A face in a movie brings back the 1950s

November 23, 1999|By Michael Olesker

HER NAME was Michelle Winder, and her destiny was to tug at all hearts. She arrived one school day in the middle of the 1950s, beautiful beyond articulation, with a shy and sunny sweetness to fill a whole classroom, and then disappeared until last weekend when she was spotted on the Senator Theatre movie screen.

That was Michelle up there, wasn't it? In Barry Levinson's "Liberty Heights," that lovely black girl who accidentally steals the heart of the white boy named Kurtzman -- that must have been Michelle, for who else in that time could have caused such a great leap across the previously uncrossable American color line?

Levinson's movie is mid-century Baltimore. It is all about the artificial lines of color and religion, and the stumbling, clumsy, funny and poignant ways people reached across the divides in those first years when the courts of the land were striking down legal segregation and leaving it up to human hearts to work out the rest of it.

In real life, Levinson went to Forest Park. In his movie, as it happens, the building posing as Forest Park is the former Garrison Junior High (now Garrison Middle School), which is a block away on Barrington Road.

More than 40 years ago, at Garrison, there was Michelle Winder. She sat there in Mrs. Jacobson's homeroom, a few seats away from a kid named John "Jake" Oliver, who sat near another kid with a last name beginning with O.

Jake Oliver went on to become publisher of the Afro-American newspaper. The other kid became a columnist for the very newspaper in your hand. Michelle Winder went on to linger in both our hearts so indelibly that, for 40 years, whenever Jake and I get together, or talk on the telephone, her name comes up like a reflex, and then wistfulness fills the air.

So naturally, yesterday morning, having seen "Liberty Heights" over the weekend, I called Jake to commiserate.

"I think that girl in the movie was Michelle," I said.

"Nope," he laughed. "Last I heard, Michelle was still around our age, and she was living in Virginia. With a husband and two kids."

"Damn," we said simultaneously.

Naturally, the girl on the movie screen is a symbol. The two teen-age kids hear the siren call that transcends all barriers placed by race or religion, or tradition, or prejudice. They dare to express innocent youthful affection for each other.

In mid-century Baltimore, this was forbidden territory. I could chat amiably in homeroom with Michelle Winder -- "You got last night's algebra homework?" was about as risky as it got -- but the notion of asking her on a date, or going to her house, was strictly fantasy.

"Absolutely," Jake Oliver said yesterday.

"Because guys like you would have beaten me up," I said.

"Guys like me?" said Oliver. "You'd have been beaten up by guys who looked like you."

We were both right.

In "Liberty Heights," it's tough to say who's more appalled at the thought of a white boy and a black girl getting sweet for each other -- his parents, or hers. Whatever pronouncements of brotherhood, or legal fairness, were being issued in official Washington, the details were being worked out in the schools and the playgrounds and newly-integrating neighborhoods.

Levinson shows us those first clumsy steps. "Liberty Heights" has been called the most "Jewish" of his Baltimore movies, but that limits the description. It's about the America of his youth. While one Kurtzman teen-ager falls for his black classmate, the other Kurtzman boy and a pal cross Falls Road, where the gentiles live, and discover a blond goddess at a party.

A fight breaks out. "Are you a Jew?" the Jewish kid is taunted. Left unasked: What, exactly, is a Jew -- and how does that differentiate the Jews from everybody else, and how much does it matter?

The adults wrestle with the same question. In "Liberty Heights," white criminal hustlers and black hustlers have to divide up the action as peacefully as they can.

In point of fact, organized crime in Baltimore, much of it controlled on The Block in those days, was mostly Jews and Italians. In the local parlance, it was the Kosher Nostra. In "Liberty Heights," the Jewish Kurtzman father runs the old Gayety Burlesque, plus a profitable numbers business. Then he meets the black hustler called Little Melvin. Both sides need to vent a little -- the racial and religious epithets fill the room -- before settling down to form a business alliance.

That's a familiar American pattern. First, we beat each other up; then we do a little business. Or we leave it up to the kids to work things out in their heartfelt ways, the memory of which sometimes lingers in the mind for the next 40 years until it becomes a sweet face on a movie screen.

Around here, we know Liberty Heights as an avenue in Northwest Baltimore. But the movie title's perfect on a separate level: At the height of liberty, we live and let live.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.