roots of what would evolve into early Rock & Roll,  Jump Blues, Soul and the "Motown Sound." If you ever listened to Nay Nassar and Kenny Schreiber’s “Echoes of the Past” doo-wop show on WTMD back in the ‘90s (1990-2004), "Voices in the Hallway" is the heir apparent to that legendary show - and that's high praise indeed!

And now, Charlie is hosting the required-listening program "Psyched Out" on WKHS Tuesday nights 8-10 pm, when the "Voices In the Hallway" grab their guitars and head out to the garage. It's one one of the best psychedelic-garage rock shows out there, highlighting the rarest and choicest underground nuggets and psychedelic pebbles from the '60s and early '70s. If you read SHINDIG! or Mike Stax's UGLY THINGS, this is the auricular version of those mags, with vintage playlists Jon Savage and Little Steven would tip their hats (or bandana wraps) to. So chapeaus off to Charlie and his show that'll make ya flip your lid as you turn on and tune in!

Like Robbie White (left) and Weasel (right), Stinchcomb is a tenured professor at the Radio College of Knowledge

I get a musical education every time I tune in to Charlie's shows, for like WTMD 89.7 FM's Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert (host of "Weasel's Wild Weekend" every Friday night 7-10 pm and Saturdays at 12-3 pm) and WOWD 94.3 FM's Robbie White (host of "Forbidden Alliance" every Sunday 9 am-12), his knowledge of his material is second to none. I admit I only have a superficial knowledge of psychedelic and garage rock gleaned from Lenny Kaye's Nuggets and similar compilation series, such as Pebbles and Back From the Grave. But Charlie digs deep into his massive collection, introducing listeners to lesser knowns purveyors of this genre, often creating mini-playlist sets for a featured artist. Case in point, he played five or six songs by The Blue Things on the very first show I heard. 

The Blue Things (RCA Victor, 1966)

The Blue Things, I learned, were a mid-'60s garage-rock band from Hays, Kansas. Originally called The Blue Boys, they changed their name to avoid legal issues with Jim Reeves' backing group of the same name and while Kansas may be flat, their psychedelic-tinged sound was anything but, mixing gritty garage-folk (Dylan's "Girl From the North Country") and freakbeat ("La Do Da Da" - not to be confused with Sting's "De Do Do Do, De Da da Da"!) with Dylan-inspired lyrics and Byrds-influenced guitars on tunes like "You Can Live In Our Tree" and "The Orange Rooftop Of Your Mind." The Blue Things blew my mind and, suffice to say, their lone '66 LP on RCA Victor is well worth seeking out!

Repeat As Necessary: Artist, Song, Label, Year

And, like a seasoned "Oldies" format jock, he always lists the artist, song, label and year released. (e.g., "That was the Pasternak Progress, 'Cotton Soul' on Original Sound, 1967"). I love this because it's short and sweet (a la Sgt. Joe "Just the Facts" Friday) and harkens back to the days when indie and regional labels ruled and singles platters mattered to fans, bands and collectors alike.

The Fallen Angels (Roulette, 1967)

Also, if you call in to the show or contact Charlie on his Facebook page, he will play your requests - though maybe not that minute (it's a lot of work to prepare for a request show, as he well knows from his days hosting the WNAV oldies show) - as I learned when he recently gave me a shout-out on-air and played a four-song set of tunes by The Fallen Angels,  a legendary Washington, D.C.-area band whose eponymous 1967 album can fetch anywhere from $50-$200 these days. I had previously contacted Charlie on Facebook after a patron at my workplace, the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, mentioned that her brother Rich "Spider" Kumer played drums in this band; the minute I mentioned them, he excitedly texted back "Yes, they had a minor hit with "Room At the Top"! I will try to incorporate them into a show." And true to his word, the very next week he not only played "Room At the Top" but also "Your Friends In Dunderville," "I Don't Want To Fall," and "No Way Out." (For more on the Fallen Angels, check out the fanzine Here 'Tis #9.)

Fallen Angels - "Room At the Top"

And the week before Charlie gave a shout-out to my friend Ariel, who had requested songs by Grapefruit, one of the first bands signed to the Beatles' Apple Records label in 1968 and a favorite of both Paul McCartney (who directed the promo film for  their song "Elevator") and John Lennon (who named the band after the art book by Yoko Ono). (Grapefruit's main songwriter was George Alexander - born Alexander Young - who was the brother of Easybeats rhythm guitarist George Young and AC/DC founders Angus Young and Malcolm Young.) Charlie responded with another mini-playlist set featuring not only their minor UK hit "Dear Delilah" (#21 UK charts) but also "Yes," "Elevator" and their Four Seasons' cover "C'mon Marianne." 

By request: A playlist slice of Grapefruit

Grapefruit's "Dear Delilah" single (RCA Victor, 1968)

There's not a whole lot of information about Stinchcomb on the internet, but according to a 2012 Capital Gazette feature about "Record Store Day," Charlie grew up in Annapolis and has been collecting records since he was a kid, buying 45s at the old Homewood Pharmacy (now Pinky's Liquors), the old Sears at Parole, and Cooks in Brooklyn Park. "If you wanted good soul or R&B, you got that stuff at Richman Drugs at the corner of West and West Washington streets," he told the Gazette. Better yet was the Jess Radio shop on Francis Street, where they had listening booths. "You could listen to both sides of the record to see if you liked it. And they were all under a buck."

Radio Free Worton: WKHS 90.5 FM

And what's better than a listening booth to check out music for free? Radio shows like "Voices From the Hallway" and "Psyched Out," every Tuesday night, from 6-10 pm! So tune in and let Charlie turn you on to some great sounds!

Stinchcomb Serendipity:

Charlie's first album purchase: The Buddy Holly Story (Coral, 1959)

Charlie’s all-time favorite vocal group: The Ravens (“They had a great falsetto and a phenomenal bass singer, so they covered both ends of the spectrum.”)

The Ravens: Featuring Jimmy Ricks (uptempo bass) & Maithe Marshall (soaring tenor)

Charlie’s vote for all-time most influential person in history of music: Ray Charles

The Music Man: Ray Charles

Partial "Psyched Out" Playlists:

Charlie doesn't post his playlists, so below are some music highlights (culled from the internet) of some bands played on recent programs.

"Psyched Out" Highlights (3-1-2022)

"Psyched Out" Highlights (2-22-22)

"Psyched Out" Highlights (2-8-22)

Related Links:

"The Faces of Annapolis Radio" (Capital Gazette, Jan. 2016)

A Few Minutes With Charlie Stinchcomb (WNAV News video, Dec. 2017)

"Record Store Day Trumpets Remaining Disc Shops" (Capital Gazette, April 2012)

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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Thee Katatonix: A Long Time Ago


Thee Katatonix - "A Long Time Ago" CD (2022)

I'm enjoying listening to A LONG TIME AGO, the Katatonix CD recorded live (at Cal Ripken Jr's old hangout Club Razzmatazz?) "a long time ago" (1984? 1985?) I just got in the mail from the "born-again" Adolf Kowalski who, according to the Dundalk Eagle, now goes by the name "Reverend Ross" of the Universal Life Church. 

As a bonus, the self-financed release is actually a picture disc, depicting then-bandmates Mr Urbanity (lead guitar & vocals), Big Andy Small (drums), and Rockin St Anthony (the bassist who once cured a ham). (Does the hole in the middle represent the "Big A Hole"? Jes' kidding, Adolf...)

Big Andy, St Anthony and Mr Urbanity are picture-disc perfect

A LONG TIME AGO captures that transitional period between thee original Kats cock-rock thrash-punk output (as first heard on vinyl on the 1983 "Valentine's Day" EP) and the more sophisticated, psychedelic-leaning songwriting of 1984's DIVINE MISSION LP that would soon enough blossom into full-on psychedelia during the mid-80s Paisley Underground revival (viz "Daisy Chain," "Ordinary Sunday," "Crown," "Something For You" et al). 

Divine Mission (UK Spud, 1984)

Whereas the 30th anniversary release THANKS HON (2009) was a 50/50 split between tunes by songwriting guitarists Adolf Kowalski and Mr Urbanity...

Thanks Hon, 30th Anniversary CD (2009)

...this live setlist is still dominated by fearless founding leader Kowalski. Sure, there's Urbanity's "Chain Letter," Not In Love" "and "Formula For Our Happiness" (co-written with Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, no less!) from DIVINE MISSION, as well as the that album's Kowalski-Urbanity co-writes "Maison Le Rock" and "Better Living Through Chemistry," but "Your Mother," "Buy Our Record," the encore "I Got VD Again" (based on a true story?) - all new to these ears! - and "Joie de Vivre" (from the '83 EP) are all (for better or worse!) pure Adolf K. And that's not to mention the half-dozen vintage tunes rescued from the original Tommy Gunn-Katie Katatonic-Adolf K Era (circa '79-'80) and played here by real musicians: "My Son the Gynecologist," "Basket Case," "Fungus," "Valentine's Day," "I Don't Wanna Marry a Dyke," and the heart-of-darkness psychobilly joyride that became the "cleaned-up" "Cindy On I-95." 

Original Kats Trio, circa '79-'80

Admittedly, "(You Grow On Me Like a) Fungus," a 1979 Kowalski-Tommy Gunn original, should be co-credited to Urbanity who pulled it into the garage for a quick remake/remodel and refurbished it as a road-worthy psychedelic trip.

"Recorded Live A Long Time Ago" is Something For You

There are also two cover songs here, Hank Williams' "She Thinks I Still Care" and an encore rendition of the Stones' "Mother's Little Helper" (again foreshadowing the pills-a-go-go psychedelic trip the Kats were about to embark on).

Katatonix created a scandal during their Aug. '80 Scandals appearance

"Vamp" is just a 28-second aside, a shout-out to the night the Tom-Katie-Steevee Squeegee edition Kats (Summer 1980) got banned for "inciting a riot" at the DC dive Scandals (oh well, as the saying goes, when it comes to promoting fact or fiction, print the legend!) All in all, pretty impressive. Or, as an earlier Kowalski title put it, this labor-of-love freebie release truly is "Something For You."

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Friday, June 11, 2021

Remembering the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre


Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre

By Tom Warner

Aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre

May 31, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when an angry white mob looted and burned down the thriving African-American Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing as many as 300 residents. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” injuring over 800 people and leaving 10,000 residents homeless. At the time, the 35-square-block Greenwood District was known as “Black Wall Street,” a vibrant community that had prospered throughout the early 20th century despite rampant discrimination in a highly segregated and hostile environment (the Ku Klux Klan headquarters was located just four blocks away) where Black prosperity made it a threat to white supremacy. Greenwood’s Black entrepreneurs had built and supported two movie theaters, two newspapers, two public schools, 15 grocery and drug stores, 13 churches, a library and several restaurants, funeral parlors, clubs and hotels.

But all of it disappeared after the events of May 31, 1921, when Black teenager Dick Rowland stumbled getting on an elevator at the Drexel Building and grabbed onto the young white elevator operator to steady himself. When operator Sarah Page screamed in response, Rowlands fled. Rumors of what happened on the elevator soon circulated throughout the city’s white community and that afternoon the Tulsa Tribune reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page. As evening fell on May 31, an angry white mob gathered outside the courthouse to demand that Sheriff Willard McCullough hand over Rowland. He refused and his men barricaded the station to protect the teenager. With rumors of a possible lynching spreading, a group of around 75 armed Black men arrived at the courthouse, where then encountered over 1,500 white men, some of whom also carried weapons. Though the Black Tulsans fought hard to protect their homes and businesses, they were outgunned and outnumbered. By the time National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa on the morning of June 1, most of Greenwood had already been burned down.

Dick Rowland was ultimately exonerated, but an all-white grand jury blamed the Black community for the lawlessness and, despite overwhelming evidence, no whites were ever sent to prison for the murders and arson that transpired. Initially called the “Tulsa Race Riot,” historical hindsight has correctly relabeled the outbreak a “massacre.”
In a testament to the spirit of the community, the neighborhood rose from the ashes and by 1936 boasted the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. 

In commemoration of the centennial anniversary of this dark chapter in American history, PBS is rebroadcasting “Goin’ Back To T-Town,” a 1993 episode of its American Experience series about the Tulsa Race Massacre that mixes archival footage with commentary from survivors and historians. If you are unable to tune in or stream this documentary when it airs, you can use your library card to check out Goin’ Back To T-Town from Pratt Library's Best & Next Department’s video collection.

Another documentary available from Pratt Library, director Rachel Lyon’s award-winning Hate Crimes in the Heartland, focuses on two hate crimes set in Tulsa almost 90 years apart - the 1921 Greenwood massacre and the 2012 Good Friday murders - as it examines the racial animosity and inequality that still defines much of modern American society - as the Ferguson, Charleston, Trayvon Martin and George Floyd cases attest. By exploring these events set in a city forever divided, it reveals the dangerous connection between the media, race and social justice.

Hate Crimes in the Heartland (2016)

Want to learn more about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?
Pratt Library has over 20 print books and eBooks on the subject, including a number hand-picked by Pratt’s African-American Department:

If you have a chance, stop by the Af-Am Dept. to check out their Tulsa massacre display; these titles are also available from Pratt's Social Science & History Dept.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Two docs about the real people living in Nomadland


Two docs about the real people living in Nomadland

[This post was originally written for the Enoch Pratt Free Library blog.]

Nomadland swept the Oscars this year, winning awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Chloe Zhao - the first woman of color and of Asian descent and only the second woman ever to win the award) and Best Actress (Frances McDormand). Loosely adapted from journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book - which documented how a devastating global recession transformed old-fashioned “company towns” into ghost towns and created a new class of elderly transient workers - director Chloe Zhao’s film version uses the fictional character “Fern” (Frances McDormand) to represent this real-life diaspora. Shortly after the death of her husband, with whom she lived in the now-shut-down mining town of Empire, NV, Fern loads up a van that is now her home and hits what Robert Frost famously called “the road less traveled,” taking an itinerant journey of healing across the American West. Along the way she encounters many of the real nomads who first appeared in Bruder’s book, here playing themselves. Their appearance is important because, though Fern’s journey is financially-driven, not everybody hits the road for economic reasons. For many, the challenging lifestyle is a choice and their road leads to a place where they can enjoy both solitude and community. Nomadland is currently streaming only on Hulu and Disney+, so unless you have a subscription you’ll just have to wait until the DVD eventually comes out to see it. In the meantime, you can use your Pratt library card to check out two rare documentaries in the Best & Next Department’s video collection (yes, we still have video tapes!), Loners on Wheels and Roam Sweet Home, which complement the subject matter of Nomadland as they chronicle the lives of non-conventional seniors choosing to spend their golden years living on the road. While Zhao’s docudrama utilized the star power of Frances McDormand (and co-star David Straithorn) to tell a compelling story about societal drop-outs surviving economic and emotional hardship, the offbeat characters inhabiting these two small-budget films from the ‘90s are even more fascinating and their personalities and stories will hold your attention every bit as much as Hollywood stars like McDormand and Straithorn.

Loners On Wheels

(Susan E. Morosoli, 1997, 53 minutes)

88-year-old road warrior Duchess Grubb

Loners On Wheels documents the life of Duchess Grubb and her friends in “Loners on Wheels” (LoW),  a national, singles-only recreational vehicle organization offering freedom, friendship and fellowship to older adults who prefer to spend their retirement driving across America instead of sitting quietly in a rocking chair. Crediting the organization with providing an active alternative for people that otherwise would have been “staring stupid at four walls,” Duchess recites a poem celebrating “the friendly hello and the nice smiling faces upon your arrival from faraway places” that characterizes the community. Those faraway places include Joshua Tree, Salvation Mountain at Slab City and other scenic vistas. Along the way viewers are introduced to a trio of singing sisters (identical triplets!) whose side-hustle is stand-up comedy, a man who keeps fit exercising on his home-made trampoline, and plenty of campouts and cookouts - even a roadside birthday party for Duchess! (Also available on YouTube.)

Roam Sweet Home

(Ellen Spiro, 1996, 52 minutes)

Airstream trailers: tin chateaus on wheels

Director Ellen Spiro and her dog Sam hop in a vintage Airstream trailer and follow a group of “Geritol gypsies” - elderly drop-outs who have “side-stepped the system” by pulling out of conventional society and into roadside trailer communities. Along the way she captures the spirit of the roamers and the variety of reasons they abandoned the more traditional models of retirement. They range from a love of travel to the freedom from restrictive relationships. There are still challenges to be overcome living on the road: the owner of a pet chimpanzee recounts how she once snuck her chimp into a roadside diner - only to shock customers who saw a hairy arm emerge from under her blouse to grab some morsels! The film is narrated by Spiro's dog Sam, with the voice provided by renowned Southern novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). Gurganus wrote Sam’s narration, using it to share his perspective on the whims and follies of human nature, as exemplified in this cast of colorful characters. (Also available on YouTube.)

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Meet the New Wave of Charm City Cinema

Meet the New Wave of Charm City Cinema

[This post was originally written for the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s blog.]

The 23rd annual Maryland Film Festival (MFF) took place from May 19-27, with an opening night double-bill, “Balti-Shorts & “Strawberry Mansions,” that showcased the work of young and upcoming local filmmakers. It was part of the festival’s mission to introduce the next generation of homegrown talent while highlighting stories made in and about the city that reflect its “pain, angst, and hopefulness” as it looks towards a brighter future after a year of lockdown and a history of social and racial divisions. Everyone knows Baltimore’s “old guard” directors club of John Waters, Barry Levinson, David Simon and Charles Dutton - but who are the young artists representing the next wave of local filmmaking?

Well, one of them is our very own Gillian Waldo, a Library Associate in the Enoch Pratt Central Library’s Humanities Dept. whose film Diary gets its premier screening May 19 in the Balti-Shorts program. Gillian grew up in Baltimore City and graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in film and museum studies before joining Pratt in 2020. She likes to make what she calls “small films on 16mm.” Diary, shot on 16mm and digitized by Colorlabs in Rockville, documents “a summer without precedent in Baltimore” - the lockdown summer of 2020.


Totally wired: the lockdown summer of 2020

“The pandemic forced us to renegotiate our relationship to the spaces we live in and notice how the city had changed,” says Gillian. “The pools were empty, fireworks were set off every night, people marched in the streets daily. This allowed me to reflect on my relationship to Baltimore and highlight the small beauties present in something as small as car dealership streamers or as large as collective action stopping traffic.”

Gillian Waldo’s “Diary” records the small beauties of a city in lockdown

Diary is a visual tone poem that uses a non-narrative framework - skillfully-framed shots and carefully-selected audio (of protest marches, rally speeches, helicopters, fireworks) - interspersed with title cards representing the director’s “diary” observations. The style is reminiscent of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard, with the reflective pacing of Yasujiro Ozu, but with Gillian’s own distinct voice - one that quietly makes a loud statement about a year unlike any other.

Covid calendar: Does anybody know what day it is?

2020 was a busy summer for Gillian; in between filmmaking and working at Pratt, she found time to co-produce a 24/7 public access-style live-streaming channel, QuaranTV, with Thomas Faison. The channel was created as a way for people in Baltimore to “gather to watch things alone together” in the wake of local theaters closing their doors. As if that wasn’t enough, she also made a music video for Ed Shrader’s Music Beat, the local rock duo of Ed Schrader and Devlin Rice.

D.C.’s Tropea Barber Shop: Home of Straight Edge haircuts

Joining Gillian on the “Balti-Shorts” program was documentarian Joe Tropea, who co-directed the short Fugazi’s Barber - about punk rockers from the bands Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi frequenting an old Italian barber shop in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s - with Robert A. Emmons Jr. The film could easily have been called Ulysses’ Barber, but while Ian Svenonius’ pompadoured Nation of Ulysses had more hair, Ian MacKaye’s Fugazi had more name recognition (unless you were on the staff of Sassy magazine, which adored frontman Svenonius, calling him The Sassiest Boy in America in 1990). Curiously, the owner of the barbershop is named Frank Tropea, but he is unrelated to the co-director. Tropea’s Barber Shop closed its doors in 1997, but not before Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty got his wedding day haircut there - on the house!

Joe Tropea, whose day job is Curator of Films and Photographs at the Maryland Center for History & Culture (formerly the Maryland Historical Society), is no stranger to the MFF, having previously screened Hit & Stay (with co-director Skizz Cyzyk, 2013) and Sickies Making Film with co-writer Emmons, 2018) there. Hit & Stay addressed draft resisters during the Vietnam War, including Baltimore’s famous “Catonsville Nine”; Sickies Making Film looked at the history of Hollywood censorship, with a special focus on John Waters’ one-time nemesis, the Maryland State Censor Board. Both films can be checked out on DVD from the Pratt Library and Sickies Making Film is also available to stream on Kanopy.)

Much closer to home on the opening night shorts program was David Bonnett, Jr.’s The Cal, the Coz and the Streak, which humorously resurrected a notorious internet conspiracy theory linking Baltimore’s “Sacred Cal” of baseball - Cal Ripken, Jr. - with Hollywood womanizer Kevin Costner and a mysterious power outage at Camden Yards in 1997 that kept Ripken’s record consecutive games streak alive. According to the (long debunked) internet conspiracy theory, Junior busted his hand after finding Costner in bed with his wife and punching him just before an August 1997 game against the Seattle Mariners; O’s management then allegedly orchestrated the power outage to keep the streak and the media hype going. For, as the saying goes, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The short was filmed at Brewster’s Tavern on Gough Street near Patterson Park.

MFF’s opening night feature film Strawberry Mansions - the story of a dystopian future where the government records and taxes dreams - isn’t specifically Balto-centric but its director and crew certainly are. Working again with co-director/star Kentucker Audley and featuring a soundtrack by Baltimore electronic maestro Dan Deacon, it is the fourth and most ambitious feature film yet by Gilman grad and former Johns Hopkins University lecturer Albert Birney. Strawberry Mansions finally got its hometown premier after receiving critical acclaim earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Birney’s previous film with Audley, 2017’s Sylvio, is currently available to stream on Kanopy. The story of a mild-mannered Baltimore gorilla who becomes an overnight TV celebrity, Sylvio was named one of the ten-best films of 2017 by New Yorker film critic Richard Brody.


And also returning to this year’s MFF is Theo Anthony, a filmmaker who splits his time between Baltimore and New York. Anthony’s new film All Light, Everywhere is an exploration of “cameras, weapons, policing and justice” in a time of surveillance technology and features a segment on the use of body cams in Baltimore’s police department. And, like Albert Birney's Strawberry Mansions, it features a soundtrack by Dan Deacon. Anthony previously screened Rat Film, an acclaimed experimental documentary about Baltimore’s “3 Rs” (Race, Red lining, Rats) at MFF 2017. Rat Film, which also featured the music of Dan Deacon, is available from Pratt on Kanopy and DVD.

But wait, there’s even more homegrown talent in the Pratt Library's Local Film Collection! Create your own Maryland Film Festival at home by using your library card to watch these “locally-sourced” films about Baltimore people, issues and institutions:

  • Native son and JHU film studies teacher Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill and Take What You Can Carry are available on Kanopy and Sollers Point, I Used To Be Darker, and Putty Hill  are available from Pratt on DVD.

  • MICA grad Lofty Nathan’s 12 O’clock Boys (2013) follows the exploits of a notorious West Baltimore dirt bike pack as seen through the eyes of an impressional adolescent.

  • Park School grad Amanda Lipitz’s Step is the story of three high school students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as they work hard at their studies just as much as their “step team” dance moves.