Ushering in the bright lights of `Heights'

Premiere: A teen-ager plays an important role in last night's festivities as `Liberty Heights,' the latest movie from Baltimorean Barry Levinson, opens at the Senator Theatre.

November 08, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The kid is nervous. He's totally lost, his mind full of "what ifs?" and "what abouts?"

He's never been to a movie premiere, never had to hold the door for the Hollywood crowd, never had to find his place among doctors, lawyers and society insiders milling around inside the Senator Theatre lobby.

He's just an usher. It's an anonymous kind of job, low-key and low-stress. Somehow he ended up at the door for last night's world premiere of "Liberty Heights." Somehow he got picked to wear the oversized burgundy doorman's jacket, complete with matching hat, white shirt and black bow-tie.

He listens intently as his boss tells him how to open the door for Barry Levinson.

"Open the center door, like this," the boss says, smoothly pushing one of the heavy glass doors. "Just this door. Like this."

"But what if?" asks the kid, imagining disaster, imagining all of it caught on the 11 p.m. news, and him in this ridiculous suit.

"He'll probably stop here and do things," says his boss, an old hand at Senator premieres. The boss points to a roped-off square of red carpet, then walks away.

The kid checks himself in a lobby mirror. The jacket drapes over his slim shoulders. The sleeves are so long his fingertips don't show. He looks like what he is, a slender, 17-year-old kid in a coat tailored for a man, a big man.

"This is going to be so embarrassing," he says. "I don't even know what Barry Levinson looks like."

The kid likes horror films. "Halloween," Freddy Kreuger, Jason, that's what he'll pay to see. Tonight, he gets in free. But right now, the kid is nervous.

"How do I do this?" he asks. "When the limousine pulls up, do I just open the door?"

That's all he has to do. Open the door and fade into the background. He's masterful when a limo pulls up with Rebekah Johnson and Ben Foster, the stars in Levinson's film set in 1954 Baltimore.

Johnson's character is the daughter of a black doctor. Foster plays the son of a Jewish burlesque hall owner. Their characters have a high school fling. They don't look much older than the kid who opened their door.

"Yeah, this is my first premiere. I'm taking it moment by moment," Foster calmly tells a crowd of reporters. "Working with one of the greatest American filmmakers is such an honor. There are just no words to express that."

The kid doesn't hear Foster. He's busy. Levinson has arrived in a black, eight-passenger, stretch Lincoln limo. The kid gives the director an easy smile, opens the door and steps aside.

He's a natural.

As the crowd surrounds Levinson, the kid slips away, taking his place by the front door. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is here with a proclamation that Nov. 7 is officially "Liberty Heights Day." The premiere is a benefit for the Jewish Museum of Maryland as well as the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Levinson smiles and signs autographs. One goes to Erin Wilson, 16, who doesn't have a ticket for the premiere. She's here anyway. Levinson shot some of "Liberty Heights" at her school, Catholic High School of Baltimore.

The director stops for a few questions about the film. For the first time has brought black Baltimore into the world of his camera.

"We're telling different stories, which is going to bring different people," he says. "This one deals with race and class."

Levinson says he started working on "Liberty Heights" after reading what he took to be anti-Semitic comments about a character in an earlier film. The character wasn't identified as Jewish.

"In my mind it made me think about certain things and, you know, things start clicking in your head," says Levinson, whose film takes another look at his youth, a time of integration and exploration. "At one point when I was young, I thought the whole world was Jewish. Then I realized almost no one in the world is Jewish."

The film's narrator echoes those words in an opening voice-over. The scenes of Jewish family life resonate with the audience, many of whom lived the story of "Liberty Heights."

Levinson takes in a few minutes from the rear of the theater, then slips out. He prefers not to watch. He prefers the quiet of the heated tent set up next door for the evening's party. The kid relaxes. The hubbub is over. He says the scene is "cool."

"I wish I was was one of the people in the movie, being famous," he says. He wants to be an actor. That's why he's going to college. Which college, he can't say. But he's going.

"Hopefully this will be me in a few years," he says. "Hopefully."

The kid's name is Mark Strawder. He's a senior at Northern High School. Maybe someday he'll see his name in lights.

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