By Scott Huffines (baltimore or Less, 12/24/2014)
Brett Harlow penned one of Baltimore's Christmas cult classics, “Walking in an essex Wonderland.” It's one of those ditties that would be heavily played during the holidays on 98 Rock back in the 90s, then it seemed to fade into obscurity until people rediscovered the song through the miracle of YouTube. Now it's once again a Baltimore Christmas anthem.
A few years ago we posted the song on Baltimore Or Less with a plea to our readers to help us locate the creator. A few years later a reader named Ruthie emailed this comment:
OMG, I know who sang it. A guy named Brett Harlow who won ‘Balto's best new comedian' in 90 (or 91). He got the accent from his g-mother who really talked like that. God rest her soul! He sold the song to 98 Rock when he needed $500 bucks & has never gotten the credit for writing & singing it. I will swear in a court of law that he wrote & sang it b/c he did. Still one of the funniest guys I've ever, ever known (and I'm still friends w. him).
We tried to email Ruthie back. No luck. We Googled Brett Harlow, no luck. We found a Brett Harlow on Facebook, sent him a message and still no luck. But we persevered, and three Christmases later we received a message from Brett who is now ready to share his story of memorializing Essex in song. A true Christmas miracle.
BML: Hi Brett, Greetings from Essex, Maryland, the “Essex Wonderland”!
I woke up this morning with “Essex Wonderland” playing on my alarm clock radio, it's that season again!
BH: Greetings to Essex, and all of Baltimore!
BML: So… What prompted you to write a Christmas song poking fun at Essex?
The first verse of “Essex Wonderland” was actually written in 1988 while I was taking a whiz at a Christmas party… “Winter Wonderland” was on and I just started singing about bingo and bowling… I used to sing that to friends in my Balmer accent.
BML: Wow, so that is nothing like the urban legends about who wrote and sang the song…. that it was a 98 Rock Twisted Tune… that it was sung by former 98 Rock DJ Mickey Cucchiella… all rumors that were never confirmed. Is the Ruthie story true? Did you win a 98 Rock contest for $500? You really are the guy that wrote the song?
BH: I did write and sing the song. I did stand-up for a living for quite a few years, and always closed with “Essex Wonderland” around the holidays when I was performing in town. As far as money goes, the song was recorded in December of 1990, at the home of a guy who dated a very nice girl who was a cocktail waitress at a local comedy club, it all happened very quickly.
I had to make the song long enough to fit what he had recorded… I stayed up late the night before and wrote a few more verses. The next day we recorded it in two takes… the next morning it was played on WGRX… remember them?
A week later or so I got a call from Russ Motla who was a DJ and the program director at 98 Rock, he said he heard my song… I played it for him over the phone, he said he liked it and offered me 300 bucks for it, I was a starving standup comic so three bills for one joke was damn good pay. Two years later I won the 98 Rock Comedy Quest.
BML: I wish you had the extra 200 bucks from the urban legend.
BML: Do videos exist of your 90s standup?
BH: My brother has a VHS tape of me doing standup… today's technology makes viewing that obsolete I'm told. I had many bits in my act I was proud of, mostly pop culture stuff… I have actually done quite a bit of writing lately and plan to do an open mic soon, we'll see how that goes.
BML: Keep us posted about your standup… and boy, if that VHS ever does make its way onto Youtube, we would love to know. I hope there's a live rendition of “Essex Wonderland” on that tape!
BML: So… Back to Baltimore in the 90s, where were you living then?
BH: I was living in Hampden at the time.
BML: Ah… you did say “Northeast Baltimore” the first time you mailed me back. Hampden. That's not exactly a hotbed of culture. It's like Essex, only in the city. Hampden really does seem to be the home of the “White” Christmas. Hampden, Essex, all these weird semi-Appalachian burgs seem to get a bad rap. But it could be worse. There's always Towson.
BH: I never discriminated… the Poop Plant made its presence known in many neighborhoods.
BML: Speaking of neighborhoods, did you know the poop plant isn't in Essex or dundalk? It's actually in Highlandtown. I consulted with a mail man. It's a Highlandtown zip code.
BML: Y'know before the “Golden Eggs” were planted the poop plant was an enormous field of shooting methane flames like at the beginning of Blade Runner.
BML: I used to work at Friendlys in Middlesex and on a hot summer night it was torture opening up the carryout windows. The air was literally thick with the smell of sulfurous poop fumes embedded in the torturous Baltimore summer humidity. The poop plant still smells, but now it's more like a fart in a car, not like a turd in the middle of the living room.
BML: Anyway… When did you leave Maryland? Why? Do you still root for the Ravens and Orioles?
BH: I left Baltimore three years ago for a job and a woman… I still have the job. I have and always will be a fan of them O's and Ravens, wearing a Ravens cap now…
BML: Did you know your song had developed a cult following?
BH: As far as a “cult following” goes, I have always been blown away that anyone liked it, let alone still cares after 25 years. I just wanted people to think it was funny, and I hope they still do.
BML: The song is almost a time capsule of an era long gone. So many things in the song no longer exist. Sparrows Point closed, there's no bowling alleys or bingo parlors left in Essex. It makes you feel nostalgic for the olden days. The redneck's “White Christmas.”
BML: So, it's Christmas Eve and while we're feeling nostalgic we'll ask you the jackpot question in advance: Would you ever consider updating “Essex Wonderland”?
BH: A 25 year update might be awesome,…but I really want to believe Baltimore will always be the same… so no need… Happy Holideys hon!