Skip to content

Letter Men

The Globe Poster Company Would Like Your Attention For a Moment

By Chris Landers 
BOB CICERO HAS A STORY he likes to tell about advertising. A few years ago, he was driving down the street when his son noticed a sign-holding man bobbing and weaving by the side of the road. The younger Cicero thought it looked ridiculous, and pointed it out to his father.

“He says, ‘Look over there on the corner–there’s a guy from Little Caesar, it’s kind of weird, he’s going back and forth,'” Cicero remembers. He asked his son, “What did it say?”

“It said $5 pizza.”

“That’s all he wanted,” Cicero told him. “It caught your eye. It doesn’t matter how outlandish it is, but it caught your eye. . . . Now if you’re hungry, you know there’s a $5 pizza. That’s all it did. Nothing else.”

That idea has been the focus at Globe Poster Printing, a nearly 80-year-old company that the Cicero family has run for the past 35 years. They have become specialists in grabbing your attention, just for the time it takes to read a poster. Once you’ve read it, their work is done.

Times are tough for a poster company that has been changing with the times and trends since the Great Depression, through circuses and vaudeville and R&B tours, all the way to hip-hop, and the Ciceros are beginning to look to their past to preserve Globe for the future. Last year, they started marketing reproductions of some of their most popular work, such as posters from the great R&B shows of the 1950s and ’60s, trying to turn a profit on posters from the company’s golden era.

Globe currently takes up every inch of a cinder-block warehouse building a few blocks off the commercial strip of Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. It’s still very much a going concern, from the front counter where Frank and Bob rush to answer the phone to the cavernous and unheated back room, where employees feed corrugated plastic blanks into the rollers of a huge screen-printing press. But alongside the current operation, in drawers and cabinets and sometimes in piles, they have preserved the tools of their trade going back to Globe’s beginning: thousands and thousands of blocks of type, in different fonts and sizes, in metal, wood, rubber, and linoleum–some never touched by printer’s ink.

“We even have a set of Hebrew type,” Frank says. “We’re just not sure it’s a complete set–none of us speaks Hebrew.”

Even the hulking Miehle letter presses, which haven’t been used in decades, sit piled with posters in the back. If the Ciceros get their wish, someday the presses will roll again.

Frank, 64, is the oldest of the Cicero brothers still active at Globe, and the most talkative. Where Bob is thin and speaks softly and evenly, Frank is a little bulkier, and his conversation flies from subject to subject as different objects or posters catch his eye in the room. Frank occasionally illustrates a point by grabbing a pen and paper to draw it out. He’s come from the doctor’s office this November morning, and his back is giving him trouble, but that doesn’t stop him from leading a tour–pulling heavy steel printing frames from the glorious clutter that fills the warehouse to show them off to a visitor when Bob doesn’t get there in time to stop him and do it himself. Bob, 61, is a little more reticent at first, but opens up quickly when he talks about Globe. Get the two together and it’s a vaudeville act.

Coaxed back to a chair at his desk in the Globe office, Frank is happy to talk about Globe’s past, present, and future. It’s a business his father devoted most of his life to–Joe Sr. started at Globe in 1934, moving up through the ranks until he was able to buy it in 1974. In his hospital room, before he died last year, Joe Cicero Sr. was surrounded by posters, and when Frank, Bob, or Joe Jr. (who retired a few years ago) stopped by, that was all their dad wanted to talk about.

Frank Cicero’s first days at the Globe Poster Company, back in 1961, weren’t exactly glamorous, but he laughs when he talks about his start in what would later become the family business. “I mean, I didn’t like the job,” he says. “Who would? You got filthy dirty. In those days you didn’t have fans going because they would blow the posters around. When we were in the Smith building . . . it was an old building, I mean it was roach-infested, you couldn’t put a sandwich down without it being walked away.”

He still has one of the first jobs he did in the office, recently unearthed from the vast piles of posters, film, and wooden type–shooting targets for the FBI.

“I thought that job lasted forever,” he says. “And it probably did.”

After it was done, agents blasted away at a silhouette of the brother-in-law of an artist at Globe.

And once you start to notice them, Globe posters are everywhere–from art magazines to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Each one, in small print across the bottom, bears the words globe poster-baltimore, but the Ciceros recognize the company’s work without the name. They can see it in the layout, or something as simple as a recognizable block of type (Globe’s “the” for example, much used, is fairly distinctive). During a recent visit, the Ciceros spread a set of poster collector books across the front counter, with Globe’s original work bookmarked, but even as they go through they see others, made either by Globe or someone closely copying their style, each selling for hundreds, even thousands of dollars to collectors.

The walls of the front room of the Highlandtown shop are crowded with history–a 1938 poster for the Edward G. Robinson movie Little Giant at the Astor Theater hangs next to the counter, having outlasted the venue it advertises.

Globe started, according to company legend, at a card game between a wealthy New Yorker and a Philadelphia printer; Baltimore was chosen as a home by folding a map of the East Coast in half and placing the new business on the crease. The posters started rolling off the presses in 1929; carnival and movie posters got them through the Depression years.

Joe Sr. started there the day after Thanksgiving, 1934. Frank says his father wanted to buy the place from day one, and in 1974 he finally did. He asked his sons to join him in the business–they had all worked summer jobs there before that, starting out with menial tasks, such as dragging the heavy steel frames, loaded with wooden type, to the presses.

Frank, who was frustrated after nine years of working at the Department of Social Services, was the first to take him up on it. Bob came in a few months later, and Joe Jr. a few years after that. Frank, who had dreaded art classes in school, found under the tutelage of Globe artist Harry Knorr that he and Bob had a knack for designing posters, and he enjoyed the work.

“After you did one of these, you saw it up in three days,” he says, indicating a sketch for a show poster. “Doing social work, you never saw the finished product. Or if you did,” he laughs, “you were sorry you saw it.”

Show business changed, from carnivals to movies to rock ‘n’ roll, and Globe changed along with it, developing an iconic style along the way. “We printed posters for just about everybody,” Bob says. “But mostly the show posters. We did boxing, but our mainstay was rhythm and blues.”

In a back room, the two brothers pull out a binder of pictures–source material from the past. “Here’s one,” says Frank, “the wrestler–Andre the Giant.”

“These are proofs of some of the old ones,” Bob says. “There’s Peggy Lee. I don’t know if you remember her.”

“Here’s a folder of James Brown–in his young days, obviously,” Frank says. “We’ve probably got 5,000 or 10,000 pictures.”

Another room is stacked with more recent work, such a poster for 1990s Baltimore rock band Liquor Bike and a print for John Waters that made a 2004 cover of Art Forum (“Take the whole family to Marfa, Texas”). Back in the office, Bob pulls out a poster to demonstrate the style Globe is known for–Otis Redding at the Apollo (7th annual shower of stars) featuring Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley, the Manhattans, the Bar-Kays, Bettye Swan, James Carr, the 5 Stairs Steps, Betty Harris, with Sad Sam as the emcee. The style of the poster follows the style of the performance–each of the acts gets its own space on the poster.

“What we would do is separate it and make everybody look important,” Bob says. “Look how many acts you’ve got, and you can actually see each one.”

“Each ‘cloud,’ as we called them, each section, would be like a writer having a paragraph,” Frank says. ‘It would say that one thought.”

Another innovation: In the ’50s, Globe started using day-glow inks, made from fish scales back then, to make the posters more noticeable. “They were loud and blaring,” Bob says. “But we didn’t care. When you’re going down the street and you look around, everything is white and gray and black and brown. Florescent is not normal–for anything. So when you go down there, you see it. We didn’t care how gaudy it looked or how outlandish it looked. As long as it caught your eye, you read it. I can’t force you to go to the show, but if you read the poster–that’s all I cared about. That’s our whole game plan.”

It’s a game plan that served the company well. In the heyday of the great touring R&B acts, the orders came in directly from the artists. Tina Turner would call them in herself, as would Solomon Burke. “I got to know him pretty well,” Frank says.

A couple of smaller Heidelberg letter presses are still in use–for tickets, mostly–and they sit gleaming in a corner of one of the larger rooms. The pair of 5,000-pound Miehle letter presses sit idle, side by side in the back room. Bob demonstrates how the forms locked into place and the rollers speed the posters through, 500 to 800 an hour, fed by hand from a platform at the back. “In those days everything was dangerous,” he says.

Globe’s design work is done on computers now and executed mostly using film instead of physical type, a change that started 20 years ago, and there isn’t as much call for the posters. Bob says he used to do 20 or 30 different posters a day, now he’s lucky to get 10 a week. Most of the orders that come in are for the corrugated plastic outdoor signs that herald furniture store liquidation sales. They use the same basic design strategy–separating out each element for a quick read–but have little else in common with the show posters. The Globe name doesn’t appear on them.

Sign ordinances governing what could be posted on city streets have taken their toll on the industry, too, the Ciceros say. There were never that many poster companies, at least not with Globe’s national scale, but that number has dwindled to a handful.

“Let’s get one thing straight–it’s hard out there,” Bob says. “The ordinances are killing us. That’s the death of a lot of [printers].”

Poster companies like Globe have always kept up with the times, but now they’re looking backward. Hatch Show Prints, which did for country music what Globe did for rhythm and blues, was bought up by the Country Music Hall of Fame and operates as a museum. Last year, Globe started reproducing posters from its extensive back catalog, contracting with a couple of outsiders to market them as Globe Classics–the Ciceros, it seems, know how to sell everything but posters.

“It’s a whole different game,” Frank says. “We know printing. That’s what we know.”


They hope to go further back, getting the old presses fired up and running again. That would take a significant investment, but Frank says it would be worth it to be able to pass along the trade to a new generation of graphic artists.

“That would be totally exciting, to see these kids feel this stuff again,” he says. “I think later on in life it would really have an impact on them.”

If there is such a thing as a target audience for a warehouse filled with old typography equipment, it is ably represented by Joe Galbreath. He’s one of the many supporters Globe has acquired over the years, people who wander in for whatever reason and find the Ciceros and their treasure trove of Americana and graphic art.

Galbreath, 30, who is finishing up his thesis on Globe for his masters’ degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art, is as excited about Globe as the Ciceros. Galbreath came to Baltimore from Ohio in 2007, and he was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on a trip home when he noticed the Globe imprint on some of the posters hanging there.

“There’s something about seeing that globe poster-baltimore in Cleveland–I was just really proud about that,” Galbreath says over coffee at a Bolton Hill cafĂ©. He’s got some time off to work on his thesis, so he’s been spending more time at Globe lately. This is his last year at MICA, and he hopes to teach graphic design. Whether the connection he’s tried to foster between the art school and the printing company will be carried on after he graduates remains to be seen.

“That’s the great thing about Baltimore,” he continues. “In any other city, everybody would know about Globe and that would just be a tapped-out resource, but here it’s just like a gold mine. It’s amazing. There’s still a sense that things can be discovered here.”

Galbreath e-mailed the Ciceros in July 2008 to ask about doing research on Globe. A few hours later, he was in Highlandtown looking at the chaotic warehouse full of posters, letters, and equipment. He has become a sort of Globe archaeologist, organizing and cataloging the things he finds buried in the back rooms while the brothers take care of the daily business.

“It just blew my mind,” Galbreath says. “It’s just this madness of stuff and history and just everything a graphic designer would be interested in digging around in. It’s this fascinating little world that they’ve been developing for the past 80 years.

“With a business, [ordinarily] there’s a tendency that if something is defunct, you just get rid of it,” Galbreath says. “They kept everything.”

There’s a sincerity and immediacy to the posters that Galbreath likes–the Globe posters aren’t made to last forever, just long enough to get the idea across. The form always follows the function.

“It’s just on a wall and it does what it needs to do,” he says. “That’s another reason it’s interesting to study Globe in a more scholarly way–they’re aware of communication, which is another goal of design, but they made decisions that a designer would make in different ways and they did it very well.

“It’s an interesting thing to look at,” he continues. “The kind of thing that ends up getting put together because it’s just going to get hung up in the street for like, a week. With design, there’s a sense of permanence. Even when it’s not meant to be permanent, you’re still making these decisions based on, you know, we want this to be part of the design realm, whereas with them it’s just this intuitive way of working–it’s just going to get hung on a wall, then come down and get replaced with something else.”

Galbreath hopes that Globe and MICA can form a lasting relationship. Like the Ciceros, he sees a value in learning the old ways, maybe more than they do. “We had talked about doing a little workshop or something like that,” Galbreath recalls. “We had talked about it all morning. And at the end of it Joe said, ‘If you don’t think people would be interested, you can let me know. You won’t hurt my feelings.’ And I was like, ‘I could have 20 people here tomorrow if we could set it up.’ I think there’s a lot of people that are really excited by this stuff.”

Galbreath had worked with lead-foundry type before, but never with the large wooden letters and steel forms that Globe has stacked in the large back room. One of the jobs he created for himself was locking up the letters in steel frames put together for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posters.

“They’re in the big metal frame, and all the wood is all in there, locked up,” he says. “Because it’s wood, it kind of shrinks and swells with the temperature, and because some of these things hadn’t been touched in years, sometimes they just pop, and some of the pieces will just fall out onto the ground. So I took those out and kind of re-set them. And just cranking down on it, you hear the wood pop and creak, you know? It’s like an old wood floor. It’s just . . . the only way to get that experience is to be working on a big form and to do it. There’s just something rewarding about it.”

Frank Cicero hopes others feel that way. The music industry that the company promoted has changed, and may no longer need them. Cicero never went to many shows–it just isn’t his thing, but he respects the artists who look down from the posters on walls.

“There was a real struggle in those days to make it big,” he says. “These guys were eating crackers for dinner. You really don’t see that today. I’m not saying they’re rich when they walk in, but there isn’t that same thing. I’m not saying that was the right way–I don’t want anybody to be starving, that’s not my point, but sometimes in order to appreciate something, you have to earn it.”



Photographer Frank Hamilton took some great pictures to go with this story. Check out his gallery here.

Published inStories