Whirring sounds of an old Heidelberg Windmill letterpress echo in the warehouse of Globe Poster in East Baltimore. Owner Bob Cicero explains how the machine works.
"The suckers on the top actually suck the paper, creating a vacuum, and then actually lifts the papers up, puts it in these grippers," he says. "These grippers will come around, and if you take a look, you have what you're going to print right here..."
The machine is out of date, but it's just one item in the giant warehouse testifying to Globe's 80 years in business.
"And then all you do, it comes in and now I put the impression on by moving this bar out," Cicero continues. "And now, she'll print."
Cicero is printing with a block of type that reads "Special Ladies Dance." He's a master printer who knows his trade, and he should — he's worked for Globe Poster since 1965. Cicero is the youngest of three brothers who own the company now. His father, Joseph, Sr., bought it in the mid-'70s after working there for 40 years.
The company was launched over a card game in Philadelphia in 1929. Founder Harry Shapiro decided where to place the company by folding a map of the United States and discovering Baltimore was the midpoint on the East Coast. Globe's early work consisted largely of film posters. It would receive artwork from the film, then imprint necessary information — date, venue, time — to finish the job.
"And that's how we really got our beginnings, from doing imprints and carnival posters," says Bob Cicero. "It's a poor man's advertising, especially during the depression. That's when we started. It's a really great way to advertise and it's economical."
Globe Poster's warehouse is piled high with reprints of the posters the company has made over the years.
Huge stacks of posters sit on the warehouse floor and on shelves, blocks of wood type lie scattered, and zinc printing plates spill out of larger-than-life-sized bins — each imprinted with the face of just about any musician you can think of.
Local antique store owner Christian Sturgis is also at Globe Poster's warehouse. He's a member of "Friends of Globe" — a grassroots coalition of local citizens and students who have been raising money for the company to pay its rent and other financial necessities until its collections are purchased. Sturgis has been selling original posters and publicity stills in his shop and online. Some go for thousands. He sorts through a box of metal plates.
"There's approximately 10,000," says Sturgis. "An artist would send the photograph to Globe and they would make a zinc plate for printing."
An artist paid 40 dollars to have a plate made from his image on a publicity photograph. That image could then be used for future show posters at no extra charge. The deal benefited the artists — they got more bang for their buck — as well as the company, who were essentially guaranteed future business.
Etta James, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Solomon Burke...the list of artists whose images and shows have appeared on Globe Posters is incalculable. Baltimore Magazine Arts and Culture editor John Lewis has written articles about Globe and is working on a film called Say It Loud: The Globe Poster Documentary.
"When you look at Globe's work over the years, you can really see that they have documented the history of American music," says Lewis, "in particular the development of African-American music."
From early big-band jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, to rock 'n' roll, soul and funk, Globe Poster was the go-to place for concert advertising.
"They used to do these 'Biggest Show of Stars!' posters, in the '50s into the '60s. And they would be these sort of multi-act rhythm and blues reviews, you know, and with some rock acts, too. But it would be, you know, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry," says Lewis. "And then they did these great posters, too, for Otis Redding at the Apollo, James Brown at the Apollo, and again, these are just classics. I mean, from James Brown, from early on in his career with the Famous Flames, right in through to the '60s, the '70s."
And for showgoers, a Globe Poster signified that an event was really happening.
"They might hear that, hey, Solomon Burke is going to perform in Fayetteville. And over the years, they were really conditioned to the fact that until they saw the Globe Poster, the show wasn't official," says Lewis. "[The posters] were just designed so beautifully. I don't know how you could resist going to the show once you saw the poster!"
In the mid-'50s, a Globe employee named Harry Knorr heard about Day-Glo ink — fluorescent pigments made from fish scales. The ink was cheaper and easier to print, and more noticeable at night or from a car. Globe Poster started using it on its posters.
"They had the fluorescent oranges, the pinks, the yellows, the greens," says Bob Cicero, "and if you take a look at the outside world, everything is browns, blacks and whites. Well, this hit you in the face and you looked at it. You would actually see it. It was just advertising at its best."
Besides being a useful advertising tool, Day-Glo ink gave Globe what's now known as its iconic style. There was some method to how the ink was applied.
"But by taking the fluorescent colors and actually putting [them] behind the person's name, it made that person really stand out," explains Cicero. "Whether he was important or not, he looks important. And even when you have five to eight acts, we still did the same thing."
The artists liked having their names in bold black type, highlighted by the neon shades of Day-Glo.
"Solomon Burke told me, he said, Globe Poster was our Internet," says journalist John Lewis. "We didn't have money to be on the radio. We weren't invited to be on television at that point in our careers. Globe Poster got our names out there, advertised our shows."
Globe Poster Today
Globe Poster continued its success through the funk and Go-Go music eras, to hip hop, and even with more recent artists like Beck and Rage Against the Machine. In the '90s, Globe posters began getting recognition as pieces of artwork with their unique aesthetic, which came as a surprise to Bob Cicero.
"We just knew what we liked and how we liked it. And we stuck with it regardless if somebody didn't like it or not. You know, I always called our posters a working poster," says Cicero. "They were not meant to hang on the wall in those days and go, 'Oh my god, this is beautiful art.' But if it was in your face and you can see it and read it, that's what we cared about."
Baltimore Magazine's John Lewis agrees.
"It was this utilitarian piece of advertising and that's how they viewed it. The guys working on those posters were hand-routing the wood blocks they would use to lock up in the letterpress forms," says Lewis. "I mean, they were working-class guys from East Baltimore, South Baltimore, it was a blue-collar job. It wasn't art."
In recent years, the introduction of modern printing techniques began to put a damper on the business of the industrial print shop. Plus, a series of incidents — health issues in the Cicero family, "post-no-bills" regulations in cities, and a bad business deal — hit the company hard. After Globe closed its doors last year, several voices in the community stepped up.
Friends of Globe and MICA
"It just became overwhelming...the monetary wealth but also the historical importance of this company was laying out and not really having a ship to really sail on," says Christian Sturgis, who heard about Globe Poster through a friend.
"It's a treasure trove — it's unbelievable," says Mary Mashburn. "The first time you see it, you just can't really take it all in."
Courtesy of Joseph Galbreath
Printmaker Mary Mashburn says nicks and cuts like the ones in this old Globe woodblock lend character to the posters' lettering.
Mashburn runs a small printing company called Typecast Press, and teaches printing classes at Maryland Institute College of Art — or MICA — in Baltimore. She's also a member of Friends of Globe. She says most letterpress shops today are small boutique operations, printing invitations, stationary, and the like. But young people, her students at MICA among them, have taken an interest in the method.
"To them it feels very, very old and removed as an industrial printing method, but it feels very fresh and exciting to translate from their all-digital world to something that has a real hand-craft to it," says Mashburn.
Mashburn had the idea that maybe MICA would be interested in purchasing Globe's massive printing collection for its students. She teamed up with Gail Deery, chair of the printmaking department at MICA, to move the idea forward.
Students liked the idea as well. Senior graphic design majors Allison Fisher, Carolyn Williams and Sabrina Kogan put together a Friends of Globe group at MICA.
"I think all of us have been bitten by the Day-Glo bug," says Kogan. Fisher agrees: "I bought new sneakers and I was in the store looking at colors, and I was like, I'll just get the black and lime green!"
They started a Facebook group and a blog, and printed their own Globe-style posters. They also collected student statements to present to MICA's administration.
"The Cicero Brothers wanted it to stay in Baltimore — it's so ingrained in Baltimore's history," says Carolyn Williams. "And MICA is so ingrained in Baltimore's history that it seemed the perfect opportunity for the collection to come to MICA and for it to be used again."
In March, MICA announced it was purchasing roughly 75 percent of Globe Poster's printing materials. Ellen Lupton, Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA, describes what they'll be used for.
"It's not a museum archive," says Lupton. "It's a working collection of typefaces and engraved illustrations and original woodcuts that our students and faculty and ultimately, we hope, the public will be able to create new things with."
Globe Poster's collection includes countless printing materials, such as this drawer of type blocks.
To prepare for the purchase, Fisher, Williams and Kogan have been sorting blocks of wood type and other materials at Globe's warehouse. They've received very positive feedback on their efforts.
"We've had presses all over the country say, I want to be a Friend of Globe, add me to your blog list," says Fisher. "So just seeing that...people care and people are excited this is happening and the collection is staying together is just really, really awesome."
Bob Cicero is still searching for a buyer for a large portion of Globe's music-related assets. But he's thrilled about the MICA deal.
"I'd love to see what happens in the next two to three years and what they do," says Cicero. "And I'm pretty sure — not pretty sure, I'm positive — that it's going to be awesome."
Cicero will have a chance to see what the students do with the tools he's used for so long: He'll be teaching a graduate letterpress class at MICA in the fall.
"He has had such a huge part of designing these all of these amazing posters that we look at and that we study and that we collect," says Sabrina Kogan. "And being able to give back to him in a way and say, we appreciate what you've done and we're going to continue, is really exciting."