With a wink, Mr. Boh selling more than beer

Mr. Boh is back.

Not that he ever really left - not when his image was pulled from beer cans in the 1960s, not when the company he was mascot for closed its Baltimore brewery in 1980, not even when beer marketing went the way of gusto-grabbing hunks and scantily clad babes.Long before Mr. Whipple pushed toilet paper and geckos took to hawking car insurance, there was Mr. Boh - the round-headed, mustachioed, one-eyed mascot of National Bohemian beer, aka Natty Boh.

And today - even though he is nearing 80, and Baltimore's hometown beer hasn't been brewed in Baltimore for 26 years - Mr. Boh is enjoying a resurgence. His likeness, returned to the can years ago, is popping up all over.

Today, you can find Mr. Boh's winking face - a 27-foot-tall, red neon version - atop Brewers Hill, capping the newly remodeled, 11-story Natty Boh Tower. Inside the former brewery one soon will be able to buy Mr. Boh souvenirs and view parts of a new documentary, Mr. Boh's Brewery, which premiers tonight.

Across the street, you can visit the memorabilia-filled Natty Boh Lounge on the second floor of Canton Station, a tavern whose third floor is being transformed into what may strike some as a contradiction in terms, given the beer's blue-collar image: the "Natty Boh VIP Lounge."

"There definitely seems to be a rise in Natty Boh fans," said Ben Shayne, who runs the fan site nationalbohemian.com. "And I think part of it is the resurgence of the city as a good place to live again."

Iconic accessories

Whatever the reasons - urban renaissance, kitsch appeal, nostalgia - Mr. Boh is an icon again, a fact easily seen at the Fells Point shop Natty Boh Gear, sanctioned distributor of all things Boh.

The shop opened in October, and between it and its online arm, Nattybohgear.com, Mr. Boh is being sold in the form of bumper stickers, golf balls, ties (including Boh-ties), dog collars, signs, clocks, caps, flying disks, Christmas ornaments, crab mallets and T-shirts, including a black one that says simply, "BOH-LIEVE."

While the shop sells newly produced items, vintage Boh memorabilia has enjoyed a jump in value on eBay, according to longtime collectors, some of whom have outfitted their basement bars, their living rooms and even their bodies with his image.

Boh-dacious?

It is for bona fide Boh enthusiasts such as Ben Donovan, a Baltimore firefighter whose online handle is "Bohlover," whose basement overflows with Mr. Boh memorabilia and who motors around his Lutherville neighborhood in a converted golf cart he calls his "Boh-cart."

Donovan, 31, sports a Mr. Boh tattoo on his right calf; his wife, Elizabeth, has a Mrs. Boh tattooed on her left.

"I've loved it ever since I first started drinking - it was one of the first beers I ever drank," said Donovan, who is currently bidding on eBay for a vintage Mr. Boh ashtray that carries the slogan, "Oh boy, what a beer." (Bidding started at $14 and is now well over $100.)

"A lot of things have doubled in value," Donovan said, attributing the surge in popularity - of Mr. Boh and, to a lesser extent, the beer - to the restoration of the former National brewery by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc.

In the past few years, Mr. Boh's popularity "has just grown and grown," said Todd Unger, who obtained the rights to market Mr. Boh's image from Pabst Brewing, the company that now makes National Bohemian. "And with the Natty Boh Tower and the resurgence of Brewers Hill, it caught even more steam," he added.

`Boh knows'

Two and a half years ago, Unger made some T-shirts for his fellow Ravens tailgaters that read, "Boh Knows Baltimore Football." So many people asked about them, he made more, broadened his inventory and started selling Mr. Boh items at sporting events and festivals before opening his store and Web site last fall.

Though Unger owns the rights, for years Baltimoreans have pretty much helped themselves to Mr. Boh's image.

Mary Prankster, the name used by a New York (via Dundalk) musician, came up with the "Mrs. Boh" character as her logo. At Nacho Mama's, a Canton restaurant, the walls are decorated with vintage National Bohemian memorabilia; Mr. Boh's image, wearing a sombrero, is on its menu; and wait staff often wear National Bohemian-inspired uniforms. In the city and suburbs, athletic teams have adopted him as mascot, and tattoo artists have added him to their repertoire.

All that - and the fact that Mr. Boh and his beer have long held a warm place in the hearts and bladders of many Baltimoreans - kept the 1930s-era character from fading away entirely.

"He went into hiding a little bit," said Mike Citro, who manages Natty Boh Gear, in the former home of a sub shop, thrift store and fortune teller on Thames Street in Fells Point. "The beer always had a die-hard following, but I think there's been a resurgence - some of it in people drinking, but mostly in the image becoming popular, especially in the Canton area."

Among the biggest fans are young people who were not old enough to drink - or in some cases not even born yet - when National Brewing Co. closed down in 1980.

National Bohemian went on to be produced by Stroh Brewing in Halethorpe until 1996, and, since then, by Texas-based Pabst, but it is still marketed regionally. Outside Maryland, Mr. Boh remains fairly unrecognizable.

Citro said out-of-towners often mistake Mr. Boh for Mr. Pringles, the round-headed, mustachioed (but two-eyed) potato chip mascot.

Actually, Mr. Boh, who dates to the 1930s, could be his grandfather.

`We screamed'

He originally appeared in National Bohemian advertisements among an ensemble of characters, a sophisticate wearing a top hat and monocle.

After that, he took center stage, but his face became more of an oval. In the 1950s he first appeared as the Mr. Boh we now know - round head, one eye, bushy mustache. The face was always the same, except for his lone eye switching from one side to the other. Sometimes he was a bartender, sometimes a waiter, sometimes a baseball player, among other things.

"I still remember the print ads - back when radio was in its infancy and TV wasn't even here yet," said Bill Costello, 71. "There was Mr. Boh, with the one eye, and the hyphens coming out of the eye going into the bottle of National Bohemian, and the words, `Oh boy, what a beer.'"

In the mid-1960s, Costello would go to work for National Bohemian, serving as director of advertising from 1964 to 1975. But Mr. Boh would leave.

"We had a red label that had been virtually unchanged since Prohibition, and in 1965 it was changed to a white one, because top management felt the white label would say `lighter taste,' and lighter tastes were becoming popular," Costello said. At the same time, Mr. Boh's likeness was removed.

"We screamed and yelled and fought. ... We didn't want it changed," Costello added. "We were on top of this market, by far, when that label was changed. After that, you could see our sales on the graphs just drop off."

Eventually, Mr. Boh was returned, he said, but the label change hastened the demise of National Bohemian, which once accounted for three of every five beers sold in Maryland.

As the popularity of national brands such as Budweiser increased, bolstered by heavy TV advertising aimed at snagging younger drinkers, sales of regional brands steadily declined, among them, the beer brewed in "the land of pleasant living."

`It's magical'

As to Mr. Boh's recent resurgence, he said, "I think it's just Baltimore nostalgia. Why did Volkswagen bring back the Bug?"

Costello is one of five former National Brewing Co. employees who relive the brewery's glory days in a documentary sponsored by Struever Bros. and Obrecht Commercial Real Estate Inc. - developers of two defunct breweries on Conkling Street, National Brewing and Gunther Brewery.

The 27-minute documentary is the result of nine hours of interviews with the employees and "Turkey" Joe Trabert, a Natty Boh aficionado and former bar owner, and features archival photos and footage of old advertisements.

The Creative Alliance is premiering the documentary tonight at the Patterson, but, despite adding a second show, both are booked to capacity.

"They definitely tugged some heartstrings with this," said Megan Hamilton, program director for the alliance. "The response has been huge." The alliance is considering additional showings.

The filmmakers plan to make a shorter version to be shown in the Natty Boh Tower lobby, and perhaps a longer one as well.

"There was so much we couldn't get in," said Harry Connolly, director of photography. That includes recollections of the days employees would hunt pigeons in the brewery. Whenever one was shot and fell into the beer vat, that batch wouldn't be sold to the public, Connolly said. But, he added, it was shared by employees, who referred to it as "pigeon beer."

Artist-architect Alex Castro headed the documentary project, and with developer Bill Struever came up with the idea for the neon Mr. Boh sign - appropriately enough, over a beer.

"We kind-of thought, `Wouldn't it be wonderful on top of that tall building to put a big Mr. Boh?' And I guess it was about half a beer later when we said, `Wouldn't it be great if he winked at the city?' " Castro said.

The Mr. Boh sign atop 3601 O'Donnell St., visible from Interstate 95, winks about once a minute.

"It's just such a beautifully compelling design - so unique and strong and immediately recognizable, and it has a warm feeling to it," Castro said. "It's just a friendly face."

Mr. Boh's comeback, though, is about more than that. He's kitschy and oozes nostalgia, but mostly he's a reminder of simpler times in a city that seems to appreciate those reminders - maybe more than most.

"Baltimore has a great sense of memory," Castro said. "We remember the Colts, all the early Orioles, and all the cherished old places from years ago, like Haussner's [restaurant], that were part of us. So when you bring something back like that, it's magical. It relates to something deep in our hearts."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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