Cinema Paradiso
Watching movies in Baltimore's Little Italy
By Neal Shaffer

White Marsh, Maryland, sits just north of Baltimore, convenient to both the Beltway and I-95. It’s a manufactured communitya settlement, really ("marsh" being a euphemism for "swamp")with all the amenities. There’s a Wal-Mart, a Red Lobster, a Best Buy, a Target. The former centerpiece of this layout is the White Marsh Town Center, an aging giant of a mall that, while still vital, represents the apex of the old ideas of post-urban commercial development. Nowadays the action is at The Avenue.

The Avenue is just across the street from the Town Center, flanked on both sides by fully stocked restaurant parks. It was constructed a few years back as an antidote to the sanitized suburban strip malls. What it is, exactly, is a fake main street. Cookie-cutter shops including an Old Navy and a Barnes & Noble are lined up on either side of a small street complete with angled parking and little side streets, which lead in both directions to giant parking lots. These lots face the backs of the stores. On foot from there the Muzak becomes audible; the speakers are camouflaged in the flower boxes.

The idea here is to give the soccer moms a sense of community without forcing them to parallel park their SUV’s. The ruse comes complete with sidewalk seating at the restaurants and a giant fountain that serves as a kind of town square. Across from this, at the center of it all, is an 18-screen, climate controlled, stadium-seated, eight-dollar-a-show General Cinema theater that, on any given Friday night, is filled to near capacity.

But drive south awhile...past Towson, Loch Raven, Waverly, Guilford...through Hampden, Druid Hill, Mount Vernon...down to Pratt Street, then take a right. Baltimore’s Little Italy is an oasis of sorts, a testament to the power of neighborhoods to overcome the pitfalls of urban existence. And there, every Friday night from early July to late August, at the corner of High and Stiles streets, they show movies on the side of a building.

It started with the parking garage. Little Italy has restaurantslots of them. Places like DaMimmo, Vaccaro’s, Amicci’s...places where some of the finest Italian cuisine in the country is served. So when the parking problem became more than they could handle, they got together and put up a garage at the corner of Pratt and President. It’s a tasteful structure, but that corner previously served as the "Gateway to Little Italy," a little courtyard with a mural naming each of the restaurants. Nobody wanted to see the mural go, so the Little Italy Restaurant Association (LIRA) commissioned a new one, to be painted on the bricks above the parking lot at High and Stiles.

The city gave the go-ahead, and work began. Since it’s rather difficult to paint on brick the artist suggested a plywood backing, which was soon erected. Then the city stepped in again. On bricks, that’s a mural...on plywood it’s a billboard. Billboards are not allowed. "Don’t paint the plywood" is what the city said. A thorough reading of the cease-and-desist order revealed that they never said, "Take the plywood down." So it hung, through the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999, on the side of this building, above this parking lot, in the center of Little Italy.

Until someone at an early 1999 LIRA meeting remarked in passing, as a joke really, that it "looks like a drive-in. Why don’t you show movies there?"

Mary Ann Creccio, the president of LIRA, had seen this done before, on a trip to Sicily. She asked around, gauged the interest, and found support among the residents and businesses in the area. Before things got too serious, however, there was the small matter of where to put the projector. Eighty-eight-year-old John Pente, whose home is directly across from the screen, had only one question: "Is this what the community wants?" First problem solved, Mary Ann thought to herself, "Who do we call to show a movie?" She now recalls: "I called Tom Kiefarber, who owns the Senator Theater, which I thought is sort of the last great epic movie house."

The Senator has its own story, of course, and it’s a fitting place for the Little Italy festival to begin. The Senator is one of the last remaining single-screen historic movie houses in the country, the sort of place that a hundred neighborhoods now wish they hadn’t closed down in the eighties. Tom Kiefarber came down to check out the scene, found the location perfect, and got to work immediately.

By June of 1999 John Pente’s third-floor bedroom housed a 16mm projector, the church had donated some folding chairs, a makeshift one-speaker sound system had been rigged, and the first annual Little Italy Open Air Film Festival was underway.

It’s hard to say why, exactly...maybe it’s the beauty and ease of the location, maybe the timing was simply perfect, but by the end of that first season the festival had been featured on the front page of the New York Times, in the Chicago Tribune, on CNN, on the Today Show, and in many international publications.

One would expect, with that kind of instant success, that folks would lose interest. One would expect that the novelty would die down. But even without continued media interest, the festival continues to grow, peaking last year with 4,800 people at a showing of Life Is Beautiful. It rained the night they showed Casablanca...500 people happily enjoyed the show.

This sort of thing goes against all conventional wisdom. The screen, while visible, is not huge, and the sound is average (though it has been significantly upgraded from the original one-speaker setup). The seating is first come, first served and the good seats fill up fast. The crowd can be difficult to navigate, and the whole affair is subject to Mother Nature’s whims. Whyor more importantly, howhas this experiment succeeded so resoundingly?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the flower boxes contain only flowers, the side streets lead to businesses, homes, and other streets, and the parking lot is fun. While incredibly well organized, the festival is not managed, and the whole affair is free and open to the public.

The program has evolved from an all-Italian flavor to more varied fare, with selections including Diner, Some Like It Hot, and Duck Soup. The films are chosen by vote at LIRA meetings (though every year begins with Moonstruck and closes with Cinema Paradiso) and are based, in part, on what is available in a 16mm print. Roland Keh, vice president of LIRA and also a restaurateur, tracks down classic cartoons to complement each film.

There are no plans to stop, and no signs of letting up. Mary Ann Creccio is visibly excited as she talks about the festival, and cautiously optimistic as she remarks that "Our future is in the hands of 91-year-old John Pente." Mr. Pente again...the man who graciously lets equipment and personnel into his home every week because it’s in the best interest of the community. Because there is a community.

If it doesn’t seem impossible, it certainly seems too good to be true: that a city with the problems Baltimore hasand they are manycould not only embrace but continue to support this quirky dream. Equally plausible, it should be noted, is that it makes perfect sense and is in fact only the beginning. Either way it is comforting to know that if one were to go away for a time and return many years hence to revisit old memories there is no way they will have torn it down to build a parking lot.