In his delicate coming-of-age years in the mid-'60s, Steve Yeager would cut classes at Poly to partake of a local rite of adolescent passage: the afternoon show at the Gayety Burlesque on The Block.
Yeager would pack a brown lunch bag and catch a bus from North Avenue to Baltimore Street. There, he would sit in the Gayety and watch such distinguished professional undressers xTC as Irma the Body and Miss Liberty Bell do their stuff.
"Cutting classes at Poly," Yeager was saying yesterday, "was not easy. But, the thrill of sitting in a theater, and eating a brown bag lunch while watching Irma the Body, well . . ."
Enthusiasts of the undress trade will not need him to finish the sentence. Yeager, 40, who grew up in Hampden and still lives here, hearkens back to a time when The Block meant bachelor parties and celebrations of reaching the drinking age. The bookstores still kept the hard-core stuff under the counter back then, and the nightclubs had live bands and the Gayety had comics punctuating the strip shows.
Yeager shakes his head sadly when he thinks of those days. The Block was full of adrenalin back then. Now it clings to existence, and Yeager's trying to capture a piece of it while its heart still beats.
His new movie, "On The Block," will have its premiere Monday at The Senator, a black-tie affair with stars Howard Rollins, Dwight Schultz and Marilyn Jones, plus some ladies from The Block who have supporting roles in the film.
"I've always had an interest in subcultures," Yeager said. "Particularly vanishing subcultures."
The Block qualifies. With downtown developers licking their chops over such prime real estate, and City Hall eager to collect the inherent tax dollars, The Block's red-light joints have been vanishing from the landscape for more than a decade now. Some say they'll disappear completely before another decade passes.
In "On The Block," Rollins plays a businessman trying to buy up the clubs to tear them down and build high-rises. It's art imitating life, an echo of red-light districts in New York, Boston and Seattle clinging to life as cities squeeze them out of business.
But the movie's no real estate documentary. It's a love triangle about a stripper, a vice squad lieutenant and a handyman, and it was shot in The Block's Chez Joey and the streets outside.
"Ever since those days I cut class at Poly, I've been fascinated by The Block," says Yeager. "When I got into theater and film, I started to think about it as a vehicle. As an artist, you're always concerned you won't have a groove, a niche, a style, or something to say.
"So I took this interest in subcultures, combined with this fascination with red-light districts, and I thought about a script."
Twelve years ago, Yeager and Dick Gillespie, head of the theater department at Towson State University, wrote a first draft, from the point of view of a 60-year-old club owner. But Yeager knew nothing about producing an independent film, and the script went up on a shelf in his home.
Four years ago, he met the actress Marilyn Jones at a film festival for independent producers. There was talk there of making movies for $150,000. Yeager went home and pulled out his old script. Then he turned to a friend, Linda Chambers, and told her what he'd written eight years earlier.
The two of them wrote a new script, from the point of view of a 28-year-old stripper. Marilyn Jones got the part. Yeager had seen her on TV, as Betty White's daughter in "Golden Girls" and Bruce Willis' ex-wife in "Moonlighting." He liked her vulnerability.
"That's how I see women on The Block," says Yeager. "I know it's a cliche, but a lot of them come from broken homes, they've been abused, and they've got low self-esteem. They cover it with a tough exterior, but they're vulnerable. And that's what I wanted to catch."
First, he had to get through the wall that Block people have long put between themselves and the rest of the world. It meant spending long hours in the clubs, getting Block insiders to trust them, and then getting them to open up.
Unexpectedly, they got a break when Yeager spotted a police lieutenant outside a club one night and remembered him from his days at Poly.
"Aren't you . . .?" he said.
"Yeager," said Lt. Chuck Milland, who was working the beat, "you haven't changed since high school."
Milland started making introductions. At the Chez Joey, Lynn Hope and Tommy Bruno took him seriously and introduced him to other club owners. Also, the owners encouraged the Block ladies to talk to him.
Yeager and Chambers shot a sample reel and took it to prospective investors. On Dec. 10, 1988, they began shooting the movie. It was exactly two years to the day before next week's premiere.
"There's no question, The Block has some troubles," Yeager says. "You talk to some of the owners now, they always go back to the good old days, before drugs and porno and jeans. Yeah, jeans.
"The first one to say that to me was Blaze Starr. In fact, we gave her a small part in the movie. And there's a line, which we had to cut, where she says, 'In the old days, the only place you wore them damned jeans is when you were sloppin' the hogs.' "
The jeans became a symbol of a neighborhood where people had once dressed up, and now dressed down. It's a losing proposition for everybody.
Yeager's tried to capture a piece of it on film, while there's still time.