Category Archives: Video

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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A Childhood Apartment… 30 Years Later

I finally had the chance to tour my childhood apartment at Steward Manor this weekend—the first time I’ve stepped foot inside since my parents and I moved in the summer of 1987. It’s amazing how every inch of space still holds so many vivid memories.

Even before starting Lost Laurel, it was Steward Manor’s history that first fascinated me. I’d begun researching it in earnest in 2010, visiting the rental office to copy vintage photos; and tracking down original plat survey drawings from 1959 at Ben Dyer Associates—the civil engineering company that’s still in business today.

I’d gotten a message from my friend, Joe Leizear, a longtime Steward Manor resident who became a maintenance man there himself. Joe shares a fascination for this kind of stuff, and knew I’d love to tour my old apartment when the opportunity arose. Sure enough, shortly after the most recent tenants moved out, Joe invited me to see it.

The tour wouldn’t have been complete without my oldest friends, Rodney and Ronald Pressley—twin brothers I’ve known since the first grade, and grew up with at the apartment complex.

It’s a surreal experience, walking through such a familiar place again after all these years… and it’s amazing how vivid the memories remain. Even with the many upgrades and changes—and even vacant—it still feels like it did in the 1980s. It felt like home.

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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A Nightmare in Laurel

When I decided to write a piece about the Stefanie Watson cold case back in 2012 to mark the 30th anniversary of this incredibly brutal, yet remarkably obscure crime, I didn’t expect much to come of it. I certainly didn’t expect P.G. County Homicide detectives to solve the case the following year; I didn’t expect the killer to still be alive to answer for the crime; I didn’t expect to meet and become friends with Stefanie’s family and other key participants in those events from 1982, and sit with them at the killer’s sentencing; and I definitely didn’t expect to play a part in bringing about an episode of On the Case with Paula Zahn, focusing on this tragic, but fascinating story.

But all of those things have indeed happened, and I’m excited to see the episode premiere Sunday night, 9/25 at 10p.m. on Investigation Discovery.

I’m getting chills from the preview alone.

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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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Stefanie Watson Case: Walsh Sentenced

This morning began on an odd note. At 5:30 AM, I was awake before the sun came up—in order to make sure I could be at the Prince George’s County Court House before 9 AM. It was dark, it was raining… and yet, birds were chirping.

The birds must’ve known that the darkness and clouds weren’t going to linger much longer. It was almost poetic, like so many other things surrounding the Stefanie Watson cold case, which officially reached a milestone this morning. John Ernest Walsh entered a guilty plea and was finally sentenced for her murder.

I had the honor of joining Stefanie’s family at the court house for his sentencing—a recap of that incredible experience is below.

While there are still plenty of questions to be answered, this was a tremendous milestone. After nearly 34 years, the case is finally closed.

I’m grateful to see that Stefanie’s story is also finally getting the attention it deserves—newspapers across the country are already running the Associated Press story about today’s hearing, and now that the case has been adjudicated, Investigation Discovery has been in touch about producing an episode of On the Case with Paula Zahn. Stay tuned for that.

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Laurel TV Episode 7: The Stefanie Watson Cold Case

This has been a long time coming due to an increasingly busy schedule, but I’ve finally completed my latest episode of Lost Laurel for Laurel TV. It was by far the toughest one I’ve produced—but the most gratifying. It’s a full recap of the improbable journey helping to reignite the Stefanie Watson cold case back in 2012, and the unlikely arrest that was made the following year.

Todd McEvers, who was a 17-year-old Pallotti student back in 1982, was the lone witness who saw a man throwing something into the woods at the dead end of Larchdale Road. Moments later, he made the startling discovery—Stefanie’s partial skeletal remains. Three days after graduating, his family moved to Reno, Nevada—convinced that the killer knew exactly where they lived.

For the past 33 years, Todd had kept that harrowing tale to himself, speaking only to detectives. After the 2013 arrest of John Ernest Walsh, whose DNA was found in Stefanie’s bloodstained Chevette, Todd contacted me and shared his story. Now a high school teacher in Arizona, he graciously recorded an interview segment for this episode. Thank you again, Todd.

It’s a difficult subject, to be sure, and a dark chapter in Laurel’s history that I’m grateful to have helped bring some closure to. Walsh’s trial for first degree murder is now scheduled for March of next year, and I’m looking forward to proudly attending that beside Stefanie’s incredibly strong family.

Click here to watch in HD on YouTube.

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2001 Tornado Footage

In “Ripped from the Headlines: Laurel in the News,” the current exhibit at the Laurel Museum,  there’s a panel in the Disasters section that covers the tornado that wreaked havoc through the Fairlawn neighborhood and beyond in September 2001—less than two weeks after 9/11. Remember, this was a town already on edge after learning that some of the hijackers had stayed in Laurel… and then a tornado literally blew through.

The panel features the cover of that week’s Laurel Leader, which included a stunning image of the funnel cloud moving just beyond Laurel Shopping Center and the Middletowne Apartments high rise.

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The image wasn’t a photograph, but a video still from footage shot by Brian Alexander—shot from the fourth floor office of the former American National Bank building, which was demolished in 2012 to make way for a new Walgreens.

(Photo: Richard Friend, 2012)

(Photo: Richard Friend, 2012)

Until today, that was the only image I’d ever seen of the tornado itself, although there are plenty of photos of its aftermath. The tornado briefly reached the F3 category, with winds up to 160 mph. Laurel was fortunate that there were no casualties that day, although there was plenty of damage—portions of roofs were blown off Laurel High School, and the historic Harrison-Beard Building at Montgomery and Ninth Streets was nearly lost; one house along the 1000 block of Tenth Street was completely destroyed.

As yet another September is upon us, it’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since this happened. And it all came back vividly today when Steve Jones sent me the following footage—these appear to be the actual Brian Alexander video clips themselves, as well as some bonus footage of the aftermath.

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Stefanie Watson Program: Recapping a Special Night

This past Thursday night, July 9th, I had the honor of giving a special presentation on the Stefanie Watson cold case, describing Lost Laurel‘s role in helping to reignite the investigation into the 30-year-old crime—which finally yielded an arrest. Nearly 33 years after her murder, the case is slated to go to trial next month.

The program was part of “The Rest of the Story: a series based on “Ripped from the Headlines, Laurel in the News”—the current exhibit at the Laurel Museum, which focuses on local and national stories and how they were covered locally. The Stefanie Watson case is one of the stories. The exhibit runs through December 21, 2015, and visitors to the exhibit can browse the Laurel Leader from 1897-2008.

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Presented by the Laurel Historical Society and hosted by the Laurel Police Department at their beautiful Partnership Activity Center, a good turnout braved some heavy rains to hear the program—including Mayor Craig Moe and Chief of Police Rich McLaughlin. My thanks again to all who came out, especially in that weather.

The highlight for me was one special surprise attendee—Christy Torres, who made the drive from Pennsylvania. Chris is the cousin and best friend of Stefanie Watson; the same cousin who had the unfathomable task of reporting her missing back in 1982, when she failed to show up for their planned trip to Ocean City.

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(Photo: Donnie Conty)

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(Photo: Lindsey Baker)

I’d spoken to Chris at length on the phone and by email, but hadn’t met her until Thursday night. After the presentation, she said, “I have something for you,” and pulled out a beautiful, hand-carved wooden box. “This belonged to Stefanie.”

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It’s an incredible gift that I will truly never forget, and it will always occupy a special place on my desk. Despite having never known her, Stefanie’s memory was never far from my mind, all these years. I’m happy that it will be even closer now.

For those who weren’t able to attend, the entire program was filmed, complete with a question and answer session. You can watch directly on the link above, or view it here on YouTube. I’ll also be focusing my next episode of Lost Laurel for Laurel TV on this story, where you’ll be able to see the aerial photos, maps, etc. that were used in the program in more detail.

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(Family photo)

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Lost Laurel TV: Revisiting the Lost & Found Laurel Exhibit

Due to a busier-than-usual schedule, (and a few technical difficulties on my part) this newest episode of the Lost Laurel show for Laurel TV is a bit late… but it’s done—and better late than never!

I filmed it in December, just as the Lost & Found Laurel exhibit was about to close at the Laurel Museum. The idea is that if you didn’t have a chance to experience it in person, (or if you overlooked some of the pieces during what was the museum’s busiest opening day of all time) this episode will give you a chance to see it in full detail.

It also includes an interview with Laurel Historical Society Executive Director Lindsey Baker, who not only gives an overview of the show, but a preview of the new 2015 exhibit, Ripped from the Headlines: Laurel in the News—which has since opened. (Go check it out—it’s awesome!)

You can watch the episode below, or view it directly on YouTube at full size. Enjoy!

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