The movies are moving outside for the summer

A good idea spread beyond its origin in Little Italy

July 21, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

So maybe you're not sitting in plushly cushioned, air-conditioned comfort.

Maybe instead you're sharing space with two dogs, a squirming infant, three loud frat boys and a swarm of mosquitos.

But no matter how much you sweat, how much you swat, how many key pieces of dialogue you might miss because of a passing truck or honking horn, there's something about a movie under the stars - as more Baltimore neighborhoods are realizing.

This summer, in addition to Little Italy's outdoor movies - the city's oldest and most popular - Federal Hill has started showing them, and two other neighborhoods continue to, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.

Across the country, moviegoers are flocking to alfresco films, drawn by fresh air, a chance to interact with neighbors and a price everyone can afford: Baltimore's are all free.

Sure, there's no roof, but there are also no sticky aisles, armrest battles, must-watch advertisements, overpriced snacks or exorbitant ticket costs.

"To sit up and get the breeze on a hot summer night on Federal Hill, where the sight lines and the acoustics are just perfect, what could be a better way to watch a movie?" asked American Visionary Art Museum founder and president Rebecca Hoffberger.

Taking advantage of the grassy tiers of Federal Hill directly across the street - a "natural amphitheater," Hoffberger noted - the museum placed a remote control 30-foot screen on the side of its Jim Rouse Visionary Center, held in place by a giant golden hand.

The museum throws in some special touches. For The Wizard of Oz, a museum employee dressed as Dorothy. At Searching for Bobby Fisher, even though rain led to showing it inside, chess tables were set up for pre-movie matches.

The money for the project was put up by Patrick Hughes, a neighborhood resident, local developer and member of the museum's board of directors; and Hoffberger readily acknowledges they borrowed the idea from across the harbor.

"I was very inspired by the great feeling generated by the outdoor films in Little Italy and of course by the classical film Cinema Paradiso."

Little Italy's open-air film festival, the granddaddy of them all, got started by accident.

Restaurant owners commissioned an artist to paint a mural on the side of a building. The artist decided he needed a plywood surface. After the plywood was attached, though, the city ordered the project halted.

"We were left with this huge white board and we had to figure out what to do with it," said Mary Ann Cricchio, owner of Da Mimmo restaurant.

Having seen Cinema Paradiso - the Italian-made movie in which a projectionist, trying to appease a crowd that had been turned away from the theater, projects the movie onto the side of a building in the town square - Cricchio said the answer was simple, and the pieces, back in 1999, fell into place almost as magically.

The owner of the building gave his permission. Little Italy resident John Pente, now 95, contributed his bedroom, the window of which was directly across from the building and the perfect distance from which to project movies. Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, provided technical assistance.

Today, more than 1,000 residents and visitors, toting chairs and blankets, show up for the Friday night films, and the music and dancing beforehand, all sponsored by the restaurant association and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

This could be the last year the movies are shown with a 16 mm projector. Next year, because of the wider selection of titles available, Little Italy might switch to video or DVD.

Little Italy's season always starts with Moonstruck, always ends with Cinema Paradiso, and the eight or nine movies in between either have Italian themes or star Italian actors.

Curtis Bay started showing movies four years ago - all of them aimed at children.

"It's expensive to go to movies anymore," said Linda Bardo, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, which obtained a grant to show the movies. "A lot of kids in the neighborhood don't get a chance to go."

In addition to free popcorn and soda during the movie, there are free hot dogs and snowballs at Benjamin Poe Park from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Brooklyn Park has shown outdoor movies for three years. The first two were paid for by a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation. This year, Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn purchased equipment and is operating the movie nights, hoping to break even by selling popcorn and sodas.

Patrick Moylan, president of the citizens group, said crowds have increased every year.

"I think after watching movies alone in your own house, or going to a theater where you can't interact because you're not allowed to talk, people see this as a more social activity."

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