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Through a painted screen, nostalgically

Tommy Whittington, who lives in Westlake Village, Calif., returned to his old East Baltimore neighborhood and haunts last week.

The former screen painter and retired hotel executive was in town to make an appearance Wednesday evening at a screening of The Screen Painters, a 1988 documentary about the Baltimore folk art, at the Patterson Theatre.

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"Geez, I remember when the Patterson was a dumping ground, but, boy, is it nice now," said Whittington, in a telephone interview from his niece's Canton home the other day.

"There were hundreds of people there including members of some of the old screen-painting families," said Whittington, who is 77.

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While the screen paintings of the Oktavec clan, Johnny Eck, and brothers Ben and Ted Richardson are the stuff of local legend, Whittington's name and work might not be as well known.

However, Whittington and seven of his painted screens were featured in The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1946.

Whittington, whose basic art training began at St. Katherine of Siena parochial school, painted his first oil on canvas when he was in the fifth grade, he said.

Unable to get a summer job in 1945, when he was 14, one day Whittington went to visit his married sister on Lakewood Avenue, and his 4-year-old nephew, Billy, who was recuperating from an operation on his legs.

After talking with his sister about the lack of privacy, he decided to paint a window screen for her and his little nephew.

William Oktavec, whose work was readily on display throughout the neighborhood, also operated an art supply store on nearby Monument Street. When the artist asked what the young man wanted, Whittington, replied, "How do you paint a screen?"

"He indicated his systems and materials were proprietary, but sold me the oil colors and brushes I selected from his stock," Whittington wrote in an unpublished memoir.

Whittington hurried back to his sister's home, where within the hour he had removed the 4-by-4-foot window screen, covered the sidewalk with an old window shade and newspapers, and fallen to the task at hand.

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After roughing out the drawing in white chalk, he began painting, and three hours later he had completed his first screen painting.

Neighbors stopped by and admired his work.

They asked if he would paint their screens, and suddenly young Whittington had a flourishing summer job.

Whittington, who lived in the 1300 block of N. Montford St., persuaded his father to rent a garage for $12 a week so he could fulfill his commissions.

"I was doing at least 10 screens a week, which I delivered in a little wagon with wooden sides. I was charging $30 for big screens, which was a lot less than Mr. Oktavec charged," Whittington said. "But then again, he was a world-renowned artist. People knew who he was."

Whittington isn't sure that any of his painted screens still exist.

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"They last about 10 years before they get bleached out. Sometimes people would retouch or have them repainted," he said.

Whittington painted screens for "two or three summers," he said, before taking a job at Schreiber's Markets, where future Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was the store's personnel manager.

"They had two stores, one on Eutaw Street and the other on Paca Street, near the Lexington Market. I answered an ad in the paper. They were looking for a sign painter," he said. "I painted signs advertising 'Bananas for 10 cents a pound,' for instance, and prepared the store's weekly newspaper ads," he recalled.

After graduating from Catholic High School in 1949, Whittington enlisted in the Army.

"When I was sworn in at Fort Meade, I was told if I listed my profession as a sign painter, I'd be sent to Korea to paint signs like 'Seoul. 10 miles,'" he said.

Because he had directed and designed theatrical productions in high school, he was assigned to special services and spent the Korean War years running a service club at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

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Returning to Baltimore, Whittington went to work as a window designer, eventually moving up to display manager, at the old Sears store on East North Avenue.

In 1953, he married Jean Maciejewski, a Catholic High School alum.

Whittington finally left Baltimore and moved to the West Coast, where he worked for Holiday Inns for 30 years designing and furnishing inns for franchisees.

After leaving Holiday Inn, he worked in the same capacity for Hilton Hotels before retiring several years ago.

Now, he's working as a licensed security guard at the Carden Conejo School, a private school in Westlake Village.

He satisfies his artistic urges by designing and directing musical stage productions for the Conejo Players and also painting scenery.

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"We just celebrated our 50th-anniversary season," he said.

In his memoir, Whittington wrote, "I found an extension of my screen painting experience. There is a theatrical product called scrim, a fabric woven 30 feet wide, with no seam.

"You use water-based colors, paint your scenic effect on the scrim on stage. Light it from the front and it looks solid; fade the front lights and increase the back lights and like magic you see the scrim virtually disappear."

Whittington first used scrim in 1949 at Catholic High School, when he re-created the Miracle at Lourdes.

Whittington has an idea. With the green movement picking up steam, he said, he thinks painted screens might make a comeback.

"People could turn off their air conditioners, conserve electricity, open their windows and doors and make East Baltimore into a global green scene by using painted screens," he said.

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Whittington and his wife, who are considering moving back to Baltimore, never miss a visit to the famed Matthew's Pizza parlor on Eastern Avenue.

"The other night after the event at the Patterson, 16 people, including members of my family, went to Matthew's, pushed all the tables together and ordered pizza," he said, laughing. "God, I had indigestion for the rest of the night, but the pizza sure was good."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Online

See videos about screenpainters at baltimoresun.com/screenpainters


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