S. Broadway of 50 years ago comes alive in flickering movie short

JACQUES KELLY

November 08, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The time is the spring of 1941 and the place is South Broadway. Nobody calls the place Fells Point.

A local movie camera operator cranks away on an open car along the street, showing the Latrobe Monument, the old Leader Theatre, a Provident Savings Bank branch, St. Patrick's Church and the Broadway Market. A Cloverland Dairy sign stretches across its Fleet Street entrance.

It's all a wonderful, pre-World War II Baltimore neighborhood.

The streets are jam-packed with shoppers. The boys wear knickers. The ladies are in hats and neatly pressed cotton dresses. The neon sign at Goldenberg's flashes. The Broadway theater's marquee beckons audiences for "My Favorite Wife."

Market merchants tend outside stalls. The green beans get weighed on hanging scales. A Pennsylvania Railroad steam switcher with a string of boxcars chugs across Fleet Street.

This is not a Barry Levinson reconstruction, but an actual 1941 movie. It's a 10-minute short called "Sight Seeing on Broadway and Vicinity" -- the kind of thing that was shown at neighborhood movie houses after the feature film and between a cartoon and a Three Stooges comedy short.

It will be screened beginning to day through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theatre, 1726 Thames St.

There's speculation that the merchants whose shops are prominently featured might have paid $25 to be included. It was hTC produced by the late Robert Marhenke, a Baltimore film exhibitor who ran a film-rental service. The production includes a few feet of him all dressed up outside one of the movie houses that once flourished on Broadway.

"Look at those crazy flashing lights on the movie theaters," said George Figgs, the Orpheum's owner, as he screened a preview of "Sight Seeing" one day last week.

"Those old movie theaters were an oasis, a dream oasis, a fantasy oasis, a suspension of conventional reality," he said. "You walked up to the ticket booth, put down your money, and all of a sudden you could smell the popcorn. The lobby was filled with posters or maybe a cutout, stand-up figure of a movie star," Figgs said.

The movie short about Baltimore's Broadway does not have a sound track or identifications of places and dates. But strong clues are given. A few minutes are devoted to a Broadway parade preceding a cornerstone-laying ceremony. Local newspapers covered the event for the Pulaski Monument in Patterson Park May 4, 1941. Because of a wartime delay, the monument was not completed for some years.

You might say the featured players in "Sight Seeing" are Gen. Milton Reckord, Senator Herbert R. O'Conor and future Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., Father Stanislaus Wikarski and Msgr. Stanislaus Wachowiak, who was known as the pope of East Baltimore. They rode in the big cars, smiled to the onlookers and stood on the Patterson Park platform.

But the real stars are the East Baltimore people, all those faces in the crowds.

Could they be Blaszaks, Fabiszaks, Wojciks and Szymanowskis? Who knows? Maybe someone who watches this week will find a father, a mother or even themselves on the flickering screen.

The other stars are the merchants, the owners or managers of Hecht's Reliable Store, Taubman's, Meyer's, Lakein's jewelers, Finkel's, Goldenberg's and George Woelfel's furniture store. They pose for the camera, obviously delighted their dollar-day sales will be given promotion on the silver screen of the Cluster Theatre.

The brief film captures the busy street life that so attracted Baltimore artists of this period. "Sight Seeing" contains the urban life that Aaron Sopher and Jacob Glushakow captured with their sketch pads and pens.

"I think of this as a motion picture postcard. Much of what is shown is inadvertent. And it is anticipatory archaeology," says Charles Camp, the state folklorist at the Maryland State Arts Council, the agency that provided the money to make a copy of "Sight Seeing" about 15 years ago when Marhenke was still living.

"Sight-Seeing" is included on a program of short local films made by Michael Tiranoff on passing Baltimore institutions. These include "Arabbin'," "Fish Market" and "Memories," the story of workers in the Hampden neighborhood. All these films are shown before the regular feature-length attraction at the Orpheum.

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