It's a little after 9 a.m. when Darth Vader leads a squadron of Stormtroopers—a couple of whom are sipping fountain sodas—down Pratt Street. The legion attracts curious stares along its imperial march until it reaches the Convention Center, where it gets lost in a sea of X-Men and G.I. Joes, all arriving for the 12th annual Baltimore Comic-Con.
The conclave of comic book geeks has gotten an extra POW! of attention this year, thanks to an appearance by Stan Lee, the legendary co-creator of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, and Iron Man.
When the doors open at 10, many of the thousands waiting outside bolt toward Lee's booth, quickly overwhelming the ropes set up by organizers and forcing them to add an overflow queue.
Lee dutifully greets fans and signs autographs and, by mid-day, the crowds have wandered elsewhere, many to the third floor for the annual costume contest. By start time at 3 p.m., more than 1,000 spectators have gathered to watch dozens of contestants compete for the $1,000 grand prize.
Sun editor Tim Swift, Z104.3 DJ Jackson Blue, and Sarah Snyder of BioGamer Girl magazine are tasked with choosing a winner among hopefuls like Dark Helmet from Spaceballs, War Machine from Iron Man, and ninjas from Mortal Kombat, all of whom have clearly dedicated extraordinary time to perfecting their looks.
After nearly three hours of stilted cat-walking, the dust settles and Robert Day of Aberdeen wins for his enormous, elaborate replication of Optimus Prime from the Transformers franchise. It wasn't easy to read Day's reaction beneath his steely Autobot glare, but there were some audible blips of joy.
A well-heeled, middle-aged crowd of about 60 has come to the Cabaret at Germano's Trattoria in Little Italy to see—well, they're not quite sure what they'll see.
They know it involves their old radio pal Allan Prell (aka Allie Elf, aka Uncle Allie), joined by musician Russ Margo, in some sort of variety routine. Beyond that, they haven't a clue. And it doesn't matter. They just want to hang out with the man who made them laugh, think—and sometimes want to throw things—on WBAL-AM for 17 years.
After a musical intro by Margo, a song called "This is the Very Worst Show You'll Ever See" (sample lyric: "We didn't work hard to make it funny, but here we are, taking your money"), Prell—looking a bit older, but still puckish—comes on stage holding a toilet paper roll wrapped in $2 bills.
"Gangsters call their wads of cash a flash roll," he says to the crowd. "Do you know what I call this?"
"Toilet paper?" someone guesses.
Prell rolls his eyes in mock aggravation—the first dud skit of the night. Then a woman shouts: "A flush roll!" Finally!
Prell and Margo go on to perform several "so-bad-they're-good" sketches—Prell as Tiny Tim's grandson, singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" (as Margo stands behind him playing the ukulele Prell is holding); Prell as a Yosemite Sam type, with a felt 10-gallon hat and a fake beard that gets caught in his mouth as he sings "Ghost Riders in the Sky;" Prell making fun of old sponsor Morris the Remodeler with a wax paper window ("the latest in remodeling") that he douses with shaving cream to represent snow.
It's silly, it's all over the place, and—whether they knew it or not—it's exactly what the crowd hoped for.