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Month: April 2020

Welcome to the Little Italy Film Festival

Happening every beginning of summer, the festival organizer’s crew will install the 350-pound projector up to Mr. Pente’s room which will then be projected to the blank wall across the street. When Mr. Pente died in 2010, his nephew, the late Ray Lancelotta, bought the house and allowed the Film Fest to continue. When Mr. Lancelotta died in 2014, and the house has been subsequently sold to a new owner, the gracious owner agreed to continue the Film Fest tradition.

Apart from the Film Festival, the Little Italy neighborhood celebrates annual events such as Columbus Day Commemoration in October, Madonnari Arts Fest during fall, Ravioli Dinners happening every March and November, Columbus Piazza Lightning in December, and the Taste of Italy in September when all the restaurants gather and have samples of their food in a parking lot.  
 
The Film Festival’s popularity is mainly because of how local it is. TV personality and former mattress kingpin, Joe Garagiola, consider it as a community success. With many factors working to tear the community apart, the Film Festival is something that kept the community’s strong Italian identity intact while making it a destination spot. The 20+ restaurants in the neighborhood have benefitted the most as many moviegoers would come as early as five o’clock to get a good spot, and either order carry-out food from the restaurants or set up a chair first and reserve their spot before going for dinner.

Every year, just like a tradition, the 1987 romantic comedy “Moonstruck” starring Cher and Nicholas Cage kicks off the nine-week series and “Cinema Paradiso” will end it. The film usually starts at nine, and one would be surprised as a hush falls over the crowd once the reel begins Everybody is quiet, enjoying each other’s company. By 11 o’clock, the evening is done. The same thing, albeit different sets of movies, will happen again the following Friday until the last Friday of summer.

In 2018, after 19 years of being Baltimore’s summertime tradition, the Little Italy Film Festival had been canceled. It’s original organizer, Mary Ann Cricchio, became occupied organizing tours of Italy and no longer spends her summertime at Baltimore. Moreover, the former location of the movie fest is set to be sold for developers who are eyeing the area. Its proximity to up and coming Inner Harbor, Harbor East, and downtown makes Little Italy one of the most sought-after places in the city.

Little Italy Film Festival is run by volunteers and as expected, life has changed for many of these organizers. New volunteers tried to set up the festival at the fence parking lot of Stratford University, a few blocks away from the original place, but haven’t had the time to get all the liability and permits required on time.  

It would have been hard for John Pente to see the festival going in hiatus. His neighbors knew that Mr. Pente not only valued the restaurant in the neighborhood but the whole community. Mr. Pente is a well-known and cherished neighbor for many residents of Little Italy in Baltimore, Maryland. Born and raised in Little Italy, John bought the house adjacent to the room up in 222 South High Street. He was known in the community as someone who welcomed people into his home with no regard to their race, religious beliefs or sexuality. He was always so well-known and so well acknowledged for his kindness and his hospitality – a simple man who lived a simple life. He never achieved any kind of greatness, but in his small way, he did remarkable things. Neighbors recall how he was always there to contribute without any fanfare.

When he died at the ripe age of 100, the festival provided him with a long life’s perfect closing act. His simple act of generosity had made him “Little Italy’s ambassador to the world.” Thanks to him, the neighborhood is flourishing today, and perhaps nobody is more proud of its current success than John Pente. He had witnessed many of the neighborhood’s transformations and changes, all the while remaining a constant presence. Mr. Pente exemplifies the commitment and dedication which gives a community its character. 

A mural on Pratt & High Streets, sponsored by Peroni Beer and is the work of artist Marshall Adams was commissioned as a tribute to the neighborhood’s Film Festival. It includes an inset honoring the late John Pente and his dog, Gina. The local restaurant owner also marked a plaque to his house as a gift for Mr. Pentes’s big support and participation to the Little Italy Film Festival.

Background on The Little Italy Film Festival

The Little Italy Film Festival wouldn’t have happened if not for John Pente’s approval to allow a movie projector to be set up in his third-floor bedroom. 

In 1999, Ciao Bella Restaurant owners Tony Gambino, father, and son, wanted to expand the restaurant. They bought the property next door and that property has a big white blank wall facing a parking lot. Now, the Little Italy neighborhood has lots of murals commissioned by the Restaurants Association. The Gambino’s then asked a few artists and the artist they’ve chosen suggested that instead of painting the brick, it would be better to put it on – like a billboard. 

However, one member of the Little Italy Resident’s Association was not fine with the idea of a billboard. In her mind, a mural fits the character of Little Italy, but a billboard, once the owner decides to lease it out to anyone, might tarnish it. It went to court, the judge agreed that a billboard is not a mural, and the white space remained blank for several months.

A rift between restaurant owners and residents of Little Italy started brewing. 

When Marian Criccio, President of the Restaurant Owners’ Association, visited her in-laws in Italy, she noticed that the movies were shown on the wall of the piazza in Palermo, Sicily. The piazza was filled with people watching the film and it gave her the idea that it could be replicated in her neighborhood.

She then called Tom Kiefaber of Senator’s Theatre and ran the idea by him. At first, Kiefaber was unenthusiastic not until he saw a photograph of how it could look like. Kiefaber then visited the parking lot and was excited to see that the blank space was the exact ratio of a 16mm movie screen. The parking lot and the street behind it can sit people, too. Since they need a space to project from, the third-floor window of the house facing the blank wall was there obvious candidate. Luckily, the owner of the house, Mr. John Pente was the most cooperative man in Little Italy. 

When Marian Criccio asked the Residence Association if they agree on projecting Italian films onto the empty wall, everybody gave their consent as it is something that the whole community will benefit from. John Pente, knowing that this will unite the community he grew up with, wholeheartedly supported the idea and allowed a movie projector to be set up in his top-floor bedroom that was previously occupied by his sons.

John Pente lived all his life in Little Italy. These twelve square blocks of neighborhood, which is bounded on the north by Pratt street, on the east by Eden street, on the south by Eastern avenue, and the west by President street, was predominantly occupied by Italian migrants well before the twentieth century.

Before the Italians moved into what is now as the Little Italy, it was earlier a community of Germans, Irish, and Jewish migrants. The neighborhood got its name when a large number of Italian immigrants moved into the area and established themselves. In 1880, they laid the cornerstone for St. Leo’s church and a school later opened around 1910. Though it has since closed, St. Leo’s is still considered the heart of the Little Italy community. Traditionally, the church has been the centerpiece of the largely Catholic neighborhood and is still frequented by residents along with Italian-Americans from elsewhere in Baltimore with family roots to the neighborhood. They also celebrate the feast day of St. Anthony who they believed saved the neighborhood from the Great Baltimore fire of 1904.

From 1999 until 2017, the Film Festival was organized by the Little Italy Restaurant Association and since became a popular summertime tradition in Baltimore. Premiered on July 2, 1999, the first movie shown was “Rocky”, the 1976 American sports drama film starring Sylvester Stallone. That night, Mr. Kiefaber offered free popcorn and another restaurant gave free cannoli. Soon after, colas and vinos are offered for free together with the free movie. In every given Friday, the crowd can reach up to 1,200 on nicer evenings, mostly former residents who come back and enjoy the community they grew up with. 

Midway through the first season, The New York Times featured the Little Italy Summer Film Festival on the front page of their newspaper. Soon after, ABC Australia produced an eight-minute documentary on how the little town in Baltimore has evolved from a poor Sicilian enclave to a thriving commercial district. NPR, CNN, and other media outlets came calling. Even Italian, German, and Czechoslovakian media have booked flights to Baltimore to view the weekly event. The Little Italy Summer Film Festival had attracted national and international attention and was copied by other cities around the nation.