Heading back down Route 66

Baltimoreans and Marylanders have become blase about actors being in their midst, along with bellowing directors, film crews, blocked-off streets filled with Hollywood's iconic caravans of trucks, trailers and spotlights, and sidewalks choked with zig-zagging electrical cables.

We've finally caught up with Los Angeles, where locals consider it exceedingly bad form to stop and gawk at a film shoot or pester celebrities.


In Baltimore, first it was Barry Levinson who aroused our interest in filmmaking when he turned back the clock to 1959 during the filming of his comedy-drama "Diner" here in 1982, filling the streets with vintage 1950s cars and actors in period clothing.

Then it was David Simon's turn. He got us all used to having big-time Hollywood celebrities living among us from 1993 to 1999, with the filming in Baltimore and environs of 122 episodes of the TV drama, "Homicide: Life on the Street."


It wasn't uncommon on Sunday mornings during those years to see Richard Belzer, who portrayed detective John Munch, patiently standing in the deli line at Eddie's on North Charles Street, or Yaphet Kotto, remembered as Lt. Al Giardello, dining in a Fells Point restaurant.

And then Simon brought filming back to Baltimore with his HBO show "The Wire, which aired for five seasons starting in 2002.

But more than 50 years ago, it was the TV show "Route 66" that caused a stir when it rolled into Maryland in a 1961 Corvette convertible that at various times was driven by two youthful heartthrobs, actors George Maharis in the role of Buz Murdock and Martin Milner as Tod Stiles, in September 1961.

If you weren't born yet or want to relive the TV show, now is your chance. A box set of "Route 66" episodes that aired from 1960 to 1964 was recently released by Shout! Factory.

(The famed highway stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.; the closest it comes to Maryland is 1,000 miles away.)

The show's punchy and distinctive theme song with its jaunty piano opening was composed and performed by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. It seemed to underscore the vastness of America and at the same time the call and unknown adventure of the wide-open road that lay ahead for its two stars.

The rather unconventional show and its themes — given the subject matter of most TV shows at the time — centered on the cross-country exploits of Murdock and Stiles, and in the fall of 1961, they arrived in Baltimore to film two on-location episodes of the show.

"In the series they play two rootless young men wandering around the United States trying to find themselves," Bill Hyder, Sunday Sun TV critic and reporter, wrote in 1961.


In late September 1961, the "Route 66" film crew invaded Sunnybrook in Baltimore County, a little hamlet about 10 miles north of Towson on Maryland Route 146, that was standing in for the fictional town of Hester, Md.

The episode they were filming was Stirling Silliphant's "The Mud Nest."

What brings Buz and Tod to Hester was an empty gas tank. They had been on their way to Baltimore to search for Buz's mother — Dorothy Colby — whom he had not seen since childhood.

The plot of "The Mud Nest" quickly thickens when the not-particularly-welcoming rustics of Hester recognize Buz as the illegitimate son of a woman who was forced to leave town and make a living working on The Block.

Grandpa Colby, played by Lon Chaney, gives Buz a name and a faded photograph, and then he and Tod head for Baltimore, where they search for the woman who was no longer dancing on The Block but was now an esteemed anesthetist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In addition to Hopkins, on-location filming took place at the old Pine Street police station; Enoch Pratt Free Library; a vacant lot in the 1100 block of Ensor St.; The Baltimore Sun, which featured an appearance by Evening Sun reporter Phil Evans; and the Circus Bar on The Block, where the boys paused to gather information on Dorothy.


"The natives spoke with a New England twang, a rural homestead looked as if it belonged on 'Tobacco Road,' and the plot was straight from Iowa — all corn," opined an Evening Sun critic.

The following week's episode — "A Bridge Across Five Days" — tells the tale of Lillian Aldrich, played by Nina Foch, who had spent 18 years as a mentally ill patient at Spring Grove State Hospital and, now cured, is working as a clerk at Bethlehem Steel's Key Highway shipyard.

She becomes friendly with Buz and Tod, who are temporarily working at the shipyard as welders. After a minor altercation with Buz, Lillian becomes hysterical and moves into a boarding house for the mentally ill on Frederick Road and Paradise Avenue in Catonsville.

"Milner and Maharis show their tricks on 'Route 66,' the cross country TV saga on CBS Friday nights," The Evening Sun reported at the time. "Cross country is just what they do, for theirs is the travelingest show since Barnum met Bailey."