'ON THE BLOCK' OPENS AT SENATOR Actors, extras celebrate premiere of Steve Yeager film


The Block is a self-contained and seedy stretch of downtown Baltimore, but last night its spirit came uptown to the Senator Theatre for the American premiere of filmmaker Steve Yeager's "On The Block."

Attire for the screening was listed as "Creative Black Tie," which some insiders took as an invitation to dress like they thought pimps or hookers might. With all those fishnet stockings and red-ruffled tuxedo shirts in the crowd, it was hard to tell which people were masquerading for the evening and which were actually regulars from The Block who had bit parts in the movie.

Among those who turned up to celebrate the opening was actor Howard Rollins, a Baltimore native who has a small role as a slick real estate developer who wants to tear down properties on The Block.

"Steve was there at the beginning of my career," said Mr. Rollins. The director and the actor -- who appeared in "A Soldier's Story" and co-stars in the TV series "In the Heat of the Night" -- first worked together in local community theaters 20 years ago.

Marilyn Jones, who has the lead role as a stripper, said she learned during the filming that The Block wasn't particularly bizarre or exotic.

"It has a lot of normal people striving to make a living the best they can," said the actress, who has worked in television and independent films.

A sidewalk square marking the premiere of "On The Block" took its place near those for Barry Levinson and John Waters movies made in Baltimore.

The only previous screening of "On The Block" was shown out of competition in the Cannes Film Festival last May.

Although Mr. Yeager has yet to line up a national distribution deal for his movie, it opens here Friday at the Hillendale Theater.

There was a full theater for the screening, but afterward the sampled viewer reaction was mixed.

"It was very interesting to see the people on The Block. There was an earthiness to the characters," said Nancy Suniewick.

"I thought it was a wonderful diamond-in-the-rough for a first attempt," said Lawrence Link.

"Although I wish him luck, the movie lacked plot. It had no continuity and was poorly developed," said a woman who asked to remain anonymous.

After the premiere, "Block" watchers headed for a party at the Belvedere Hotel, a benefit for the Maryland Food Committee.

"On The Block" is about a stripper whose affections are sought by both a handyman and a police vice squad lieutenant.

Most of the film was shot in clubs along The Block and in nearby streets. A number of real-life Block figures are among the 250 extras.

There is also a cameo by the biggest star ever to grace that entertainment strip, Blaze Starr. She didn't come to the premiere.

"I think of it as a love story set in this unusual environment," Mr. Yeager said.

"There is a whole other side to these people than the sleaze we think of. They have the same needs, wants and desires as we do. There are women on The Block who raise kids and put them through school and have a home life, which is not easy in that environment," he said.

"I wanted to show the hard veneer of The Block -- the neo-lit external trappings -- but also that there could be something tender in red light districts."

For Mr. Yeager, 43, a Baltimore commercial and industrial filmmaker, the premiere of his tough and tender debut feature comes more than a decade after he first started planning it. He raised $360,000 to make the feature.

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