Little Italy fixture John Pente dies

John Pente lived his entire life within a one-block radius in Little Italy. He worked as a machinist for Western Electric and devoted himself to his family, his neighborhood and his church, St. Leo's.

But in 1999, he allowed the community promoters of an open-air film festival to install a projector in his grown-up sons' old bedroom. By the time Mr. Pente died on Monday, at 100, this simple act of generosity had made him "Little Italy's ambassador to the world."

Little Italy's Open Air Film Festival didn't just heal a rift that had developed between area restaurant owners and residents. It became a celebration of movies and community that attracted tourists to the corner of High and Stiles streets and set an example for neighborhoods around the world.

"He's been so well known and so well acknowledged for his kindness and his hospitality and just being a simple man who lived a simple life. He never achieved any kind of greatness, but in his own small way, he did remarkable things," his older son, Joseph, said Tuesday.

The festival provided him with a long life's perfect closing act. Joseph Pente continued, "He was always there to contribute: to neighbors, to the church, to the school. He did it without any fanfare, and he did it well. … He welcomed people into his home of all colors, all races, male or female." It didn't matter whether they were distinguished Italian jurists or a woman who needed a phone to call for jumper cables. They savored his hospitality and often became friends for life.

When he was 89, Mr. Pente was only hoping to do his bit for his community when he agreed to have movies projected on summer nights from his third-floor window. In 1999, nothing but white space filled the outer wall of the Ciao Bella restaurant where Little Italy's restaurateurs had hoped to install a 15-by-20-foot mural on a billboard facing the Da Mimmo's restaurant parking lot.

The Little Italy Owners and Residents Association protested, fearing gaudy billboards. The Little Italy Restaurant Association fired back that the neighborhood had to be commercial to stay alive. The mural was shot down, and the space stayed blank for months. At a neighborhood association meeting in 1999, one frustrated restaurateur brainstormed, "I think we should just show movies on it, 'cause it looks like a drive-in."

The neighborhood association put a call out to the Senator Theatre's Tom Kiefaber, who had two eureka moments. He realized that the space was the exact ratio of a 16mm movie screen. And he saw that the perfect spot to place the projector was in the top-floor bedroom where Mr. Pente's two sons had grown up.

The choice was serendipitous. "Mr. John Pente was a legend," Mr. Kiefaber said Tuesday, "the pure heart and soul of Little Italy who brought all the factions together to sit on the bench and work it out, whatever it would be. … Mr. John saw before the rest of us how the contentious white billboard that had the business and residential factions at odds could become the very thing that could bring everyone together."

For Mr. Pente, it was simple. He always said, "Anything you can do for the neighborhood, you do."

The modest act of this retired machinist was one part of a movement that's been spreading across the city and the country, binding together small towns and neighborhood streets with open-air screenings and Main Street movie events, generating communal feelings hard to come by in a megaplex.

As a crew of three men moved a heavy, bulky Bauer projector to its summer place in a third-floor bedroom, Mr. Pente was always ready to offer a glass of water or a piece of fruit. Friends says that's how he was with everyone, whether you were "No Neck" Pasquale, known throughout the neighborhood as the guy to get if you were hauling a projector up three flights of stairs, or TV personality Joe Garagiola, arriving with a camera squad from the "Today" show.

Mr. Garagiola showed up because the festival was both an immediate community success and a national attention-getter. Hundreds of people filled Little Italy restaurants, then brought folding chairs outside to watch "Moonstruck" or "Cinema Paradiso."

Gilbert Sandler, author of "The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore's Little Italy," said Tuesday, "I was delighted to see it. That neighborhood needed all the binding-together that it could get when there were so many forces working to tear it apart. Here was something that kept the community's identity while making it a destination spot."

Midway through the first season, the festival landed on the front page of The New York Times. Soon a producer for ABC-TV's "World News Tonight" was asking if she could send her people to interview Mr. Pente and shoot the festival scene. Northwest Airlines and filmmaker Beth Pacunas produced a five-minute film on Mr. Pente and the festival that played as an in-flight short starting in 2000. Two years later Mr. Pente told The Sun, "We had four foreign countries down here. We had Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Buenos Aires. I got a call from Italy. They saw me on Italian TV."

Although the festival grew into a national conversation-starter, it triumphed because it was so local. In the early days, Mr. Kiefaber popped free popcorn and Vaccaro's served free cannoli.

Nearby restaurants responded quickly. Roland Keh, owner of Amicci's and a longtime friend of Mr. Pente's, said Tuesday, "After the first couple of seasons, we made our carry-out packaging so people could set it easily on their laps. And I'm sure that success was part of what John was thinking about when he said yes. He knew the value of restaurants for the neighborhood."

Mr. Kiefaber relied on the advice of "the unofficial 'council of elders' that convened daily on the benches outside Mr. John's home." When "The Name of the Rose" turned up on the schedule, "they were quite concerned about the one brief scene with full nudity, and requested we censor it in deference to Father Mike from St. Leo's, who was planning on attending that night. … We acquiesced because Mr. John, ever the peacemaker, advised us to go along."

Later, the priest took Mr. Kiefaber to task for censoring the film. "When he heard the reasoning, Father Mike said, 'No! no! no!, I don't care,' explaining, in his thick Bronx accent, that the people come down to Little Italy for some sensuality and romance. We laughed about it all for days."

Mr. Pente served as Little Italy's unofficial mayor on that bunch of chairs and benches before his house on 222 S. High St. It became a focal point for the neighborhood, especially in the summers before air conditioning.

Joseph Pente said that for him, and for many others, just walking to that address conjures "an overwhelming feeling of home." Mr. Pente's grandparents bought the house in 1904; he lived in it since 1941. He was born mere yards away, on Stiles Street, grew up in 200 S. High St., and lived for five years with his late wife, Margaret, in an apartment on Fawn Street. But he spent seven decades at 222 S. High St.

The one-block radius where he lived his life expanded in spirit thanks to Mr. Pente. Joseph Pente remembers people sitting around "enjoying the breeze that came up Stiles Street. We had a saying that if you sat there long enough you could see everybody in the world pass by several times. It was the center of the universe."

A year ago, Mr. Pente and his relatives received the first "Centennial Homes" award, given by the city of Baltimore and the Baltimore Heritage nonprofit preservation group to honor families that have lived in the same residence for a hundred years or more. The goal of the award was to "put a human face on preservation."

His friend Tina DeFranco, co-owner of Caesar's Den, said that he kept his community spirit and his sense of humor to his final days. "He told his daughter to hold the viewing at Zannino's in Highlandtown, because it was a small family-operated business close enough so that all his friends could get to it. He said he didn't want people to send flowers, because he wouldn't be able to smell them anyway. … And he said don't buy him a new suit, because he had plenty of suits upstairs, and, anyway, he didn't want to be the best-dressed man at his funeral."

According to his son Joseph, "Every year he put in writing that the festival would play out its entire schedule, no matter what happened to him." Friday night's feature is "It Started in Naples." Would it continue next year? Joseph Pente said, "We're not thinking ahead that far right now."

In addition to his son Joseph of White Marsh, Pente is survived by another son, John Jr. of Locust Grove, Va.; daughter Margaret of Rosedale; six grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. His wife of 39 years, Margaret, died in 1975.

A viewing will be held 2 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday at Zannino Funeral Home, 263 S. Conkling St. The funeral Mass will be 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Leo the Great at 227 S. Exeter St.

Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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