Who are these clowns? And how in heck did they find me here?
Shop Boy was up to his ears in dirt and dust, on an archeological dig at Baltimore’s old Globe Poster Printing Corp. In Mary’s latest installment of “Saving the World One Grimy Corner at a Time,” we were prepping and packing Globe’s collection of amazing old stuff for a move to the Maryland Institute College of Art for its next life as a teaching collection. These were the raw materials used to create not only famed posters to advertise big-name R&B and rock music concerts but also for carnivals, burlesque, Hollywood moving pictures, car racing and, yes, Baltimore drag shows. Though “only” an adjunct professor there, Mary had somehow, um, persuaded the president and provost of MICA to purchase the truly mind-boggling collection. (This will not surprise you if you know Mary, but that’s a story for another day.)
Shop Boy was dragged kicking and screaming into the act. I mean, I was having enough trouble keeping Typecast Press in order. “Are you crazy?” But Mary needed me, so I went on that freezing winter day to Globe’s blustery, unheated Highlandtown headquarters, with a big chip attached firmly to my shoulder. Under the 17 shirts and eight jackets, of course.
While Mary and Globe owner Bob Cicero discussed strategy for keeping the collection safe and together, Shop Boy mostly was left standing around on those Arctic ice floes that were serving as concrete floors. (Did I mention it was cold there? I should.) To keep the circulation going, I began to explore the cavernous place. For years now, most of the action had been on the other side of the plant from the composing room. Globe had been mostly screenprinting plastic “Going Out of Business” signs for others while worrying about its own future. But the composing room was where all that letterpress magic had once happened. Bob’s stories of a buzzing crew creating perhaps 20 unique posters a day there got Shop Boy to thinking of his and Mary’s trippy young days in humming newspaper composing rooms. And as they went off to chat, I tripped again.
It’s tough to describe exactly what Globe’s composing room looked like when we got there. It was just … stacks. And stacks. And dust. And stacks. You stepped over and through openings to get to other openings. Not to criticize, but it had literally been years since a person had stood, or swept, in some of those spots.
And so I found myself on a part of the floor that hadn’t been looked over in a while, at least from this prone angle. I wiped the dust off my shoulder, cursed, then sneezed. Mary called out, “You OK, Shop Boy?” I was fine. I kicked gently at the thing that had brought me down. Just a broken mop handle or something. But what was that next to it? I’d dislodged an old “cut,” an elk head that was probably part of some lodge’s logo that Globe had once printed. It was from a drawer whose bottom had let go. I hadn’t noticed the drawers before. Or the cabinet, for that matter. But there it was, so I decided to take a peek.
Turns out that in this here factory, among the stacks of lead, mountains of metal, vats of ancient fluorescent ink, reams of fabulously aged paper and rack after rack after rack after rack of hand-carved maple letters and signs were the scattered bits of mid-20th century posters for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team that, when it wasn’t playing some serious baseball, by all accounts (yup, Hank Aaron is an alumnus), was barnstorming the nation with African costumes, cornball comedy and … blackface. The poster pieces had been set aside long ago once Hammerin’ Hank and the other top black stars were grudgingly accepted into Major League Baseball.
Sports? Here? Shop Boy was all in. I took everything I could carry back to our printshop for proofing on the Vandercook, then packaged them up carefully and set them aside for Bob, who remembers his late dad, Joe Cicero Sr., talking about them, though of course it had been some years back.
Then came this:
Kind of neat, am I right? That’s Eddie Feigner.
No, really. As in, The King and His Court.
The long story of how he and his poster came back to life is more amazing, but I’ll give you the quickie version so we can all get back to our own lives a bit sooner.
There are eight pieces to the poster, an advertisement for the barnstorming softball team that would go town to town and, using only four players, beat the bejeepers out of any who dared to challenge them. Shop Boy had seen the act as a kid on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
The poster worked like many at Globe: The main image would be printed, in several colors, for a big stack of posters. Later, wood type would be used to fill in the locations, dates and times of the shows in black ink. If the client were traveling all over the East Coast, say, the wood type could be swapped in and out to create specific posters for each stop.
Well, the pieces of this particular poster had been scattered through time to the far corners of the Globe warehouse, but suddenly began turning up under here, over there, atop shelves, inside a box, wherever they should not have been. Each time, Shop Boy was waiting. OK, so my main job at Globe was to sort, alphabetize and box the metal-on-wood photo cuts of R&B, rock and hip-hop acts for their eventual further cataloging by young artist/historians at MICA. In the rush to prep the collection for the move, there wasn’t time to worry about searching for the other pieces to a forgotten poster for silly old ballplayers.
Instead, they began finding me. Swear to god.
The black plate popped up first. Shop Boy saw it sitting atop a work table. It clearly depicted a baseball stadium facade with the words “King and His Court” reversed out of it. “Hey, I wonder if this was for ‘The King and His Court,’ ” Shop Boy wondered aloud.
“What was the giveaway?” Bob joked.
The red plate, an echo of the black facade that added a few pennants and a big star with a silhouette of the King’s head, had been snapped in two somehow and ended up at opposite ends of the building. By dumb luck I happened to carry one piece past the other one day, recognized the color of the ink stain on the wood, and … what do you know? The “yellow” background plate — which I obviously prefer as baseball-field green — was mixed among a carton of auto racing poster plates. The four-man lineup cut popped out of a dusty box at the bottom of a stack filled with carnival stuff.
But The King was nowhere. So many pieces of early Globe posters (this was from 1955, as the central pennant shows) had been sawed into shelves once the job was finished or gone missing in a series of printshop relocations that I deemed him a lost cause and got back to the more important task of documenting the key R&B figures whose heads had been in cold storage for too long and bringing them back to life with a little warm ink. I’d culled about 150 heads from a collection of maybe 15,000 that I either recognized from a Globe poster or that just looked cool and different and brought them back to Typecast to proof as well.
It was the ears that caught my eyes. Not the buzzcut in the sea of very fine afros of, say, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Roberta Flack and Bootsy Collins. “No way!” I picked up the little head and walked it over to the carved wooden star. The ears matched the silhouette! Yup, the King of Softball had long ago been sorted into the kings and queens of R&B. Funny.
The cartoon part of the poster, explaining the King’s act, lay at the bottom of a crate filled with ink-coated wood once used to fill out huge poster forms. A needle in a haystack.
And finally, after we’d cherry-picked all the best lead type “slugs” produced by the Ludlow, a kind of linotype machine — FUN + GAMES + RIDES and such — three huge containers got filled with the rest, to be sold as scrap. A few stray slugs had ended up on the floor, and had been pushed with a foot or whatever into a dusty corner. Don’t know why, but I dug through the pile.
(Also a bit eerie: This just moved on the Web while I was fact-checking myself. King and His Court to retire, like, this weekend.)
P.S.: Bob Cicero liked the story of Shop Boy putting the poster back together so much, he told me to keep the pieces.
Now, where the heck did I put them?