Hopelessly devoted to John Travolta

All week long, young and old, they've come to Middle River to pay homage to Vinnie Barbarino of television's Sweathogs fame.

Or Danny Zuko from the movie Grease. But mostly it was, in the collective mind's eye of the fans who lined up daily by the hundreds on Old Eastern Avenue, the swaggering dancing machine Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.

John Travolta is at the creaky but venerable Commodore bar and meeting hall this week filming Ladder 49, a tale of Baltimore firefighters, their triumphs and their foibles. The film shoot on Baltimore County's east side winds up today.

And quite a scene it has been.

"Every day, the fans started lining up before sunrise and usually the crowd would grow to several hundred people," said Officer Carl McQuay, one of several county police officers assigned to the movie security detail.

"It's pretty wild," McQuay said. "They yell for Travolta, want him to sign record albums or take a picture with their kids."

And they wait all day, the crowd melting away sometime before midnight when the cast and crew head downtown to their hotels.

Through his visit to the headwaters of Middle River, Travolta has made friends with his personality and style. This week, he invited a little girl onto the set who was celebrating her birthday and got a couple of children to act as extras.

Among the throngs desiring Travolta's attention this week was Peggy Parker, a soon-to-be-laid-off flight attendant for US Airways from Harford County. She held a sign that read "Out of Work Flight Attendant ... John, I Want to Fly With You."

Travolta, a self-confessed "air geek" and pilot, owns two planes, including a Boeing 707 repainted in 1960s retro.

Parker's friend, Julie Harrell of Forest Hill, said the pair camped out for two days trying to get Travolta's autograph.

"She likes John in Saturday Night Fever, but I thought he was awesome in Pulp Fiction," Harrell said.

Robert Hudgins, who lives on nearby Kitty Hawk Road, said Travolta waded into the crowd Monday and posed for a photograph with Hudgins' 15-month-old daughter, Gianna, one of many photo ops the star seemed to enjoy.

"This has been great for our community and just so weird in a way," Hudgins said. "I saw one woman get Travolta to autograph her arm and she went immediately to a tattoo parlor and made the autograph permanent. She came back and showed it to everybody. Also on Monday, a couple women just grabbed him and kissed him."

"John sincerely appreciates his fans," said Travolta's press agent, Peter J. Silberman of Los Angeles. "He wants to make them feel good because he's genuinely a loving guy."

The movie shoot could have been anywhere in America but, on the county's eclectic east side, the scene was pure Essex-Middle River.

Stacey Travers, manager of the nearby Landing Strip grill and bar, brought 50 crab balls for the crew and Travolta while she waited six hours to catch a glimpse of the star.

"I went two days in a row to try to see him but I think the crab balls did the trick," Travers said. "One of the owners of the Commodore said she'll get Travolta to autograph a menu and give it to me."

U.S. Air Force Lt. Brett Rurka, an F-16 fighter pilot from Baltimore on leave after serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom, waited with the rest of the fans. Before leaving after a long wait, he wrote a letter to Travolta that included his unit patch from the 510th Fighter Squadron based in Aviano, Italy.

"I came by to see Travolta, maybe talk with him about flying," Rurka said. "He's not like most of the Hollywood set. ... He has diversity, intelligence ... and I enjoyed his characters."

Theresa Elliott of Bowleys Quarters took personal leave from her job as a maintenance worker at the Key Bridge to see the actor. She clutched a Saturday Night Fever album she hoped he would autograph.

"I saw him Tuesday at 6:30 when he came out," Elliott said. "He waved and smiled but didn't come over. ... Still, everybody went nuts hollering to him. I've liked him since the days of Welcome Back, Kotter on television."

In the midst of all this hero worshipping was fifth-grader Alicia Vecchilni of Essex. She clutched a red rose, her autograph book, Saturday Night Fever DVD and pen.

"I want to get his autograph and picture and I'm willing to wait forever because I want to be an actor," the 10-year-old said, adding quickly, "and I want to give him this rose."

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