They’re nearly empty now, those rusting silent behemoths overlooking the water at Harborplace, and all anyone can talk about is how they’re going to be demolished and replaced with something newer and more modern. John Pleyvak knows the nostalgia for the landmark won’t make sense if you didn’t see it before, when it was extraordinary. Bustling. Beautiful.

“It’s a shell of itself,” said Pleyvak, who worked for years in the 1980s at Jean Claude’s, a celebrity-filled French restaurant in the Pratt Street Pavilion. “But back then, it was the place to be. It was on the cover of Time magazine. They said in the article that more people came through in the second year than Disney World.”

Last week, The Baltimore Banner asked for memories from people like Pleyvak for whom those now-quiet pavilions were, for a time, the center of the universe. Almost 100 of you answered.

To consider what that area is going to become, I think it’s important to remember what it was. And it was special.

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The busking bagpiper

Harborplace visitors of yore might remember a young man entertaining the crowd with his wit, authentic brogue and bagpipes, extending some Highlands hospitality in exchange for a little change. In fact, you may have responded to his heartfelt pleas to help him raise money to buy a ticket back to Scotland. Decades later, Edward Kitlowski wants to thank you — and also tell you his journey home was a lot shorter than advertised.

“I had a coworker one time who told me, ‘One time I met this nice boy trying to get back to Scotland,’ and I said, ‘That was me,’” confessed Kitlowski, who is actually from Towson and busked downtown before Harborplace was built and then during its heyday. “He said, ‘No, no, he was from Scotland.’ I said, ‘Does this sound familiar?’ and did the accent.”

He’s not making up his connection to Scotland: Kitlowski has some Scottish ancestry on his mother’s side. “My grandmother made me a kilt when I was 3,” he said, and he picked up the pipes as a kid. Soon, playing became a way to make a little extra money, meet people from across the world and even perform on the tall ships that would come to Inner Harbor.

“It was a cool place to go,” said Kitlowski, a retired school teacher who now directs the United States Naval Academy’s Pipes and Drums Band.

Edward Kitlowski and Patti Murphy on the U.S.S. Constellation in front of Harborplace circa 1980. (Courtesy of Edward Kitlowski)

Long live The Powder Room Girls

When Rita Roane Blackwell of Baltimore looks at photos of the most memorable times in her life, she knows the faces smiling back at her would not have been there had they all not worked at Harborplace.

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“We had such great relationships,” remembered Blackwell, who worked at makeup store The Powder Room, a specialty shop called The Narragansett, and “a jewelry store I don’t remember the name of” beginning in her senior year of high school in 1985 through to her early college days. “I tell my son that when you go to a place to work there, work has to be your main objective, [but] you never know. You might meet some of your best friends.”

The center of her world was The Powder Room — “the most fun ever” — where she met future friends Penny Tsai, who was Blackwell’s bridesmaid and threw her baby shower, and store manager Debi Young, now an Emmy-nominated makeup artist who worked on “The Wire,” “Mare of Easttown” and other TV shows — and did the makeup for Blackwell’s 1998 wedding.

Their adventures were both in the store and wandering the pavilions. When Blackwell and Tsai worked together on weekends, “we would close the store and go to Swenson’s and have ice cream sundaes on Sunday. We liked that.”

It wasn’t all fun and games. “I got robbed, held up” at that jewelry store, Blackwell recalled. But that terrible time doesn’t dim the lifelong friends she found there. “There was no better place to be. We used to call ourselves The Powder Room Girls, and had regular meetups,” she said. “We haven’t in a while. It’s time to organize one.”

Saturday mornings with Dad

From the time they started clearing the grounds of what would become Harborplace, Michael Ginsberg, then 5 or 6 years old, “really hoped in time that there would be a toy store.”

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Once it opened, you could get all sorts of toys, kites and fluffy stuffed friends in the pavilions. But Ginsberg, who currently lives in Northern Virginia, knows now that his time at the shopping center was made all the more special because of who he was with: his father, Ronald.

“It was a great bonding opportunity. We always followed the same routine, and we developed a relationship through it,” the younger Ginsberg said. “We would always park at the Hyatt across the street, and if we could get on the third-floor pedestrian bridge, it would take you right to the Orioles store. It’s so much smaller than the current store [at Camden Yards], but it had everything.”

After getting treasures like a “World’s Greatest Team” hat or a facsimile of a signed baseball, father and son would have lunch at the taco stand or get a lemon ice or lemon stick from Oasis. “Then we would sit there and watch people,” he said. “You could see the whole world. They had every kind of food, every kind of shop, things you didn’t know. We thought it was the hub of the universe.”

A place to belong

“Baltimore is still a segregated society, but nothing like it was back then,” said Debbie Jones. “You would go to shopping malls that were all Black or all white. Before Harborplace opened, there was nowhere you could go that was integrated.”

Jones, who lives in the city now as she did then, was particularly sensitive to the lack of common racial spaces as a white woman married to a Black man, a relatively rare sight then. That doesn’t seem so unique now, but in the early 1980s, it could feel really isolating. But not at Harborplace.

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“It was not that common to see interracial couples in Baltimore. … We used to go there and sit on a bench and hold hands,” she recalled. “Sometimes we would be the single one [couple], and sometimes we might see one or two others. It felt like bird-watching.”

Jones acknowledged that there are people, some of them young and Black, who reported feeling less than welcome at Harborplace, so she doesn’t assume it felt the same for everyone. But for her, in that moment, the area felt joyous and alive. “It was a different time when people were not all looking at their phones, not hanging out playing computer games,” she said. “People reached out more, connected more. It really felt like that.”

Man overboard… or not

Have you ever known someone’s name sounds familiar but the connection doesn’t quite click immediately? I was on the phone with Holter Graham, formerly of Roland Park, for about five minutes before he mentioned he was an actor and I realized this was the Holter Graham, who made a splash in the 1980s for his parts in movies like the original “Hairspray” and the Stephen King adaptation “Maximum Overdrive.” His many Harborplace stories are appropriately theatrical.

“My best friend’s father was a lawyer in one of the tall buildings down there. We went to a restaurant in a hotel on Redwood or Lombard [streets] and had bananas flambé, which was great for two 12-year-old kids, to light on fire,” said Graham, now a New York City resident and prolific audiobook narrator.

“We were walking later at Harborplace, and his [my friend’s] father had had a drink or six. There were these safety event pylons that had life preservers in them, in case somebody fell in the harbor. It was a very crowded weekend evening, and he [the father] said, ‘What is this?’ He touches it and sets off the man overboard alarm, and all around on both sides, all the life preserver stands are blinking their lights.”

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Uh oh! So what to do? “He just keeps walking calmly,” Graham remembered, “and says, ‘Come on, boys! Let’s do something else.’”

A French twist

It was July 1, 1980, the night before Harborplace’s grand opening, and John Pleyvak didn’t believe the restaurant where he was supposed to bartend the next day could actually debut in time.

“I said, ‘No way, no how,’” said Pleyvak of watching the staff of the brand new Jean Claude’s, a French bistro, scramble to get everything ready. “Everyone was looking for their deliveries, for the glasses and plates for the food to be served in. There was so much chaos going on, people hammering nails. At four in the morning, they were still in there stocking beers.”

But by 10 a.m., the ribbon was cut, and Jean Claude’s became a booming place to see and be seen. “For the next year and a half, every single day from open to close, it was busy,” said Pleyvak, now living in Ocean City with his wife, who was a waitress at the restaurant when they met. “It was so crazy crowded.”

Some of the more notable people in that crowd were Baltimore Orioles players. Pleyvak still remembers when “a drunk at the bar” challenged Brady Anderson, a star outfielder in the 1990s, “to a race for $100. I walked down 100 yards, to where the Visitor Center is now, and Brady Anderson raced this guy backwards down the promenade.” Anderson won, of course.

But the most winning — ha ha ― O’s story happened nearly a decade earlier, when the Birds won the World Series in Philadelphia. Catcher Rick Dempsey, a Jean Claude’s regular, celebrated with a massive, jubilant crowd at the restaurant after the victory.

“Everyone was getting crazy. The hottest song at the time was Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long,’ so someone puts it on,” Pleyvak said. “Dempsey gets off the barstool and starts this conga line. He’s walking through the kitchen, getting all the bartenders, and then getting more and more people headed out through the promenade. By the time that thing snaked back from the Science Center, there were 200 to 300 people, at midnight.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the position Rick Dempsey played for the Orioles.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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