Redwood Street downtown is given 1950s makeover Vintage cars, clothes adorn set of Barry Levinson film


Downtown Baltimore yesterday retreated to the year 1954 while a film crew for "Liberty Heights" commandeered Redwood Street, filling it with dozens of vintage cars, neon lights, gabardine suits, hats with veils and cameras on rolling tracks.

Traffic congealed into a nonmoving glob, but few drivers complained as they caught a sideways view of star Joe Mantegna standing in a reconstructed world they had forgotten about or never knew.

"It was a little overcast this morning," said director Barry Levinson. He stood outside Werner's Restaurant on Redwood Street, the downtown lunchroom whose owners and staff took the day off so the company could take over its art deco interior. "Now the light is better," he said about 3 in the afternoon.

A few minutes earlier, Gloria Gresham, the movie's costume designer, rushed a pair of men's pants into service as she dashed past portable bins full of 1950s-style men's hats and suitcases used as props in the film.

Just how many fedoras and felt hats did she hand out yesterday?

"There must be hundreds on the street today," she said. "There were a lot of costume changes."

The day began early for the film crew at the corner of Redwood and South streets. The star of the day was a replicated Gayety Theatre facade, but unlike its progenitor it was spelled "Gaiety." The vertical sign, dotted with hundreds of lights, hung over what had been the old Totman Building, midway down Redwood Street near South. There were also blazing neon signs for the Miami Nite Club, the Two O'Clock Club, the Ritz Musical Bar and a tattoo parlor.

"Liberty Heights" deals with gambling and underworld themes in Baltimore of the 1950s.

Throughout the day and even after it closed about 9 p.m., the set attracted hundreds of observers. The largest number of people, however, were gathered around the Democratic candidate for state comptroller.

"The street is absolutely spectacular. I went to the old Gayety once or twice," said former governor and mayor William Donald Schaefer, whose South and Redwood law office had been transformed into a Hollywood liquor store and palm reader's salon for the movie.

During the past few days, an army of film-set dressers removed modern street poles and added vintage lamps with milky glass globes. Parking signs were cut off at the base. A squat trash receptacle was repainted with the 1950s slogan: "Baltimore is your city. Help keep it clean."

Walt Meyers of Baldwin brought his spotless 1953 Pontiac Catalina in for the shoot. He said his prized possession will be used by a character named Little Melvin, a name that resonates within the annals of vice -- and neighborhood legends -- in Baltimore.

"Little Melvin was like a folk hero when I was growing up," said Emin Bey, a city employee who spent some of his lunch hour admiring the Catalina. "He may have made money on drugs, but he gave it back to the community."

Eugene Herbert Owens, a Baltimore physician who once practiced on East Federal Street, had his 1947 Cadillac Fleetwood parked at Calvert and Redwood. "It's never been out of the family," he said. "There is no [power] steering. The [power] steering is in your biceps."

The vacant Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Co.'s Redwood Street building was called into service as a canteen. The crew ate salmon and risotto; the extras ate beef stew and chicken.

As Levinson surveyed the street, he estimated that "Liberty Heights" would take another four or five weeks to wrap up here.

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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