When Baltimore Was Hollywood East: Racial Exclusion and Cultural Development in the 1970s

By Mary Rizzo

It was intended to be the gala event of 1978. Under blazing Klieg lights, Al Pacino, in the midst of filming …And Justice for All, and Alan Alda, who had recently starred in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, would walk the red carpet, waving to adoring fans. John Waters, best known for films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble that featured sexual fetishes, drug use, and crime, and Barry Levinson, a former TV comedy writer making the shift into feature film writing, would make jokes as they accepted their awards. It would be just like the Oscars, except for the name and location. This award was called “The Don” and it celebrated filmmaking happening in Baltimore, Maryland.

Not just bombast, the awards gala, organized by the Mayor’s Commission on Motion Picture and Videotape Production and Fontaine Sullivan, the head of the mayor’s office on volunteerism, recognized the growing number of film and television productions happening in Baltimore. Waters’ independent films, made without permits, and Levinson’s studio productions shared street space with the Blaxploitation movie The Hitter, made by Christopher Leitch and starring Ron O’Neal, in 1979. In 1974, the city was the setting for a TV pilot called Dr. Max. Newspaper articles reported breathlessly on the camera crews around town. Sullivan even nicknamed Baltimore “Hollywood East” in 1978.

John Waters, film producer/director, in his home.
John Waters, film producer/director, in his home, Michael Geissinger, 1994, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did a city that appeared in a 1975 Harper’s Magazine article on the “Worst Cities in America” become Hollywood East three years later? While the urban settings of New Hollywood and Blaxploitation films required filming in real locations rather than studio backlots, Baltimore was not just a lucky beneficiary. Under the administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer (1971-1987), Baltimore actively sought film and television production as part of his larger strategy of reimagining a deindustrializing metropolis as a city of arts and culture that would attract tourists, corporate dollars, and upwardly mobile residents. Unlike dirty manufacturing plants, Hollywood film productions were clean sources of revenue. They brought money into the city and also spread an image of Baltimore internationally. While he is best remembered for large-scale infrastructure projects like the Inner Harbor and Harborplace, Schaefer understood that infrastructure alone wouldn’t fix Baltimore’s problems. The image of the city had to change as well.

Like other cities in the 1970s, Baltimore experimented with urban branding, which Miriam Greenberg defines in her study on New York City as, “a dual strategy that was at once visual and material, combining intensive marketing—in this case place marketing—with neoliberal political and economic restructuring.”[1] The 1974 Charm City marketing campaign, in which visitors to Baltimore would collect charm bracelets and charms of various tourist sites, packaged the aging port city as eccentrically premodern, a place that stood outside of time thanks to its white ethnic neighborhoods, historic sites, and row house architecture.

00751r
Street in Baltimore Maryland with rowhouses and building with sign “Neighborhood Housing Services”, Warren K. Leffler, March 15, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Baltimore’s film and television production efforts were part of this branding and neoliberalization process. At the same time that Schaefer was using public-private partnerships to fund his infrastructure projects and creating a “shadow government” that operated outside public visibility, he created the Mayor’s Commission on Motion Picture and Videotape Production to eliminate “red tape, bureaucratic hassle, and false starts” to save film companies “precious time and money.”[2] The job of the city was increasingly becoming helping private businesses get around the city’s own rules. In return, film production companies would spend desperately needed money, even, at times, filling in gaps left by shrinking public funding under President Nixon’s New Federalism. While filming …And Justice For All, the crew installed new lights in a real courtroom, which remained after they left. An indictment of the serious financial needs of the city, Sullivan boasted in the Baltimore Sun that it was actually a smart way to utilize private dollars for public benefit.[3]

NYT Charm City Ad 4 August 1974.jpg

The organizers honored both Schaefer’s vision and his outsized ego with their name for the gala: The Don. “Anybody could go to Hollywood and earn an Oscar,” asserted its tagline, “but you have to be in Baltimore to earn a ‘Don.’”[4] Tamara Dobson, born in Baltimore and best known for portraying the Blaxploitation heroine Cleopatra Jones, called Mayor Schaefer personally to tell him that Los Angeles was buzzing with news about The Don awards. Ironically, though, Blaxploitation was ignored at The Dons. As I explore in my forthcoming book on cultural representations of Baltimore, the city consistently promoted the images created by white cultural producers over African American ones. The Don awards illustrate how the racial politics of urban renewal and infrastructure development were mirrored in urban branding and cultural production in Baltimore.

As urban historians have shown, urban renewal displaced African Americans more than whites in cities throughout the country. The buildings constructed in cleared spaces often excluded the former residents of the area through prohibitive rents and prices. Even Harborplace, the festival marketplace opened in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore in 1980, uses multi-lane Pratt Street to cut itself off from the predominately black neighborhoods of downtown Baltimore.

00459r.jpg
Senator Theater, York Road, Baltimore, Maryland, John Margolies, 1995, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This racial exclusion extended to the cultural infrastructure Schaefer promoted. Black films were being made in Baltimore. The Hitter actually spurred the creation of the film commission after city officials helped the film producers scout locations and realized the role they could play for other productions. In addition to The Hitter, Amazing Grace, a 1974 comedy starring Moms Mabley, was set in Baltimore (though filmed to a large degree in Philadelphia). Goldie, the sequel to Blaxploitation film The Mack starring Max Julien, also scouted Baltimore locations, though it was not completed. Even though black films were being made in Baltimore, the filmmakers honored at the Dons were overwhelmingly white. While all black films were ignored, white filmmakers of radically different styles were welcomed, including Waters, known as the Prince of Puke for his outrageous movies. The event organizers deemed his depictions of Baltimore as a town full of white perverts and criminals more acceptable in promoting the city than the antiheroes of Blaxploitation. Ironically, one of the other awardees at the event was Thomas Cripps, a professor at Morgan State University, who was slated to be honored for his book on the struggles of African American filmmakers and actors for equity in Hollywood, Slow Fade to Black.

Cultural productions by African Americans remained separate from those of white Baltimoreans, rarely receiving the same level of promotion, funding or visibility. The Baltimore Afro-American made this point in an article condemning …And Justice For All. After positioning the film within the context of the beginnings of the mass incarceration of black men, the author asks why the only black actors hired for the film play extras in courtroom and jail scenes, while whites play judges and lawyers. Continuing on, the author asks, “Were all the charges of police brutality swept under the rug just in time to cash in on Hollywood gold?” The parallels between racist law enforcement in Baltimore and Hollywood filmmaking were clear. To be acceptable to Hollywood filmmakers, Baltimore hid its internal problems in order to woo economic development opportunities that tended to portray African Americans in stereotypical ways as criminals, if at all. With a deep bitterness, the article ends by noting that, “the film company is expected to leave $1.25 million in B-more. It just might leave something else. A sense of shame, which might force the city to clean up its act.”[5]

20527r
The Enoch Pratt Free Library, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the oldest free public libraries in the United States, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2011, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For African American cultural producers, the lack of public attention meant that their work did not achieve the kind of visibility or funding of white cultural producers. However, black cultural producers used this invisibility to their advantage, working in the interstices between organizations and funding streams. The African American poetry magazine Chicory, for example, was published from 1966-1983 by the Enoch Pratt Free Library, becoming a black public sphere for residents in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. Able to be produced cheaply, it published cultural nationalist work that critiqued the city, racism, and poverty, among other things, with little to no oversight. Like the plant it was named after, it flourished in the cracks.

3c17535r.jpg
Moms Mabley, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, on stage, Moms Mabley, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Never mind the planning, the tickets sold and the RSVPs returned, The Dons were cancelled, a casualty of celebrity scheduling and chaos behind the scenes. Even though it never took place, The Don awards bring to light key issues facing Baltimore in the 1970s, a moment when the city was desperately trying to remake itself as Charm City. Even if The Dons were a failure, the Schaefer administration continued to promote certain kinds of arts and cultural activities. Baltimore came to be home to an international theatre festival, offered free performances in public spaces built through urban renewal, and supported an array of arts programs. The Mayor’s Office on Motion Picture and Videotape Production went dormant for a short time, but was revived as the Baltimore Film Commission, a private nonprofit that still works closely with the city. To this day, tourists see Baltimore’s sights before ever stepping foot on its streets. As Baltimore shows, urban historians studying the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy should consider the role of arts and culture and how race impacted whose images received official recognition.

Head Shot Close Up SMALLER.JPGMary Rizzo is Assistant Professor of History and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Her work is in American cultural history, urban studies, public history and digital humanities. Her book on the politics of cultural representations of Baltimore from 1953-the early 21st century is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Her chapter on the role of image and infrastructure in Baltimore tourism will appear in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a US City, edited by P. Nicole King, Joshua Clark Davis and Kate Drabinski (Rutgers University Press, 2019). She also leads a team that digitized Chicory and is developing digital and public humanities projects using the magazine. She tweets @rizzo_pubhist.

Featured image (at top): Baltimore, Maryland. Thursday night shoppers in a line outside a movie theatre, Marjory Collins, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Miriam Greenberg, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World (NY: Routledge, 2008), 10.

[2] Letter to Gary Stromberg, WD Schaefer papers, Box 387, Film Commission 1978-1979 folder, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

[3] “Presenting Baltimore,” WD Schaefer papers, Box 387, Film Commission Folder, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

[4] Don materials. WD Schaefer Papers, Box 387, Folder, Film Commission, 1978-1979, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

[5] “Pacino movie about no justice in B-More,” Afro American, nd, WD Schaefer papers, Box 387, Film Commission 1978-1979 folder, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD.

One thought on “When Baltimore Was Hollywood East: Racial Exclusion and Cultural Development in the 1970s”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s