Olesker takes a heartfelt, but hard look at Baltimore in the ‘fabulous fifties’ - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Olesker takes a heartfelt, but hard look at Baltimore in the ‘fabulous fifties’

Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age. (The Johns Hopkins University Press)

Mention the 1950s and most people think about souped-up Chevys, Doo Wop music or the sage advice Robert Young served at dinner time. Absent are the more glaring images: the rotting slums of a segregated city, the near non-existence in popular culture of anything deemed too ethnic, or the coming collapse of the steel mills and factories which turned out those sporty Impalas.

The fifties were certainly not everything they are currently cracked up to be. But looking back at that era is important to anyone who wants to understand the undercurrents of the societal sea change which would take place in the 1960s and beyond.

Michael Olesker takes just such a look with the eye of a seasoned reporter in his book, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age.” (The Johns Hopkins University Press).

michaeloleskerFor Olesker, the fifties did not end with the exit of Eisenhower but rather with the shots fired one November day in 1963. Using the Kennedy assassination as his starting point, Olesker transports the reader back to the simmering city of his childhood; painting portraits of more than a dozen Baltimoreans who played a significant part in the unfolding history of a nation.

Thurgood Marshall, who went through the segregated schools of Baltimore City, would take the lessons he learned in those schools all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nancy D’Alesandro, who started as a cog in the political wheel of her determined social-minded mother, would someday become the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. And Clarence Mitchell, whose dignity and tireless efforts to attain racial equality would earn him the nick-name, “America’s 101st Senator.”

Olesker also looks at the infamous, like Louis “Boom-Boom” Comi, a small-time crook whose Runyonesque moniker came from the creative mind of a newspaper editor. Comi ran a numbers racket in the days before, “…the State of Maryland (turned) it into a multi-million dollar government enterprise.” Morris Goldseker who, “…capitalized on every white person’s fear of blacks and every black person’s hunger for a better home.” Goldseker became a household name when block-busting and desegregation threw decidedly different cultures together on Fulton Avenue. And of course, no book abut the era would be complete without a chapter about Madalyn Murray – the most hated woman in America.

Some of the stories in “Front Stoops in the Fifties” will likely make the reader wince, like the story of an overzealous police captain named Alexander Emerson who arrested strippers on The Block for wearing flimsy underwear and teens for throwing dice in an alley, while a steady stream of narcotics flowed into the city. Other stories will make readers laugh, like the day John Kennedy called the home of Clarence Mitchell, only to be told by Mitchell’s young son Michael that his father was at work and his mother was in the bathroom.

mikeolesker

Michael Olesker on the streets of Baltimore.

Olesker mined these nuggets and many other gems from countless interviews he conducted while working as a newspaperman – first for the News-American and later for The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Examiner. From the archives he tirelessly gleaned at repositories like the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Olesker also spoke to a virtual who’s-who of Baltimore radio and television legends, including reporter Frank Luber, and disc-jockey’s Jack Edwards and Johnny Dark. Luber vividly recalls the events of that November day in 1963, while Edwards and Dark reminisced about the tension (and release) rock-n-roll created in classrooms, suburban dens and community halls.

Perhaps it is in the music we can see just how far we’ve both progressed and regressed as a nation. It’s hard to imagine anything more universal than the teenaged angst epitomized in a song like Yakety Yak or how a nation that once condemned Elvis Presley for twitching on stage to Hound Dog would condone Miley Cyrus’ twerking on national T.V.

Yakety Yak and Hound Dog were penned by Baltimorean Jerry Leiber and his partner, Mike Stoller. The duo would also compose such classics as There Goes My Baby, Jailhouse Rock, Love Potion Number 9 and Stand by Me. Olesker says Leiber and Stoller were, “the cultural bridge between Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lennon and McCartney” while writing songs you could hear, “clear across the racial divide.” But that’s not surprising once you read that Leiber learned to love the close harmonies of Sonny Til and The Orioles while delivering groceries across the racial divide of Baltimore.

Front Stoops in the Fifties is a fascinating read; one which convincingly makes the case that what was happening in the Baltimore of the 1950s was a microcosm of the shift that was happening all across America. The shocking part is just how relevant these stories remain today.

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Michael Olesker will be reading from his new book, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age, tonight Monday Oct. 21, 2013 at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore Maryland, 21201. The event begins at 6:00 p.m. with a reception and book signing in the board room and a reading at 7:00 p.m. in the Wheeler Auditorium. More information about the event may be found here.


About the author

Anthony C. Hayes

Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at the Washington Herald, and Voice of Baltimore, Tony's poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!, SmartCEO, Magic Octopus Magazine, Destination Maryland, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. Contact the author.
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