A universal message in a Greek tale


ON THE weekend we celebrate our national blessings, Kyriakos Marudas commemorates a bountiful part of the eternal American journey. He's putting the final touches on a new film, Pizza Palace, shot with tenderness and good cheer in East Baltimore.

It's about the Greek-American experience, which is not so far from the journey of the Italians, or the Jews, or blacks, or Latinos, or - well, fill in your own minority. It's about coming of age, and figuring out who in the world you are. It's about each generation working out its desire to join the full, mainstream America, while holding onto - or belatedly learning to appreciate - the family history that started in some distant land and still makes us feel connected to a unique tribe.

In Pizza Palace, the teenage Alex learns Greek dancing from the black guy who's partners with the Greek immigrant who owns their little joint. He learns the first awkward words of his native language from a neighborhood girl. Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child's consciousness. It finally dawns on him, in that final summer between high school and college, that he's leaving behind more than his immediate family. It's the dawning of his ethnic pride.

Marudas comes to the story by blood. A grandmother, Frosso Semerly, made the journey to America and serves as inspiration for a fund-raiser to be held Thursday night at the Senator Theatre. The screening will benefit Alzheimer's research at the Johns Hopkins Copper Ridge Institute in Carroll County.

Raised in a corner of northeast Turkey populated by Turks and Greeks and Armenians, the teenage Frosso and her family made their way to Russia to escape religious tensions. In Russia, she was caught between the communists and famine and the oncoming World War I. An uncle was snatched away one night. They never saw him again, but found his sweater in a nearby river. They fled Russia and made it to Athens, where Frosso left for America. She was 18.

She married an American who was 15 years older and who died young, leaving her with three small children. One of them, Marudas' mother, Irene, grew up to become an English teacher at Franklin High School in Baltimore County. His father, Peter Marudas, was U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes' longtime political aide. (In the interest of full disclosure, Kyriakos Marudas' aunt, Georgia Marudas, is an editor at this newspaper.)

"I was very close to my grandmother," says Kyriakos Marudas, 37. "She helped raise me. But for the last 12 years of her life, Alzheimer's wore her down. She was 92 when she died."

Marudas is an attorney with the city solicitor's office. In the movie, the young Alex is encouraged to go to the Wharton business school. His parents are pushing him into the heart of the American business culture. Marudas cast himself as the father.

"My character's there to show the assimilationist desire," he says. "I'm this Americanized attorney whose parents were born in Greece, but I've turned my back on my ethnic heritage to be an assimilationist. The film's not specifically autobiographical at all. You take bits and pieces of different people. Part of it comes from me growing up in Baltimore, working at a pizza place - the Pizza Palace, actually, on York Road - as a teenager. That's part of the inspiration, sure.

"But it's fiction. I mean, my parents feel very strong emotional ties to their Greek roots. They sent me to Greek school as a kid. We were observant Greek Orthodox parishioners. It was a home with an emphasis on Greek customs and religion. But my father is a man very much American in his attitudes. He bridges those two worlds."

Marudas' co-writer on Pizza Palace is Jeff Dicken, who's Jewish. The director is Rod Lopez. The actors came from a number of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

"And they got it; they understood," says Marudas. Of course they did - it's the classic American journey, "the notion of forging ahead economically, but sometimes leaving behind the extended family and the neighborhood support systems. We're economic, but we're also social. The movie's about leaving behind some of your customs and mores that you might think outdated - or choosing not to."

Alex doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. "What does he want," Alex asks, "a carbon copy of himself?"

Marudas says the film is his "Greek version of Diner, the Baltimore coming-of-age experience. In all fairness, it's a film with a far more modest budget, and actors and crew whose careers are just getting started. But it's a labor of love and good cheer. And, on a weekend when we count our national blessings, here's a reminder of a journey familiar to so many of us.

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