Category Archives: Restaurants

Tastee Diner Petition Update

Photo: ©The Baltimore Sun, 1981

In 1981, a longtime waitress known as “Miss May” takes an order from a Tastee Diner patron sitting right about where the Laurel History Boys typically do today. This Baltimore Sun photo, like the diner itself, is timeless. It could’ve been taken this afternoon, or even 30 years before it actually was taken, when the new Laurel Diner first opened its doors at 118 Washington Boulevard in 1951.

The diner property is being sold to Pure Hana Synergy, a medical marijuana dispensary that plans to modify the building by encasing it.

I started a petition last week, to gather signatures not to block the sale of the property, but to support saving the ultra-rare, 1951 Comac-built diner car—now one of only two left in existence that look and function very much as they did when they were made nearly 70 years ago.

The idea is simple in theory: have the City of Laurel first designate the diner car as a historic property—which it rightfully should be. Next, work with Pure Hana Synergy, (the buyer) Gene Wilkes, (the seller) and groups such as Preservation Maryland to see how best to remove the diner car and relocate it to Main Street without adversely affecting the buyer’s original plans for the site.

In less than five days, the petition has grown to over 1,100 signatures. Many of the signers are current residents of Laurel (voting residents, some were quick to point out) who want to ensure that the diner doesn’t disappear, literally or figuratively.

Entombing the diner within a new structure would only serve to do just that—hide it from view and end a nearly 90-year tradition of having an original diner in Laurel’s historic district. Instead, the city should do whatever it can to relocate the diner to Main Street, and incentivize a new buyer or developer to give it new life in its new location.

Coincidentally, Laurel has just become the first city in Prince George’s County to be designated in the Main Street Maryland program—a comprehensive downtown revitalization program created in 1998 by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Check out the description of this program, and I think you’ll agree that it only makes our case for relocating the diner to Main Street that much stronger. Better yet, watch this short video about it from Laurel TV:

There are two potential sites on Main Street, both currently vacant lots which could accommodate the relocated diner:

  1. 312 Main Street, which was the home of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre.
  2. The Farmers’ Market lot at Main & Avondale Streets.

A third possibility is to open discussions with C Street Flats about integrating the diner with their plans to expand toward Main Street. Any of these options would not only save the historic diner car, but give it a chance to thrive in a new environment that would reinvigorate Main Street as well.

Laurel residents, please go to the next City Council meeting on Monday, November 26th at 7PM, and let them know that you signed this petition—along with over 1,100 other people who want to see our historic diner preserved and moved to Main Street.

21st Mayor and City Council Meeting – Council Chambers
Laurel Municipal Center
8103 Sandy Spring Rd
Laurel, MD 20707
Mayor and City Council Meeting
Monday, November 26, 2018 – 7:00pm to 9:00pm

City officials know that the petition exists, but please remind them why. It’s not just about any old restaurant closing, and it’s not just about trying to save any old building. Allowing the Tastee Diner to be wrapped and hidden within a new business would be an inexcusable wasted opportunity, particularly in light of Laurel’s new Main Street Maryland award.

I’ve likened this to the closing of a vintage car dealership. Sure, the business can close or change hands; but you wouldn’t destroy the classic cars in the showroom in the process, would you?

Please add your name to the petition to Save the Laurel Tastee Diner, and share the link.

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Save the Tastee Diner

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Photo: © Raphael Talisman, Maryland Gazette

It goes without saying that the Tastee Diner is one of my favorite places.

It’s one of the last vestiges of the real Laurel—an authentic, original 1951 diner built by the legendary Comac company and delivered to the site that same year, when the Second Street bypass was opened, splitting Route 1 north and south.

The diner replaced a previous iteration, which had occupied the site since 1934. That one was shipped off to Baltimore, where it became the State Diner (now long gone.)

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The State Diner as it appeared in 1981. In its previous life, it had been the Laurel Diner, from 1934–1951. (Photo: © Baltimore Sun)

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Laurel Diner, 1950s postcard. (Lost Laurel collection)

I won’t attempt to get into the full history of the Laurel Tastee Diner in this post. (To get an idea of that, you can watch a brief teaser for the video I’m still producing below.) But, suffice it to say, it’s a true piece of Laurel’s history.

Remarkably, the building—now 67 years old—still looks and functions very much as it did in its heyday. It’s a veritable time capsule. That’s one reason I enjoy spending so much time there, comparing notes and research with the Laurel History Boys.

That, and the staff are practically like family. When my father was undergoing cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, my parents would drive from their home in Salisbury to meet me at the diner. (They were afraid of driving into Baltimore themselves.) The waitresses would keep an eye on my truck in the parking lot while I chauffeured my parents.

And when my dad passed away in April, the staff even signed a sympathy card for me.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the diner property is being sold—and the buyer has extensive plans to render it completely unrecognizable… and turn it into a medical marijuana dispensary.

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Architectural rendering of Pure Hana Synergy’s plans to convert the diner site.

Let me re-frame for a moment and make something clear–Gene Wilkes and his family have done an amazing job keeping not just one, but a trio of classic diners going for decades. He’s certainly earned the right to sell the business.

Likewise, Pure Hana Synergy, the company purchasing the diner site, has every right to open their new venture—which will not only offer a valuable service, allowing patients access to legal medical cannabis, they’ll undoubtedly clean up a site that has long needed improvement.

That brings me to another important point—the optics of the Tastee Diner having been seen as a “less than savory” spot for some time now.

Depending whom you ask, perception of the diner varies greatly. Some are purists who genuinely appreciate the authenticity. Then there are those who view the place as “dirty”, or a hotbed criminal activity.

The reality is that the diner gets a bad rap for two other establishments it shares ownership with: the TD Lounge and the adjacent motel. Problems that have required police response have typically involved the bar and the motel—not the diner itself. But because of its central location, the diner is often seen as the hub of this negative activity.

When Pure Hana Synergy purchases the property, they plan to modify the diner and the TD Lounge building that adjoins it, wrapping it in a modern façade and gutting the interior. The motel will be demolished, as will the large white house on the lot facing Second Street.

But the diner itself shouldn’t deserve this fate.

The diner doesn’t yet have the prestigious “historic designation” that some buildings receive, protecting them from development. It has been considered for it—but that was over 20 years ago, when diners such as it were ubiquitous throughout the east coast and beyond. The Maryland Historical Trust conducted a survey in May, 1998, and deemed the Tastee Diner as being “ineligible” for various reasons. (See the excerpt below for their crietria):

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But how about now—when Laurel’s Tastee Diner is one of only two surviving, fully-intact Comac-built diners known in the entire country? (The only other being Jack’s Diner in Albany, NY.) Countless others have been demolished, or modified beyond recognition—just as the Tastee Diner is now facing.

Historian Spencer Stewart, who created the wonderful Diner Hunter website, shared this important insight:

In Maryland, once home to dozens of factory built diners, and a hotbed of trolley conversions back in the day, there are only four (or so) old diners still open. Of those, the Tastee in Laurel is arguably the most in-tact and has the longest history on the site, going back in various buildings almost 90 years. The gutting of the Laurel Tastee and its conversion to a dispensary would be an enormous loss of a rare survivor of something that was once ubiquitous in mid-atlantic culture and is now severely endangered.

I’ve proposed that the City of Laurel work with the owners of Pure Hana Synergy to preserve the diner car itself—which isn’t a linchpin of their architectural plan, anyway. The diner portion can be relocated. (Remember, it arrived here from New Jersey by truck in 1951—it can certainly be moved again.)

In fact, this is something that owner Gene Wilkes is all-too familiar with. In June, 2000, he collaborated with Montgomery County to relocate the historic diner car when Discovery Communications decided to build their headquarters on the diner’s original site. (Ironically, Discovery has since moved on—while the Tastee Diner remains successful in its new location.)

To that note, the City of Laurel has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to either seize for themselves, or to work with a developer such as C Street Flats (who already plans to expand to Main Street). Imagine relocating the diner, perhaps to the empty lot at 312 Main Street, which was the site of the old Laurel Theatre/Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre. The city wasn’t keen on salvaging any parts of that old building—but the lot has sat vacant now for two years. Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority has been soliciting proposals for the property ever since. From their RFP:

The CRA purchased the property in 2014 in order to develop the property and is seeking ideas, a vision, and a methodology from experienced developers to transform this key site into a use that will complement the adjacent residential neighborhood and enhance Main Street while adding to the success of Main Street commercial core. The development of the Site will set the direction for new redevelopment along the City’s Main Street.

Imagine for a moment the Laurel/Tastee Diner in that spot—accessible from anywhere along Main Street by foot. There’d still be space for parking, and delivery access from Fetty Alley. Imagine the diner on its own—free from the stigma of the troublesome bar and motel, and under new management that will restore and maintain the historic building. Maybe it doesn’t have to be open 24 hours anymore, either.

If you’ve ever been to the fully-restored 29 Diner in Fairfax, VA, you’ll get a sense of what a landmark diner can be, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that a renewed dedication to Laurel’s Tastee Diner would be any less successful.

I’m certainly not the only one who believes that this should happen. I started a petition on Change.org that gained over 600 signatures in the first day alone. Please click here to add your name to the list, to let all interested parties know that this diner should not be lost.

Laurel’s elected officials should realize that if properly managed, the diner could become an incredible heritage tourism attraction for Laurel, transforming Main Street and giving both it and this historic diner a new lease on life.

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1986: The 99¢ Theater

Summer being the time of blockbuster movies, here’s a true Lost Laurel blockbuster: footage from 1986 leading up to the opening of the 99¢ theater at Town Center! Courtesy of the amazing Jeff Krulik and Paul Sanchez, this clip captures the Rt. 197 & Contee Road shopping center as it was in the mid-80s—including Peoples Drug, Tropical Fish City, DiGennaro’s, Church’s Fried Chicken, and more.

Much more to come—including footage from the grand opening itself (complete with performances by the legendary Sammy Ross, on loan from Delaney’s Irish Pub!) Thanks again, Jeff!!

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Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s: Demolition Pending

My next episode of Lost Laurel will focus on the long history of the derelict building at 312 Main Street, which originally housed the Laurel Theatre, and was the longtime home to Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre before a string of increasingly unsuccessful comedy clubs led to its demise. Here’s a preview:

Unfortunately, the City’s efforts to find a developer willing and able to salvage the critically-deteriorated building weren’t successful, and having recently had the opportunity to tour it myself, I completely see why.

A big thanks to SORTO Contracting, LLC (particularly Francisco Sorto, David Muir, Blaine Sutton, Harry Garlitz and Patrick Fink) for extending the invitation to see and document the building’s final days, and for sharing some truly fantastic finds that I’ll be including in the full episode. In addition to the building’s history, you’ll see for yourself just how far gone the structure actually was. (Yes, those were angry pigeons living inside… and I’m deathly afraid of birds.)

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The SORTO team was also kind enough to carefully remove and save the “Theatre” lettering from the façade for me—these are individually-cut wooden letters that are the only remaining vestiges of the Petrucci’s era (they originally spelled out the full name, “Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre” and matched the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza font.laurel-theatre-preview-pic5laurel-theatre-preview-pic6laurel-theatre-preview-pic7

The letters are badly deteriorated, and frankly, I’m amazed that they came down intact. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m going to restore them.laurel-theatre-preview-pic8laurel-theatre-preview-pic9laurel-theatre-preview-pic10

Blaine Sutton and Patrick Fink of SORTO have also been sharing some of the unexpected treasures that only tend to resurface when walls start coming down. And in a movie theater that dates to 1929, that means some very old candy boxes and soda bottles, for starters! Here’s just a glimpse of what they’ve found:

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Photo courtesy of Blaine Sutton

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Photo courtesy of Patrick Fink

 

Patrick tells me that the pristine Pepsi bottle pre-dates 1951, at which point Pepsi stopped using the double-dot in their logo. It had been stuck in the plaster mortar in the ceiling below the balcony for at least 65 years.

I’ll have plenty more photos to share in the next blog update when the full video is ready. Those who don’t get Laurel TV will still be able to see the episode right here.

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Surprise Closing: Silver Diner

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Photo: Chris B. Daniel

Yesterday evening, I got a text from Rodney Pressley—one of my oldest friends from Laurel. He’d just gotten a most unexpected email from Silver Diner. It wasn’t a promotional coupon, or an announcement about an upcoming event:

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Courtesy of Rodney Pressley

They weren’t just announcing that the popular restaurant at 14550 Washington Boulevard was closing—they had already closed, effective immediately.

Rodney sent me the above screenshot, which I posted on the Lost Laurel Facebook page essentially as breaking news, because this information seemed to have come out of nowhere.

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It quickly became one of Lost Laurel’s most engaging posts—ever—with over 300 shares and over 44,000 people reached. (The page has even had more than 150 new likes in the past 24 hours). Clearly, the unexpected departure of the Silver Diner caught all of us off guard, even those who weren’t regular patrons.

A number of people commented that they’d actually just eaten at the restaurant the day before, and there had been absolutely no clue that they had planned to close. Silver Diner’s website (which had already erased the Laurel location from its website at the time of the email) eventually updated its FAQ page with a special notice about the Laurel restaurant’s closing. They also included a detailed PDF.

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In short, it seems that the restaurant had a 25-year lease on the property, which had just ended. The landowner(s) wanted considerably more money to renew the lease than Silver Diner was willing to pay.

One would think that there would have been some sort of communication with the employees and the community at large before the decision to close was made, though. Had there been, I’m guessing there would have been strong support for Silver Diner to remain open. After all, the restaurant seemed to have a full parking lot at all hours of the day and night—they weren’t hurting for business.

And from a historical perspective, (albeit recent history) this is actually a pretty big deal. The Silver Diner opened in late 1990, and was only the second restaurant in the chain’s history (behind Rockville). It even had an early review in the Washington Post.

Twenty-five years. Think about that for a second. In an age when we’ve sadly come to expect businesses to change every couple of years, this one ended up staying for a quarter of a century. While it honestly didn’t seem like it, the novelty of this polished chrome and neon facsimile of a classic diner had steadily become a classic itself. At the very least, it had become a fixture in the shadow of Laurel Lakes.

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Photos: Bonnie Oskvarek

With the news of its closing, rumors and misinformation quickly began flying, as is often the case with social media. Some folks were confusing the Silver Diner with its elder counterpart—the legendary Tastee Diner at 118 Washington Boulevard—which is still very much open for business, and now in its 65th year. Others mistakenly thought the entire Silver Diner chain was going out of business, blaming its revamped menu, among other things.

Others were speculating that the restaurant had closed due to a fire—a fate all-too familiar for other longtime Laurel restaurants. (See also, “Bay ‘n Surf,” “Delaney’s Irish Pub,” and “Tag’s”…)

In fact, there had actually been a minor fire at the Silver Diner on closing day—but it had nothing to do with the chain’s decision to close the Laurel restaurant.

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Courtesy of Megan Wheatley Shurman

So, Laurel’s Silver Diner has closed its doors. There was no forewarning, and no chance for customers to stop in one last time to reminisce. And 25 years’ worth of memories is significant. I’ve heard from several people who had gone to the restaurant on their first dates; and one Lost Laurel reader commented that she’d met her future husband there—he’d been her waiter.

That being said, I suppose there’s never been a more perfect time to share these items from my collection. Frankly, I didn’t really expect to share them; I assumed, like everyone else, that the Silver Diner wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. These flyers, menus, and coffee cup date between 1990–92—the restaurant’s earliest days:

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This one’s a two-fer: local oldies radio station XTRA104 didn’t last very long into the 1990s.

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Note the two locations: it was just Rockville and Laurel at the time.

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For what it’s worth, Silver Diner’s website mentions that they are “looking at multiple opportunities in the Laurel and Columbia areas and (they) hope to return to the Laurel area soon.”

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Lost Laurel Trivia Night: Nov 8th

Looking for something fun to do on a Saturday night about a month from now?

If you’re in the Laurel area, join me at the historic Tastee Diner on Rt. 1 near Main Street for Lost Laurel Trivia Night, hosted by the Laurel Historical Society!

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This will be our second Trivia Night, having had a blast at Nuzback’s for the inaugural event back in May. Hosting these at locations that have served Laurel for decades makes them all the more fun, and it’s a great way to support local businesses.

No RSVP is needed, and you can create your own team or join one on the fly. The format is simple and straightforward—we read from a list of questions in different categories, all related to Laurel history (the questions are also projected on the wall, in case you miss any) and someone from your team writes down your answers. We may have a speed round, an “identify the logo” round, or some other twists; and there will be prizes for the winners!

The cost to play is $5 for non-members of the Laurel Historical Society, and $3 for members. All proceeds go to the Laurel Museum. The Tastee Diner has a substantial menu to order from, (the crab cake sandwich is one of my favorites!) and will be offering drink specials that night as well.

We’ll be providing all the paper, pencils and everything you’ll need. You just show up with your appetite, and your Lost Laurel trivia knowledge!

Lost Laurel Trivia Night
Saturday, November 8th
7:00 PM
Tastee Diner
118 Washington Blvd.
For more information, visit laurelhistoricalsociety.org or email director@laurelhistoricalsociety.org

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Driving Through Laurel, 1973

Finding photos of vintage Laurel is tough enough, so you can imagine how special it is to find actual film footage. This wonderful clip was shared by Gary M. Smith, and it provides us with an all-too-brief glimpse of a decent portion of Laurel—captured on 8mm film from the passenger seat of a car driven by Milton J. Smith, Sr. in 1973.

It’s a classic 3-minute reel with some interruptions and jumpiness, but there are plenty of unmistakable landmarks throughout the drive. Now that I have the privilege of being your tour guide, here are a few sites to watch for:

  • We start out in North Laurel at the Beech Crest Estates Mobile Home park—the sign for which can be seen at 0:07. Several of the trailers and residents can be seen over the next 30 seconds.
  • At the 0:35 mark, we’re driving driving southbound on Washington Boulevard (Rt. 1), and we pass the California Inn, just north of Whiskey Bottom Rd.
  • Continuing southbound on Rt. 1, we see Sam & Elsie’s Bar at the 0:46 mark.
  • A billboard advertising the nearby Valencia Apartments appears at 0:53.
  • At 0:57, we cross the oft-flooded bridge over the Patuxent and see the Homoco gas station—the remnants of which were only recently torn down on the Fred Frederick automotive property.
  • At 1:02 (just after a bus—probably a Trailways—unfortunately blocks our view of Main Street) we pass White’s Texaco Station, and get just the faintest glimpse of the Little Tavern beside it.
  • The film skips forward a bit at 1:08, where we find ourselves at the intersection of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Street, and Floyd Lilly’s Laurel Amoco Super Service Station, which won a Chamber of Commerce award “for excellence in design, planning, and beautification”. (Imagine a gas station doing that…)
  • I’m not entirely sure, but at 1:16, we seem to be heading west on Talbott Avenue/Rt. 198 beside Donaldson Funeral Home.

  • At 1:47, we’re now on Main Street—heading west beside the infamous Laurel Hotel, with its distinctive stone facade and wooden porch.
  • Bob’s Cab appears just before we see the wooden front of Gayer’s Saddlery at 1:55.
  • The drive continues up to the end of Main Street, where we turn left onto 7th Street at (fittingly) the 2:16 mark. Here we pass St. Mary of the Mills church and cemetery.
  • At 2:37, there’s a brief glimpse of what is likely Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool, before the geography skips over to northbound Rt. 1 at the 2:38 mark—where we can clearly see the old 7-Eleven and Village Inn Pizza Parlor along Bowie Road.
  • Continuing northbound along Rt. 1, we pass the Exxon and Plain ‘n Fancy Donuts before getting a nice view of Safeway and Dart Drug, which sat just beside the railroad tracks and my old neighborhood of Steward Manor.

And that’s about where our drive through 1973 comes to an end, sadly. But any chance to step back in time—especially in a moving vehicle like this—is pretty amazing. I’ve found myself comparing the footage with Google Street Views of the same stretches of road today, just to see how much has changed… and how much has surprisingly stayed the same.

Many thanks again to Gary for sharing this footage! It’s also a reminder to everyone to check their own old home movies and family photo albums, as you never know what might turn up.

 

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Pappy’s Family Pub

It’s been a couple of years since I first posted about Pappy’s Family Pub, and with a few new discoveries since then, I think an update is warranted.

Pappy’s opened in 1976 in what is currently the Wells Fargo Bank on Route 1, directly across from Laurel Shopping Center.

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Shortly after the restaurant opened, the Laurel News Leader ran a feature on it, which included a couple of interior photos—including that memorable glass window where you could watch the pizza magic being made.

(Laurel News Leader, 1/15/76)

(Laurel News Leader, 1/15/76)

(Laurel News Leader, 1/15/76)

(Laurel News Leader, 1/15/76)

The full article appears below (click for full size).

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Local yearbooks included a few ads and photos, as well:

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(1976 Laurel High School Rambler; Laurel Historical Society archives)

(1976 Laurel High School Rambler; Laurel Historical Society archives)

While these pictures provide a rare and nostalgic interior view of the actual Laurel location, they still don’t completely do justice to the full Pappy’s experience—a sensory overload of delicious pizza aromas and colorful, old-timey fun.

What most people tend to recall at the first mention of Pappy’s are those styrofoam hats—which were worn by staff members and available for kids. After years of searching for one, I’ve finally tracked down a pair of the original hats! One of them will soon be at the Laurel Museum, as part of the ever-expanding Lost & Found Laurel exhibit. Hmm… They’re a bit smaller than I remember.

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I’ve also found one I didn’t realize ever existed—a cheaper, flat paper alternative. Apparently, these became the more cost-effective giveaways, while the employees continued to wear the real thing.

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And speaking of employees, Francesfoxvintage, a seller on etsy.com, actually has an original Pappy’s waitress uniform for sale—the likes of which probably hasn’t been seen since the 1970s ended. It provides an even better sense of the vivid red and black color palette that permeated Pappy’s.

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Pappy’s didn’t only serve pizza, of course; and now we’ve got the hot dog containers to prove it.

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A pair of matchbooks from Laurel’s Pappy’s, courtesy of Kevin Leonard:

Pappy's matchbooks from Kevin Leonard

Last, but not least, the crown jewel of plastic toy rings. Behold!

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As convenient as delivery has become with the likes of Domino’s, et al, there will always be something about a genuine old pizza restaurant experience that just can’t be topped. No pun intended.

 

 

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Farewell, Bay ‘n Surf

While the former Bay ‘n Surf restaurant had sat vacant and crumbling since 2007, the shock of seeing it actually torn down today will undoubtedly leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many who remember it in its heyday—a time when it was the undisputed heavyweight champ of Maryland cream of crab soup.

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Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Videos courtesy of Chris Blucher

 

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Photo: Dave DeBlasis

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Photo: Sharon Nuzback

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Photo: Sharon Nuzback

Photo: John Mewshaw

Photo: John Mewshaw

Originally opened in 1965, the restaurant closed after a refrigerator compressor fire in the early morning hours of Valentines Day, 2007. Speculation about reopening—even at another location—floated around for years, but never materialized.

The initial word on the street is that the site will soon be home to a new mini strip center, but there’s been no confirmation on potential tenants. (Sadly, I’m guessing none will offer cream of crab soup, though).

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Stefanie Watson: Case Closed

Sometimes, the truth really does turn out to be stranger than fiction. And as the other old truism goes, life really does often imitate art.

Although, sadly, there wasn’t actually anything fictional or artful about the 1982 murder of Stefanie Watson. It was all too real, and all too disturbing; and for three decades, not only was the crime unsolved, it was as cold a case as one could ever imagine—virtually nothing had been written about it for nearly 30 years. Growing up, I’d always felt it should have been a national news story—it certainly had all the elements of a Hollywood whodunit or a New York Times bestseller.

Last summer, in the midst of curating Lost Laurel, I realized that the 30th anniversary of Stefanie’s death was approaching. I wanted to not only mark the occasion, but somehow generate interest and possibly even rejuvenate the investigation into her murder. In the process, I developed what I thought to be a compelling theory—albeit an unlikely one. I became convinced that Stefanie’s killer(s) were the notorious drifters, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole—the latter having been the murderer of young Adam Walsh, son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, almost exactly one year earlier in 1981. Erratic travelers active primarily in the south, both had connections to Prince George’s County, the opportunity, and certainly the will and the means to commit such a crime. They’d been free at the time of Stefanie’s disappearance, confirmed having traveled through Maryland in the summer of 1982, and owned a car at that time matching the description of the one seen that fateful night on Larchdale Road, dumping partial skeletal remains—Stefanie’s only remains ever recovered, to this day.

The question I posed was simple: could there really have been anyone else even capable of such a horrific crime, not to mention the numerous coincidences? As it turns out, there really was. And in yet another incredible coincidence, his name is John Walsh. But we’ll get to him in a moment.

Learning the news

In addition to bringing the case back to the public consciousness among Laurelites last summer, one of the unexpected blessings has been making contact with the family of Stefanie Watson. I was only 9 years old when she died, and had never met her. But as I explained in the original post, I’ve never forgotten the summer of 1982, and the feeling of dread standing for hours near the missing person flyer taped to the large window at the entrance to Zayre. Stefanie Watson’s face—still strikingly pretty through that faded Xerox photocopy—was the first and last face I saw each day at Zayre, as I manned my post outside—a shy kid trying to sell Olympic Sales Club products to approaching customers. For long, lonely stretches at times, it was just me and that flyer; just me and Stefanie Watson.

stefanie-missing-poster

Before I published the article, I had considered trying to contact Stefanie’s family for information. But the fear of opening old wounds for them was great, and being neither a journalist or investigator, I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Instead, I spoke to Laurel Chief of Police Rich McLaughlin first, and he directed me to Prince George’s County Homicide’s cold case division. There, I spoke to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti. I explained to them that in writing the piece, I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything that would impede their investigation, or upset Stefanie’s family, should they happen to come across it. Both men encouraged me to write it.

Surprisingly, Stefanie’s family did come across it. I first received an email from her cousin, Leanne last October, and it was such a relief to hear that they were grateful for what I’d written. I learned that Leanne’s older sister, Chris, had been Stefanie’s best friend. Chris was, in fact, the one who had the unthinkable task of reporting her missing.

Leanne and I corresponded a bit, and the blog posting continued to get its share of comments over the next several months. Then, on Friday, June 21st, I got an email from Leanne that I never could’ve expected. She was letting me know that there had been an arrest in Stefanie’s murder, and that the DNA matched an inmate named John Walsh. “No kidding,” she added.

And then, on Sunday, June 23rd, I got a call from Sgt. Fulginiti, confirming this stunning news. “I’ve spoken to Stefanie’s family, and I wanted to call you next,” he said; and in what was a tremendous honor, he told me that the Lost Laurel article had indeed helped breathe new life into the cold case. He let me know that he would be issuing a press conference in the following days, formally announcing that charges have been filed against John Ernest Walsh, a 68-year-old inmate who has been incarcerated on an unrelated charge since 1989. Preserved DNA from the back of the driver’s seat of Stefanie’s blood-soaked 1981 Chevette unequivocally matched that of Walsh. Stefanie, it’s clear, put up an incredible fight in that small car—as a significant amount of that blood evidently belonged to Walsh, whom Sgt. Fulginiti reports still bears distinct scars.

The press conference came on Tuesday, June 25th, and a lot of local minds were thoroughly blown—including my own.

For the remainder of the week—and for the first time since this unspeakable crime occurred back in the summer of 1982, there was no shortage of news coverage. The Laurel Leader, rightfully, was one of the first to break the story. Fox5 aired a report, as did WJLA 7, and plenty of others. (Just Google it).

John Ernest Walsh, we learned, had been arrested in 1969—when he was only 24 years old—for the kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder of a woman in Prince George’s County whose throat and wrists he cut before literally leaving her for dead in the woods. Against all odds, she survived; and Walsh was sentenced to 72 years in prison. But unfortunately for society, this was just the beginning of his story.

John Ernest Walsh (Photo: Prince George's County Police)

John Ernest Walsh (Photo: Prince George’s County Police)

Walsh was deemed a psychiatric patient, naturally, and was handpicked by the Patuxent Institution in Jessup “for rehabilitation”. After serving only 8 years, he was deemed “rehabilitated”—at least enough to be allowed out on work release. That was in 1978. Two years later, in 1980, he was paroled outright. You read that correctly—this man kidnapped, raped, and cut a woman’s throat, then ended up really only serving 8 years of a seventy-two year sentence. And so it came to be that on July 22, 1982, John Ernest Walsh—the “rehabilitated” kidnapper/rapist/attempted murderer—crossed paths with Stefanie Watson. The exact circumstances of just how their paths crossed may only be known to Walsh himself, and so far, he claims he “doesn’t remember”.

Having had his parole revoked in 1989 for failing a drug test, Walsh has had the last 24 years to think about it in Eastern Correctional Institution, where he is Inmate #113067. That may bring some solace to the family and friends of Stefanie Watson, but it raises even more questions—not the least of which is, how many other people did this man kill during his years of “rehabilitated” freedom, between 1978 and 1989? And what about the Patuxent Institution itself? Surely, there is a record somewhere that bears the signature of a fatally misguided psychiatrist who literally released this monster on the public. The individual (or group) who made that decision is, in my opinion, just as responsible for Stefanie Watson’s death as John Ernest Walsh is, and should rightfully pay for it.

Shifting focus

Watching the press conference and news coverage last week was surreal for a number of reasons. Honestly, it still hasn’t sunken in yet that the case has actually been solved; and that the killer has been sitting in prison for the past 24 years thinking he’d otherwise gotten away with it. In fact, in January 2000, he actually tried to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals to return him to the cushier confines of Patuxent, feeling that he’d been unfairly sent to a more “punitive” environment. Again, fortunately for society, that was overruled.

That being said, I’ve written all I care to write about this man. I trust that he’ll be in court soon to face the charge of first degree murder, and when he does, he’ll return to the spotlight of our local news. My wish, however, is that the spotlight returns to the rightful person—Stefanie Watson.
With the news of the arrest came another pleasant surprise—the first fairly clear color photo of Stefanie I’d ever seen.

Stefanie Watson (Photo: Prince George's County Police)

Stefanie Watson (Photo: Prince George’s County Police)

It was her driver’s license photo, used by police during the investigation. Granted, few people are particularly fond of their driver’s license photos, but this one came into focus on television screens and computer monitors like a breath of fresh air. For nearly 31 years, Stefanie Watson had been a fading name and a grainy, black and white image on a photocopied missing person flyer. Suddenly, there she was again—this time in full color. It gave me a wonderful idea for my follow-up story, which I wanted to focus primarily on Stefanie herself, rather than the man who killed her.

I immediately contacted her cousin, Leanne again, and inquired about writing a piece that really showed who Stefanie was as a person: the music she listened to, the shows she watched, etc. Leanne had her older sister, Chris, give me a call—and for nearly an hour and a half, I was treated to a first person account of growing up with Stefanie—not only as her cousin, but as her best friend.

Invaluable help came from even more of Stefanie’s family. Her niece, Kate—who had only been three months old at the time of her aunt’s disappearance—shared a treasure trove of photos of Stefanie through the years:

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie's sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Stefanie (left) with older sister Margaret. (Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams).

Stefanie (left) with older sister, Peg.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate).

Stefanie's senior high school photo, 1973.  (Family photo courtesy of Stefanie's sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.).

Stefanie’s senior high school photo, 1973.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate).

Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Stefanie was only two years older than her cousin, Chris—an obvious factor in their closeness. Her sister, Margaret (known as Peg)—while undoubtedly close herself—was seven years older than Stefanie. But Stefanie and Chris were, by all accounts, inseparable best friends. Speaking to Chris on the phone all these years later, the joy in her voice was palpable, as were the memories. “Oh, she was a good time. Just a really good time,” she said—clearly smiling while recalling the days leading up to the summer of 1982. And in particular, Stefanie’s all-too brief time in Laurel. She arrived in September 1981, and Chris would frequently make the drive down from Pennsylvania to visit. Coincidentally, it was Stefanie who taught Chris to drive some years earlier, in what Chris remembered as an orange Buick Skylark.

“She had a wicked sense of humor,” Chris mused, “and she loved the beach.” To that point, Deborah Moore, an 18-year-old neighbor who lived in the building beside Stefanie’s in 1982, even remembers her sunbathing on the 8th Street Field right in front of her apartment. “She was fearless,” Chris reiterated. “She would walk her dog along those fields early in the morning and late at night.” Her dog, a striking red Siberian Husky, was named Kito. Chris sent me the following photos, which beautifully capture them both.

Stefanie with Kito.  (Family photo courtesy of Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s cousin, Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.  (Family photo courtesy of Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s cousin, Christy).

“That’s more Stefanie than most other pictures,” Leanne replied, fondly recalling her “cool cousin”:
“I look at her face, and still see the girl that I thought was so pretty, and had great clothes… I would sneak them out of her bag when she spent the night, wear them to school, and have them nicely folded and back in her bag before she and my sister got home from work. They were older than me—Chris is four years older and Stefanie was six years older. Chris always thought of me as her pesky little sister and would tell me to get lost, and Stefanie would tell her to stop being so mean.”

Chris also attested to Stefanie’s fashion sense, and how she was always “super-neat, and had to make sure everything was clean and pressed”.

I asked about Stefanie’s favorite foods, and with a laugh, Chris explained that Stefanie “could eat like a hog and never gain weight!” She added that they would often eat frequently and at odd times, undoubtedly due in part to Stefanie’s late work schedule at what was then called Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital. She would typically report to work at 11:30 PM, where she was the overnight admitting clerk in the busy emergency room. Chris thought about restaurants they frequented together in Laurel, and one name came instantly to mind. “Tippy’s Taco House,” she said, knowing that it’s still open at 315 Gorman Avenue, albeit under the name Toucan Taco since 1992. The girls would get their Tex-Mex fix, and Chris would even buy more for the trip home to Pennsylvania.

Chris and I talked about TV shows that Stefanie watched, too:

“I remember she loved Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, One Day at a Time, The Love Boat, Saturday Night Live—when Saturday Night Live was good, of course”.

Music was a big part of Stefanie’s life, and she and Chris frequented concerts—including several at Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia. “We’d go to any concert,” she said. “It really didn’t matter who was playing—we just loved to go”. She cited a number of Stefanie’s favorite recording artists, and while the list paints a veritable time capsule of the era, it also attests to her diverse taste in music. Rod Stewart, I expected. Charlie Daniels, I did not. But Chris said they were both part of Stefanie’s playlist:

“The Bee Gees, Blondie, Rod Stewart, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Christopher Cross, Elton John, David Bowie… and how could I forget Todd Rundgren, and her all time favorite Dan Fogelberg—loved him. She was also a huge Steely Dan fan!”
With Christy’s help, I’ve put together a little playlist that Stefanie would approve of:

A few years earlier in Pennsylvania, she’d also had a dog named “Jackson”—because she also loved Jackson Browne.

It’s easy for us to use the term “playlist” today, and forget that it wouldn’t have been part of Stefanie’s lexicon 30+ years ago. Chris and I talked about this as well; how there were no cell phones, no internet, no MP3s—none of the modern conveniences that we take for granted today. Consider the things that Stefanie missed out on within just that first year alone: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Return of the Jedi. A Christmas Story. Friday Night Videos. Flashdance. Madonna. Then consider everything she missed over the next thirty years. It’s staggering.

Stefanie would have just celebrated her 58th birthday on July 3rd, and it’s hard to fathom that she’s now been gone longer than she was here. This is especially true for Laurel, where she was really only a resident for a total of 10 months. Even if the unspeakable crime hadn’t occurred, she was literally just days away from relocating to Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m 40 years old today. That’s 13 years older than Stefanie was at the time of her disappearance. It really is amazing how time flies by. And while the rest of us continue to get older and live our lives, Stefanie will always remain that beautiful and kind 27-year-old who loved the beach, her dog, and concerts. And she’ll forever be a part of Laurel. Personally, I like to think that had she lived, she would even be an active Lost Laurel follower on Facebook—reminiscing over photos and artifacts she’d recall from her time in our hometown.

(Lost Laurel collection).

Glass ashtray, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection).

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.  (Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

Ballpoint pen from Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

T-shirt from Laurel’s 4th of July Celebration, 1982.
(Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

This banner from 1982 adorned the 8th Street Field fence directly across from Stefanie's apartment. (Laurel Historical Society collection).

This banner from the 1982 celebration adorned the 8th Street Field fence directly across from Stefanie’s apartment. Coincidentally, the day also marked Stefanie’s 27th birthday.
(Laurel Historical Society collection).

I never would’ve dreamed, as a little kid nearly 31 years ago, that I’d grow up and contribute a small part to finally catching the monster responsible for Stefanie Watson’s death. That has been a truly unexpected blessing, and it’s only through the diligence and cooperation of the Laurel Police Department, the Prince George’s County Police Department, and these amazing P.G. County cold case detectives that we’ve finally seen this case resolved.

Plenty of questions remain, but even after all this time, we may finally be about to learn the answers. The main question, however—who did it?—has finally been put to rest. Thirty years removed, the man responsible has been living a miserable existence behind bars; an existence that, as we speak, is only becoming increasingly more miserable. I’ll drink to that.

The coincidences that permeate this chapter in Laurel’s history continue to astound me: the sheer randomness of the crime; the timing of Stefanie’s last night at work and plans to relocate; and now the very name of the killer. As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Nonetheless, it happened, and those of us who lived in Laurel during the summer of 1982 have never forgotten. Nor will we ever.

As Laurel celebrates another 4th of July, let’s remember Stefanie as more than just a victim. Her family has been kind enough to share photos and memories with us that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and it’s my hope that it paints a clearer picture of who this young woman was. There’s a line from an Elton John song—whom we now know was one of Stefanie’s favorites—that best sums up my feelings, and probably those of everyone else from my generation who grew up in Laurel:

“And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid.
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did”.

*****

My immeasurable thanks to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti and his team of cold case detectives at the Prince George’s County Police Department, for taking the time to not only talk to me about a haunting case that predates their careers, but for then going out and actually breaking it wide open once and for all. Thank you, DNA evidence! And most of all, thank you again to Stefanie’s incredibly strong family members: her sister, Peg; her niece, Kate; and her cousins Leanne and Chris—for helping us remember the Stefanie that you knew and loved.

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