Anywhere, USA, hon?


September 01, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

THE SCREEN door slammed and Marie Smith could almost see herself and her brother, John, running into the 3000 block of Abell Ave., a thickly canopied boulevard in Charles Village. What she did see were two young actors flashing down her brick steps and onto the sidewalk. They ran past a metallic green Schwinn "Pea Picker" bike, vintage 1970. At the curb stood a trio of 30-year-old cars: a slate gray Chevy Impala, a blood red Pontiac Catalina and a squat Nash Metropolitan.

It was all make-believe, the filming of a television commercial by State Farm Insurance, but fantasy needed a solid setting and Marie Smith found herself affirming the artistic reconstruction of an earlier time. The producers had removed her modern storm door after rummaging in her basement for its somewhat battered brown predecessor.

"The sound of that door brought back memories," she said. She's lived in the house for 46 years.

A few doors north, Michael Treadway, a free-lance editor, was shooed off his own freshly painted porch so he wouldn't be in a later episode of the shoot under way just across the street.

Carlene Moscatt paused with her dogs, Tawnee and Francesca, nodding at the invasion with satisfaction. She watched a State Farm wedding party enter yet another vintage car and wondered if Baltimore hadn't gone cosmopolitan, approaching the sophistication and intellectual atmosphere of a place like Cambridge, Mass.

Perish that thought -- if you were Mark Gibson, advertising supervisor for State Farm. What he was looking for, he said, was the "flavor and feel" of a city -- Peoria, San Francisco, Providence. "An obviously urban place."

Mr. Gibson was reluctant to give his commercial's exact story line, but it would show four stages of a life, evolving from childhood through marriage, to first house -- smoothly into those evocative insurance-buying years.

What it showed in Charles Village was, more or less, a commonplace for Baltimore in the 1990s, according to Rob Coughlin, a free-lance locations scout who helped the director of "Runaway Bride" find just the rural look he wanted in Berlin, Md. Quite a few of Baltimore's film-making pros -- some of them veterans of "Homicide: Life on the Street" -- find cyclical work as equipment hustlers, set painters and location finders.

Mr. Coughlin, who lives on Elm Avenue in Hampden, marveled at how many of the people he met on Abell over the past two days seemed to know each other. He admired the neighborhood's "painted ladies," generic rowhouses brightened by a Victorian palette of contrasting colors.

"There's a charm to it," agreed State Farm's Gibson. "It could be Anywhere U.S.A."

Charming and friendly, stacked with memories, of course. But "anywhere"? Not hardly, hon.

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