Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, who grew up in Forest Park, the Jewish section of northwest Baltimore, has set four widely praised semi-autobiographical features in his home town, with at last one more possible. Levinson's Baltimore is an old, vanishing city -- his films have been set in 1954, 1959, 1963 and in a 50-year period starting with the advent of World War I -- and you have to work hard to find it today, though not to find a key inspiration.
Levinson, who moved to Los Angeles in the early '70s, has fond memories of many hours spent with boyhood pals in a favorite hideaway, Brice's Hilltop Diner on Reisterstown Road. In 1982, he worked them into his directorial debut, "Diner." Set in 1959, it was an affectionate portrait of a group of young men hanging out, communicating with one another with great ease, and with women only with great difficulty. Much of it takes place inside the '50s chrome-exterior diner that gives the film its title. But because Brice's had by then closed, Levinson had to hunt for a replacement at a diner graveyard in New Jersey and move it to Baltimore, where he called it the Fells Point Diner. Now renamed the Hollywood Diner (400 E. Saratoga St.; 410-962-5379), it still operates Mondays through Fridays from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can sit in a booth or at the long central counter and order malted waffles, a grilled cheese sandwich, crab cakes or 10 types of cheesecake, the whole thing washed down with a milkshake made with three scoops of ice cream.
Levinson has used the diner several more times (a cameo in 1987's "Tin Men" and several scenes in 1999's "Liberty Heights"), and it has been featured in "Sleepless in Seattle," "Homicide" and "The Wire." Levinson's boyhood home on Springfield Road appeared in "Tin Men," and his father's house on Appleton Street was used in 1990's "Avalon." But although his films may be bittersweet tributes to changing eras, Levinson says "in my mind it's never been about nostalgia, but about special events and moments."
"Liberty Heights," for instance, is set in 1954, the year black and white students in Baltimore first began attending school together, and addresses issues of race, class distinctions and anti-Semitism. Levinson's stand-in here is a 17-year-old Jewish boy whose father operates a burlesque house; ironically, with Baltimore's notorious burlesque strip long gone, the scene had to be re-created at the William Donald Schaefer Ballroom at the Baltimore School for the Arts (712 Cathedral St.).
Another thread in "Liberty Heights" has a young black girl introducing her new classmate to R&B, capped by a visit to see James Brown at the fabled Royal Theater, which stopped hosting live music in 1965 and was torn down in 1971. Standing in: the Hippodrome Theater (12 N. Eutaw St.), a major vaudeville house in the '30s and a movie theater until it closed in 1990. Last year, the Hippodrome was restored along with four other historic buildings and reborn as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (410-837-7400), a world-class stage that's a centerpiece of the revitalized West Side neighborhood.
Old Baltimore could figure in a future Levinson film. "There's one more that I would like to do," he says, "based on the novel I wrote, 'Sixty-Six,' " which is about the big transitions that took place in the late '60s: the demise of downtown Baltimore when it really fell into disrepair, and the generation of the '50s moving into the '60s in the midst of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the emerging counterculture. Levinson's debut novel, like his first film, features high school buddies trying to cope with grown-up life, and talking it all out at the diner.
-- Richard Harrington