Baltimore filmmaker's heartstrings zing when the trolleys clang


What John Waters did for pink flamingos, what Barry Levinson did for diners, Baltimore's Carl R. Schultz wants to do for trolley cars.

By his own reckoning, the 48-year-old Baltimore resident, who has a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and wire-rim glasses, is one of only a few video-filmmakers in the United States specializing in mass transit documentaries.

The UCLA film school graduate once managed "Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope film studio facilities in San Francisco.

Now he shares a Charles Village row house with a parakeet named Cecil B. De Bird and the studios of Transit Gloria Mundi, his small video production company.

Some people go to Calgary to see the annual Stampede rodeo. Mr. Schultz went to videotape its widely admired, three-branch light-rail system.

Some go to San Diego to see its world-class zoo. Mr. Schultz went to ride and tape the red cars of the light-rail line known as the "Tijuana Trolley."

In 1987, when he moved from California to Baltimore for the third time, "I stopped at every light-rail system on the way and spent two or three days taping them," he said.

The only other employee of his studio is Cecil the parakeet, whose vocabulary includes "Transit Gloria Mundi" and "Let's go downstairs" and who likes to land on the heads of visitors.

"His name is not a reference to Mr. De Mille," Mr. Schultz said. "It's a reference to our living arrangements. Cecil be de bird. Carl be de person."

Since 1986, the longtime rail buff has been making video films about cable cars, subways, and, most often, trolleys and their rapid-rail cousins, light-rail systems.

His filmography includes the "Ropes and Rails: the Cable Cars of San Francisco;" the obscure foreign trolley flick "Mines, Mills and Metro: the Belgian Vicinal"; the fast-paced, 15-minute "Light Rail Transit: A Proven Alternative;" the exhausting hour long ride aboard three lines, called "Light Rail Panorama;" and the nostalgic "Carvey Davis' Baltimore Streetcar Films."

Mr. Schultz recently broke out of his industrial video and rail-buff mold with an historical documentary, "Trolley: The Cars That Built Our Cities," a 54-minute glimpse at the 100-year history of trolleys that even someone who doesn't know a pantograph from a catenary pole might appreciate.

A pantograph, of course, is the extensible arm on top of electric locomotives that connects the engine with overhead electric lines.

A catenary pole is the trackside pole that carries the electrified wires.

"Trolley" includes a lot of late 19th century footage of such oddities as cars being pulled through city streets by small steam locomotives.

And it entertains with such zany publicity stunts as a race between an airplane and a trolley car, an Atlantic City trolley with stewardesses and a Dallas streetcar equipped with a kitchen and waitresses that serve breakfast.

His latest video project?

A rail fan film about Pittsburgh's light-rail system. Next, he plans "Anthracite Country Trolleys," about lines in the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton region.

(He's also thinking about making a documentary on parrots.)

His dream: producing a documentary series for public or cable television that might be titled, "Great Public Transit Journeys of the World."

Mr. Schultz first drew a crayon picture of a trolley at age 3.

His father was an engineer with military contractors, and he lived in different cities around the country before attending Reed College in Portland (by sheer coincidence, now the site of the nation's most-admired light-rail system) and the film school at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He lived for many years, off and on, in transit-scarce California, but he was not happy there.

"Traffic congestion and right-wing politics and all of that kind of stuff thrown together," he recalled. "It's an entrepreneur's heaven. It was get-rich-quick country. I'm not interested in that. In my old age, I'm interested in not being poor. But not in getting rich."

After quitting the production end of the film business, he tried his hand at designing and manufacturing film and video equipment.

But he didn't make any money at it. So in the mid-1980s he decided to get back into production. He decided to focus exclusively on mass transit.

Before construction started on the Baltimore light-rail system, Mr. Schultz was hired by the Mass Transit Administration to mount a camera on an electric cart and videotape the entire length of the existing rail right of way. The video helped the engineers designing the new roadbed to double-check details of the terrain, he said.

Transit Gloria Mundi was also hired by the MTA to make a film that attempts to show the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's Red Arrow line, which passes through several wealthy communities near Philadelphia.

The film was shown, he said, for community meetings with residents of Ruxton and other wealthy neighborhoods along the Baltimore light-rail route that have tenaciously fought the project, fearing noise, pollution, vibration and safety problems.

Amy Macht, a vocal critic of light rail, said the film allayed no fears. Just the opposite. She said her family first began questioning the technology when they watched the film and realized it was being shown with the sound turned off.

In the hour-long "Light Rail Panorama," underwritten by the cities involved, Mr. Schultz simply mounted a camera in the front of light-rail trains in Calgary, Portland and Sacramento and let the video roll.

What did the critics say? Maryland Mass Transit Administration chief Ronald J. Hartman said he screened "Light Rail Panorama." "You watch it for ten minutes, and it's, like, 'How much more of this will I have to watch?' " he said. But he added it was a valuable tool to see how other transit systems solved various design problems.

Mr. Schultz cheerfully admits his industrial films can be eye-glazing, pointing out they are technical efforts, not entertainment. He said another Mass Transit Administration official asked his daughter if she wanted to watch "the trolley movie." "I'd rather clean toilets," she replied.

(Mr. Schultz relates the tale, by the way, as Cecil perches on his head pecking at his glasses.)

He doesn't have a favorite light-rail system. But he said transit professionals generally agree that Calgary "is the class act of North America," and Portland is the best of the U.S. systems. That's because those systems have been thoroughly double-tracked, permitting non-stop operation, with full-fledged stations at every stop.

"Everyone would like to build lines like Calgary and Portland," he said.

But when faced with the price tag, "they drop back and punt and build something like San Diego and Sacramento."

He says the $446 million, 27.5-mile Baltimore area light-rail system has cut a few too many corners for his taste -- particularly by using some stretches of single track, which can slow service.

Among Baltimore's advantages, he said, is that it will be among the nation's longest, and its cars will probably be the newest and biggest operating in North America.

Mr. Schultz found a treasure trove of Baltimore trolley history when he met Carvey Davis, a former United Railways motorman who now works as a track inspector for the Federal Railroad Administration. Mr. Davis, who lives in Glen Burnie, took 16mm films of many of the city's major lines in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In 1938, the heyday of rail transit in the city, there were 300 miles of streetcar tracks in Baltimore traversed by 1,006 streetcars and 47 electric trolleys.

"He'd say, 'See that dent in that trolley car? I put that dent in there. I ran into a bread truck on such and such a street,' " Mr. Schultz said.

Transit Gloria Mundi produced an hourlong tape of those films that features Baltimore trolleys running along city streets, turning right, turning left, stopping, starting, accelerating, coasting and so forth.

Rail buffs, it seems, find all this fascinating.

What attracts grown-ups to trolleys? Mr. Schultz was asked.

"Boy, I don't know," he said. "I really don't know. I've been trying to figure that out for a long time myself."

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