New film documents a bond of friendship

The Baltimore Sun

Neighborhoods in Baltimore, Washington and Cambridge were already burning after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Annapolis Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer feared it wouldn't be long before race rioting struck the state capital.

He looked for his oldest friend, a small-time thief named Joseph "Zastrow" Simms. Moyer was white and Simms was black, yet they had grown up together on the basketball courts in the segregated city.

Moyer sprung Simms from his cell in a Baltimore jail for a few hours, and together they walked the streets of the old 4th Ward in Annapolis, calming the people and sparing the city the destruction wrought in urban areas nationwide.

"Some of those cities are still building up after all those years," said Simms, who, like Moyer, is now 73. "Here was a white man who was able to come into the black community ... and they respected him. Don't think there weren't some tense moments, though."

Forty years later, their nearly lifelong bond paralleling the country's search for racial tolerance has been turned into a documentary. Pip & Zastrow: An American Friendship, by filmmakers Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes, will get its first screening tonight in Annapolis.

"It's just really a beautiful narrative story of a friendship," Bruce said. "It's not a piece to try to put any issues on anyone. You just sort of fall in love with the characters and see how they conquered their own demons and political challenges."

With $100,000 in grants from the city and county, the film was shot in Annapolis over a four-year period, which produced more than 100 hours of interviews with everyone from the current mayor and Moyer's former wife, Ellen O. Moyer, to Carl O. Snowden, head of the state's civil rights office and a native of Annapolis.

"The relationship between the two is timeless," said Ellen Moyer. "Each of them had a different set of skills and talents that were key to avoiding a crisis. No man is an island. One really can't do anything alone. Those are the kinds of things that inspire us all."

Both talented athletes in their youth, Moyer played forward and center at all-white Annapolis High, and Simms starred at all-black Wiley H. Bates High. In 1959, Moyer integrated an all-black semipro team, a scandal at the time.

Moyer went on to join the Army, graduated from the University of Baltimore and then ran for city council. In 1965, he was elected mayor. Simms became a petty thief and was in and out of jail.

But they remained friends, even as they were widely criticized. Moyer was refused admittance to the local yacht and Elks clubs, and Simms was called an "Uncle Tom."

"One of the main things we're trying to tell is a story of a friendship at a time when a friendship over racial lines was not the norm," Hayes said. "This is a story of a friendship that spans 60 years and how they come together at different times of their lives, and they have to deal with their own issues with their families and whatever, but the thread is they always come back to each other, and how friendship can be such a strong force."

Annapolis historian Janice Hayes-Williams was an associate producer, charged with ensuring the historic authenticity of the film.

"There's nobody in Annapolis that didn't know Pip and Zastrow," said Hayes-Williams.

Her uncle, George Phelps, the first African-American law enforcement officer in Anne Arundel County and a longtime Annapolis resident, narrates.

"I heard this booming, melodic, gorgeous baritone voice, and he just sounded like a grandfather telling a story," Bruce said. "I looked at Karin and said, 'We have to have him.' We just felt like the stars aligned when we found George Phelps for this story."

Yesterday, Phelps recounted the aftermath of the April 4, 1968, assassination of King in Memphis, Tenn., and how Moyer hit the streets where tensions were high, before Simms could join him.

"There were pockets of people that were disgruntled or whatever," Phelps said. Moyer "went to every little cubbyhole, every little joint, every little place and that's how it was defused."

In the trailer for the film, available at www.pipandzastro.com, Phelps recalls how the next day the head of the state police called the young mayor.

Moyer says: "He said, 'Mayor, what in the hell are you doing different in Annapolis than we're doing in the rest of the state?' I said, 'Well, I got a guy that's in prison who writes me a little note every day telling me what to do, who to talk to.' So I got Zastrow out on a furlough. And he walked the streets with me every night, talking to different leaders."

Phelps adds, "So here it was a white mayor and a black convict, walking the streets together at a time when the world seemed ready to explode. And would you believe? Annapolis stayed calm."

Phelps, who at 81 is recovering from open-heart surgery, will not be able to attend tonight's premiere of the movie. The passage of time has been hard on its stars: Parkinson's disease has put Moyer in a wheelchair and has nearly robbed him of his ability to talk. Simms walks with a cane because of a bum hip. They still visit, but it is harder now.

In Moyer's Eastport home, the two men embraced. They spoke of friends who have passed and of current events.

"What do you think of the governor of New York?" Simms asked. "He had fun, didn't he?"

"He paid for it," Moyer said.

On presidential politics, Simms said, "I'm supporting Hillary all the way."

Moyer said, "I'm an Obama supporter. Obama all the way."

But when talk turned to their story, and the movie that is telling it, there was pride and tears.

"We're both going through it," Simms said. "But we're both here."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Tonight's screening will be held at 7 o'clock at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. in Annapolis. Tickets cost $15 for adults and are discounted for seniors, students and children. 410-280-5640 or http:--tickets.marylandhall.org.

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