Guys of 'Diner' the movie star in documentary that's funny and poignant

October 15, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

In 1982, Barry Levinson and "Academy Award-winning director" were not automatically parts of the same sentence. Similarly, Barbara A. Mikulski and "U.S. senator" was a pairing still in the future.

What a difference 10 years makes. Last night, two of Baltimore's favorite success stories celebrated their respective rises in Hollywood and Washington as Mr. Levinson returned to town to help Senator Mikulski's re-election effort.

"It scares me that time goes that quick," Mr. Levinson said at an event that was both a 10th anniversary celebration of the release of his breakthrough movie, "Diner," and a fund-raiser for Ms. Mikulski.

"Diner," as any Baltimorean worth his or her french-fries-and-gravy knows, is the fictionalized story of Mr. Levinson's gang of pals who wiled away the late '50s and early '60s at the Hilltop Diner in Northwest Baltimore. And last night's event -- for which 250 guests each paid $250 for a pre-theater party and about 550 paid $75 for a "Diner" screening at the Senator Theatre -- was a sort of reunion for the longtime friends who inspired the movie.

"I remember being here, watching it right here at the Senator," said Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, the Merry-Go-Round clothing-chain founder and "Diner" guy who was portrayed by Mickey Rourke in the film. "I had my girlfriend at the time with me -- Pepper, who is now my wife. But she already knew I was crazy, without seeing the movie."

Before seeing "Diner" the movie, however, guests were treated to a sneak preview of "Diner" the documentary. Mr. Levinson has been turning up with a camera at the old gang's many reunions and parties and has been filming scenes for what he calls "a work-in-progress." Mr. Weinglass has his own description of it: "It's a documentary about people getting old."

Mr. Levinson showed footage of a reunion the gang had several years ago in a sports camp in Pennsylvania.

"None of us, we never grew up," said Chip Silverman, a longtime mental health worker who himself has chronicled the lives of his pals in a book called, what else, "Diner Guys." "The documentary funny. It's witty. It's poignant."

The senator and the filmmaker are acquaintances, and Mr. Levinson expressed an interest in helping her re-election campaign, said Michael Bronfein, president of Neighbor Care pharmacies, a co-chairman of last night's event and, surprisingly, not a "Diner Guy." And thus the "Senator at the Senator" party was organized.

The diminutive Ms. Mikulski dressed the diner part -- plaid skirt and saddle-shoes -- and reminisced that while she wasn't part of Mr. Levinson's diner group, all diners share similar qualities.

"It's all about french fries and flirting," she said after she and Mr. Levinson unveiled a new concrete block on the theater's "Sidewalk of Stars" to commemorate "Diner's" 10th anniversary.

"It was like a political 'Avalon'," Ms. Mikulski said about the movie in an interview before the screening. "In 1982, I represented a lot of the neighborhoods Barry's made popular -- the white-step neighborhoods of Patterson Park, Forest Park."

She faces what many consider an easy race against Republican challenger Alan L. Keyes, but she said fund-raisers such as last ++ night's are still necessary. "Being on TV is a very expensive situation," she said.

While the Hilltop Diner is no longer, the diner spirit lives on -- Mr. Weinglass, for example, has created his own diners, upscale eateries/boutiques in chic locales like Aspen, Colo., and New York. And the diner that was built for the movie remains in business in downtown Baltimore.

"Diner" also spawned a wave of Baltimore-based movies, including Mr. Levinson's own "Tin Men" and "Avalon." But, said one "Diner Guy," despite the glitter and the glamour of the movie biz, Baltimore remains the Baltimore of Mr. Levinson's movie.

"The diner guys like Barbara because, well, because she's Baltimore like us," Mr. Silverman said.

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