Sundown cinema back in Little Italy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three thousand outdoor cinema-goers showing up to watch Cher and Nicolas Cage under a full moon in Little Italy - now that's amore.

It's opening night on High, Stiles and Albemarle streets, where a free summer film festival has brought throngs to the neighborhood in beach chairs to watch Moonstruck. The weekly Friday night event, which got off the ground four years ago when the Little Italy Restaurant Association decided to give open-air cinema a try, has become a Baltimore spectacle attracting anyone who wants to watch movies and people.

The outdoor movies, shown in a small square in the heart of Little Italy, will be offered every Friday through Aug. 29, when the scheduled finale is Cinema Paradiso.

The heart of every show is not just the film, but the scene around it: a block converted to a theater, an organ grinder with a 1909 hurdy-gurdy and a 93-year-old man who lent the community his rowhouse window for the movie projector.

"It's definitely a city institution now, bigger than its elements," says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. "Now it's one of the things people do in summer. And it is so Baltimore, so totally of this city, so welcoming. There's some incredible magic about the setting."

On opening night July 11, the block was so packed with people that moviegoers were spilling past the police barriers.

Michael Wilkes, the projectionist who watches the masses gather outside Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop from a window overhead, says, "It's the largest crowd I've ever seen for a movie. It's crazy, like four Senator [Theatre] audiences at one time. I've seen people hanging out, playing the guitar, dancing, playing cards, in pouring down rain or in sunshine."

The movies attract all kinds. Blind dates and middle-aged married couples come early to catch the romance of a picnic on a July night, and children and teen-agers stare at the makeshift screen as Cage begs Cher to go to the opera with him.

And the occasion provides a talkfest for Little Italy old-timers who have lived all their lives under the spire of St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church.

Ida Esposito, 85, sat on a bench to enjoy the spectacle of people arriving and setting up their lawn chairs on the first night of the festival. When she was a girl, she says, a synagogue was on that site, and she remembers lighting Sabbath candles there on Friday nights for 10 cents.

"Word has gotten out," she says. "I was born in this neighborhood, and I have yet to see anything like it. You know what it is - being amongst all the people gives you such a friendly feeling.

"That's what it's all about, bringing the city together."

People-watching

Engineers Summer Craze (yes, that is her name) and Katie Cantrell strolled over from their Federal Hill digs.

"I love the fact we can sit in the street," Craze, 26, says as she discreetly keeps an eye on a nearby couple in the crowd whom she fixed up on a blind date.

Cantrell, 23, says the residents of Little Italy remind her of her grandparents, who live in Wheeling, W.Va. "This reminds me of them - grumpy yet familiar," she says.

For many, the movies are a nostalgic summer treat.

"It's synonymous with summer," says Aldo Locco, who leads a band before the shows begin. "The concept is an old concept in Italy, to show movies in summertime in town squares."

Presiding as unofficial host is John Pente, a nonagenarian who lives in a Formstone rowhouse directly across from the wall that serves as the screen. Outside on his steps, he takes in the pre-show scene with a smile.

Inside his home and up the stairs is the spare bedroom from which the movies are projected. Everyone seems to know that without "Mr. John," there would be no party outside his door.

Pente's neat spare bedroom, decorated in yellow, is a throwback with a rotary phone, lace doilies, a crucifix on the wall and the Italian and the American flags.

A stroke of luck

When the Little Italy Restaurant Association put the festival together on a lark and a shoestring budget in 1999, it received advice from Tom Kiefaber, the Senator Theatre owner. To their amazement, they discovered that the distance between the blank building wall and Pente's bedroom window, or "throw," was a perfect 108 feet.

Wilkes, 31, the projectionist, says the small window met all other technical requirements for projecting 16-millimeter movies. "If this window wasn't here, you could not shoot from any other window," he says. "Shooting out of a rowhouse, you can't plan or duplicate that."

Mary Ann Cricchio, president of the restaurant association and proprietor of Da Mimmo, says Pente had only one question when she asked him whether he would allow the film festival to use his home. "The only question he asked me," says Cricchio, 41, "was, 'Will this be good for the community?' "

She said yes, and so did everybody else.

The church lent chairs, a bank paid for the popcorn, and a restaurant parking lot space was opened up for a makeshift plaza.

"We can't believe what it blossomed into," says Cricchio, who estimates the event costs between $3,000 and $4,000 a week. "If we had counted the cost, we wouldn't have done it."

Craig Ross, a 35-year-old public defender, sees the festival as a sign that Baltimore has changed for the better.

"The mix of people crosses every culture. It's not African-American or Italian, or German or Polish or Greek," says Ross. "In this very ethnic city, it crosses those boundaries. The demographics are inclusive, and nobody feels segregated."

So now Little Italy beckons to people such as Baltimore newcomers Kerry and Glenn Allison, a couple in their 30s who brought their 7-week-old baby, Reilly, to see Moonstruck under the stars. They recently moved from Boulder, Colo., to Hampden.

They hadn't come just for the movie. The street theater, the audience, the spectacle of a city block transformed into a cinema were all components that made for an even grander stage.

Frances Caliri, 82, a Little Italy resident, agrees that the movie is secondary. She was out to see people streaming into the streets where she had grown up. Describing her childhood, she says it was a world where "everybody sat on their steps, we didn't have no telephone, and everything tasted good."

As for last Friday night, her plan was simple.

"When they start the movie, I'll go home," Caliri says.

For a schedule of film festival movies, go to http://www.marylandnightlife.com/LittleItaly.htm and click on "Little Italy Open-Air Film Festival 2003." Music starts at 7 p.m. and the feature film starts at 9 p.m.

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