By Tom Warner (Baltimore or Less, October 9, 2011)
TOWSON, MD. – Former Baltimore Colts “Hall of Famer” and Gino’s restaurant chain co-founder Gino Marchetti hosted a “Fan Appreciation Day” along with other Colts alumuni this past Sunday at the newly opened Gino’s Burgers and Chicken store on the corner of Joppa and LaSalle Road in Towson. Gino was joined by former Colts favorites and fellow Hall of Famers Art Donovan and Lenny Moore, as well as Jim Mutscheller, Stan White and Toni Linhart, who all graciously (and patiently) signed autographs and chatted with the long lines of fans and restaurant patrons that queued up with all sorts of signature-worthy memorabilia (everything from helmets and jerseys to Memorial Stadium seats and Looney Tunes Football cartoon posters) between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Also on hand were proud sons Chad Unitas (looking like a clone of his Hall of Fame quarterback dad Johnny U.) and Mike Campanella (son of former Colts linebacker and general manager Joe Campanella), not to mention two very shapely and personable Ravens cheerleaders (though I think they work out a lot and avoid most of the items on the Gino’s menu) .
Gino Marchetti, now 85 and living outside Philadephia, co-founded the hamburger chain bearing his name along with fellow Colts legend Alan Ameche and friend Louis Fischer back in 1957. The first Gino’s brand restaurant opened in 1959 at 4009 North Point Road in Dundalk; the last Gino’s, an independently-owned restaurant located in Pasadena, closed in 1991. At its peak, there were over 350 Gino’s franchises operating up and down the East Coast corridor. Gino’s was subsequently acquired by the Marriott Corporation in 1982, who converted locations to their Roy Rogers Restaurant chain, but only recently resurfaced under a new name, Gino’s Burgers and Chicken, which opened its doors at the inaugural Baltimore-area location in Towson earlier this summer. The new Gino’s menu reflects meals similar to those from the ’50s (hamburgers, milkshakes, french fries, and the Gino’s Giant), albeit prices a tad higher than those on the ’50s menu shown below.
Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach quoted Gino as saying of the occasion, “It’s always good to come to Baltimore. It brings back a lot of good memories.”
The feeling was certainly reciprocal going by the happy, smiling faces lined up outside Gino’s restaurant on this glorious sunny day.
Admittedly, I stood in line for over an hour because I was hoping to get my copy of Art Donovan’s hilarious memoir Fatso: Football When Men Were Men (1987) signed by the big galoot himself, but word soon filtered through the long fan queue that Artie had pulled out early. That was alright by me, as I still had my original Gino’s menu for Gino to sign and was enjoying the company of my queue-mates. In front of me were Stefan Falk, who wore a Johnny Unitas jersey and carried his Memorial Stadium season-ticket-holder seat plank while recounting all of Artie’s madcap exploits…
…and the charming couple Don and Sharon Engelman.
Don, who’s a cartoon cell art collector in addition to being a football fan, was carrying a huge poster of Looney Tunes cartoon characters playing football that he had systematically gotten various Colts players to sign over the years. He said his goal was to get signatures from all the Colts Hall of Famers, and he rued having missed getting Jim Parker (1934-2005) who, he laughed, “went and died on me before I got the chance.”
It turned out that Don and Sharon live down the street in Hampden from my high school teacher and friend Mike Makarovich (we do truly live in Smalltimore!). Don had forgotten his camera, and Stefan’s camera batteries ran out, so I assured the fellows that I would snap photos of them with Gino and e-mail them later. Behind me was a nice mom with her two boys; like me, she didn’t know much about football, and she periodically asked me, “Who’s that? Is he a Colt? What position did he play?” Some questions I could answer, others I referred to Don and Stefan, who knew everybody. All I knew was that you could tell football old-timers because they all hobbled when they walked; it’s a cruel game physically, but the mental and aesthetic rewards were obvious – I had only to look at the long lines of Colts fans to see that.
Aesthetically, I’m not into football at all, but there was something about the old Colts that seemed to transcend the game to me. It may all be a case of hindsight-is-golden myth-making and too many reruns of Barry Levinson’s Diner, but it truly seemed like a different game back in the era of Johnny U. and Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore and Alan Ameche and Gino Marchetti. A time of characters. Artie Donovan called it the era “when men were really men,” which may sound corny like something John Ford would have said about his Westerns starring John Wayne, but it did seem like a more innocent time, one before steroids and college recruiting scandals and people looking on the NFL as standing for the National Felons League. Or, as Donovan said in Fatso, “Not like these bums today with their briefcases and goddamn stock portfolios. I played with some wild teams with some wild guys during some wild times.”
As we stood in line, former Colts players like Stan White and Toni Linhart came up to greet us, always saying things like “Thanks for remembering me” or “It’s good to be remembered” and “Thanks for coming out.” Good, good, good vibrations.
I especially enjoyed talking to Toni Linhart, one of the first European soccer-style field-goal kickers in the NFL, which is hardly surprising given his soccer pedigree. When I asked Toni if he still followed the European soccer leagues, he said he remained a fan of Bayern Munich. “They were the big club when I was growing up, the one everyone wanted to play for.” Some things never change, as far as that goes with the current Bundesliga frontrunners. When I mentioned how much I loved FC Barcelona, Toni said he sees Mr. Barcelona himself, former Dutch national and Barcelona star Johan Cruyff, every year at his Native Vision youth soccer camp in New Mexico. “It doesn’t get more Barcelona connection that that, eh?” he said. No it doesn’t, Toni. Well played sir!
I eventually got my face time with the Gino Giant himself, and he smiled looking at my vintage Gino’s menu from the ’50s. (But he ignored my request to honor the printed price of 15 cents for a plain hamburger! He is, after all, a businessman now.)
But I was happiest on this day for Don Engleman and Stefan Falk when they finally got to to meet and greet #72, Gino Marchetti. Gino was clearly amused by all the memorabilia Stefan had, especially the seat plank, which he gladly signed.
And Gino seemed intrigued by Don Engleman’s Looney Tunes autograph project.
The mom in line behind me was a former school teacher who didn’t know a lot about the old Colts, but she knew her two young boys would one day thank her for the opportunity to meet a football legend. I was happy for her family, too.
And me? Though I missed seeing Artie Donovan (with whom I had an admittedly loose connection – my wedding reception was held at his Valley Country Club), it still felt kind of momentous meeting Gino Marchetti because it brought me back to my beginnings. You see, Gino’s started the year I started, 1957. In fact, looking at that old Gino’s menu was kind of like looking at my birth certificate. So not only was 1957 the year the Russians launched Sputnik, thus jump-starting the Great Space Race, but it was also the year Gino’s launched, kick-starting the Great Colts Restaurant Race (Johnny U’s Golden Arm, Ordell Braasie’s Flaming Pit, Bill Pellington’s Iron Horse Restaurant, and so on – a tradition that carries on in a different uniform with Raven Ray Lewis’s Full Moon Bar-B-Que in Canton). So, as Frank Sinatra would sing, “It was a very good year…” Thank you Gino!
Vintage Gino’s Commercials:
Watch a Soupy Sales (as Paul Revere) Gino’s Ad
Watch Gino’s soulful ’70s R&B commercial