- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2001

The summer sun still has a few hours left to shine when the crowd starts to gather for Friday's outdoor movie at the corner of Hugh and Stiles streets in Baltimore. That's no matter to the hundreds of people who have made their way to Little Italy, a tiny neighborhood of row houses and restaurants that still preserves much of its old-country charm. In Little Italy, the show starts on the sidewalk, with live music, an organ grinder, and free popcorn popped that afternoon by employees of the local bank.
"I used to come back just on Sundays," says former resident Eleanor Apicella, who grew up in the neighborhood. "Now I come back Sundays and Fridays Sundays for church and Fridays for the movies."
Outdoor movies are undergoing a renaissance these days. Even drive-in theaters, once considered as moribund as silent film, are enjoying a resurgence. In cities across the country, summer outdoor film festivals are bringing together a cross section of the populace for a chance to experience film in a different way.
"It's so nice to be able to see a movie on a big screen," says Colleen Macmillan, 26, who last year organized her coworkers at a trade association to trek down to the Mall in Washington for "Screen on the Green," sponsored this year by Home Box Office and America Online. "It was great just being able to sit on the grass and watch an old movie."
In Silver Spring, the third annual "Silver Screen Under the Stars," begins this weekend. The festival features clowns and face painting for children, a high-tech sound system and a "huge" outdoor screen, says Susan Hoffman at the Silver Spring Regional Center, a community service center.
In Bethesda, the natural amphitheater of the National Institutes of Health plays host to the annual Comcast/NIH film festival in August, which benefits three charities associated with the NIH. The festival estimates that last year more than 80,000 people attended the 10-day series of classic films, which feature theater surround-sound.
"We wanted to bring back the days of the drive-in," says organizer Robert Deutsch. "That's why we book films that appeal to wide range of people so families can share together."
The NIH series is free, but moviegoers pay for the food offered by the Bethesda restaurants that operate a small-scale "taste of Bethesda."
There's something about sitting outside on what had been a sweltering summer day and actually feeling the air cool as the sun goes down that somehow makes you feel more neighborly. In Little Italy people know what being neighborly means.
"In the old days, people went out to sleep on the sidewalks," remembers John Pente. "We'd all just wait for that breeze to come up from the water. Everybody was ready to give applause when that happened."
These days, people are applauding more than just the breeze.
"In Italy, they would show movies on the piazza," says Mary Ann Cricchio, one of the founders of the event. "We thought, why not do that here?" Sponsored by LIRA, the Little Italy Restaurant Association, the mostly Italian-themed movies bring a bit of the old country back to the old neighborhood, she says.
Actually, there's plenty of Italian soul right here already, from the smells of pizza wafting over the crowd from picnic dinners to the dancers in the parking lot circling to the sultry sounds of Aldo's trio, which warms up the crowd a couple of hours before the show.
At the heart of Little Italy, however, is clearly John Pente, the 91-year-old widower who has allowed the movies to be projected from an upstairs bedroom of the house he grew up in.
"My grandparents bought this house 100 years ago," says Mr. Pente, who looks forward to the Friday event. "My family has always lived in this house. I went to school here. Now I can do something for the community."
Mr. Pente watches all the movies from his front porch, surrounded by friends and family.
"Look at this," he says proudly. "There must be 1,000 people here. There's not a better way to spend a Friday night. You've got free popcorn, free Pepsi, a great movie, good people, and it don't cost you nothing."

As the automobile became increasingly popular in the years after World War II, drive-in theaters became a popular way enjoy movies. Between 1953 and 1961, the only new movie theaters built in the Washington area were drive-ins.
Today there are no drive-in theaters left in the immediate Washington area, although fond memories of the Mount Vernon, Beltsville and Queen's Chapel drive-ins remain. But if you are willing to commit to a drive of slightly more than an hour, the drive-in movie-going experience can be yours again.
In Baltimore County, Bengies Drive-In, in all its 1950s-style glory, seems a throwback to an earlier and simpler time. Built in 1956 by brothers Paul, Hank and Jack Vogel, Bengies takes its name from the neighborhood, a favorite fishing destination for former President Benjamin Harrison, says owner-operator D. Edward Vogel, Jack Vogel's adopted son, who has been working there on and off since he was a child.
It's the kind of place where families mostly from the surrounding areas of Essex and Dundalk, but a few from farther away can feel comfortable sharing the space with teenagers who have clambered into the car to see a double feature. There are even a few swing shift workers from Bethlehem Steel who stop by to wind down before going home.
But even the most jaded teen-ager still scrambles out of the car and stands at attention at the start of each show. That's when Mr. Vogel plays the national anthem. Everyone and everything stops. Some people even sing along.
"My family is very patriotic," Mr. Vogel says. "My Uncle Paul was a colonel in the U.S. Army. When I was a kid, he'd rather I burned the popcorn than not stand at attention."
Clearly, Mr. Vogel knows he has something of a treasure on his hands, from the 52-by-120-foot screen to the snack bar, long and low, which still serves up a full menu of hamburgers, popcorn, pizza and ice cream. He even keeps his two prize possessions, a 1956 Buick Century and a 1950 Chevrolet, parked in front of the snack bar's glassed-in front wall.
There's a kind of respectful ambience here, from the ushers who cheerfully help guide your car into the double ramped space to the regulars who have made a ritual out of a Friday or Saturday night triple feature.
"D. Edward really treats you like family," says Patrick Schaffer, who has been coming to the Bengies since 1959. "Before, it was cold and impersonal I actually like it better now."
Like most movie theaters, more profit is made off the concessions than from ticket sales, so Bengies enforces a strict no-outside-food policy. With freshly made cheeseburgers and fries from the vintage snack bar, there are few complaints.

Closer to home, the American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue has started its own tradition of outdoor movies, precipitated in part by the closing of the legendary Avalon Theater up the street.
"The main point is to satisfy the thirst for movies in the Chevy Chase area," says owner Jeffrey Gildenhorn.
To this end, Mr. Gildenhorn converted his outdoor deck to a small, intimate, 32-seat theater with a good sound system and a screen that, while small, is "perfectly proportioned" for the space. On weekday evenings, he plays "light entertainment" Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin before settling in for the family feature at 9 p.m. Weekends frequently find themed features, with movies devoted to Humphrey Bogart or Frank Sinatra. But all the movies have a broad appeal.
"I'm sticking to the classics," Mr. Gildenhorn says. "These are films that are well-known and well-respected. I think movies today have lost something."
All the movies are free and open to the public.
"I consider this my gift to the neighborhood," says Mr. Gildenhorn, 58, who remembers that during his youth, a weekend wasn't complete without a stop at the Hot Shoppes and then on to the Sheridan or one of the downtown movie theaters and back again.
"When I was growing up, going out to the movies was a big part of my life," he says. "They've always fascinated me."
On a recent weekday evening a group of neighborhood friends, all home from college, stopped by for dinner and "Rear Window." They joined a varied group of film buffs, children and others who had simply seen the sign while walking by the diner for an evening of classic cinema.
"We come here all the time for dinner," says Rachel Martin, 19, home for the summer from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. "Now, we get to see movies, too."
A one-time candidate for mayor and the man who tried to bring baseball back to the District in 1989, Mr. Gildenhorn, a native Washingtonian, is at heart a movie lover. So he's happy to share his enthusiasm.
"This is a wonderful neighborhood," Mr. Gildenhorn says. "I wanted to show them how I've appreciated people's interest and support over the years."
From the small screen at the American City Diner to the massive screen at Bengies, the one thing that unites all the outdoor movies of the season is the new or old sense of community. Traditionally, part of the experience of movie-going was being able to see films together with your friends and neighbors. Now, thanks to new programs like Screen on the Green and die-hards like D. Edward Vogel, a new generation can enjoy movies as they were meant to be seen.
"I love to see all the people here," says Mr. Pente in Little Italy. "And I've always loved the movies, especially 'Cinema Paradiso.' That's my favorite."
So you won't have to wonder what the last movie shown in Little Italy this season, on Aug. 24, will be.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide