- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 26, 2000

Don't know much about history? Don't blame the movies. As the exhibit "Filming Maryland" at the Maryland Historical Society shows, history has always been a featured player in the movies.
"Movies have the power to transport people into time," says exhibit coordinator Heather Venters."There's nothing like a movie to give you a real sense of what life was like in a particular time and place."
Remember director Barry Levinson's 1982 movie "Diner," which captured the sights and sounds of 1960s Baltimore so closely you could almost taste the french fries with gravy? How about Garry Marshall's 1999 feature, "Runaway Bride"?
The summer hit, which was filmed in Worcester and Carroll counties, gave audiences — as well as stars Richard Gere and Julia Roberts — a glimpse of small-town life.
In "Filming Maryland," the emphasis is on place. The exhibit brings together 350 objects relating to films made in Maryland. These include stills, clips and trading cards. There is even a re-creation of Corky Collins' dance studio from John Waters' 1988 over-the-top depiction of 1960s Baltimore, "Hairspray."
Of course, as the exhibit points out, movie history is not always accurate. Take the story of Betsy Patterson, the early 19th-century Baltimore beauty whose charms captivated none other than Jerome Bonaparte, brother of the emperor.
The two married, but Napoleon had larger marital ambitions for his brother than a Baltimore girl. He annulled their two-year marriage and married his brother to a princess from Westphalia, making Jerome king. Betsy and their young son crept back to Baltimore.
Betsy's story was chronicled twice in film, in 1928 and then again in 1936. Neither version was historically accurate, Mrs. Venters says. The 1936 version, "Hearts Divided," is especially notable for discarding the tragic ending in favor of a happy reunion between the two lovers.
"People were in the middle of the Depression," Mrs. Venters says. "Audiences had unhappy endings in their own lives so they didn't want to see them on screen."
"Filming Maryland" audiences have a chance to compare the two versions of the story and gaze upon a miniature of Patterson from the Maryland Historical Society's collections.
They also have a chance to see how many films were made in Maryland that actually have nothing to do with the state. Some films, such as 1938's "Swing, Sister, Swing" could have been made anywhere. Neither the story line nor the cinematography depended on a Maryland venue.
But then, Maryland has been hospitable to movie making for a long time. The earliest film made here was an 1898 piece documenting the arrival of Spanish prisoners disembarking at Annapolis during the Spanish-American War. Maryland continues to be a beacon for movie makers, pulling in $75.5 million in film-related business in fiscal 1999.
"It's interesting to see how different film artists have used Maryland as a canvas," Mrs. Venters says. "Maryland is such a diverse state, with mountains, beaches and everything in between, you can really do a lot of things on film."
In fact, Maryland frequently stands in for other places. In 1997's"Washington Square," for example, Baltimore's Union Square neighborhood is groomed to look like mid-19th century New York.
Remember Paris? In "Washington Square," Paris is none other than Baltimore's own Mount Vernon Place, complete with that city's Washington Monument in the background.
Of course, Baltimore also plays itself.
In a video interview at the exhibit, film director Mr. Levinson recalls how residents of the Baltimore neighborhood where he was filming brought out soft-shell crab sandwiches for the crew.
Baltimore, with its hardscrabblerow houses and stately mansions, has been paint for the canvas of filmmakers such as Mr. Levinson and Mr. Waters. Though far apart structurally, the films of the two reflect an almost visceral connection with the city.
"You can look far and wide, but you'll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style," wrote John Waters in "Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste," in 1981. "It's as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay."
Baltimore, especially for Mr. Levinson, is often the city of memory. His Baltimore films are set during the period when the director was coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. The current town, thus, had to travel in time to his own remembered past.
It's a voyage that exhibit visitors also can make, thanks to interactive exhibits and old photographs. They can even "build" a movie house adding architectural touches the way it was — or should have been — in 1958, when Baltimore's "Block," with its burlesque houses and peep shows, was a popular destination.
The exhibit also contains black-and-white snapshots from the collection of Mr. Levinson's mother, Violet Levinson, and the sneakers and football jacket of one of the original "Diner boys."
That juxtaposition of film, stills and objects is precisely what makes "Filming Maryland," which will be dismantled when it closes Oct. 8, such an appealing exhibit. Objects from private collections throughout the country are supplemented with the museum's own material.
When the exhibit opened in April, Mr. Waters was so impressed he went through it four times, Mrs. Venters says. He even brought his mother, Patricia Waters.
"He said it was one of the few things he was involved with in his life that his mother could be proud of," Mrs. Venters says with a laugh.
The exhibit is part of an effort to bring the historical society concept — suffering from images of stodgy members and dusty exhibits — into the 21st century. This is one exhibition that is accessible, upbeat and fun.
Plus, it's a great way to get a sense of history.

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