Mary Rizzo for The Metropole: When Baltimore was Hollywood East

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

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.

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.