John Pente lived his entire life within a one-block radius in Little Italy. He worked as a machinist for Western Electric and devoted himself to his family, his neighborhood and his church, St. Leo's.
But in 1999, he allowed the community promoters of an open-air film festival to install a projector in his grown-up sons' old bedroom. By the time Mr. Pente died on Monday, at 100, this simple act of generosity had made him "Little Italy's ambassador to the world."
Little Italy's Open Air Film Festival didn't just heal a rift that had developed between area restaurant owners and residents. It became a celebration of movies and community that attracted tourists to the corner of High and Stiles streets and set an example for neighborhoods around the world.
"He's been so well known and so well acknowledged for his kindness and his hospitality and just being a simple man who lived a simple life. He never achieved any kind of greatness, but in his own small way, he did remarkable things," his older son, Joseph, said Tuesday.
The festival provided him with a long life's perfect closing act. Joseph Pente continued, "He was always there to contribute: to neighbors, to the church, to the school. He did it without any fanfare, and he did it well. … He welcomed people into his home of all colors, all races, male or female." It didn't matter whether they were distinguished Italian jurists or a woman who needed a phone to call for jumper cables. They savored his hospitality and often became friends for life.
When he was 89, Mr. Pente was only hoping to do his bit for his community when he agreed to have movies projected on summer nights from his third-floor window. In 1999, nothing but white space filled the outer wall of the Ciao Bella restaurant where Little Italy's restaurateurs had hoped to install a 15-by-20-foot mural on a billboard facing the Da Mimmo's restaurant parking lot.
The Little Italy Owners and Residents Association protested, fearing gaudy billboards. The Little Italy Restaurant Association fired back that the neighborhood had to be commercial to stay alive. The mural was shot down, and the space stayed blank for months. At a neighborhood association meeting in 1999, one frustrated restaurateur brainstormed, "I think we should just show movies on it, 'cause it looks like a drive-in."
The neighborhood association put a call out to the Senator Theatre's Tom Kiefaber, who had two eureka moments. He realized that the space was the exact ratio of a 16mm movie screen. And he saw that the perfect spot to place the projector was in the top-floor bedroom where Mr. Pente's two sons had grown up.
The choice was serendipitous. "Mr. John Pente was a legend," Mr. Kiefaber said Tuesday, "the pure heart and soul of Little Italy who brought all the factions together to sit on the bench and work it out, whatever it would be. … Mr. John saw before the rest of us how the contentious white billboard that had the business and residential factions at odds could become the very thing that could bring everyone together."
For Mr. Pente, it was simple. He always said, "Anything you can do for the neighborhood, you do."
The modest act of this retired machinist was one part of a movement that's been spreading across the city and the country, binding together small towns and neighborhood streets with open-air screenings and Main Street movie events, generating communal feelings hard to come by in a megaplex.
As a crew of three men moved a heavy, bulky Bauer projector to its summer place in a third-floor bedroom, Mr. Pente was always ready to offer a glass of water or a piece of fruit. Friends says that's how he was with everyone, whether you were "No Neck" Pasquale, known throughout the neighborhood as the guy to get if you were hauling a projector up three flights of stairs, or TV personality Joe Garagiola, arriving with a camera squad from the "Today" show.
Mr. Garagiola showed up because the festival was both an immediate community success and a national attention-getter. Hundreds of people filled Little Italy restaurants, then brought folding chairs outside to watch "Moonstruck" or "Cinema Paradiso."
Gilbert Sandler, author of "The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore's Little Italy," said Tuesday, "I was delighted to see it. That neighborhood needed all the binding-together that it could get when there were so many forces working to tear it apart. Here was something that kept the community's identity while making it a destination spot."