Screenings give deaf rare day of Hollywood Open-captioning lets many view 'Titanic' in first trip to movies

March 16, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Like most teen-age girls, high schoolers Sharon Duke and Michelle Schaefer have been fawning over Leonardo DiCaprio for some time. But being deaf, it wasn't until yesterday -- months after its release -- that the friends got the chance to swoon over him in the movie "Titanic."

When they emerged from Loews' White Marsh theater after an 11 a.m. screening yesterday that featured open-captioning at the bottom of the screen, 15-year-old Michelle's damp eyes lighted up as she reminisced about the past three hours spent in a dark theater watching her heartthrob, DiCaprio. Her friend Sharon, 16, of Dundalk closed her eyes and pounded her heart with her fist at the thought of the star.

"Oh," said Michelle, a Baltimore resident. "He's so cute. I'm glad that I got the chance to come here and watch. Usually I have to wait until the video comes out with closed-captioning, and it takes about a year sometimes. I hate that a lot."

This weekend, about 1,500 deaf or hard of hearing people packed the White Marsh theater's five open-captioned screenings of "Titanic." Carlton Nivens, a theater manager, said they had scheduled three screenings, but when large crowds arrived, they added two more showtimes so they wouldn't have to turn many away.

Loews put on the shows with Maryland Relay, a state program that operates a phone Teletype service for deaf people. Gilbert Becker, assistant director of the program, said theater managers approached him a few months ago about organizing the screenings.

"People came out of the theater crying yesterday," he said. "They said, 'Thank you so much. This is the first movie I've seen at a theater in my whole life.' We want to change that. [The weekend's sell-out crowds] are showing theaters that deaf people have money to spend just like anybody else."

Becker said that while theaters are beginning to show screenings that are open-captioned -- as opposed to close-captioned, in which the text can be turned on and off -- the number of such showings are "sporadic." In the Baltimore area, "Titanic" was the second such screening.

He said Baltimore's Senator Theatre had an open-captioned screening of "Anastasia" last month, the area's first. The Senator is having a similar screening of "Tomorrow Never Dies" today. Becker said his group plans to organize two more open-captioned screenings in other area theaters in the next two months.

To prepare for the screenings, Maryland Relay staff worked with the theater to teach its servers to sign words such as "popcorn," "plain or buttered" and "candy." They also prepared a menu next to cash registers that deaf people could use to point to their orders.

At the 11 a.m. screening, the audience sat in the theater, drinking in the Oscar-nominated movie, signing to each other during parts that offered enough light to do so and literally running out and back if they had to buy snacks or visit the restroom.

They enjoyed how sophisticated the movie's captioning was. The thin, correctly spelled white words followed the dialogue precisely -- with obscenities intact -- and were unobtrusive at the bottom of the screen.

When the movie ended, the audience joined groups of people standing outside, waiting for the next screening. They mingled, signing fast and furious with one another, sharing the excitement at their rare day of going to the movies.

"Hearing people can go to the movies anytime they want," said Maggie Billings, 33, an Essex administrative aide. "This gives us equal access."

An access that Evelyn Weidig of Ellicott City feels is necessary for her two deaf sons, ages 13 and 6.

"Open-captioning provides a sense of inclusion," said Weidig, who was with her husband, Hans, and their three sons on their first family trip to the movies. "When it's open-captioned, they can go to the movies just like everybody else. They already go to special schools and have special school buses. It's essential for them to feel a part of American society."

Carolyn Markel, a 39-year-old Randallstown marketing specialist who is deaf, said she hopes more theaters start doing the same. Markel was attending the 3 p.m. screening with her two children and boyfriend -- all of whom are deaf.

"I hope my children can go out with their friends to the theater in the future," she wrote in a book.

Billings said she hopes "Titanic" wins the 14 Academy Awards for which it is nominated.

"It's the only nominated movie I've been able to see on the big-screen," Billings said.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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