They make streets safe for stars

April 19, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

VIP SECURITY Unlimited's headquarters is at the bitter end of Biddle Street in East Baltimore, in the silent, rusting Armco Steel plant.

Inside, the rooms are dark and the cold hangs heavy. Then, William H. "B.J." Spencer Jr. opens the door to his office and the heat flows.

It's like a bachelor pad, with dim lights, overstuffed furniture and a sleek, gray 57-inch big-screen TV. Then there are the pictures, neatly arranged with Spencer and the clients he and his employees have protected: John Travolta, Chris Rock, Vivica A. Fox and Lynn Whitfield.

Spencer and his staff are the protectors of the stars and equipment when films are made in Baltimore and Maryland.

VIP provides security for HBO's The Wire and has been the community liaison and on-location muscle for feature films that include Red Dragon, The Wedding Crashers, Head of State, Enemy of the State, Tuck Everlasting and Ladder 49, said Spencer, president and owner.

"I would not shoot anything in Baltimore without them," said David Simon, executive producer of The Wire. "It doesn't matter where we are shooting; they are totally an asset to our crew."

VIP's forte is "entertainment," said Spencer, 40, sporting two gold hoop earrings and a New York Yankees baseball cap worn backward. "We are the only people who can handle the demand that the motion picture industry puts upon us."

His words are backed up by Perry Blackmon III, 37, director of security and a former bounty hunter, and Reginald Gilmer, 39, a field supervisor known as "Spider."

Business had been so strong that last spring VIP's payroll bulged at 110 people. But generous incentives from Louisiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Canadian cities have lured filmmakers away from Maryland. The impact was almost immediate: By November, VIP had shed all but five employees.

Now, Spencer is hoping that a $4 million state incentive package aimed at filmmakers and approved by the General Assembly this month will revive the business. He testified in Annapolis in favor of the bill.

One steady client is the old Armco plant, a snarl of rusty buildings that VIP guards along with the trucks in the parking lot. Another is The Wire, which is scheduled to start filming again in September.

"I think they do a great job," said Hannah Byron, director of the Baltimore Film Office. "They provide a very valuable service."

Times were better last year when VIP worked three projects at once: Ladder 49, starring Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix; The Wedding Crashers, featuring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, and The Wire.

In one day, Spencer marshaled 70 people to one shift on Ladder 49. One week of work on the film brought in $70,000, he said. Workers worked full bore for six months on the production and some took home as much as $900 a week, Spencer said.

They bought new sneakers, jeans, fitted baseball hats and watches. "You can always tell when we are doing good," Spencer said.

Most of the workers are from city neighborhoods.

"A lot of them have nothing, came from nothing," said Blackmon. He knows dozens of locals and manages VIP's security workers on the street.

He got into the business in the early 1990s when he provided security for the movie Meteor Man, filmed here, and the NBC television series Homicide. "I hired a bunch of bouncers. We cleared the corners," said Blackmon.

Providing security for films and stars is a business where choirboys need not apply. But VIP's principals say they don't bring on people fresh out of jail. Fifteen years ago, Blackmon was charged with assault, but the charge was dropped, he said.

"My record is clean," he said.

Blackmon met Spencer, who was in the Navy and later worked as a computer technician and at a vending machine company, in 1998. They formed VIP in 2003 with the help of Spencer's godfather, Rodwell Catoe, the former assistant chief of police in Washington. Catoe is now an associate professor at Northern Virginia Community College and a partner in VIP.

"We are just trying to make it happen," Blackmon said. "The film crews feel safe when we are around."

What gives VIP an edge against competitors is that they know the people of Baltimore and the streets, Spencer said. "We can tell them [the production crew] where the road bends ... which light poles are out. We don't just do security," he said.

Spencer helps employees get driver's licenses, set up bank accounts and get health and life insurance. If they have children and child-support responsibilities, he encourages them to make the payments. He helps employees "come above the radar," he said.

"We work with the police officers every day," Spencer said. "We don't need to have somebody standing next to them who has a warrant for failure to pay child support."

Some VIP workers use the security business as a stepping stone to take jobs with the production companies as grips.

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