The Old Neighborhood

Take a time-wrap tour of Barry Levinson's Baltimore of the 1950s, courtesy of his "Liberty Heights' production designer, Vince Peranio

November 19, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Listen up, hon. The Baltimore of the 1950s lives, and here's how you can find it.

Today at the Senator Theatre (which harks back to 1930s Baltimore -- talk about nostalgia!), native son Barry Levinson's latest cinematic love letter to Charm City, "Liberty Heights," opens. Set in 1954 and influenced by his own experiences growing up, Levinson's latest recalls a gentler time, when Pennsylvania Avenue was the center of black culture, when The Block was still The Block, and when, for a Jewish kid from Northwest Baltimore, everything east of Falls Road was uncharted territory.

Regardless of what one thinks of the film itself, Baltimoreans of a certain age will find themselves thinking a lot younger during "Liberty Heights." Levinson, in collaboration with ace production designer Vince Peranio, has successfully wiped away the decades. He's brought back the streetcars (at least the old No. 32 line), the Royal Theater and (of course) diners.

Using sites that included the Towson Courthouse, the Maryland Historical Society Library, Mount Vernon, the Weinberg Center for the Performing Arts in Frederick, Druid Hill Park (which plays a golf course) and Baltimore County's Cromwell Valley Park (where an ice skating party was filmed on a pond surface made of Teflon), Levinson and Peranio make like magicians. It's a neat trick and, try as one might to find a seam, it looks pretty seamless -- the look of "Liberty Heights" stays uniformly 1950s.

You could literally spend days driving around metropolitan Baltimore, visiting all the sites where the film was shot. But assuming you've only got one day, or maybe an afternoon, we've picked a half-dozen. And we've asked Peranio himself to serve as tour guide, to comment on why certain places were chosen and how difficult it was to wipe away 45 years.

So, what say we jump in that '54 Cadillac, with the fins and the flying hood ornament, and start driving?

1. The Kurtzman homestead, in the 4100 block of Maine Avenue, Forest Park. This is where the family at the center of "Liberty Heights" lives. The filmmakers don't want to divulge the exact address, since new owners have moved in since shooting ended, but don't worry: Several homes in the block were spruced up during filming, so chances are any house you're looking at appears at some point in the movie. So have fun with your friends debating which one actually played casa Kurtzman.

"The house was just a rundown house for sale," says Peranio, making the case that the fastest way to urban renewal is to get a film crew stationed on your block. "It was like a blank canvas. It was just beige inside and out. We fixed up the house, as well as houses across the street and next door as well. We brought in trees, did landscaping. It was a bit of work to perk that back up to what it looked like in 1954.

"We looked for a vacant house, a house that was for sale or for rent, because otherwise it would have meant moving someone out of their house, along with all their furniture, for several months."

Peranio and his crew looked at about 30 houses before settling on this one. Obviously, greater forces were at work: unbeknown to Peranio, their choice is just three houses down from where Levinson's cousin Eddie, to whom "Liberty Heights" is dedicated, lived.

In the end, probably no one was happier than the soon-to-be-former homeowner. "By the time I finished painting it and wallpapering it, it sold right away," Peranio says. "I think they made a little more money on it."

2) Werner's Restaurant, 231 E. Redwood St. Possibly no challenge vexed the filmmakers more than making The Block look like it did in 1954. They couldn't do it.

"The Block was too modern now to shoot at all, and too busy," says Peranio. "So we shot around the corner, on Redwood Street. There were a lot of beautiful old buildings, but there was no signage or anything like that; they were mostly office buildings."

No problem. The filmmakers simply closed off Redwood for about a week, put up all sorts of gaudy neon signs ("one of the joys of the shoot was designing all that," Peranio says) and moved The Block a little south.

They even reproduced the famous sign for the Two O'Clock Club, one of the few vintage signs remaining on the real Block, and turned a law office at the corner of Redwood and South into a liquor store and palm reader's salon. Word is the tenant, William Donald Schaefer, didn't mind all that much.

One thing they didn't have to move, or gussy up a lot, was Werner's, a vintage downtown lunchroom whose art deco interior worked just fine as it is. If you haven't had lunch yet, here's a good place to stop (it's open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-2: 15 p.m.). Just imagine Joe Mantegna sitting in the next booth.

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