A cinematic milestone On location: Many black Baltimoreans say the filming of the movie "Children of Circumstance" helped change the way many residents saw themselves.

February 13, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

William "Billy" Young is among the last people who can give a firsthand account of the time Hollywood came to pre-World War II West Baltimore -- a moment when "the town was turned upside down," he says.

During the Jim Crow era in Baltimore, long before filmmaker Barry Levinson's "Diner" and "Tin Men," the area around Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street drew black people as a place to live, shop and be entertained.

And for several weeks in spring 1937, it also was a movie set.

Though local Black History Month events don't celebrate it, many black Baltimoreans of a certain age say the filming of the movie "Children of Circumstance" was a milestone for the community, helping change the way many residents saw themselves and prompting some people to reach higher than they might have.

"We were still enduring the effects of the Depression and we were living in a segregated city," said Essie Meade Hughes, a Baltimore City educator who taught for years at Douglass High School and retired in 1971 as vice principal of Western High School.

"We were excited because it gave black people a chance to release their talents."

The movie opened in June 1937 at the former Harlem Theater on Gilmor Street, now the location of a church, the same year that "Captains Courageous," starring Spencer Tracy, and "A Star is Born," featuring Janet Gaynor, debuted.

"Circumstance" featured Mr. Young and a Booker T. Washington Junior High School classmate. The pair had wowed audiences in a "Hansel and Gretel" operetta, he said.

It was the only film Billy Young and Gloria Minor Phillips would ever be in.

On a recent morning, sitting in his comfortably furnished, two-story home of 33 years in the West Arlington neighborhood off West Cold Spring Lane, Mr. Young marveled at how Baltimore and race relations have changed in his lifetime.

Born one of eight children to a Sandtown family in which his mother took in wash and his father was a chauffeur, Mr. Young from an early age saw how race limited black men's opportunities.

"There weren't even black garbage men back then," Mr. Young recalled. "There were so few things a black man could do to make a living."

Given the times, his family was amazed at the Hollywood treatment young Billy received during the month or so it took to shoot the movie: "They picked me up every day after school in a limousine and gave me an ice cream cone," Mr. Young said with a chuckle. "They even billed me as 'the black Jackie Cooper,' " after the white child actor.

There weren't a lot of film locations for the "Circumstance" crew to choose from because a hostile society kept many places off limits to blacks, he said.

"We couldn't film downtown -- we couldn't even shop down there," Mr. Young said. They were welcomed at places "black folks were allowed to go," including Druid Hill Park, the old Odd Fellows Hall at Lanvale and McCulloh streets and Pennsylvania Avenue, dubbed "The Avenue" by locals.

The flip side of Jim Crow's harsh rules was the closeness of the black community and its attractions, he said. During The Avenue's heyday, such stars as Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald played the Royal Theater, a room at the Penn Hotel went for $1, and for 15 cents a child could stay at the movies all day.

After graduating from Douglass High School, Mr. Young married and served in the Army during World War II and the Korean War. Between wars, he joined the U.S. Postal Service, from which he retired after 40 years. Mr. Young's classmate and co-star, Mrs. Phillips, grew up to become a city schoolteacher and part-time dance instructor. The lifelong Baltimoreans now are in their 70s.

"I don't remember much about it and I don't talk about it," Mrs. Phillips said of the movie. "Life just took me on to other things."

Those who do recall the hubbub around "Circumstance" relish the memories.

"We were so excited about Billy being in the movie," recalled Hortense Cain, a retired schoolteacher and longtime friend of Mr. Young's. "Even at our 50th class reunion a few years ago, people talked about that movie."

"Everybody was excited about it," said Mr. Young. "I mean, this was at a time when things were so segregated we couldn't ride the Charles Street bus. To be in a movie? That was unthinkable."

"I didn't go to the debut," said Ms. Hughes. "But I recall them saying that people were lined up around the block to get in."

A copy of the movie, like many of the details surrounding it, apparently has been lost to history, according to several film historians.

While it was shot and debuted here, "Circumstance" may have been shown in other cities. Mr. Young recalls meeting fellow soldiers during World War II who had seen it in such cities as New York and Dallas.

A few details of the movie's showing are available in back issues of the Afro-American newspaper, which sponsored the film with United Theatres, a then-local theater chain in West Baltimore. It apparently was the lone movie produced by the now-defunct Gramercy film studio.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.