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Cityscape: How Little Italy's famous togetherness produced the now-famous outdoor movie festival.

August 23, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Behind the Baltimore summer success story known as the Little Italy Open-Air Italian Film Festival is another nice little story about a kid named Nicholas Seltzer. Nick, people called him. The festival is dedicated to him.

His name was mentioned again this past Friday night, as rain and lightning pecked away at an umbrella-covered crowd huddled at High and Stiles streets in Little Italy. On the screen above them, flashing black and white against a red brick wall, was the 50-year-old Italian classic, "The Bicycle Thief." "I'LL KILL YOU IF YOU DON'T RETURN IT" read one subtitle. On this night, there was no hiding from the drama or the weather.

But first a few facts about the film festival. Since its premiere on July 2 with a showing of "Rocky," it has screened eight films on a blank billboard above the parking lot of Da Mimmo restaurant. Three more Friday night movies are planned for the inaugural season, ending Sept. 10 with the showing of "The Endless Summer."

On nicer evenings, the outdoor screenings have attracted as many as 1,200 people for a show. Folks didn't even mind a little rain during the July 30 showing of "Moonstruck." Stories about the festival have made the news wires; NPR, ABC, CNN and other three-letter outlets have come calling; even German, Italian and Czechoslovakian media have booked flights to Baltimore to view the weekly event. (Count on the festival returning next year, organizers say.)

"It is so cute. I mean this whole idea is so darn cute," Sue Webb of Charles Village said Friday as she accepted "gratis fresh popcorn, which we know is the most delicious in Baltimore" from the hands of Tom Kiefaber. The popcorn, the Italian movies and the huge movie projector showing them from 89-year-old "Mr. John" Pente's third-floor bedroom (next to a wall crucifix, World Book Encyclopedias and his now-grown sons' twin beds) are compliments of Kiefaber's Senator Theatre.

Back in July, Mr. John said "Why not?" when festival organizers asked if a crew could schlep the 350-pound projector up three twisting flights of stairs in his home. After all, Pente's bedroom is a dead-eye shot to the billboard/movie screen across the parking lot. The Little Italy Restaurant Association had wanted the billboard for a mural to advertise its restaurants. But neighborhood residents had argued against it, worried the mural might one day fall in the hands of evil advertisers.

So the white billboard became a white elephant. Then some of the restaurant folks got together, and, as the story goes, Guido DeFranco at Caesar's Den said:

"It looks like a movie screen to me. It's a natural setting," DeFranco repeated Friday night, in between seating guests at his restaurant. The film festival became a boon for business. People come around 7 p.m., stake their claim in the parking lot for the night's movie, then go to eat. "Things were getting kind of slow around here on Friday nights," DeFranco says.

By the way, DeFranco hasn't seen a single one of the movies that play literally outside his door. He works Friday nights. "What are you going to do?" he says. "I have my own tapes at home."

Kiefaber comes in

Once the restaurant association embraced the film festival idea, Kiefaber, the P.T. Barnum of Baltimore, was approached in June. At the time, in the Death Star throes of premiering the new "Star Wars" movie, Kiefaber reluctantly agreed to hear a pitch from the association.

"Basically, I didn't think it would work. We were going to have them up to talk and then blow them off."

But when Kiefaber went to the parking lot himself, his furtive mind must have done cartwheels. The billboard screen was a perfect size for 16mm projection. Pente's bedroom window across the street was the perfect distance for such a projection, and Mr. John even had the right voltage for the huge projector. The Senator, meanwhile, had the Italian movies and the popcorn.

The rest has been Little Italy-community togetherness-mass media-subtitles under the stars history.

Getting it going

Friday night, Mr. John stayed dry beneath his awning waiting for "The Bicycle Thief" to get rolling while upstairs, projectionist Mike Wilkes finally got the sticky window down, so filmgoers wouldn't be watching the Vittorio Di Sica classic shadowed by a window ledge. To warm things up in the meantime, Wilkes had put Dean Martin's "Powder Your Face with Sunshine" on the sound system down below. A nice touch.

A man in an elegant, supremely confident purple jacket (someone thought he was the maitre d' at Da Mimmo) passed out gratis Pepsi. Guys scrambled around wiping off wet folding chairs on loan from nearby St. Leo's. It felt like club seats at The Yard.

"It's just the perfect setting," said 25-year-old Amy Friedman. "We have the best seats," said 23-year-old Emily Giosffi. Both friends, staying dry under a restaurant's awning, had come from Washington after they had read about the festival.

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