Charm of city is star in MPT salute Preview: 'Lives That Shaped A City' hits home with a local focus devoid of famous names.

September 12, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

MPT's bicentennial salute to Baltimore and the people who put the city on the map, "Lives That Shaped A City," wisely eschews a number of famous names.

You'll hear no mention of Babe Ruth, Billie Holiday or Cass Elliot, and only passing mention of Thurgood Marshall. All are famous Baltimoreans, but their accomplishments were more national in scope, coming only after they'd left the confines of Charm City.

Instead, the documentary wisely focuses on people who made their mark right here -- with the possible exception of Frederick Douglass, who could only lead the fight against slavery after escaping from his Baltimore masters and fleeing to New England.

Douglass is such a gigantic historical figure that his inclusion here is certainly easier to explain than his exclusion would have been. And yet, his may be the hour's least interesting tale, if only because it's been heard so many times before.

Far more compelling is the story of Sam Smith, a major-general in the local militia whose defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812's Battle of North Point saved not only the city but probably the country; of B&O President John Work Garrett, whose decision to align his railroad with the North during the Civil War made it a dominant force for much of the next century; and of Martha Carey Thomas, who agreed to help Johns Hopkins University raise money to open a medical school on condition that it set high entrance standards and agree to admit women.

There's also Henrietta Szold, who founded a night school for Baltimore's immigrant population; Ferdinand Latrobe, who served seven terms as mayor; and Theodore McKeldin, who rose from the humblest of beginnings to serve as mayor and lend his active support to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

And there's the dignified, domineering presence of Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Mitchell, who revived the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP in 1935 and would lead that organization for 35 years, all the while living the idea that "service to your people is the rent you pay for your space on this Earth."

Thankfully, "Lives That Shaped A City" avoids using actors or re-enactors to tell its stories. Instead, still pictures are used, introduced by off-screen narration and expanded on by a team of local historians and civic leaders.

There's not much film -- much of what is spoken of here occurred before anyone had heard of moving pictures -- but what there is often is fascinating. A quick clip of the city's streets, filmed after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, shows just how total the devastation was. And a few sentences from McKeldin's speech nominating Dwight D. Eisenhower for president at the 1952 Republican National Convention serves as a reminder that the national spotlight shone occasionally on Baltimore even before NBC started filming "Homicide" here.

"Lives That Shaped A City," although it deals almost exclusively with Baltimore's past, offers some tacit advice for the future as well. "If there is a story that has to be told about Baltimore," one historian explains in the show's opening moments, "it is that of a continuing struggle to overcome differences of race and class and gender."

That's a struggle that apparently bedevils Baltimore as much in 1997 as it did in 1797 -- and one, the show suggests, that should strengthen the city far more than it should weaken it.

TV preview

What: "Lives That Shaped A City," documentary about Baltimore

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

When: 9 p.m.-10 p.m.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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