Neighborhood gets casting call for Jodie Foster's latest film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bayard Russell walked out onto his front porch one chilly afternoon last December to wait for the mailman. The 76-year-old retired carpenter has lived nearly his entire life on Southern Avenue, 45 years in one house, and has fashioned his surroundings to suit his needs. A small aviary in the basement houses the canaries he raises; two upstairs bedrooms have been converted into greenhouses for starting vegetables from seed. But the porch remains a porch, a place where he can sit and wait for the world to come calling.

As he surveyed his East Baltimore neighborhood that morning, a new scene greeted him, the sort of thing you don't often see on the streets of Lauraville. "These guys were wearing boots and stretch pants," Mr. Russell recalls, chuckling softly at the memory. "They didn't look like locals, didn't look like someone I knew."

Two men and a woman were walking up and down the street, staring, pointing, taking pictures, jotting down notes. One of the visitors spied Mr. Russell and bounded up the stairs. Soon all three were on the porch, ecstatic about how his 80-year-old house was perfect for a movie they were making.

Bayard Russell is not one to listen to much nonsense. His dad built ships for a living -- "Real ships," he stresses, "with wooden hulls and brass fittings and copper sheathings" -- and instilled in young Bayard the value of an honest day's work. He saw action in the South Pacific during World War II, married and raised two sons, spent his working life with a hammer and nail in his hand, building houses and training others to do likewise.

He's a solid, no-nonsense guy. And now some fellow in boots wanted to feature his house in a movie? Sure, happens every day.

"You take everything with a grain of salt," Mr. Russell says, "but I listened."

Not that they had all that much to tell him. The movie, whose plot they wouldn't say much about, would be directed by Jodie Foster, would star a bunch of Hollywood names he didn't recognize and would be filmed in Baltimore beginning in mid-February. The group said they were scouting Southern Avenue because of the old sycamore trees that line the sidewalk and the way the road bends to the right as it heads west.

They asked to look around the two-story wood colonial Mr. Russell roofed himself 40 years ago. That didn't sit right with him at first -- although the house is in good shape, his fading eyesight allows him to overlook the dust and dirt he was sure had gathered everywhere.

"I live here, I make do," he says. "I don't have to please anybody but myself." But he acquiesced, and the visitors ended up impressed. They loved his birds and positively adored his downstairs furnace -- a big red oil-burning monster as old as the house itself. (One of the characters, they told him, is a furnace repairman.) With a housecleaning, some paint, a little Formstone, a few panes of colored glass and a fake garage, the house would be perfect for the movie.

"They said Miss Jodie Foster was coming," Mr. Russell recalls. "I called my daughter-in-law. I don't think anybody believed me. She didn't even tell her husband."

A few days later, the director arrived in a white minivan and spent an hour looking the place over, squatting in front of the fireplace and peering into the aquarium set up inside. The house, Ms. Foster decided, would work fine. Leaving it up to the location people to work out specifics, she said goodbye and headed out the door to inspect other sites scattered throughout the city.

Before long, Mr. Russell and the producers of "Home for the Holidays" had worked out the details. He wouldn't be paid, but that suited the Baltimore homeowner. These folks were the answer to a dilemma that had hung over his head for years.

Down to business

On Feb. 15, the cast and crew of "Home for the Holidays" began two days of filming at BWI Airport -- their first stop in a four-week shooting schedule. Dressed in blue jeans, a black baseball hat, brown boots and a blue flak jacket, Jodie Foster went about her business largely unnoticed by the passengers who paused to watch on their way to catch planes.

Two weeks earlier, at a news conference to trumpet the city's selection as a location for the movie, a decidedly more glamorous Ms. Foster had said she loved Baltimore, always had -- and that it evokes something "peculiarly American."

It will be interesting to see whether "Home for the Holidays" evokes something that is peculiarly Baltimorean. Will it add to the city's cinematic profile -- like John Waters' "Hairspray" and Barry Levinson's "Diner"? Will it showcase beehive hairdos? Or Colts fanatics who spent autumn Sundays helping Memorial Stadium earn its reputation as the World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum? Or could the film just as easily have been set in Philadelphia, Milwaukee or any other city?

There are few clues to the answer. Only a thin synopsis of the story line is known: A Chicago art restorer (Holly Hunter), after "the worst day of her life," returns here to spend Thanksgiving with her family -- whose members are played by Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Claire Danes and Steve Guttenberg.

But if locations can serve as any indicator, there's at least a chance that the "home" of "Home for the Holidays" will be identifiably Baltimore. Before leaving the city March 11, the cast and crew shot scenes at a 19th-century rowhouse apartment in Federal Hill, among the mansions near Rolling Road in Catonsville, in a gritty rowhouse neighborhood south of Druid Hill Park in Reservoir Hill and inside the last-of-its-kind White Tower Restaurant on Erdman Avenue.

No place played host to the folks from Hollywood longer than the two East Baltimore neighborhoods of Lauraville and Arcadia, on opposite sides of Cold Spring Lane/Moravia Road in Hamilton. With narrow streets and two-story homes packed together on small lots, neighborhoods like these give Baltimore its proud, working-class ethos. Here, Hollywood found Bayard Russell on his porch -- and encountered a number of other Baltimoreans who prove just what it is this city has to offer. For while the actors came to Baltimore, the characters were already here.

Stephie Trageser

No one in Arcadia was more tuned in to the supermarket gossip -- Have you heard that Hollywood's coming to town? -- than Stephie Trageser.

Inside the two-story, wood-frame home she shares with her husband, the movie industry is enshrined: An autographed picture of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the living room. A movie poster for "Class Action," with Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, on the staircase wall. A poster for "Geronimo," with Wes Studi and Gene Hackman, in the upstairs bathroom.

Ms. Trageser's eyes widen and her voice turns into the vocal equivalent of a headline when she talks about the movies. She's got a face and figure that could probably land her in pictures, along with a deep, husky voice that wouldn't hurt either. But she roars when asked if she's ever been on the big screen herself.

"The only real movie I've been in was to help a friend, a college student who was making a film for a project," she says, pausing to puff on a cigarette. "I got to go to the top of a tower outside and be strangled over a banister, chew up a few blood caplets. That's as far as my acting experience has gone."

She doesn't remember how old she was when she saw her first movie, or what it was. But she and her mom, alone since Stephie was 6 months old and her parents divorced, were avid moviegoers. "I grew up on Judy Garland movies, all the musicals," Ms. Trageser recalls, rattling off a list of the movies she saw with her mother, a part-time actress who once won a role in a New York-based soap opera.

At 12, a tender time for a girl growing up without ever having seen her father, Stephie saw the movie that would change her from a fan to a fanatic. It was "The Poseidon Adventure," and its appeal could be summarized in two words: Gene Hackman.

"He's my all-time hero," says Ms. Trageser, 35, a former day-care provider who just started working as a telemarketer and hopes ** to find success as a model and free-lance writer.

The attraction to Gene Hackman was almost immediate, she remembers, because she identified so closely with the teen-age character Susan, who is traveling alone on a ship with her younger brother when it is hit by a huge tidal wave and turned upside down. The two youngsters then join with Mr. Hackman and a cast of assorted Hollywood heavyweights in trying to escape by climbing up to the bottom.

"I think that was the person I was looking for, a male somebody that's going to shelter and take care of you and make sure everything was going to be OK."

If "The Poseidon Adventure" did particularly well in Baltimore and 20th-Century Fox executives wondered why, young Stephie may have been the reason.

"I actually would play hooky from school and go to the movie theater and go in and see a show, go home and then have my mother drive me back so I could see two more showings. I saw it when it first came out 38 times, so much so that I would go to the theater, they would know me."

Stephie Trageser would be the last person to let a piece of Hollywood pass by her door unnoticed. When she heard one location for "Home for the Holidays" was just blocks away, she made plans to be there. Maybe she'd snag an autograph.

It would join a growing collection she had started at 10 by writing to one of her mom's favorites, Rock Hudson. Today, sitting in her dining room, she can flip through a loose-leaf binder that holds the results of all those letters written over all those years: autographed pictures of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the cast of "Cheers," Andy Kaufman, John Lithgow, Michael Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, dozens of others.

The real prizes she had to buy or trade other collectors for. She keeps them upstairs, secure: eight Gene Hackman autographs.

'A big deal'

"This is a big deal for a little neighborhood," said Stephie 'N Trageser, as Arcadia began its week in the Hollywood spotlight. "Normally when these people come in, they're down at the Inner Harbor, they're in Roland Park, they're in more prestigious places in Baltimore. So it's exciting for us."

Shooting began on a Wednesday, and for the better part of a week it was like a giant open house at the corner of Moravia and Harcourt roads. "There's people I've seen today I hadn't seen in two years," Myra Metz said as she headed back home late in the afternoon.

Some folks even took a few extra minutes to get dressed before joining the crowd. "There's actually a person who came out in her baby-doll nightgown and twirled around picking up her newspaper, saying, 'Hey, discover me,' " Ms. Trageser said.

As desperate as she was to hobnob with the visitors from the West, Ms. Trageser refused to resort to such tricks. She hung around the set, chatted up the crew and some of the extras. She even persuaded a crew member to ask Jodie Foster for an autographed picture (the rare prize showed up in her mailbox a few days later).

Others seized the moment more passionately. Amy Moore was down from Harford County, visiting her sister, Dana Helmbright, and 4-year-old niece, Katelyn. Star struck, she bought half a dozen roses and set about on a mission: She wanted to hand two each to Jodie Foster, Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr.

She managed to corner Jodie first, and her family became the envy of the neighborhood when the director agreed to hold Katelyn for a picture. She snagged Holly Hunter a little while later, but getting to Robert Downey Jr. proved more difficult. He was busy shooting a scene.

"All I want to do is find Robert Downey Jr. and give him these flowers and be done with it," she said to no one in particular, a pair of red roses clutched to her chest. "Then I'll leave him alone forever, I swear."

Ms. Hunter, meanwhile, had fallen asleep in the back seat of a black Lincoln. Word had it she wasn't feeling well -- "This hasn't been one of my better days," she told a woman who approached her to say hello.

That concerned several of her newfound neighbors, who are used to looking after each other. One woman peered worriedly from across the street. "Maybe I should ask her if she'd like a bowl of soup or something," she wondered aloud, before thinking better of it and deciding to let sleeping stars lie.

Around 4:30 p.m., filming stopped for the day, and Mr. Downey walked off the set, straight into the waiting arms of Ms. Moore. Her mission finally complete, she headed home. By the weekend, a framed photograph of her niece and Jodie Foster would be displayed in her sister's home.

Stephie Trageser, unfortunately, walked away empty-handed. Having arrived somewhat late in the day, she didn't see much. Get here early tomorrow, some crew members suggested, like around 6 a.m., and "Chances are you'll be able to meet somebody."

Home to the stars

A few blocks to the north, workers had almost finished turning Bayard Russell's house into a star.

Having lived alone since his wife died 26 years ago, Mr. Russell is a creature of habit. And though his house needed some basic cleaning, in many ways it doesn't show much wear and tear. The upstairs, for example, is almost untouched -- Mr. Russell prefers to sleep on a cot in the dining room now that Vivian, the raven-haired beauty who "made me happier than I ever thought I'd be," is gone.

Mr. Russell was amenable to just about anything the film folks wanted to do. They covered the upstairs dormer with Formstone. They put shingles around the front-porch posts and painted the front door. They put new clear glass in the front window, tinted glass -- amber, yellow and blue -- in the front door.

They built a fake garage in the back yard and poured a cement driveway leading back to it -- cutting down three huge holly bushes in the process ("I thought I'd miss them when they first mentioned it," Mr. Russell says. "I missed 'em about five minutes").

Inside, they installed a shelf around the perimeter of an upstairs bedroom and lined it with stuffed animals. They painted his upstairs radiator and radiator cover pink. They brought in house cleaners to tidy up the place.

But most of the time spent sprucing up the place was devoted to the project that clinched the deal -- putting a new roof on a house that hadn't seen one since Eisenhower was president.

Mr. Russell had warned the film people that his roof was unsteady and probably wouldn't support the weight of someone trying to put Formstone on a dormer or install a light. He figured they would pass on his house and look elsewhere. Instead, they offered to give him an entirely new roof.

"I said all right," Mr. Russell deadpanned. In fact, he was thrilled.

That roof had been a sword of Damocles over his head for too many years. Replacing it, he knew, would threaten the independence he's so proudly maintained since retiring.

Bayard Russell lives on his Social Security checks, which total less than $10,000 a year. And though his health is good, if not great -- he takes medicine for high blood pressure, gets winded more easily than he'd like and has trouble seeing -- his nearly 30 years of building homes are behind him. And there was no way he could afford to have someone else roof his house.

Jodie Foster was the answer to a prayer.

"I used to lay in bed and dream about how I was going to get a new roof," he said, easing into a chair. "The Lord has gotten tired

of beating up on me, that's all I can figure."

No luck yet

On a Saturday night, five days into the filming in Arcadia, Stephie Trageser sat down on her living room sofa and wondered what she was doing wrong. Her spirits resembled that inverted ship on "The Poseidon Adventure" movie poster that hangs above her stairwell. Sinking.

She had plodded her way up Harcourt Road at 5:15 Thursday morning, only to learn that Holly Hunter had the flu, and major filming was canceled for the day. Now she was having to endure the stories of neighbors who had landed extra roles in the film or had lunch with the cast.

Black coffee in hand, Ms. Trageser flipped through the Sunday Sun's Today section and spotted an advertisement for Center Stage's annual radio auction. Every year, folks from around Baltimore donate items to be auctioned over the radio, with proceeds going to benefit the theater.

Ms. Trageser scanned the list of items, looking for something to pique her interest. A "Serial Mom" poster signed by John Waters? Lunch with Gov. Parris Glendening? Two tickets to "The Late Show With David Letterman"? An extra's role in "Home for the Holidays"? A personal tour of the Baltimore Museum of Art with . . .

Her eyes did a double take. An extra's role in "Home for the Holidays"!

"That's just too good to be true!" she thought. Within moments, she was downstairs, trying to convince her husband that this was her big chance.

Roger was an easy sell. He loves his wife too much to step on her dreams. Besides, she'd recently been given $400 owed her. And her birthday was coming up. They agreed she could bid up to $400.

The next afternoon, Stephie set up shop next to the living room phone. Pencil firmly in hand, note pad at her side, she listened to the radio -- and waited. At 2 p.m., WBAL announcer Alan Prell started the bidding. Ms. Trageser opened at $40.

For the first 20 minutes or so, the bidding climbed quickly, eventually leveling off at $380. She listened as Mr. Prell tried to get the bids raised, listing everyone who was going to be in the picture.

"Don't mention that much information!" shrieked Ms. Trageser, realizing she was only $20 away from her limit. "Just give me the bid."

The minutes crawled by. It was almost 3 o'clock. Maybe, she thought, I'm in the clear.

Then someone phoned in a $400 bid.

"Bid $20 more," Roger said. Stephie smiled. He was as excited as she was.

But the bids kept climbing -- $600, $700, $800 . . .

Roger retreated to his office downstairs. Stephie phoned the auction and suggested a deal. How about if they split the prize? She'd pay half the winning bid, this other bidder can have the role; all she wanted was to wander around the set and watch everyone work.

Sorry, she was told. The bidding was up to $900. Did she want to top it?

No, he can have it, she said, hanging up the phone.

"It's not fair," Roger told her when she walked downstairs to break the news. "You should have had this." Stephie agreed. "It's like every time I get within reach of something, it's taken away."

She headed back to the living room, crying, feeling sorry for herself. I know I should be an adult, she thought, but I really wanted this. It's my birthday, it's happening in my neighborhood. I deserved this.

About 15 minutes passed. Her husband appeared upstairs, saying there was someone on the phone.

Ms. Trageser picked up the receiver. The auction folks were calling back. Turned out her opponent was some kid playing a joke. There was no $900 bid. She could have the walk-on role for her previous high bid of $580.

Stephie whipped out her credit card. She wanted to nail this down before the Center Stage folks changed their mind.

"I'm trying to stay very composed on the outside," she said. "But on the inside, it's like, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' "

Marie Teresa Brusio

Marie Teresa Brusio was worried.

"Home for the Holidays" had been shooting in her neighborhood for two days, and Miss Brusio was concerned that Jodie and all her pals might be a little homesick. Family is important to her -- she shares her home in Lauraville with her 94-year-old mother -- and while the crew was in town, she considered them family, too. She wanted Baltimore to treat them right.

Miss Brusio is a spark plug of a woman with a voice that sounds like it wants to give you a hug. Her answer to nearly every one of life's ills is good food, and lots of it.

"I knew what's been happening with this young lady -- she's a pretty girl, Jodie Foster -- and how that one guy wanted to impress her by killing the president," Miss Brusio said, lifting her gaze to the ceiling as she recalled the awful mess with John Hinckley a few years back. "Oh, that poor girl has been going through H-E-double-L with this character. Well, anyhow, he's in the right place. I thought, well, I've got to see her, I've heard so much about her, and she is a fine actress. Holy cow, she's right up the street."

So, on a typically cold February morning, Miss Brusio arrived on the set as the crew was getting ready to film. Apparently, a tiny Italian lady with big eyes and a warm smile can go pretty much anywhere she wants; she wound up standing next to the director herself.

They struck up a conversation. "You live around here?" Ms. Foster asked. "Oh yeah," Miss Brusio answered, "I've been living around here about 46 years."

As strangers tend to do when they first meet, the two women discussed the weather. "I'm cold and I'm freezing out here," Ms. Foster said. "Look at you, you're only wearing that jacket!"

True, Miss Brusio replied, "but I'm used to this weather, because I was born here. It seems so cold here because you're used to that warm climate."

In minutes, she had the situation sized up. A famous visitor from the sunny West Coast was cold and damp and shivering. What to do?

"Have you eaten yet?" Miss Brusio asked.

That afternoon, she was at her stove, whipping up a batch of her own tomato sauce. Within a couple hours, a pair of special-order Brusio pizzas were ready for delivery, one with cheese and onions and sauce, the other with anchovies and cheese.

"Everybody likes it different," Miss Brusio explains.

A woman on the set said she would give them to Ms. Foster. The next day, Miss Brusio was back, determined to find out if the pizzas were delivered as promised.

As the crew broke for lunch, Miss Brusio began shouting from across the street, "Jodie! Jodie Foster."

Ms. Foster turned and smiled.

"Did you eat my pizza?"

"Yes, I did, they were delicious," Ms. Foster answered. "Thank you very much."

"I think Jodie likes Baltimore," Miss Brusio said later. "I think she sees that the people here are warmhearted and they keep their word."

Her big day

For Stephie Trageser, the big day arrived March 2 in Lauraville -- on Bayard Russell's front lawn.

That morning, Ms. Trageser was introduced as the auction winner, and everyone was urged to show her a good time. Roam around the set and feel free to approach any of the stars, she was told.

The day's filming involved most of the cast, but primarily revolved around Robert Downey Jr. and Steve Guttenberg, who wrestle on the ground until Charles Durning squirts them with a ** hose.

Ms. Trageser played a neighbor watching this family conflict unfold. At first, she and the actor playing her husband were to watch from a porch, but Ms. Foster, realizing they were out of camera range, changed the scene so they were visible in the background.

Everyone went out of their way to show her a good time. Charles Durning told her a few bawdy jokes. Robert Downey Jr. poured her a cup of coffee. Cynthia Stevenson, who stars in the new NBC sitcom "Hope & Gloria," treated her like a kid sister, posing for pictures and asking if she needed anything.

By midday, Ms. Trageser had become positively blase about the whole thing.

"We were over there in that house they rented so we could use the bathroom, when who strolls in but Jodie Foster. My husband, who is not one to be star struck at all, is like, 'Look who it is, look who it is! It's her.' And I'm like, 'Oh I know, I've already talked to her.' "

As for Bayard Russell, the star of this show was his house -- and he was content to stay in the background, out of everyone's way. Venturing across the street once, to see things from a different perspective, he discovered that his status as the home's owner only got him so far. He couldn't get back inside until they finished filming.

That night, before packing up, the crew blanketed the neighborhood with fake snow for the day's final shot -- leaving behind a layer of white that would linger for days.

"They promised me that would get washed away eventually," said Mr. Russell, who had no reason to doubt what he was told. It seemed a simple feat, compared to their transformation of his little house on Southern Avenue.

Afterglow

Even after the lights and cameras and sound equipment disappeared from the streets of Baltimore, the special effects remained: a wealth of Kodak moments, a few score more autographs, some renewed friendships among neighbors who hadn't seen each other in years. The experience no doubt will become exaggerated in time. A few years from now, everyone in Hamilton will tell tales of having had Jodie Foster over for dinner.

Marie Brusio can legitimately boast of having delivered her dinner. Bayard Russell has a new roof, new paint job, and a newfound peace of mind. And Stephie Trageser was, in her words, "Queen for a Day."

Her checkbook is considerably lighter, but she has a Hollywood memory more vivid than any autograph. As long as her part doesn't end up on the cutting room floor -- and there's no guarantee it won't -- she'll be up there on the big screen come November.

The Maryland Film Commission estimates "Home for the Holidays" contributed $5 million to the city's economy. For a lucky few, the experience was downright personal. A close encounter of the cinema kind.

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