At MICA's print shop on Dolphin Street, Bob Cicero pulls block letters from Globe Poster Company's drawers with swift motions, as if performing card tricks, pausing only to comment on the workmanship of the hand-carved fonts. Every woodblock he holds in the air-Mary Wells, Dionne Warwick, B.B. King, Prince-hammers home that Globe Poster Company, Cicero's family business, was literally pressing these people into the great timeline of American music.
"Every day when I was down at Globe, we had to figure out how to get the posters out, everything else was a second thought," he says. "We kept believing this was history, but we didn't know what to do with it."
While Globe Poster, born at a 1929 card game, thrived during the heyday of print, the company never quite transitioned to computer-based four-color graphics, and was on the verge of shutting down by 2011 ("Pressed for Time," Feature, Jan. 26, 2011). The fate of its collection of posters and woodcuts was in jeopardy until Maryland Institute College of Art bought 75 percent of everything, set up presses with some choice woodblocks as a working operation, and brought in Bob Cicero as a faculty member to teach the Globe way ("MICA Buys Globe Poster Company," Arts and Minds, Feb. 23, 2011).
It was a freakin' miracle that this stuff-17 box trucks' worth-was saved at all, and it will take a near-miracle to convey the impact of these posters, which practically trace the advent of recorded music. But saving the collections is little more than a good gesture if they are left to sit in boxes. MICA did a welcome-to-the-neighborhood exhibition at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Spring 2012, but a new exhibition called Globe Poster: Not to Be Missed, at Creative Alliance from April 27 through June 15, tries to capture the soul of this unassuming print shop on Bank Street that changed the language of visual culture.
In some ways, it's not such a hard task. Let your average vinyl-freak pick through collection and she could surely pull a passable survey of Globe gems to hang on the walls. After all, Globe posters are intended to sizzle the eye as their carnie letters jitter and twitch on the boards in a very old school inky, comic smack-up that is so iconic it's almost taken for granted.
But the show's curator, Chloe Helton-Gallagher, a graduate student at MICA's curatorial practice program (and occasional City Paper contributor), isn't your average music nerd. She grew up in Oregon with musician parents who doubled as antique collectors with a penchant for old records.
For almost two years, Helton-Gallagher has worked assiduously to avoid numerous musical rabbit holes, resisting the urge to explore dozens of curious tunnels and tangents in the massive Globe Poster collection. "I had to constantly curb my instinct to put things in the show because I liked them," she says." For instance, I wanted to put in a Rick James poster. It doesn't have any interesting visual language. It has a really good picture of Rick James with a Jheri curl, but that's not an exactly a good reason."
Now, as a reward for this curatorial chastity, Helton-Gallagher is standing in a windowless room with bare white walls, looking over her work, all tucked unceremoniously in cardboard sleeves. But Helton-Gallagher doesn't see what's in front of her anyway. She's in her head, envisioning her hand-chosen retrospective of Globe Poster Company, which spans R&B, soul, funk, and go-go, on up through the golden age of hip-hop in the '90s.
"What Globe was doing was essentially sampling itself," Helton-Gallagher says. "And I started seeing this amazing parallel [between] what Globe was doing and what music forms like hip-hop . . . which quotes earlier eras and earlier lineages," were doing.
Helton-Gallagher managed to limit herself to 45 posters from the thousands saved from the dumpster by the MICA purchase.
The trick for Helton-Gallagher will be to relay even half the immense crush of devilish details she shares as walks through the posters, running her hands along the print, as if inhaling the ink through the pores of her fingertips. She can tell you about the lore; for instance, she knows the rumor that Day-Glo was first concocted from fish scales and would actually stink on the posters. And she notes Globe's political craftiness, allowing the company to appease what were surely major egos by making sure even the smaller billings got good play with some woodblock flourishes like crowns and flares-or the company's signature starburst. And she notes that while the rest of the country in the 1960s and '70s was mired in the visual language of psychedelia, Globe was pulling from its grittier roots-the "Old, Weird America," as Greil Marcus called it-employing the imagery that barked for carnivals and promoted boxing cards.
It's one thing to say Globe Poster spanned the breadth of American music, but it's another to see how they did it, clumping together what we recognize today as seminal musicians-Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Eric B. and Rakim-twinkling in hand-carved font with a half dozen of unknowns.
"These are some of Globe's most iconic posters," Helton-Gallagher says. "And they really show the diversity of Globe's skills and the beauty of their visual language, but also because R&B and soul music really gets me going, that's where most of my vinyl is, and I grew up listening to hip-hop, so I have always been interested in the conversation between the two."
The visual language of this conversation is hard to simulate in the digital world. The simple act of pressing out musical lineups and tacking them up on telephone poles reached into the community and hit segments of people missed on social media. Strip away email, Twitter, the internet, even the fax machine, then what do you get? You're left with an order barked into a phone and a guy burrowing his way through the shop yelling, "James Brown is doing a show this weekend!"
This kind of informal sphere of influence reached all walks, all venues, and all shows-from rock to gospel to the firemen's oyster roast to James Brown at the Apollo-and created a nearly all-encompassing cultural repository. Globe never shied away from the role of hype-master that this reach required, slapping in sayings like, "Get in Where You Fit in," "Mr. Dynamite Is Coming to Town," and "No Good, But So Good." And they never shied away from a shoutout or forgot to peg an event to a holiday: Christmas was denoted with the mischievous winking Santa, and back-to-school nights were always an excuse to promote a show.
Helton-Gallagher's selection also revels in the odd juxtaposition, such as matching the '80s call to "Just Say No to Drugs" with "Dope Down Productions," or "Going to the Go-Go" with "It's Good to Go Drug Free." And then there were the head-scratching attractions: "Chicken Head Dance Contest," "Big Butt Contest," "One-Cent Beer."
Along with musical performances, a film by Baltimore magazine's John Lewis, and the posters themselves, Helton-Gallagher is planning to exhibit some of the actual woodcuts and photoblocks to help demonstrate the inner workings of letter-press, a now-resurgent art form.
Back in the Dolphin Street print shop, Cicero explains the role of photo cuts in Globe's success: Globe required new customers to pay an initial $40 for their photos to be printed, but they didn't have to pay for subsequent printings; that's why these cuts are sitting in their drawers in MICA today. Inevitably, not only did the performers keep using the early photo cuts out of economic prudence, but they also kept themselves forever young by using their baby-faced images for decades to come.
"You look at those old pictures and they never change, because they wanted to stay young," Cicero says.
Helton-Gallagher's curatorial touch has helped remind a new generation of just how fresh and young Globe Poster look.