Harvey G. Alexander

Harvey Alexander
(George Cook, Baltimore Sun)

Harvey G. Alexander, who founded and served as executive director of the Baltimore Film Festival and also read poetry on WBJC-FM, died Nov. 23 of pulmonary edema at Franklin Square Medical Center.

He was 77.

"I first got to know him in 1964 at Martick's. They wouldn't let me in, but I got to know him behind Martick's back in the alley," said film director and writer John Waters.

"Harvey was an eccentric intellectual and a real bohemian, but always very friendly," said Mr. Waters. "He was a film fanatic."

"He was a Baltimore original," said Richard A. Macksey, a noted Baltimore book collector and professor of humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. "He had an enormous appetite for film, the theater and reading, and he loved sharing this with people. The arts were very important to him."

The son of a musician and an accountant, Harvey George Alexander was born and raised in East Baltimore. He attended Polytechnic Institute.

When he was in his junior year at Poly, he dropped out and joined the Norwegian merchant marine, explaining in a 1974 interview in The Baltimore Sun that he was driven out of school by such books as "Silas Marner."

At 17, he went on the high seas for "$35 a month and all the spaghetti and bacon you could eat for breakfast," he said. The ship had a good library, where he immersed himself in books in his free time.

After 31/2 years at sea, Mr. Alexander enrolled at St. John's College in Annapolis, where he earned a bachelor's degree and where his interest in film began. As head of the college's film society, he said in the 1974 interview, "I just screened every film I ever wanted to see."

Mr. Alexander, who taught writing at local schools, was a student of the late Elliott Coleman's writing seminar at Hopkins, where he earned a master's degree in writing in 1969.

He was head of his own film production company and was teaching film at the University of Baltimore when he founded the Baltimore Film Festival.

"It started very innocently," he said in The Sun interview, but with the university's tight budget, he found it difficult to get the films he wanted to screen for his students.

Mr. Alexander came up with the idea of a film festival that would feature a collection of good short films from independent filmmakers.

He turned to the American Film Institute in Washington, got permission to use their name and launched the Baltimore Film Festival in 1970.

The first year, the festival, which was held at the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Library, featured 47 films, six of them earning $50 prizes, with money he had raised himself.

An entrant in the 1970 festival came from Mr. Waters, then a fledgling filmmaker, whose "The Diane Linkletter Story" was screened.

The 1972 festival, held at Stephens Hall Auditorium at what is now Towson University, featured Mr. Waters' "Pink Flamingos."

"People who never came out of their closets came out," Mr. Alexander told The Evening Sun in 1973. "It took a month for Baltimore to realize 'Pink Flamingos' was the freak event of the year."

By 1973, the festival had expanded and featured 230 films, with some of them coming from as far away as Malta and Yugoslavia, with prize money totaling $1,500.

During the next few years, the festival expanded to include foreign and art-house films, which were shown in various venues in addition to the University of Baltimore and Towson University, such as the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore Museum of Art, 5-West Theater, and the Playhouse and Town theaters.

But Mr. Alexander had become somewhat embittered over the lack of support from Baltimore's commercial and institutional communities.

"What it has become is some little orphan child, and I'll be damned if I'll let it become an abortion," he said in 1974. "I put five years of my life into this thing."

In 1975, Mr. Alexander incorporated the film festival, but a year later, the group he helped organize suggested that he give up administering the festival and stay on as creative director of the festival, which was renamed the Baltimore Film Forum Inc.

Mr. Alexander told The Sun in 1977 that he was ousted from his job as the forum's president in "a bloodless revolt. It got ugly."

"Harvey was very persuasive but could be prickly at times," said Dr. Macksey. "He could be a rocky road and demanding in his own way."

Separated from his festival, Mr. Alexander founded an alternative festival that year, Harvey Alexander's Baltimore Film Festival 8, which was held at the University of Baltimore.

"I realize there are very few things in people's lives that make their lives work. Sometimes it is another person. Sometimes it is an event. In my life, this was my child," he said in the 1977 interview.

"I want to prove something. For a sonless man, this is it. Maybe I've made it into something. It's my child. It's my ego. It's something I possess. Maybe I need to be psychoanalyzed."

In 1974, Baltimore lawyer Stuart Rome helped get the Baltimore Film Forum Inc. recognized by the state as a nonprofit agency, which qualified it for grant money.

"Plagued by internal strife and mounting debt, the Baltimore Film Forum closed a year after staging the last Baltimore Film Festival. Its last presentation: the restored version of Sam Peckinpah's 'The Wild Bunch,' " reported The Sun in 1999.

Mr. Alexander also taught writing and literature in Maryland prisons and later hosted "In Other Words," on WBJC-FM.

"Harvey asked me to come as a guest lecturer at Patuxent, and I liked it so much, I taught there with him. Teaching in prison changed my life," said Mr. Waters. "One of our students — I can't tell you his name — who was doing time for a double murder is doing quite well now."

In 1980, Mr. Alexander began broadcasting "In Other Words," which aired at 12:30 a.m. Mondays on WBJC, after Carl Orff's lilting "Street Song," his theme song, was played.

"In the middle of that uneasy midnight hour when the old week turns into the new, Harvey Alexander struggles to bring the dying week to a sane and civilized end," wrote Evening Sun reporter Carl Schoettler in 1985. "He reads poetry over the radio — into the dark night of endless rock 'n' roll, the long empty highways of country and western, the blue void of broadcast talk."

Mr. Alexander enlisted writers and poets to read their works and at other times drafted actors, librarians and translators to read the words of William Butler Yeats, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dorothy Parker.

"He is slightly daft about language. He speaks in complete sentences. He enunciates correctly. He's literate," wrote Mr. Schoettler, who described Mr. Alexander's voice as a "deep, rich baritone, rolling along on a satisfying base of rumbling undertones."

Mr. Alexander explained in the 1985 interview that "one of the reasons I do the poetry program is that I enjoy it. It gives me great pleasure. It's nice to know occasionally that people listen. It's part of their language. It's an insight into the human predicament."

He added: "My feeling is that everyone should go to bed with a poet. So we serve that function."

The show ended in the late 1980s, friends said.

The former longtime Waverly resident had in recent years lived on Regester Avenue in Idlewylde.

"He loved movies. He loved to read and at the end of his life had become a complete recluse," said Mr. Waters.

"He knew my schedule and sometimes would call me at 3 a.m. to discuss an old movie that he had just watched on Netflix or a book that he had finished," said Dr. Macksey.

Plans for a memorial gathering to be held in the spring were incomplete.

Surviving is a sister, Ethel Alexander Vickery of Mount Arlington, N.J.; and several nieces, nephews and cousins.


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