Category Archives: Photos

“Top of the World, Ma!”

Laurel Plaza shopping center, at the intersection of Routes 197 and 198, has always had something unique to Laurel at any given time. Zayre (and later, Ames) was the anchoring department store on one end, and Grand Union (and later, Basics) was the grocery store on the other—a space that would later become the longtime home to Village Thrift Store. But, of course, Laurel Plaza was also home to the greatest sporting goods store of all time, Bob Windsor’s All Pro Sports—owned by former San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots star, Bob Windsor.

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© Lost Laurel collection

But Laurel Plaza was also where the Laurel Boys & Girls Club-sponsored traveling carnivals set up when I was a kid; and every year around this time, I think back to them fondly.

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Laurel Plaza carnival, May 1987. (Photo © Richard Friend)

Operated by Winchester Amusement Company, you didn’t have to be a certified safety inspector to tell that the rides weren’t exactly in optimal condition. Disney World, this most certainly wasn’t. And you could also count on some kind of trouble brewing at some point during the two-week run—usually a drunken scuffle or three after an argument over the (very-possibly-rigged) games of chance.

But the rides were true carnival classics: the Scrambler, the Trabant, and the Scat (among others) were there year after year. The crown jewel, however—the one that literally first caught your eye and immediately registered “carnival”—was the Ferris Wheel.

And Winchester Amusement Company had one of the biggest Ferris Wheels—a 50-footer. Anyone approaching Laurel Plaza simply couldn’t miss it.

Thirty years ago this week, (on May 14th, 1987, to be exact) I got to experience that 50-foot Ferris Wheel from a very unique perspective:

I got stuck at the top, and had to climb down via the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s 100-foot ladder truck.

I literally remember it like it was yesterday, but my memory is surely aided by these photos that I took the day after the fateful ride.

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The infamous Ferris Wheel at Laurel Plaza, the day after the incident. (Photo © Richard Friend)

I’ve never been a particular fan of Ferris Wheels, mind you; I’m more of a roller coaster guy. But I’d had it in my mind to try out every ride the carnival had to offer. Ferris Wheels always struck me as incredibly boring; but as luck would have it, this one quickly turned into what was arguably the most exciting ride in the history of the Laurel carnival.

It was around 8PM that night when I boarded the Ferris Wheel—the ride only about three quarters full with nine people, total. It made exactly one full rotation, and as I passed the motor at the base of the ride, I flinched as a large cable literally snapped off the drive wheel system. Seconds later, as my car ascended to the top, the entire Ferris Wheel shimmied side to side briefly—that’s when everyone realized that something had gone wrong. For a split second, I thought it was going to collapse. That, or we were literally going to start rolling down Route 198.

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The broken cable the day after the incident. Photo © Richard Friend

Instead, we heard what sounded like a generator cutting off, and the wheel simply ground to a stop—with my car literally stuck at the very top.

I remember seeing the Ferris Wheel operator frantically trying to figure out what to do; and when his best option was evidently to try to manually rotate the giant wheel—with his bare hands—I knew this was serious.

With curious onlookers beginning to congregate, carnival employees shouted up to us that they would have us down safely soon; but at least an hour went by before we finally saw salvation…in the form of fire trucks.

A pair of firefighters climbed the 100-foot ladder to my car, and spent a few moments securing the car to their ladder. I was told to hold onto the back of the car I was sitting in, because the second I started moving, it would swing forward. Sure enough, I found myself looking straight down at the asphalt parking lot for a few unnerving seconds. But I was safely harnessed to the firefighter, who assured me that if I fell, he would fall, too—and that he wasn’t planning to fall.

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The safety bar on Car #9, still open the day after I’d climbed out from the top of the Ferris Wheel. (Photo © Richard Friend)

He instructed me to carefully step out of the car, and to throw my legs over the top of the Ferris Wheel, one at a time. Literally, over the top of the Ferris Wheel, and onto the ladder. I did that, and we slowly descended together. As we did, I confided to him, “this is a lot more fun than the Ferris Wheel.”

I’d just gotten safely to the ground when a man whom I assume was the owner/manager of the carnival approached me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he looked exactly like the guy from “The Blues Brothers” who owned Bob’s Country Bunker.

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Bob, owner of Bob’s Country Bunker. (“The Blues Brothers,” 1980).

He was smiling jovially as he handed me a small cup of Pepsi. “Are ‘ya thirsty? Here, have a soda!” And then he handed me the real reward for my experience: a pair of complimentary ticket books. They included 12 tickets for free rides. I still have the covers in my collection:

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I went straight home after that, and found my mom furious that I was over an hour and a half late. Not only that, she didn’t believe my story of being stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel—even when I showed her the ticket books I’d received. It actually wasn’t until the following Thursday, when the Laurel Leader reported the incident, that she realized I’d been telling the truth!

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To my knowledge, no charges or lawsuits were ever filed, as no one was injured. I went back to the carnival in the days afterward and used my free tickets—even riding the Ferris Wheel again once it was operational. Although, that was the last Ferris Wheel ride I’ve ever taken.

I’ve tried to find out whatever became of the Winchester Amusement Company, which (not surprisingly) seems to be out of business. I’d heard that the Laurel Boys & Girls Club, concerned with their quality control, eventually replaced them with another carnival operator in the 1990s. And in 1998, there was an incident in Hagerstown where a teenager was seriously injured after being ejected from one of the rides operated by Winchester Amusement. I doubt there were any free ticket books and Pepsis after that one, and it may very well have spelled the end for the longtime carnies.

Nevertheless, I’ll always have the memory of climbing down from the top of that Ferris Wheel at the carnival in Laurel Plaza—which may as well have been the top of the world. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been 30 years. Driving past the shopping center today, the parking lot is still teeming with activity; but nothing like the night of May 14, 1987.

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Main Street Time Machine

The next time you’re traveling along Main Street, (preferably walking, rather than driving) do yourself a favor and stop in front of Minuteman Press at 335 Main Street. Even if you don’t have anything to be printed, just do some proverbial window shopping—you’ll be in for a historical treat.

A few months ago, owner Bob Mignon expanded his longtime corner business. You might’ve noticed the “Future Home of Minuteman Press” banner… ironically just steps away from what was then the current home.

(Photo: John Mewshaw)

(Photo: John Mewshaw)

Bob didn’t simply move into the larger space next door, he consolidated the building—much as a distant tenant from the early 1920s did, when it was the Ellis Market grocery store.

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Laurel News Leader ad, 1948

Laurel News Leader ad, 1948

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1953)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1953)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1954)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1954)

Being a Laurel history buff himself, (and a tremendous supporter of the Laurel Historical Society) Bob had a unique vision for decorating the expanded storefront windows. He was interested in showcasing historic photos of the town, and worked with Beltsville’s Jay Williams Design Company to create a display that takes the viewer back nearly a century.

(Photo courtesy Greater Beltsville Business Association)

(Photo courtesy Greater Beltsville Business Association)

Included are larger than life images of the Harrison-Beard Building at Montgomery and 9th Streets, Laurel’s train station, (very much relevant, given the current controversy over a new Howard County stop threatening to take its place) St. Philip’s Church, and the electric trolley station at 6th & Main Streets (site of the current Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern—quite the historic little building in its own right.)

But the centerpiece of the design—literally—are the photos and narrative covering the door to the 337 entrance.

Last August, while Bob and Jay were still planning the display, an elderly woman and her family happened to be across the street from Minuteman Press, seemingly admiring the building. Bob went outside to say hello, and found himself meeting 90-year-old Shirley Ellis Siegel, who was visiting with her sons to reminisce about the house she grew up in during the 1920s.

This serendipitous meeting resulted in the photos now featured on the door, which the Ellis family happily shared. The large image showing the market’s interior is used perfectly—it’s as though you’re looking through the door into the building’s past.

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Kudos to Bob Mignon, Jay Williams, and the Ellis family for creating a fantastic visual tribute. It’s a wonderful new way to share the city’s history right there on its most historic street.

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Deerfield Run + Laurel Centre Mall, early 1980s

Recently, one of my dearest friends from elementary school, Sherry (Green) Wetherill, surprised me with a wonderful package in the mail. Inside was a treasure trove of photos dating from 1982–84—our final years as students at Deerfield Run Elementary.

The photos include some shots from a 1982 square-dancing performance the school put on at the center court of Laurel Centre Mall, as well as our 1984 class “graduation” ceremony. Fortunately, I was spared from having to do the square-dancing thing in public. Sherry and some of our classmates made the best of it, however; and thanks to her mom, we’re now seeing some rare color photos of the original center court—which was located just above the rotating carousel shops.

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Sherry wisely opted for a visit to Time-Out Family Amusement Center after the performance. This is only the second photo I’ve ever seen taken inside the popular Laurel arcade, as well as a bonus shot of Teeser’s Palace directly next door—where many an airbrushed t-shirt was sold over the years.

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Note also the original brown marble floor tiles and wooden storefront accents. These would all be replaced in the early 1990s when mall management deemed it “too 70s-looking”.

Other photos in Sherry’s collection date to June 1984, when our 6th grade class graduated from Deerfield Run. The ceremony took place in the school’s cafeteria/auditorium—which (and I’m not kidding) they literally named the “Cafetorium”. I still remember the sign above the double doors.

The program opened with Scott Miller carrying the flag on stage, and that’s me in the blue suit with Justine Kim leading the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily in their proper order; but there’s one I should get out of the way right up front. Remember when I said that I was fortunate to have avoided the whole square-dancing thing at the mall? In hindsight, that probably would’ve been the wiser choice. Yes, that’s me in the center (with the blue striped Nikes)… breakdancing. At least I had the presence of mind to strike a pose that hid my face.

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But in all seriousness, these photos are remarkable in that they provide an almost tangible sense of Deerfield Run at that time. It’s hard to believe this was more than 30 years ago; and the images transport you back there immediately. The earthy colors of the smooth cement walls… the flecks in the tile floors… the texture of the glossy wooden stage.

Without further ado, here are the rest of the photos along with a few general comments.

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The school band gets ready to assemble along the far wall to the left of the stage, as people find their seats. Anyone who ever attended Deerfield Run (or any Prince George’s County Public School in the 1980s, probably) undoubtedly remembers those molded plastic multicolored chairs:

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A couple of these images are bittersweet, because they feature some folks who are sadly no longer here. In this first one, Sherry and Julie Douglass pose for a photo on stage before or after the program, while Lafayette McCray debates photobombing. Lafayette was funny and was one of the most gifted young athletes I’ve seen on any level. Unfortunately, he was murdered shortly after high school in a Largo parking lot.

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Here’s a pair of pics with our beloved 5th & 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hortense Adams (far left). I can just hear her now, asking for a second photo to be taken without her glasses… She’d earned them as a child, avidly reading books in the dark after bedtime. Sadly, Mrs. Adams passed away in August 2013 after a battle with cancer. She was 67.

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I can’t recall why we had Prince George’s County Police officers on hand, but they presented some sort of awards to select students. One of them was the incredibly smart Stan Angus, who’s sitting in the chair on stage in this first photo. Stan lived on Irving Street and rode my school bus.

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Principal Michael J. Lapriola also distributed certificates to the highest achievers in our group, among them Jennifer Jacobs, (partially hidden behind Mr. Lap) Tanika Jolly, Sherry, Wayne Bailey, Justine Kim, and Mona Frastaci. I’m sure Stan Angus got one, too; but I’m not sure what the deal is with him still sitting in that chair on stage…

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The school’s band performed on the far end of the cafetorium, just in front of the “in” and “out” doors where hot lunches were served. I don’t recall the band teacher’s name, (and I regret not learning to play an instrument back then) but I recognize a few faces. Directly to his right is Tanika, Melissa Woody, Scott Miller, and Sherry waiting for her violin solo:

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There were a few solo performances, including Sherry on violin. I see Ms. Littleford, our music teacher, standing near the doorway. Stan, meanwhile, is still sitting on stage…

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This was an all-girls’ dance number, apparently. I only recognize Julie Douglass, who grew up in my Steward Manor neighborhood:

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This, I’m guessing, was a chorus performance. Jason Brockenberry, with the white shirt & black tie in the back row, was one of my best friends at the school—and the first to introduce me to the fantastic Choose Your Own Adventure books. (House of Danger, the first one I ever read, is still my favorite.) But I digress.

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Jennifer Jacobs and Wayne Bailey, both of whom were exceptional students, spoke at the podium:

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Okay, seeing Stan and Mona both sitting on the stage makes a bit more sense to me now. I’m pretty sure they were the Master and Mistress of Ceremonies, respectively. (I was seriously starting to worry that Stan might still be inexplicably sitting up on that stage, 31 years after the program ended…)

These next two photos are a bit dark, and appear to be from a different assembly (note the “Follow Your Dream” theme in the background. Our graduation theme was “Up, Up, and Away to New Horizons.”) I’m not entirely sure, but the blonde kid in the white t-shirt just below the word “YOUR” might be me:

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Likewise, Sherry’s wearing a different outfit here—and that blue wall looks like the Deerfield gym rather than the cafetorium:

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Speaking of different outfits… (and gym) she included this photo from the following year—when we all had to wear these blue & gold gym uniforms at Eisenhower Middle School. Or, as her Post-It Note puts it, the “Dreaded EMS gym attire.”

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By the way, Sherry’s handwriting is exactly the same as it was in elementary school, when she constantly won penmanship awards.

Last but certainly not least, this was the rising 6th grade class—who were apparently forced to sing a “farewell” song for us. I recognize James McNeirney on the far left and Mike McNeal on the far right; and Chad Caffas in the back row near the center. And of course, Kevin Buter in the red shirt.

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I can remember drinking chocolate milk out of those little paper containers at lunch with Kevin and several of the kids in these photos in this very room, (sorry—”cafetorium”) and I have to say, it warms my heart to know that I’m still in touch with so many of them today. In fact, I’m looking forward to having a few drinks with some of them next weekend. Hmm… Maybe I’ll bring some of those little chocolate milk containers for old times’ sake.

My thanks again to Sherry for sharing these wonderful photos, and for allowing me to post them here. Hopefully some of our other classmates will recognize themselves, and experience the same amazing flashbacks.

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Racing… to close Laurel Railroad Station?

There’s a rather unlikely story in the local news this week—a head-scratcher, really. It concerns two of Laurel’s historic landmarks, and how they’re supposedly at odds all of a sudden. I’m speaking of Laurel Park Racecourse and the Laurel Railroad Station.

I’ll get right into it: Laurel Park, which after decades of hard times is finally seeking to turn the corner with an ambitious plan to build “a transit-oriented development with retail and residential space near the racetrack,” has requested the state Department of Transportation open a commuter train stop in Laurel closer to the track.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Because that would just be too easy, state Department of Transportation officials have said that it is unlikely the state will consider a “dual stop” at both the Laurel MARC station and the racetrack. A train platform is already at the racetrack, mind you, but is listed as a flag stop (where trains will only stop when there’s a specific request) on the MARC Camden line schedule.

So, here comes the head-scratcher: the idea being proposed is that the DoT would close the Laurel Station—which is on the National Register of Historic Places—in favor of building a new stop at the racetrack, a mere 2,500 feet away. Where, again, there is already a train platform in place. I’m not sure there’s a more polite way to put this, so I’ll just ask: Are you f***ing kidding me?

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge supporter of both places. More than anything, I’d love to see a resurgence of horse racing in Laurel, and have Laurel Park once again become the premier venue that it can be. But certainly not at the expense of endangering what might be the town’s most recognizable landmark—a landmark that, frankly, has been more functional than the track itself in recent years.

Granted, I can’t see anyone in their right mind coming out and proposing that the old train station be demolished—to my knowledge, nothing like that has been discussed. But what would happen if/when the historic station ceases to be an active stop on the MARC line? We already know how vulnerable the city’s old buildings tend to be, especially when they’re vacant.

Lest anyone forget, Laurel came dangerously close to losing the station to fire in January 1992. John Mewshaw recently shared these photos with me—sobering reminders, all:

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

With the expectation that cooler, more rational heads will ultimately prevail in this, let’s look at some more reasonable options.

First, there’s the basic issue of supply and demand. If enough people genuinely start taking the train to the races again, as they did back in the early-to-mid-20th century, there’s no reason why the Department of Transportation shouldn’t reinstate Laurel Park as an active stop on the MARC line. But even then, closing the town’s historic station wouldn’t make sense, logistically, especially as it relates to everyday commuters with no interest in visiting the race track.

The current station sits in the heart of Laurel at the base of Main Street and provides easy access. From a marketing standpoint, its historic qualities also benefit the commuter rail industry—the classic, Queen Anne styling of the station literally makes you want to take the train… in a way that a new, more modern facility probably wouldn’t.

And marketing is something that Laurel Park obviously needs to do a better job of, too, if it hopes to reinvigorate the track to the point of needing an exclusive train stop to accommodate the masses. For the record, I’m not a fan of their newest logo:

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As a graphic designer myself, I have serious doubts that it was created by a professional. It’s poorly executed for a number of reasons, but I digress. Their logo problems aren’t the main concern here.

But what they should be focusing on—instead of this new train station folly—are unique ways to maximize their exposure (regardless of that hideous logo). And ironically, the old train station is a perfect opportunity for them. I’m just going to offer this up, so Laurel Park Powers That Be, do with it as you please:

Imagine seeing a row of shuttle buses lined up as you get off the train… buses that are whimsically adorned with thoroughbred horse artwork (or, to go even further, imagine the entire bus being decorated to look like a race horse itself…) A row of buses, each designed as an individual race horse, complete with saddle cloth number…

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Much like the old train station invites you to ride the rails, wouldn’t that pique your interest in going to the race track? And imagine the exposure the buses themselves would get just being spotted going back and forth on Route 1—especially when two or three at a time are “racing” there. (Not to encourage gambling, but you could even place bets on which “horse bus” arrives first…)

Keep in mind, I did this in about half an hour. Imagine what could be done with proper time and exploration. (And I’d be more than happy to design it for you, Laurel Park. I assure you, it’d be cheaper than a new train station, too.)

And from a practical standpoint, (e.g. the number of people actually going to the race track from the train station) wouldn’t shuttle buses also just make more sense? At least until Laurel Park starts generating the types of crowds that might require more drastic measures?

For the record, I do hope those crowds eventually return, but only after the race track (and the city) has solid plans in place to accommodate them. First, they need a plan to actually draw them. To paraphrase the Field of Dreams mantra, “Build it, and they will come.”

Source:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-marc-station-moves-20150616-story.html
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The Year of Tastee-Freez

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The Nickell family celebrating 25 years of Tastee-Freez ownership in 1999. (Laurel Leader photo by Jason Lee, 8/5/99)

It was 1974 when James Nickell took over the Tastee-Freez from its original owners, Mr. & Mrs. James DeLorenzo—who’d opened the franchise in what had previously been Laurel’s first McDonald’s.

So, it’s fitting that the first and only Tastee-Freez/Big T calendar I’ve come across would be from that very year. Here it is, scanned in its entirety.

tastee-freez-calendar-front       tastee-freez-calendar-jan tastee-freez-calendar-feb-martastee-freez-calendar-apr-maytastee-freez-calendar-jun-julytastee-freez-calendar-aug-septastee-freez-calendar-oct-novtastee-freez-calendar-dec-couponstastee-freez-calendar-back

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Lost Laurel TV: Laurel Shopping Center, Part 1

The latest episode of Lost Laurel on Laurel TV has aired, and is available on their YouTube channel. They’ve given me an HD version to post for my own archive, which is great, since the video includes some fantastic vintage photos!

This is the first of a two-part series on the history of Laurel Shopping Center, which focuses on the 1956 grand opening—including an itinerary of the “Fifteen Fabulous Days” celebration, the incredible promotions created by owners Melvin & Wolford Berman and Arthur Robinson, and an interview with Bart Scardina, Jr., whose father opened Bart’s Barber Shop as one of the original tenants. Of those original businesses, only Bart’s and Giant Food remain open today.

Part 2 will cover the 1966 expansion of the shopping center, the 1971 addition of Georgetown Alley, and the 1979 arrival of Laurel Centre Mall. We’ll also look at Laurel Shopping Center’s day of infamy—the 1972 assassination attempt of Governor George Wallace. We’ll be filming that in the coming weeks.

As always, a special thanks to Laurel Leader “History Matters” columnist Kevin Leonard for his segment, and to Denny Berman and Bart Scardina, Jr. for taking the time to share their memories.

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Lost Laurel Photo Contest!

1952 LAUREL NEWS AGENCY-LLBOOK

Want to win a free copy of Lost Laurel, the book?
Between now and November 30th, post a photo on the Lost Laurel Facebook page that creatively incorporates the Lost Laurel book. How you do that is entirely up to you, but have fun with it!
  • Perhaps it’s a selfie with your book somewhere in Laurel…
  • Or pose the book on its own in a legendary Laurel location…
  • Or surround it with vintage Laurel artifacts from your collection…
  • Or you can even use a little Photoshop magic like I did to send the book back in time. (See? it would’ve been right at home at Keller’s Laurel News Agency on Main Street in 1952!)

Enter as many as you like, just remember to use the hashtag #LostLaurelBook so your photos will be searchable on Facebook. (Or if you don’t have Facebook, you can email them to richard_friend@mac.com). I’ll select a winner on December 1st, and will mail you a free, signed copy of Lost Laurel, the book. It’ll make an awesome Christmas gift. 🙂

What’s that? You don’t already have the book? You can still get one at the Laurel Museum, or through their website—then get creative with your photo skills before 11/30 and win an extra copy!

Good luck, and I look forward to seeing what you come up with!
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Endangered Main Street: Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s

The old red building at 312 Main Street has sat empty and derelict for a few years now, and according to the City of Laurel—its new owners—it’s too far gone to be salvaged.

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(Photos: Richard Friend)

(Photos: Richard Friend)

After no other buyers came forward, The city bought the building for $250,000 and plans to demolish it and resell the property. According to multiple sources, the interior has a festering mold problem that’s at least as problematic as its many structural issues, and would require in excess of $2 million to save it. And given its recent history, there’s little hope of resurrecting it. The multiple comedy clubs that inhabited it since the Petrucci family sold its popular Dinner Theatre in 1992 never lived up to expectations, despite drawing some high-profile names in the early years—including Dave Chappelle and Richard Jeni.

Before I get into that, though, let’s take a look at the deeper history of this Main Street landmark.

Laurel Theatre, 1938

A postcard image from 1938. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

To date, these are the earliest photos I’ve come across. The Leader article mentioned that it had been built in 1935, but the 1934 film named on the marquee (You Belong to Me) disproves that:

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

In fact, according to the Laurel, Maryland Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet, the Laurel Theatre opened on October 16, 1929 under Sidney B. Lust, and was built by C. Ernest Nichols. The first film shown was Noah’s Ark. It briefly closed in 1948 to undergo a renovation, at which point it reopened with The Mating of Millie. (Box Office magazine, September 4, 1948).

This 1962 Laurel Leader photo literally shows ’em lined up around the block. (Notice, too, that there was a High’s Dairy where Pal Jack’s Pizza would soon be!)

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I’ve collected a few later (but still pretty darn early) programs from the theater, as has the Laurel Historical Society and collectors Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes. Here are a few:

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

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Program from 1939. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Program from 1941. (Lost Laurel collection)

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1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

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Programs from 1959–61. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Here, too, is an assortment of Laurel Leader newspaper ads through the years:

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And a poster:

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

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The theater was Laurel’s first and only movie house until the summer of 1966, when both Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In and Laurel Cinema opened at Laurel Shopping Center. The newer venues (and a minor fire in 1975) took their toll; and in 1976, the iconic Main Street theater called it quits.

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(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

“Closed Forever” was a bold statement, and one that fortunately ended up not being entirely accurate.

That same year, Carlo Petrucci—who’d already bought the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza at 310 Main Street back in 1970—purchased the building. The sale was noted in the April 26, 1976 issue of Box Office magazine:

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The Petrucci family made a valiant attempt to keep the theater going, and did reopen it with the blockbuster Jaws. They announced it with this personalized ad in the Laurel Leader:

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But the family had more ambitious plans for the building, and in the spring of 1977 came the arrival of Petrucci’s restaurant.

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In less than a year, Petrucci’s was already experimenting with the idea of a full-fledged dinner theater—a concept never before tried in the area. And by the early 1980s, Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre was one of the indisputable highlights of Main Street.

(Laurel Leader ad)

(Laurel Leader ad)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

But even for the successful Petrucci family, the good times only lasted for about 15 years. Shortly after closing, this quote appeared in the July 25, 1992 Washington Post:

“We realized that to stay open through the summer would have been an exercise in futility,” explains David Petrucci, the sole member of this family-owned operation who has not yet given up on the business.

Thus began the series of hybrid comedy clubs, including Art’s, the Comedy Connection, the Laurel Cinema Cafe, and most recently, The Jokes on Us (aptly named, perhaps).

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Comedy Connection payment folder, c.1990s. (Lost Laurel collection)

There’s a stunning series of photos on Flickr that show the interior of the building in 2011. While the photographer has given it a different name, this is definitely the interior of 312 Main Street. (It may have been an urban exploration shoot—at any rate, the shots are eerily fantastic).

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

So that brings us to today, where the old building stands—but likely for not much longer.

There’s already been some discussion on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, as well as other local social media sites about the future of the old theater. Complicating the matter is the fact that it sits right in the heart of the city’s own designated “Arts District”—which took another blow in 2012 with the closing of the Laurel Art Center (another building that remains vacant as of this writing).

Many have called upon the Laurel Historical Society to intervene and protect the building, and discussions are underway about possible options other than the inevitable empty lot if it is indeed demolished.

I’ve mentioned that it’s not at all uncommon in cases like this to salvage the façade of the building—just the recognizable front of it—restore it and incorporate that into a brand new, mixed-use building that pays homage to the past. But truth be told, the façade of the old Laurel Theatre was never particularly remarkable, unfortunately, despite its great sentimental value. This would also place significant limits on whatever is constructed behind it.

I have a better idea, albeit probably a farfetched one. Imagine for a moment that it was possible to completely rebuild the Laurel Theatre, just as it was when it first opened in 1929. Now, imagine if it was possible for the city to do it without incurring any cost to itself. (I told you it was farfetched, but bear with me…)

I see this as a chance for the city of Laurel to up their game and create something truly special; and if done properly, I think there’s actually a very good chance that people would help. Lots of people—and not just from Laurel.

They could create an online fundraiser via Kickstarter and/or Indiegogo, where they present the opportunity to not only save the town’s original theater, but to create a genuine, functional showpiece in the heart of the Arts District: a completely rebuilt Laurel Theatre in the 1929 style, but with modern amenities—which could also serve as a type of cultural center for any number of events. Frankly, I can’t think of a more effective way to revitalize Main Street as a whole.

Since it wouldn’t be a privately owned venture, something like this could also likely qualify for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, or similar organizations.

Clearly, the city doesn’t have $2 million to spend on remodeling the theater—even if they wanted to. The $250,000 purchase was an investment toward something—anything–other than the decaying structure that’s been sitting dormant all this time. But if they at least explored the possibility that a national/international fundraiser (plus grants) could actually yield a significant amount of money to do something really special, that’s worth talking about.

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at a more famous (or should I say, infamous) theater: Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

When you visit Ford’s Theatre today, you probably assume it’s maintained its original appearance all these years, right? Not at all. With the exception of its outside walls, the entire theater is a complete reconstruction.

After the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, the building understandably closed as a functioning theater. The government purchased it from John T. Ford, and promptly converted it into a three-story office building for the War Department, primarily. In 1893, the unthinkable happened: another tragedy. Load-bearing beams in the basement gave way under the excess weight, causing sections of all three floors above to completely collapse. In what must have been a horrific moment, 22 government employees were killed and at least another 65 were seriously injured.

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(Photo: NPS)

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(Photo: NPS)

The building languished until the 1930s, when it was briefly used as a warehouse for the Department of the Interior before being turned over to the National Park Service as “The Lincoln Museum”—where only the first floor was open to the public. Then, in the 1950s, Congress approved a bill that would fund a complete restoration of Ford’s Theatre to its 1865 appearance. And in 1968, the famous theater opened once again as a historic landmark. These dramatic photos (found on the blog, BoothieBarn) show just how gutted it actually was.

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Granted, I’m not suggesting that the old Laurel Theatre is on par with a national treasure; but I wanted to show that it’s entirely possible to gut the interior of a historic building—or level it completely, if need be—and rebuild it to its original specifications. That’s something that should indeed be considered by the city of Laurel before deciding to sell the property—particularly if they can receive funds to do so.

On the much smaller end of the spectrum, take a look at some of the “save our theater” campaigns that actually are on Kickstarter at the moment. I recently pitched in for one near me in Fairfax, VA. The University Mall Theatres is in dire need of new seats, and has raised over $111,000 in a matter of days with their grassroots campaign. That’s a private business, too—the city of Laurel stands to qualify for considerably more if it goes the non-profit route. And as far as non-profit models go, there’s none better than Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre.

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

It, too, was dangerously close to meeting the wrecking ball when both citizens and politicians stepped in and capitalized on the opportunity to create something remarkable. The non-profit theater and cultural center now hosts films, film festivals, musical events, and much more. It’s also available for private rentals, further increasing its revenue.

The dedication plaque that hangs in the lobby of the AFI Silver says it all—and could easily be applied to Laurel if you think about the similarities:

THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF
THE SILVER SPRING COMMUNITY, INCLUDING
ITS ELECTED OFFICIALS AND APPOINTED LEADERS,
THE PAST HAS BEEN PRESERVED FOR THE BENEFIT
OF THE FUTURE. AS A CORNERSTONE OF
A REVITALIZED DOWNTOWN, THE AFI SILVER
IS A CENTER OF CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL
EXPLORATION, UNITING THOSE WHO VISIT
THROUGH THE POWER OF THE MOVING IMAGE
 
APRIL 4, 2003
 
DOUGLAS M. DUNCAN
MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXECUTIVE
 
JEAN PICKER FIRSTENBERG
DIRECTOR AND CEO, AFI

***

So, the city of Laurel now owns the building at 312 Main Street, and has a very big decision to make in the coming weeks. Much like the doomed Laurel Centre Mall, anything they do with it will likely be an improvement over the past decade. But I hope the city planners will at least take a very careful look at this opportunity before selling the property outright. The elusive key to revitalizing Main Street and creating a legitimate Arts District centerpiece may actually be sitting in their hands as we speak.

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Matchbook, c.1950s. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Laurel’s Link to Sports (Collectors) History

When I was about 11 years old, I started collecting baseball and football cards. As a sports fan, the early 1980s was an exciting time to be living in Laurel, Maryland—literally midway between the 1982 Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins and the 1983 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles.

It was around that time that Mike McNeal, one of my best friends in the neighborhood, gave me something that upped the ante: a handful of plastic protector sheets for my collection. He’d found them at a place called “Den’s Collectors Den”, which was tucked away in the Laureldale Business Center off Rt. 198 in Maryland City, just behind what was then the Toyota dealership on Laureldale Drive. How he ever found it, I still don’t know; but one day, his mom drove us both there to stock up.

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These plastic sheets are common today, and come in more shapes and sizes than ever—in fact, I use Ultra Pro Platinum sheets for the bulk of my Lost Laurel stuff: 8″ x 10″ photos, matchbook covers, 4″ x 6″ postcards… and, of course, Bob Windsor football cards.

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But those early sheets from Den’s Collectors Den are even more special today—the name and Laurel address were embossed right into the plastic!

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Admittedly, I was never what you’d call a serious collector. I liked finding cards of my favorite players, and trading with friends; and to some degree, the design of those old cards might have even played a small part with me eventually becoming a graphic designer. But at the time, the concept of “value” never really entered my mind. I knew that older cards were certainly worth more, but that was about the extent of it. Of course, now I cringe at the memory of the countless rookie cards I let slip through my fingers… Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson… Joe Montana and John Elway… *sigh* But I digress.

No, back then it was all for fun—as it should be. And part of the fun was discovering the tools of the collecting trade itself, and there was no better guide to such things than a catalog from Den’s Collectors Den.

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Absolutely stuffed with products and information, the catalogs themselves were something to behold. More than anything, Den’s promoted an array of baseball card pricing guides—which were updated every year to give collectors (even amateurs like me) a guideline for card values. It was an added thrill to look up a particular card in your collection, and find that it was more valuable than others. In my case, this usually meant a difference of about 40¢. But again, I digress.

1984 Street and Smith Dens Ad

These price guides also included a “condition guide”, which showed you the basics for grading cards—everything from “mint condition” to “poor”.

card condition guide

What I didn’t realize at the time (and, in fact, only recently learned) was that the whole concept of sports card pricing guides essentially began with Den’s Collectors Den—specifically, the owner, Dennis “Denny” Eckes.

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Dennis W. Eckes, 1983 (Photo: The Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide Number 5)

Denny had produced a rudimentary handbook between 1975 and 1978, called “The Sport Americana Checklist”—a nearly 100-page, saddle-stitched black and white booklet that was a mishmash of typeset lists, thumbnail images to represent each card type, and numerous late additions clearly made with a common typewriter. It was exactly what the title claimed—a basic checklist of every baseball card issued since 1948, and some generalized pricing information added to the backmatter. But in this completely uncredited book was the basic formula for what would become the modern sports card price guide.

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The 1975 checklist booklet.

Sport Americana 1st checklist

Detail from the 1975 booklet. Hmm… I should check into whether or not I’m related to #392 Bob Friend.

 

Scan 218 Den's ad, 1978 checklist back

Everything changed the very next year, when Denny teamed up with a statistician and fellow collector named Dr. James Beckett. Yes, that Dr. James Beckett—the one who would eventually launch Beckett Media, the world’s preeminent authority on collecting. In 1979, they produced what is today universally acknowledged as the first price guide of its kind. And as you can see on the title page, it was published and distributed by Den’s Collectors Den of Laurel, Maryland.

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Due to demand, there were actually two versions of the first Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide in 1979. And when I say “in demand”, I mean it—kids and adults alike clamored for the book, and most weren’t exactly gentle with it in their haste to discover the value of the hidden gems in their collection:

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Someone was determined to hold this copy together by any means necessary. (Photo: eBay)

The edition with the white cover was the original, and is the Holy Grail of price guides if there ever was one. But shortly thereafter, an alternate cover was designed that included the “Baseball Card” logo in a custom typeface—this would appear on all subsequent issues under the Sport Americana banner. And on the back cover of both was a full-page, full-color ad for Den’s Collectors Den.

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Inside cover & title page of the updated version, which included author bios.

Eckes and Beckett didn’t stop there. Throughout the early 1980s, they expanded the Sport Americana brand with additional books, including the Alphabetical Baseball Card Checklist (1979) and the Baseball Memorabilia and Autograph Price Guide (1982).

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sport-americana-baseball-memorabilia-no1-cover

All the while, Den’s Collectors Den—the physical store in Laurel—continued its success. The price guides, plastic protector sheets, and other goodies were hot sellers.

Always the collector, Denny traveled the country, participating in the fledgling sports card trading show circuit—which itself is a massive industry today. In his dealings, he’d frequently unearth rare items which he’d typically manage to share with the collecting community in some shape or form. A perfect example was his discovery of previously unpublished artwork that matched the 1934-36 series of the National Chicle Company’s popular Diamond Stars set. A blank-backed proof sheet of 12 additional cards was determined to be the series’ 1937 extension that never was; and Denny ultimately had the proof reproduced and the cards brought to life in 1981. He even reinterpreted the classic wrapper itself, which bears his company’s name and Laurel address.

DIAMOND STARS WITH WRAPPER 1981

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For $3, you could buy a professionally-printed set of 12 cards that completed a legendary collection that had been cut short some 45 years earlier.

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This type of “reprint” was extremely rare at the time, and it inspired Denny to create yet another niche in the market. Den’s Collectors Den also carried similar extension sets and reprints produced by other manufacturers, such as the 1952 Bowman set by TCMA.

Den's 1952 Bowman Extension ad

I’ve heard from a number of collectors and hobbyists who knew Denny Eckes personally, and I’ve never heard a negative thing about the man. Naturally, I was curious as to what became of him, as there seemed to be very little information beyond the final books he produced in 1990—expanding into football and basketball price guides, as well as a book of baseball players’ agents’ mailing addresses for autograph hunters.

Unfortunately, I found the answer in the June 1991 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, one of the many expanded publishing efforts that James Beckett had taken on after his early success with Denny and Sport Americana. Filling the first page of that issue is a moving tribute—a eulogy to Dennis W. Eckes, who’d passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on April 15, 1991. He was only 48. The eulogy was written by Dr. Beckett himself, and paints a glowing portrait of a true visionary whose influence is still being felt in what has become a bigger business than ever before.

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Denny Eckes, who ran the inconspicuous little sports memorabilia shop in a Laurel industrial park, made quite a splash in his short lifetime. My only personal experience with him was some 30 years ago—as a kid at his glass display counter, eager to plop down my meager allowance at 25¢ per plastic sheet for my football cards. But the products he sold and the pastime he promoted have certainly stuck with me all these years, and I’m grateful to finally know and share a bit more about his legacy. Hopefully, someone who knows his story better than I do will be able to help shed even more light on this remarkable man.

 

dens-store-ad

 

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Meeting Bob Windsor… Again!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of learning something new on my own Lost Laurel Facebook page. Reader John Mewshaw posted a link to a sports memorabilia event being held at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Listed there, at the very bottom of the page (by Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods—he of the famous “Ickey Shuffle”) was none other than Bob Windsor—the former NFL tight end who owned the wonderful Bob Windsor’s All-Pro Sports at Laurel Plaza Shopping Center throughout the 1970s and 80s. Bob was going to be there signing autographs the very next morning!

CSA Chantilly Show, Bob Windsor

It just so happens that today, I live only a few miles from the Dulles Expo Center; and I hadn’t seen Bob Windsor since I was a kid in his store nearly 30 years ago—when I would look forward to getting an autographed 8″ x 10″ with every purchase.

Bob Windsor 1980s autographed photo

A well-worn memento from the past, circa 1983

I made the short drive to Chantilly on Saturday morning, April 5th, and found the place packed just as it opened. Even though I knew where Bob’s table would be located, he was easy to spot, chatting with an old-timer from the area. I waited patiently behind the older gentleman, and when it was my turn, I said, (with a straight face) “Hi Bob. I’ve had this coupon for like 30 years, and there doesn’t seem to be an expiration date on it…”

I watched the confusion on his face turn to laughter when I revealed the “coupon” to be an enlarged print of one of his 1980s sneaker trade-in ads. “HOLY COW,” he exclaimed. “I haven’t seen one of those since… I don’t know when!”

Bob Windsor & Richard Friend, 4/5/14

I then revealed what I’d really come to do. I introduced myself, explaining that I’d grown up at Steward Manor Apartments just across the street from his store, and that my friends and I used to practically live there. Now a graphic designer, I’d actually created a book about Laurel’s past businesses—Lost Laurel. I leafed through the book to the 1980s section, and watched Bob’s face light up even more when he spotted pages 158–159:

Lost Laurel book: Bob Windsor

I told him that I wanted to give him the book (and some extra copies for his family) and finally say thank you for the countless good memories he and his store provided, and for all he’s done for Laurel, Maryland through the years. I had the chance to chat with him for a few moments, and he explained the history behind that memorable photo of him:

“We were playing the Giants—that was actually in Yankee Stadium. I had just caught that pass, (from quarterback Jim Plunkett) and was only on my feet for about a second and a half… and then got hit and flipped upside down by a linebacker and a defensive back!”

When I asked if he could remember who the linebacker and defensive back were, Bob laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t want to remember!”

We shook hands again, and Bob asked if I was a Redskins fan. Without getting into my long-winded NFL fan history, (which included a brutal 27 years, rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles throughout some of their lowliest seasons) I simply said yes—I’m finally trying to cheer for my own home team these days. With that, Bob reached into a folder and handed me a signed Sonny Jurgensen photo. (!!!) He then pointed to the sneaker trade-in ad I’d brought, and in a moment that transported me straight back to 1983, he asked, “Want me to sign that for you?”

Yes, indeed I did. 🙂

Bob Windsor's ad, 1986

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