Why Baltimore calls me home

November 21, 1999|By Barry Levinson

IT'S a conversation that has come up throughout my life. It goes something like this: "Where are you from?"

"Baltimore."

"I didn't know you were a Southerner."

"I'm not."

"Baltimore is a Southern city, isn't it?"

"It's both Northern and Southern, actually. In the Civil War, the city was divided. Even families sometimes split down the middle, brother against brother."

I go through the whole thing. It gets dramatic: The war tore the city in half. But the reality is, it is never easy to explain Baltimore.

And then there's the Jewish thing. Some people think Baltimore is too far south for Jews to live.

"Jews in the South?"

"It's not really the South, but there are Jews down there."

A Yiddish magnolia

I had an aunt who lived in Jacksonville, Fla.: Ida Mae, with a real Southern accent. I remember sitting on the couch with her when I was about 7; with that drawl of hers, she said, "Would you scoot over a bissel?" If you forgot about the Yiddish phrase "a bissel," which means "a little," she could have been in "Gone With the Wind."

The point is, there are all types of Jews. In the movies we tend to have a New York sensibility, from Woody Allen to Neil Simon, but there is a world of Jews outside New York, and these are the ones I write about.

On my latest Baltimore film, "Liberty Heights," a question came up about where to place the mezuza, the religious artifact that observant Jews nail to the doorpost. "It should be on the right coming in." "No, the left!" I consulted with a rabbi, who said, "Well, there is the law of the Jews and that which Jews will do." Thank you.

We lived in the Forest Park section, a neighborhood of old wood-frame houses surrounded by mature tall trees, a long way from the row houses so often associated with Baltimore. Actually, the "long way" was all of five minutes. But to a 6-year-old, it was the other side of the Earth.

Forest Park was compact: two blocks to the elementary school, two blocks to the junior high and two blocks to Forest Park High. Three movie theaters in a three-block radius and the drug store for hanging out. That was all a small boy needed. That was all there needed to be forever. But for a kid, forever was about the length of a summer.

During the filming of my 1987 movie "Tin Men," which is about a group of aluminum siding salesmen, I had one of the stranger experiences of my life. There was an opportunity to use our old Forest Park house, which I had not seen since 1963. When we arrived, the man who opened the door knew who I was and that I had lived there some 20 years before. He invited us in, and I was momentarily shocked. The house looked exactly as it had when I'd last seen it. My mother and father, when deciding to move into a condominium, had sold everything. Then the man asked, "Would you like to see your old room?"

"I'm not sure," I said nervously. I went up to the third floor and opened the door and there was my room -- all the furniture, the carpet, the bedcovers, everything the same, the boy's room minus the pennants on the wall. And the boy.

Weeks later, it was time to shoot a scene from "Tin Men." I sat on the top of the steps looking out at the street. The cars, the extras, everything had been manipulated to create a summer day in 1963 -- the summer I left for college, the last time I had ever seen my home. A chill ran up my back. It's not often you can recreate a moment from your past so vividly. It was "The Twilight Zone" without Rod Serling.

It had never occurred to me when I started to write that I would end up drawing on my own experiences, and that the stories I heard would end up as movies. The lengthy bull sessions I had at our great Hilltop Diner with the high school friends who had become lawyers became "And Justice for All" in 1979.

A few years later, I wrote about the diner guys themselves, and got the opportunity to direct my script. Then I wrote and directed "Tin Men," which was based on stories and characters I knew from hanging out at the diner. With "Avalon," which dealt with the 50's -- the rise of television and the demise of the family storyteller, viewed through the prism of a large Jewish family coming apart at the seams -- I suddenly had a Baltimore trilogy. "Liberty Heights," as a friend of mine said, is "the fourth in the trilogy."

As my past has infiltrated my movies through the years, I have been criticized for making some of my characters too Jewish and others not Jewish enough. When "Diner" came out, in 1982, someone complained: "I didn't know that some of the guys were Jewish until the end of the movie. It should be more clear." After "Avalon," in 1990, people asked, "Why didn't they celebrate Jewish holidays?" Or, more pointedly, "They didn't look Jewish enough."

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