Celebrating ethnic diversity

June 11, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff writer

THe question seemed clear, back in the summer of 1973, but the answer remained unknown.

"Nobody's ever done this. What if nobody comes?" Kestas Cesonis recalls asking city officials, who were proposing to hold a series of downtown festivals to highlight Baltimore's remarkably cohesive ethnic communities.

"Things were not so hot downtown then," says Mr. Cesonis, who chaired the first Lithuanian Festival and remains part of the Lithuanian Co-ordinating Committee of Baltimore, which sponsors this weekend's 21st Lithuanian Festival.

In the end, only three other ethnic communities also chose to put on festivals in that first Showcase of Nations: the Greek, Polish and Italian.

But a measure of the idea's success is that the four 1973 pioneers, plus seven other communities, are part of the 1993 Showcase of Nations that begins this weekend with the Lithuanian and Greek festivals.

That first get-together of Lithuanians -- "the teeniest of the groups" and, at the time, celebrating a culture under firm Communist rule -- was only a modest success, drawing just enough visitors to break almost even on its $257 budget, Mr. Cesonis recalls.

"The second year, though, everyone jumped in, and we got smart and asked to be first. Now the first week of June and we're done with it," he said.

This weekend's festivals are also examples of how the Showcase of Nations has evolved over the years.

While the Lithuanian gathering remains downtown in Festival Hall, the Greek Folk Festival centers upon the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the heart of the Highlandtown Greek neighborhood. Although originally at the Constellation Dock and then Rash Field, the Greek Festival moved back to home territory in the mid-1970s, with the development of the Inner Harbor.

"It has really worked out for us. We couldn't be happier. This is what makes it Greek. Where else but the neighborhoods?" asks Maria Nicolaidis, chairwoman of this year's festival.

Two principal sites of the Greek Festival are the main church at 520 S. Ponca St. and a stage, or platia, location one block south.

Greek delicacies will be served beginning at 11 a.m. today in the dining room on the lower level of the church, and continuing through the weekend from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. today, tomorrow and Sunday, the dining area will be transformed into Taverna Pireaus, featuring live bouzouki music by the Grecian Melodies Orchestra. (Taverna admission is $5 a person. Those under 18 will not be admitted unless with an adult).

Church tours led by Father Burdusi will begin at 4 p.m. today, and entertainment will begin with the Greek School Dancers at 4:30 p.m. Performances will continue at both festival locations from approximately 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday, and include the following groups: Greek School Dancers, Hellenic Golden Coins, Rhodians, Pan Hellenic, Demetrakia and the Annunciation Group Dancers.

By contrast, the Lithuanian Festival transforms Festival Hall into a concentrated, temporary ethnic neighborhood by moving in much of the contents of the cultural museum housed at the 72-year-old Lithuanian Hall at 851 Hollins St.

Included in the exhibit are a re-creation of a typical rural Lithuanian dwelling, ornately carved wayside crosses, military artifacts, displays of indigenous jewelry crafted of wood and amber and a variety of historical and cultural displays.

The local Malunas Dancers will perform at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. tomorrow, while in between, festival goers will hear the accordion band of John Lochwich & Friends.

Sunday, two featured ensembles from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, are scheduled to perform. The Gyvataras Dancers are scheduled at 1 p.m. and 4:50 p.m., and the Zagarai traditional orchestra will play at 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

At 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Father Barbernitz will lead a mass at St. Alphonsus Church, Park Avenue and Saratoga Street. And at 1 p.m. at Festival Hall, Father Barbernitz and Father Pugevicious (speaking Lithuanian) will hold invocations in recognition of the festival's theme, "A Celebration of Freedom," commemorating those who died in the recent successful struggle to make Lithuania free.

Naturally, the tastes of Lithuania -- including deshras (spicy sausage and sauerkraut), cepelinai (potato and meat dumplings) and neslinkai (a crepe-like treat) -- will be available tomorrow and Sunday beginning at 11 a.m.

This year's 11 Showcase of Nations festivals -- in past summers as many as 18 were held -- are spread among Festival Hall, Hopkins Plaza, Patterson Park, Carroll Park and even the Pimlico Race course, where Irish eyes will be smiling in September.

The communities using Festival Hall face a dilemma next year, however. The facility will be dismantled to make way for an expansion of the Convention Center, approved this year by the Maryland General Assembly.

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