Little Italy dispute fades on makeshift movie screen

August 05, 1999|By Michael Olesker

IN THE SUMMER of his 89th year, John Pente is a hero right out of the movies. In fact, without him, there are no movies. Not in Little Italy, not on Friday nights that have become one of the city's great, unanticipated, accidental charms of the year.

Who knew that such delight could come out of a zoning dispute? From a spat over a billboard mural, Little Italy winds up instead with a makeshift movie screen on the cleared-out parking lot of Da Mimmo's restaurant. From disagreement between restaurateurs and residents, they wind up with hundreds of people gathered after dark to watch free movies under the stars.

And from John Pente's third-floor bedroom, there comes light from a movie projector through an open window, and from this comes the kind of gatherings that bring strength to any neighborhood, and to any city which pays attention and builds on such notions.

"Anything you can do for the neighborhood, you do," Pente says modestly, sitting on a bench outside his rowhouse at High and Stiles streets. "I love to see people here, the more the merrier."

At 9 on Friday nights all summer, he gets both the more and the merrier. Hundreds gather for the flicks -- neighborhood folks, and those who dine in Little Italy restaurants and make sure they finish in time to scoot over to the parking lot movies, and out-of-towners who stroll past and inevitably must think, "What a cool city. Wait'll we tell the folks back home."

And it happened by accident. A year ago, the 16-member Little Italy Restaurant Association sought permission for a mural to advertise their restaurants. They were turned down, after neighborhood residents expressed concerns that the billboard on which the mural would be painted might one day be used for inappropriate advertising.

But the billboard had already gone up. It remained there for a year, a sea of white that reminded many of strains within the neighborhood of 700 people that is also one of Maryland's centers of world-class eating.

At a restaurant association meeting last spring, Mary Ann Cricchio, co-owner of Da Mimmo's,said, "Come on, guys, what do you want to do with this board?"

And somebody said, "I think we should just show movies on it, 'cause it looks like a drive-in."

This caused Cricchio to remember two things: the 1988 movie "Cinema Paradiso," with its reveries of films shown in a little Italian village; and her own trip to Sicily last summer, when she saw people gathered in a town square, and she looked up and saw a movie being shown on a building.

Thus was born the idea for Little Italy. Then came the practicalities of showing the movies. Cricchio went to Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre and one of the great Baltimore boosters, who immediately wondered, where he could place a projector.

"What about here?" he asked, pointing to John Pente's house, where the third-floor bedroom window overlooks Da Mimmo's parking lot. It's a straight shot from the house to the white billboard.

"I went for it right away," Pente was saying yesterday, and no matter that a 6-foot-high, 300-pound projector would have to sit in his bedroom for the rest of the summer.

The next problem was: How to get the projector up the stairs. On High Street Friday night, Kiefaber and Cricchio explained some of the machinations. "Moonstruck," the marvelous comic tale of a Brooklyn Italian family's loves and misguided lusts and ultimate strengths, had just concluded and, nearing 11 at night, Little Italy's sidewalks were filled with smiling people.

"We had to have three guys haul the thing up," Kiefaber said. "Mary Ann said, `Get No-Neck Pasquale; he can lift anything.' But they got it up after about half an hour."

Then came wiring, a coat of nonreflective paint on the billboard, and selection of a dozen movies -- none violent or too steamy, all with Italian themes. St. Leo's Church has been providing chairs for those who neglect to bring them. Free popcorn is handed out, and sodas, and last Friday there were free cannoli from Vaccaro's, which has been doing grand business during the movie run.

"But, you know what?" Mary Ann Cricchio says. "This isn't about creating more business. It's about giving the community a positive outlook. The beauty is, that white piece of board was a dividing point, and now it's brought everybody together."

"It does my heart good," John Pente said. "I'm seeing people here I haven't seen in years. I see tourists saying, `What a nice neighborhood.' You know, I've been in this house all my life. My grandfather came here from Abruzzi in 1898, and my father and mother were here, and I was born here."

He gestured a few feet away toward an old neighborhood pal, Gus Giorgilli, 72, another Little Italy lifer.

"His mother used to bake bread and cookies, and then she'd give to this family and that one, and then another mother would give something back. Everybody giving and taking. This is what a neighborhood is."

And now there's a new touch to the old neighborhood: Friday night movies, coming to everyone through John Pente's bedroom window.

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