Serenade for Curtis Bay
Mary Rosso married into a musical family and ended up an accidental environmentalist
Published: March 27, 2013
The five generations of Baltimore schoolchildren who honked, screeched, and banged their way through grade school music lessons are now are scattered to the winds (and woodwinds).
They are the ones who begged their parents to let them play the accordion, the trumpet, and—God help dad, trying to get some shut-eye—the drums.
If you’re an aging boomer who grew up around South Baltimore or Curtis Bay and played in a school band, chances are you rented your instrument from a Pennington Avenue trumpet player named Henry Rosso.
A rare Italian in what was once a strong enclave of Poles and Czechs (his wife, Marie, who did the bookkeeping, was of Bohemian descent), Rosso was a Coast Guard warrant officer whose life was music.
On Saturday afternoons in a long-gone Crabtown—when waterfront factory jobs were plentiful and industrial pollution poisoned the locals—Henry’s students would parade through Curtis Bay.
“Mr. Rosso would look out the door of his shop as the group lined up for the parade. He always seemed proud of his troops,” says Frank Bittner, 58, who took accordion lessons and watched the parade from his family’s grocery at Pennington and Elmtree. “It was a weekly spectacle—flutes and little xylophones on the arm. The police would hold back traffic for 25 minutes or so while they marched.”
What is nostalgia to Bittner is personal history to Mary Cayer Rosso, a child of Morrell Park who married Henry’s son Frank, a sax and clarinet man known as “Shoogie,” in 1957.
The couple met on a blind date and listened to Louis Armstrong on the dashboard radio of Shoogie’s car. Their first home was on Popland Street, not far from Rosso’s shop at 4528 Pennington Ave.
“I worked for pappy for a long time,” says Mary of her father-in-law, a somewhat irascible man who only fed his dogs—Sparky and Cutie—from the stove. “He was difficult but he knew how to sell and rent instruments.”
Now 75, Mary became a community activist in Curtis Bay and Brooklyn, an “environmentalist by accident” housewife, politicized by local groundwater pollution and what she saw as the chemical and petroleum industry’s criminal disregard for residents.
“The little people were getting screwed,” Mary says. “Any time someone had [toxics] to get rid of, it was, ‘Dump it in Curtis Bay.’”
She worked as president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, which eventually led to public office when Mary represented Anne Arundel County in the House of Delegates from 1998 to 2001. But when pappy was alive and young musicians marched down Pennington and up Curtis Avenue, she did humbler work.
“I waxed my share of violin bows,” she says. “I helped my mother-in-law [Marie] type envelopes for the billing. I cleaned mouthpieces for trumpets and trombones. You’d soak them in a strong solution and run a rag through them.”
The Rosso home—music store in front, kitchen in the back, sleeping quarters upstairs—is long demolished, replaced by a nondescript auto-repair shop. Today, Mary lives near the Motor Vehicle Administration in Glen Burnie, about three miles from the business Henry Rosso started in 1947. She has framed tributes to her many environmental accomplishments on the walls, including a 1988 cover story in The Baltimore Sun Sunday magazine, along with a pen-and-ink sketch of the corner rowhouse where she grew up at 1934 Griffis Ave.
The dining room table is crowded with family photo albums and obituaries. Henry died in the store in 1982; Marie kept the business going with her sons until she died a decade later; and in 1998, a few years after the business went bankrupt, Shoogie died.
Amidst the memories (including tales of a few early years in an orphanage when her mother came down with tuberculosis), Mary pulls out a faded, 11-by-17-inch black-and-white photo of Henry conducting a band of anonymous school kids from the early 1960s, rows of students in metal folding chairs playing accordions and clarinets and cymbals as big as pizza pies.
Not far away in a Brooklyn Park shopping center, the Rosso legacy lives on at a music store partially owned by a guy who used to repair instruments for Henry. Tom Risher, 75, a retired music teacher, is also a trumpet player.
Risher laments the lack of music programs in Baltimore City public schools and believes today’s kids would do well to emulate the boys and girls in Mary Rosso’s old black-and-white photo.
“Playing an instrument makes you use both sides of your brain,” says Risher. “Kids who play instruments are usually smarter than the rest.”
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