Window On The World

Life is like the movies for John Pente, who projects a love for the neighborhood, and some great films, from his Little Italy home.

July 05, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

John Pente is the indispensable man for the Little Italy Open Air Film Festival. He's got the window the films are projected from.

The amiable Mr. Pente can be found on most of these warm summer evenings sitting with a couple of friends on the bench on the Stiles Street side of his house watching life go on in Little Italy. He's lived in his house at Stiles and High streets almost all of his 92 years.

"People say, `You're 92?' Sometimes they look at you: `How come you ain't dead?' "

Pente is wonderfully alive, an active, agile and amusing gentleman, often witty, but never unkind.

"I remember Abraham Lincoln. I remember the Gettysburg Address," he says, playfully. "When I say that, sometimes people look real funny at me."

He's the third-generation Pente to live in Little Italy. He loves the neighborhood.

So that's why he let the film festival folks project their films across Stiles Street to an unused billboard from a third-floor bedroom in his house. They said it was for the good of the neighborhood. He said let's go.

"I'm very proud to say I have the projector in my house," Pente says. "We're going into the fourth year. We average 2,000 people out here every Friday night."

The festival begins tonight with the splendidly patriotic classic, Yankee Doodle Dandy, wherein James Cagney gives an Oscar-winning performance as George M. Cohan, the great vaudeville and musical comedy star.

Pente's favorite, coming back for the fourth year, is Moonstruck, the bittersweet romantic comedy with Cher as a moonstruck young Italian-American widow.

"You know, these movies have been a great thing," Pente says. And he's become modestly famous, quoted everywhere from The New York Times to in-flight movies on Northwest Airlines.

"We had four foreign countries down here. We had Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Buenos Aires. I got a call from Italy. They saw me on Italian TV.

"Do I make any money?" he says, with a pre-emptive question. "No, I do not make any money. I want it for the neighborhood. I love my neighborhood."

Back on the block

It's a pleasure to sit in his kitchen and listen to him talk about his neighborhood. He's a small man, 5-foot-3, he says, wiry and energetic.

"Seventy years I've been like 124 pounds," he says. "I'm still the same weight."

He was born about a block away in a house that was torn down for a convent for the nuns who taught at St. Leo's School. They're not there anymore, either. And the building is now a residence for retired priests.

He went to St. Leo's, then to Calvert Hall, where he graduated in 1930.

"That's about 72 years ago," he says. "Oh my gosh, 72 years. You say, well, where did 72 years go?

"I don't know," he says, cheerfully.

A pair of parakeets named Minnie and Mickey chirp away on the kitchen table as he talks. His tiny curly-haired dog - Gina, named for Gina Lollobrigida, the pneumatic Italian film star of the 1950s and '60s - pads around underfoot.

When he was about a year old, his father bought this house. His sister, Rose Lancelotta, lives next door on High Street. She's only 90.

"The Italians have a tradition of taking care of the old people," he says. "So when my father became handicapped, my sister would not leave the neighborhood. She took care of him for years, until he died in 1969. He was 89.

"Yeah," he says, "we're a long-lived family."

Family roots

Pentes have been around the neighborhood since before it became Little Italy. John's grandfather, Angelo Pente, arrived in 1893 from the Abruzzi region of central Italy.

"When my grandfather came," John says, "down President Street, near where the museum is, there were all homes there."

He's talking about the Civil War Museum, which used to be the President Street railroad station. The homes disappeared long ago, and the museum nestles within a clutch of towering hotels.

"When they came from the boats - they all docked down there - they all settled in those old streets down there," he says.

Not a trace remains.

His grandfather opened a shoemaker's shop. Angelo Pente did a little bit of everything.

"My grandfather was a unique man," John says. "He repaired pots and pans, made keys, did odds and ends, loaned a few dollars sometimes. My grandfather was a musician, too. He played drums."

John Pente's father, Joseph, and his uncle, Nicholas, were both musicians, too. They played in the Frank Votta Band, a popular dance band in the early 1900s that not only played weddings in Little Italy, but dances and crab feasts and oyster roasts at places that recall a lost Baltimore: the Germania Maennerchor on Baltimore Street, the Highland Academy on Eastern, Walnut Grove in Dundalk and Gus Franke's tavern at Poplar Station.

Joseph Pente left music when the band broke up around 1924. He spent the rest of his working life making brooms. Uncle Nick carried on and became well-known around Baltimore as a trumpeter and cellist and as a fine instrument repairman.

"He was No. 1 in the city of Baltimore," John Pente says.

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