Film buff Udel dies at age 69

Death: The man who helped make Baltimore a movie town succumbs to kidney failure.

November 19, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

George Udel, who almost single-handedly created the Baltimore film culture he was such a crucial fixture of, died yesterday. He was 69. Udel, who had fought heart disease for 20 years, succumbed to kidney failure at Union Memorial Hospital.

At a time when Baltimore enjoys a bustling film culture -- with the Maryland Film Festival, a rejuvenated Charles Theatre, the Cinema Sundays series and countless other opportunities to screen rarely seen films -- it's easy to forget that when Udel became involved with the newly founded Baltimore Film Forum in 1969, local filmgoers had far fewer choices at their disposal.

"In Baltimore there were not that many venues for presenting foreign films and American independent films at that time," said critic Mike Giuliano, a longtime friend of Udel's. "So when the Film Forum was started it really filled the need."

Michael Styer, director of the Maryland Film Office, concurred. "When there wasn't a lot of money for film programs and Baltimore wasn't considered a film town, George kept the lights on," he said.

Udel came to the Film Forum when he entered a short educational film he made, "Plaster Casting Using a Waste Mold" in the Baltimore Film Festival. The movie proved wildly popular with audiences, winning three prizes.

Over Udel's 22-year stint with the Film Forum, the non-profit organization brought several filmmakers to Baltimore, including Werner Herzog; sponsored the Baltimore Film Festival (later re-named the Baltimore International Film Festival); and held weekly screenings of foreign and experimental films.

Udel, who served as executive director of the Baltimore Film Forum from 1981 until 1982, resigned in 1991 in a censorship dispute.

In 1995, Udel founded Cinema Sundays at the Charles, a series of Sunday morning screenings of sneak previews at which audience members sipped coffee, munched bagels and engaged in lively discussion after the show. The first Cinema Sundays movie was the documentary "Crumb," recalled Udel's former business partner, Jerry Litofsky. The audience comprised primarily the wide circle of friends Udel and his wife, artist Joan Erbe, had cultivated over the years. In three years, Udel built the series into a mainstay of Baltimore film culture that has attracted hundreds of devoted and passionate fans.

George Udel was born on Sept. 6, 1930, in Greenwich, Conn. He was raised in Baltimore, where his father and uncle ran Udel Brothers photography business, an association that sparked a longtime interest in photography and the moving image. The first film Udel ever saw was a reissue of Charlie Chaplin's "Gold Rush," which he watched with an older cousin at the Hippodrome Theater, and a lifelong romance was born.

After graduating from St. John's College in 1951, Udel studied film and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and the New School for Social Research. A two-year stint in the Army Signal Corps in Japan, from 1951 until 1953, exposed Udel to the work of such Japanese filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa, whose lead actor, Toshiro Mifune, became a personal hero of Udel's.

In 1954, Udel attended a Marx Brothers double feature at St. John's College, and met Joan Erbe. The two married in 1956, after which Udel became a manager and agent for Erbe, a painter, sculptor and jeweler.

After working as an editor and cameraman for WJZ-TV, Udel became a systems analyst for the Social Security Administration, where he stayed until 1976. From then on, he was a renaissance man of Baltimore arts and politics, joining with Litofsky in the Creative Group, a public relations, promotional and graphic design firm that helped orchestrate media campaigns for several local politicians, as well as presidential candidate Jerry Brown (Maryland was the only state Brown won).

He also co-founded G2 Services with screenwriter George Gipe, whose scripts for "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and "The Man With Two Brains" he helped polish, according to friends.

But it was as a curious, talkative and fiercely partisan advocate of film that Udel was best remembered yesterday.

Marc Sober, head of the audio-visual department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, called Udel "one of the originals," recalling that Cinema Sundays was started in part to indulge Udel's love of spirited debate.

"He really thought of film as a social [function]," Sober explained.

Udel handed the Cinema Sundays reins to program consultant Gabe Wardell last year, but continued to be a dedicated kibitzer. After last month's screening of "Man of the Century," Wardell said, "He was beaming. He pulled me aside afterward and said, `This is going to go down as one of the greatest Cinema Sundays.' He loved seeing people embrace a movie, and he loved the feeling of sharing this with an audience, of opening them up to new things."

"Film was always a little better than real life, a little simpler than real life," Udel told The Sun's Mary Corey in 1991. "My whole code of honor, my sense of ethics was set by the films. It's very romantic and very foolish and I'm very cynical and don't believe that, but the inner me still operates that way."

George Udel is survived by his wife, three children and one grandchild. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Maryland Food Bank. Memorial services were pending at press time.

Sun staff writer Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.

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