In 1949, mysterious ‘flying saucers’ were found in a Maryland barn

(John Kelly, Washington Post, 11/18/2023)

The Aug. 20, 1949, front page featured the aforementioned satanic scoop — headlined “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip” — along with more mundane articles about the Pentagon budget, the FCC and the prospects of home rule for the District.

And then there was this eye-catching headline below a three-column photo of what looked like the destroyed remains of an alien spaceship: “First ‘Saucer’ Is Located By Air Force.”

The story was about wreckage discovered in an Anne Arundel County, Md., tobacco shed. One broken machine looked like a primitive helicopter. The other craft was topped by two cloth-covered, saucerlike discs, 16 feet in diameter.

Promising to revolutionize aviation, Caldwell sold stock for his Gray Goose Airways, which he said would utilize unique technology. Government regulators were not impressed. The inventor left Maryland in a hurry, leaving behind experimental aircraft. (Evening Star Collection/D.C. Public Library via Washington Post)

Maryland state troopers had made the discovery, dispatched to Glen Burnie, Md., at the behest of investigators from Bolling Air Force Base. An Air Force officer told the Associated Press there was “a good chance” the craft were prototypes of the mysterious flying saucers that were bedeviling pilots across the country.

Continue reading at the Washington Post

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Chris Jensen, Rest in Peace

Chris Jensen takes a break from filming an episode of Atomic TV to fondle the Ravens’ 2001 Super Bowl trophy with David Modell.

How do you describe Chris Jensen? He was a community organizer and community activist, art collector and artist, plumber and model, unofficial mayor of Charles Village, Atomic TV cameraman… he was a pro and an essential part of what made our little-watched public access program Atomic TV so great and we’ll miss him. The last time I saw him (pre-rona) he brought me a case of Bud and I drank it like it was the 1990s at Memory Lane. The thing that impressed me most about Chris was how engaged he was with the community. Baltimore is losing too many cool people too soon – at least the memories survive. For some reason well over 20 years ago Chris gave me a CD full of of his glamor shots and plumbing ads. I was never sure why. Check those photos out — but first, a remembrance from Tom Warner!

Tom Warner:

Baltimore IS less without Chris. He was essential OG crew for early Atomic TV (along with Kelly Conway, Melissa Darwin and Todd Stachowski) – a guy who not only could hold the camera while Scott and I made asses of ourselves, but actually keep it in focus. He was a total pro and (like Adolf Kowalski and Dave Wilcox), a big, charismatic personality, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

Everything I know about camerawork I learned from the self-trained Chris, and I used to edit titles in his basement where he had a very effective, old school analog setup (two Panasonic S-VHS AG-1970s! I gave him one of mine when his died – you should grab that bad boy, Richard Yeagley!), the same setup he used to edit Laure Drogoul’s 14Karat Cabaret TV show with her (he also did camerawork for her because he loved crazy Art and Music of any sort!).

Good lord the man loved his art. Every time he did a plumbing job for me, he was willing to trade his time for art – he especially craved the framed R. Crumb “Tommy Toilet” poster I had hanging in the Porcelain Palace and the Yellow Submarine Toilet Seat an obsessive library fan gave me when I got married. I wish I had given them to him now.

He also helped me clean up the clutter in my old Townhouse Shabby in Rodgers Forge. “Tommy, I deal in shit & grime every day, so when a plumber tells you that you need to clean up your act, heed the advice!” Of course, he was the Felix Unger of plumbers, a neatnik who always obsessively cleaned up his work afterwards, just as he obsessively cleaned up the litter around his block in Charles Village.

He was one of a kind, the Joker Wild in the card pack, a loveable nut and loyal friend. I wish we had kept up more. The last time we saw Chris was December 2018 at Joe Squared, where he was out to support a show featuring The Jennifers and ex-Slickee Boy Marshall Keith. He had a cane (years of hard labor had taken their toll on his back and knees), but despite losing a step or two, he was as gregarious and energetic as usual. Time will not flush away memories of what a treat it was to know Chris Jensen.

Tom’s remembrance of Chris continues at his Accelerated Decrepitude blog.

Close Encounters of the Turd Kind

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Accelerated Decrepitude

Chris the Plumber Turns 50
By Tom Warner
“A week or so ago I got a flyer in the mail from Chris Jensen, Baltimore’s wackiest plumber (what other respected tradesman has the slogan, “Your Poop Is My Bread and Butter” alongside a picture of an exposed buttcrack boldly displayed on the side of his work van?) and all-around nutjob (his rooftop Christmas Negativity Scene depicting Jesus with a space alien is notorious) showing a picture of him with his long-suffering assistant Shawn “The Beav” Sapp (pictured below right) adjacent to this text: “I asked my helper the Beav how I could have a really cool 50th Birthday Party. He told me not to come.” Ha, that sounds about right, I thought!” Continue reading

Chris Jensen – WJZ “Hard Look” with Richard Sher
Baltimore’s best plumber Chris Jensen is heartbroken when thieves abscond with Uncle Buck’s flag.

Everyman Art Collector

Colorful Charles Village plumber covers his house with art
by Brennen Jensen (Urbanite Magazine, 9/10/2010) 

Chris Jensen grew up appreciating art, thanks to boyhood visits to Haussner’s — the much-missed Highlandtown eatery whose walls were famously chockablock with canvases — and time spent with his late uncle Jack Butler, a painter who owned a gallery in Mt. Vernon. Ultimately, Jensen (no relation) picked up a pipe wrench, not a paintbrush. He’s a plumber by trade. But when not snaking out a sewer line, he pursues his interest in art through collecting.

Jensen’s trim Charles Village home brims with more than a hundred framed paintings and sculptures. Works spill down the stairway walls and crowd a small bathroom. Art abounds, and little of it of the mass-produced reproduction variety.
If there’s a short, sweet moral here, it’s this: to appreciate, buy and surround yourself with original art, you don’t need a hedge fund manager’s salary or an art historian’s diploma. “Just buy what you like,” Jensen says. “I’m not rich enough to spend a lot of money.”
Jensen describes the core of his collection as “original oil paintings,” but that’s a pretty broad brush. He’s the first to admit there’s little rhyme or reason to his tastes or display aesthetics. And so there are abstracts, next to nudes, next to pop art, next to fiber art, next to … what exactly is that?

“If I get a new piece, then something has to go,” Jensen says. “Stuff cycles in and out and I give a lot away.”

Over the years he’s come to discover a real value to admiring art in the intimacy of the home, rather than in museums or books. “You have to live with a painting before you really get it,” he says.

Most of the works are by local artists, including multiple works by Daniel Schiavone, who co-founded what’s now the Creative Alliance, and Nick Rusko-Berger, one of whose works takes up an entire dining room wall. Uncle Jack is well represented too, including with a stylized self-portrait.

Works have been acquired at Maryland Art Place, Artscape, barroom exhibits and street fairs, usually for no more than a couple hundred bucks. Then there’s his special source for some of his favorite paintings, one where the pipe wrench is a key to entry: Baltimore basements.

“I’ve been called ‘the plumber to the arts,’” Jensen explains. “Artists are my customers and I’m in people’s basements all the time. I see all this great stuff. They may have a hundred pieces of crap but I’ll find one good. I have an eye, apparently.”

A larger-than-life-sized rendering of a nude woman at the top of his stairs came from a basement where he was fixing pipes. Seems it was an image of the customer’s ex-girlfriend. “I don’t think his wife was thrilled about it still being down there,” Jensen says. “I think I got it by taking $100 off the bill.”

Jensen has dabbled some at creating art, applying his welding and pipefitting skills to create sculptures, such as the fountain of sorts fashioned from copper piping and spigots that gurgles away on his sun porch. He is perhaps best known for his rooftop Christmas display, familiar to anyone who’s driven his stretch of Howard Street around the holidays. Call it an “installation” if you will. It’s a vintage, internally illuminated plastic manger scene where the wise men are joined by a bright green alien. What’s it all about? Jensen doesn’t know. He says the idea just came to him one year.

“If people think of me as a stereotypical plumber they have no clue,” Jensen says with a smile.

The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work – Trailer from Richard Yeagley on Vimeo.

Farewell to Atomic TV’s favorite cameraman.

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Baltimore: Come and Be Shocked

by Lisa Greenhouse

Outside Looking In: Mary Rizzo looks at Baltimore beyond the charm and the harm

What do outsiders imagine when they think of Baltimore?  Mary Rizzo’s absorbing new book, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire (JHU Press, 2020), examines what she considers the two primary portrayals of the city. Rizzo, an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University, looks at several of the more well-known cultural productions that have depicted Baltimore over the last sixty years, finding contrasting themes that have emerged from a highly segregated city.  According to the author, we are given two dominant portrayals: incompatible, incomplete, and only one seen as usable by a city government intent on constructing an image of Baltimore attractive to tourist dollars and investment in a post-industrial economy.

On the one hand, we have “Charm City,” a vision of Baltimore which stars “the Hon,” a fun stereotype of white, working-class, Southern womanhood that is “friendly, quirky, charming, and sassy.”  This is an image that fits well with city promotional efforts and so has been bear hugged by the powers that be.  The irony that an image drawn from working-class culture would be used to attract professionals and capital to a city whose working class had been devastated by the destruction of blue collar jobs in a period of globalization is not lost on Rizzo.

The other image is of Baltimore as a dangerous place.  “The city that bleeds.”  “Bodymore, Murdaland.”  This is an image that was purveyed by shows like Homicide and The Wire and by an indigenous form of music – club music – which found popularity beyond the city limits and so shaped perceptions of Baltimore.  The local establishment strove to suppress this image.

The city that bleeds

Rizzo’s analysis of filmmaker John Waters’s local meaning is particularly interesting.  Rizzo points out that Waters has been looked at in the context of queer studies but not in the context of urban studies.  However, in the 1960s, a young Waters took advantage of Baltimore’s urban renewal machinery by filming norm-violating acts in lightly surveilled areas of the city that had been abandoned to imminent urban renewal.  His whiteness helped him get away with it.  Often the shocked (or at least surprised) expressions of black bystanders served as a foil for his actors.

Hairspray (1988) was the first film in which Waters tackled racial inequities, but even so, the civil rights effort portrayed there was spearheaded by a white person: Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake).  Hairspray celebrated the underdog: the black dancers who were excluded from the Corny Collins Show (based on Baltimore’s real Buddy Deane Show) and Tracy herself, who was overweight and ridiculed by the other dancers.

Hairspray’s “Corny Collins Show”

According to Rizzo, however, many critics and fans seemed drawn more to the quirky early 1960s Baltimore set than to the racial struggle pictured, especially as the subsequent iterations of Hairspray hyperbolized Baltimore’s white working-class cultural characteristics more and more.  In fact, the image of Charm City presented by Baltimore planners and promoters drew heavily on John Waters just as the Hon stereotype drew on Waters’s character Divine.  While Waters’s initial intent was to violate social norms, his vision of Baltimore was eventually co-opted by the marketers of the post-industrial city.  Transgression became quirkiness in this travel magazine version of Baltimore.

Meanwhile, a parallel misapprehension occurred over in deadly “Bodymore.”  Fans of The Wire were often more focused on its portrayal of the glamorous gangster lifestyle than on the show’s depiction of structural racism and political corruption.  And by neglecting to showcase positive efforts by community organizations in the Baltimore ghetto, the show shaped an exaggerated view of a dangerous city, broken beyond repair.

Rizzo finds a truer picture of Baltimore in the street magazine Chicorypublished beginning in 1966 by the Enoch Pratt Free Library and initially funded by the federal War on Poverty initiative. Chicory contained poetry and snippets of conversation collected from black community members between 1966 and 1983.  Rizzo analyzes the purposes served by the publication for its liberal supporters as well as the purposes met for its contributors.  For its funders and sponsors, Chicory provided a window into the black ghetto as well as a pressure release valve.  For its contributors, Chicory provided a public forum where ideas and visions could be shared.

Chicory magazine (1966-1983)

The author looks at the role history plays in the creative works she examines as well in the city’s promotional campaigns.  Hairspray, while being the first popular film produced for a white audience to deal with Baltimore’s racist past, ultimately whitewashes it by changing the outcome of the actual struggle on which it was based.  The Buddy Deane Show eventually went off the air rather than integrate while Waters’s Corny Collins Show integrates in a made-for-Hollywood happy ending.

Whitewashed Pop: Buddy Deane

Other films from the period with depictions of Baltimore, such as Barry Levinson’s Diner and Tin Men, ignore the existence of racism and, according to Rizzo, nostalgically portray the early 1960s as a golden era.  Likewise, city planners and boosters pushed racism out of sight, emphasizing historical artifacts that fit with their image of Charm City.  Rizzo writes that in these types of city promotional efforts, “history, at best, can be mobilized to give symbolic value, but it is not truly valued.”  History lay in the path of “a municipal hype machine that swept growing racial inequality under the rug of marketing campaigns, inoffensive art, and stories about eccentric white people.”

Related Links:

Listen to “Writers LIVE!: Mary Rizzo
Watch “Writers LIVE!: Mary Rizzo

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Everything Old is Agnew Again

by Lisa Greenhouse

Spiro T. Agnew seems to be rattling around in the collective unconscious lately, like a repellent archetype we thought we had buried long ago but that is suddenly resurrected as relevant.  And in a sad commentary on our times, Agnew is once again relevant with two new books that cover aspects of his infamous career.  Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz’s Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover Up & Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House (Crown, 2020) and Charles J. Holden, Zach Messitte, and Jerald Podair’s Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America (UVA Press, 2019).


Of the two books, the latter is ultimately more meaningful, though Bag Man makes for a quick and gripping read.  We may remember that Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to a tax evasion charge as part of a plea bargain that required his resignation from the Vice Presidency.  What we maybe don’t remember is that the income that went unreported to the IRS came from extortion.  Agnew shook down Maryland engineering firms who wanted government contracts from his position as County Executive of Baltimore County through the Maryland Governorship all the way into the White House.  And what was he doing with the money he acquired in this manner?  He was using it to support a mistress, although that part didn’t make it into the DOJ’s report or into the press coverage.  It was a gentler time.

The plea bargain only required that Agnew cop to the tax crime, really a minor part of the overall corruption.  The Justice Department needed him out of office and quick.  The Watergate Special Prosecutor and congressional committees were bearing down on Nixon’s separate and unrelated crimes.  If Nixon were to resign or be removed from office, as things stood Agnew would ascend to the Presidency.  Nobody in the Administration wanted this outcome, least of all Attorney General Richardson, who considered Agnew unfit.

Even Nixon saw Agnew as unfit for high office and according to both books, dreaded meetings with him and spent quite a lot of time strategizing with aides on how to sideline the lightweight Vice.  Nixon sent him on a World tour, at one point, to strengthen Agnew’s foreign policy chops as well as to rid himself of the irritation of his presence (and then complained that Agnew spent an inordinate amount of time on the tour playing golf).

Why are we remembering this now?  Golf?  Financial criminals in high office?  What does that have to do with the present moment?  Two words: Donald Trump.  Trump’s crimes are more complicated and harder to trace given their international nature and the high-powered attorneys and fixers he’s employed to protect himself.  Agnew’s crimes, in contrast, were local, straightforward, and not very cleverly disguised.  But as much as Bag Man is relevant, it is one-dimensional compared to the Holden et al. book’s effort to comprehend Agnew’s meaning for us almost 50 years later.

Living the Thug Life

Co-authored by a trio of political scientists, Republican Populist examines Agnew, beyond his criminality (and incessant golfing), as a Trump precedent in another more significant way.  Agnew took up the mantle of a right-wing populism that arose in the post-WWII era in response to multiple societal transformations such as a new working-class economic security, the Civil Right Movement, and various internal migrations of Americans, including mass suburbanization.  A cultural rather than an economic populism, right-wing populism defined itself in contrast to perceived cultural elites rather than against the “economic royalists” that FDR had earlier skewered.

As pocketbook issues became less pressing in the post-war prosperity, working-class resentments refocused from economic actors onto college administrators who indulged longhaired war protestors and onto those who would remove prayer from public schools.  Their sense of grievance encompassed those who suggested that tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods or the new suburban developments be racially integrated and especially liberal intellectuals who seemed to imply that people were bigots and intolerants if they objected to these measures.

A vote for Agnew is a vote for good government!

Since the 1920s, several internal migrations contributed to the eventual rise of cultural populism.  Midwestern Protestants, largely socially conservative and evangelical, streamed to the American Southwest to take jobs in aerospace and other industries.  There they began to organize politically.

In addition, after WWII masses of white people — the definition of white having expanded to embrace Eastern and Southern European immigrants — taking advantage of newly available fixed-rate, long-term mortgages and GI subsidies, decamped for the suburbs.  But their new backyard barbecue and Kiwanis Club lifestyle seemed precarious.  Southern blacks continued to pour into overcrowded Northern ghettos.  Ethnics in the Northern metropolises jealously guarded their recently attained status and prosperity against the possibility of reduced social stature and home values as integration of the newly arrived blacks began to be contemplated.

The Northern, ethnic working class, Levittown suburbanites, and Southwestern evangelicals were all susceptible to the new form of populism that was the in air and that was beginning to find a niche in the Republican Party.  Agnew embodied many of the Republican Party’s new constituencies.  He was the son of a Greek immigrant to Baltimore.  He fought in WWII and then made the trek out of the city to a new, detached house in the Baltimore County suburbs.  This was the immigrant family’s prototypical second-generation quest for assimilation.  Agnew deemphasized his ethnic roots.  He went by Ted.

Deprived by Nixon of a policy role in the White House, Ted spent most of his time planting the Republican seed in another fertile region of the country: the South.  Southerners had been trickling into the Republican Party since Truman integrated the Armed Services and the Federal workforce.  Agnew revved up the process through a series of speeches and campaign events in which, using his Trumpian gift for riling up a crowd by slinging insults, he implemented the Republican Party’s newly coined “Southern Strategy.”

Agnew was famous for the alliterative taunt: “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history.”  Agnew pilloried college students and professors, Federal bureaucrats, and journalists from the major networks as well as from the national newspapers.  During the 1968 election season he called a Baltimore Sun reporter a “fat Jap.”

The Speeches That Stirred America: Agnew’s Greatest Hits!

In speeches drafted by Pat Buchanan and William Safire in which Agnew added the finishing touches, the Vice President anticipated Trump’s content as well as his combative style.  What neither book points out explicitly is that Agnew also previewed the current role played by conservatives in Government.  Not prohibited from policymaking as Agnew was by Nixon but simply uninterested in the nuts and bolts of governing, politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Donald Trump, use their public positions to garner media attention through provocative culture war rhetoric and stunts.  They are entertainers above all else and in this way, have much in common with the Agnew prototype.

Media star Agnew was a populist hero to many 

Before Nixon soured on Agnew, he was very much attracted to him.  During the fateful campaign year of 1968, Governor Agnew of Maryland came to Nixon’s attention when, in the aftermath of the King riots, he dressed down a group of moderate Baltimore civil rights leaders before the TV cameras.  Nixon needed to find a running mate who while acceptable to liberal Rockefeller Republicans in the Northeast would also not repel the crucial Southern votes he needed to win (George Wallace had entered the race as an independent which complicated Nixon’s position in the South).

Agnew seemed to fit the bill.  He had an established record of supporting local civil rights initiatives such as the integration of the Gwynns Falls Amusement Park yet had little tolerance for the movement’s turn toward militancy or its new focus on economic redistribution.  Remember that Martin Luther King had immersed himself in the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.  He was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated.  Agnew’s support for civil rights had reached a tipping point when Pat Buchannan directed Nixon’s attention to the Governor’s speech before the dismayed Baltimore civil rights leaders, most of whom walked out as Agnew harangued them.

Most of these black leaders had voted for Agnew.  The 1966 Governor’s race had pitted him against George Mahoney, a Democrat whose racist slogan, in the face of pending fair housing legislation, was “Your Home is Your Castle.  Protect it.”  The black leaders felt betrayed.  Nixon felt like maybe he had found his man.

The problem with Agnew was that he didn’t know anything about Federal policy or Government.  As recently as 1966, he had been Baltimore County Executive and now, in 1969 he was the person next in line for the Presidency.  Agnew was good, however, at delivering culture war attacks and in doing so he developed a MAGA-like constituency of his own, to the point where he became indispensable.  Nixon couldn’t dump him without offending an important voting bloc.  That is Nixon couldn’t dump him until Watergate changed the political calculus.

Agnew ultimately dumped himself from Nixon’s favor

(“Agnew Drops the Bomb” illustration by Robert Soulsby)

Agnew’s post-political career involved golfing with and borrowing money from his pal, Frank Sinatra, relying on the international connections he made as Vice President, mostly with dictators and juntas, to arrange business deals for clients, writing a political thriller and (intended to be exculpatory) memoir, and in the words of Maddow and Yarvitz, “market[ing] himself internationally as an influential American anti-Semite for hire.”  He was successfully sued by taxpayers in Maryland for the amount of the extorted money plus interest and in desperation offered his services to the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince. In a letter to the Crown Prince which Maddow and Yarvitz found in the Spiro Agnew Papers at UMD, Agnew offered to mount a “fight against the Zionist enemies” if the Prince would help him by funneling two million dollars into a Swiss bank account.  The authors of Republican Populist do say that Agnew fought honorably in WWII.  So there’s that. 🙂

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