Film informed by `quiet acts of kindness'

Project: Local filmmakers showcase a Baltimore landmark as they examine wealth, self-reliance and the role of women in society in their documentary about the women's exchange movement.

May 21, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

As a film crew set up a camera and lights in Baltimore's Woman's Industrial Exchange shop yesterday, Lillian Bowers paced the cluttered aisles, rearranging curios and fussing with displays. She was, she said, too nervous to sit down.

The filmmaker wrote and produced the award-winning documentary "Little Castles: The Formstone Phenomenon," which exalted what many scorn: the false stone facades slathered on whole blocks of Baltimore's brick rowhouses.

Now Bowers is working with a local production company on a film celebrating another of the city's institutions: the consignment shop and tearoom downtown on North Charles Street. It has long been a place, she says, for quiet acts of kindness.

Here, destitute Civil War widows once discreetly sold their quilts and potholders, cakes and pies on consignment to support themselves and their children. Many women still make ends meet by selling hand-sewn sock monkeys and christening dresses here. In the exchange's tearoom at the rear, generations of diners have nibbled on chicken salad and tomato aspic, buckwheat-flour rolls and deviled eggs.

Three years ago, declining patronage threatened the landmark. It closed for a month before Baltimoreans rallied to rescue it, urged on by a sign in the window: "A damsel is in distress." The exchange still runs a monthly deficit. But exchange officials say they are more than halfway to their goal of raising a $1.15 million endowment. And they plan to convert several upstairs rooms into luxury apartments.

Bowers and the Truckstop Motion Picture Co. -- Matt Pittroff, Jason Hubert and Jeff Schmale -- want to use the Baltimore shop to tell the story of the exchange movement nationwide.

It began in Philadelphia in 1832, with the founding of the Philadelphia Ladies' Depository Association. The aim was to discreetly help gentlewomen who would have been mortified if neighbors had known they were poor.

Welfare was as unpopular then as today. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Self Reliance," warned against giving "alms to sots." The early movement rejected handouts in favor of encouraging the destitute to become self-supporting artisans.

By the time the Baltimore exchange was organized in 1880, the movement was trying to knock down the barriers that prevented women from working outside the home. In New York, Elizabeth "Libbie" Custer, the widow of the general, told a gathering of women artists and professionals at an exchange luncheon: "Why, we are all working women, not a lady among us!"

Echoing Custer's declaration of economic independence, the filmmakers call their documentary, "Not A Lady Among Us."

`Let me do it my way'

Bowers and her colleagues have interviewed architects, historians, habitual diners, consigners and an expert on the cultural significance of food. But to many Baltimoreans, the most visible heroines of the Exchange are its veteran waitresses.

The most memorable moments of the finished film may belong to the outspoken Marguerite Schertle, 99, a Parkville woman who retired a few years ago after working at the tearoom with her twin sister for almost 60 years.

Schertle is an old hand at the movie business, having appeared in the Tom Hanks' feature, "Sleepless in Seattle." (When someone on that crew tried to tell her how to wait on tables, she replied: "Do me a favor, let me do it my way.") During her interview for "Not A Lady Among Us," filmmakers say, Schertle was so mesmerizing that the crew applauded when she finished.

Potholder as icon

Yesterday, the filmmakers laboriously set up an interview in the consignment shop with Vincent Peranio, the production designer for director John Waters as well as for the "Homicide" television series.

Peranio's grandmother, who died 15 years ago, crocheted yellow smiley-face potholders for sale at the exchange. He held up one to show it to Bowers. "It's an icon for me of my grandmother," he said.

The film artist says he often shops at the exchange for props. "I love these sock monkeys," he said. "Where else in the world can you find them?"

Pittroff, of Truckstop Motion Picture Co., says he knew little about the exchange before he started working on the film. He's surprised at how engrossing the project became. "Everybody's like my grandmother here," the 28-year-old Baltimorean says. "It just feels like you're going back to a simpler, easier kind of time."

A few years back, Bowers got the idea for the wry, ingenious "Little Castles" when she had a dream that someone was trying to cover with Formstone the tomb of her grandfather, who is buried in a city cemetery. Bowers and "Little Castles" director Skizz Cyzyk won one of five top prizes at the Rochester International Film Festival.

The idea for "Not A Lady Among Us" came from a more straightforward source: a friend lent her a book, "The Business of Charity," a history of the exchange movement by Kathleen Waters Sander. Bowers says she has consulted Sander extensively about the movie.

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