Forget New York, Washington, Boston, Houston, Miami and Chicago. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Hooters, Checkers, Target, Best Buy, 7/11, CVS, Wal-Mart, Family Dollar? Well, forget them too. If you’re looking for the soul of America, get in your car and drive out to back country. Where nothing happens. Nothing at all. Like Hollywood, Maryland, for example, 60 miles south of Washington D.C.
How Hollywood got its name depends on who’s telling the story, but the most likely version is that it came from a holly tree that used to grow near the post office. The PO has been closed for years now, and the holly tree is gone too.
Hollywood, Maryland’s only claim to fame is Socks, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s cat. When they left the White House in 2001, the cat went to live in Hollywood with Betty Currie, the former president’s private secretary. Socks was put to sleep in 2009 "after a long and difficult illness."
And there you have just about everything there is to know about the place. The people who live here are farmers. They used to grow tobacco, but now they produce soy, corn, wheat, hay, if they still farm at all. Many earn a living at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the biggest employer in St. Mary’s County. They are politically conservative; their lives center on work, family and God.
Take Diane and Teddy Wible, whose ancestors were German and whose name was presumably either Wiebel or Weibel in the old country. Since they are retired, they have plenty of time to turn their front yard into a Christmas scene featuring Santa Claus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, baby Jesus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Needless to say, these inflatable figures glow in the dark.
"We do this every year," says Teddy, "and every year we start earlier and earlier." That’s because they keep adding new figures, and the technology gets more and more challenging. Plus there are hundreds of tiny lights to string all around the garden.
Not far from the Wible home is a large shed-like construction that has definitely seen better days. This is the Hole in the Wall, a tavern that opens promptly every day at 3:35 P.M. The first clients don’t usually arrive until later, so Shirley has plenty of time to get things ready.
Born in 1943 in Cumberland, in western Maryland, Shirley used to work in a nursing home before she and her husband, an army officer, moved to Hollywood in 1967. When the marriage broke up, she needed a job – and bought the tavern. "I don’t know why I did it, but it’s been fun," she says.
Twenty-five years down the line, however, she’s looking to sell. But buyers are not exactly beating down the doors: most of her regulars have aged with her, and Hollywood’s young crowd is not drawn by the live music and karaoke on week-ends – that is, when they haven’t left Hollywood altogether. Shirley’s four children are busy with their own families, and her grandchildren (“there are around 12”) have their own interests.
She recalls how the building was built in 1935 as a storage facility but was then converted into one of Maryland’s first and biggest movie theaters in the late 1930s. The owner also had a bar license and in 1948 he closed the theater and moved the bar from the foyer into the theater.
Well, actually, there were two bars – the little one in the foyer was for black people and the big one in the theater was for white people. The toilets were segregated too. Things stayed that way until the 1970s, but those days were long over by the time she bought the establishment in 1987.
"Today," says Shirley, "is going to be a slow day.” Next door, at the Church of the Nazarene, there is a concert. Reverend Verne Haskell stages the musical event every year just before Christmas and it doesn’t only draw members of his own church but the “competition” as well – Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians, Pentecostals and even some Catholics – a minority in the State of Maryland. The concert is free, and every seat is taken.
After a short prayer, Haskell thanks the Almighty for the love he gives his children and turns the stage over to the Bluegrass Gospel Express Band, five men and a woman who sing religious songs. With the constantly repeated “Lord” and “Savior” who have sacrificed themselves and will return one day to save humanity, it’s what ordinary Europeans would think of as a fundamentalist soundtrack.
The band was founded 20 years ago by a Methodist, Abraham Lincoln Schneider. He and his wife Mary-Sue both worked in a hospital, and wanted to entertain the patients. At over 80, Schneider no longer performs – but Mary-Sue, Jerry, David, Curt, Steve and Bill carry on the good work. They are so professional they would win any talent contest in Germany provided the jury didn’t understand English and were immune to the religious message.
But the highpoint of the evening is delivered by Joe, 65, Daniel, 74, and Rodney, 72 – the Hollywood Harmoneers – who before retirement were a music teacher, mailman and auctioneer (“everything from furniture and lawnmowers, tree saws and roof tiles.”)
They’ve been performing together since 1963 and have recorded six LPs. Their voices belong to the days before playback – strong, sensual, and confident. Yes, on the West Coast they probably would have made their careers in show business. But they didn’t feel they could leave Maryland, because of their jobs, their family and friends.
"For us," says Rodney, "this is the real Hollywood."