Friday, March 12, 2021

"Elysium": Lincoln F. Johnson's 1961 film about Baltimore painted screens

I only recently discovered this film in the Pratt Library's 16mm film collection. It is an early celebration of Baltimore's rich painted window screen heritage, then at its height before the advent of air conditioning and changing times shuttered the tradition. - Tom Warner

Elysium (1961) (Directed by Lincoln F. Johnson,14 minutes, color, 16mm film)


This study of the painted screens found in the windows of East Baltimore explores, with sympathetic irony, the contrast between the idyllic imagery of the screens and the metropolitan environment in which they appear; investigates the life of the streets; suggests something of the beauty and humor of the ordinary; and witnesses the painting of a screen by Richard Octavec (also spelled as “Oktavec”).


Richard Oktavec painting a window screen

Richard was the son of William Oktavec, who founded Baltimore’s painted screen tradition in 1913 and passed it down through three generations of his family (as documented in “Oktavec’s Painted Window Screens”). A fixture in Baltimore’s Northeast Bohemian (Czech) community, William Oktavec initially sold screens at his Collington and Ashland Avenue corner grocery before opening The Art Shop (which is shown in the film) at 2409 East Monument Street in 1922, where he sold paintings "by the thousands" and taught art classes. (One of his students was Baltimore native Johnny Eck, star of Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks). 

The film also includes a narration in verse adapted from Michael Drayton's The Muses' Elyzium (1630), which is set against a background of street noises and the improvisations of a jazz combo (The Furys), which at one point plays "Madison Time - a Top 40 hit for Ray Bryant (uncle of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno bandleader Kevin Eubanks) that in 1960 became a national dance craze rivaling The Twist after the “Madison steps” (which ranged from tracing an M on the floor to mimicking Jackie Gleason’s “and away we go” gesture) were popularized on Baltimore TV's The Buddy Deane Show - as young African-American girls are shown dancing the steps on the sidewalk.

Young girls dancing "The Madison"

Two local Black DJs, Al Brown and Eddie Morrison, released separate recordings of the song in 1960 and The Buddy Deane Show version, called "The Madison," featured Al Brown and his Tunetoppers calling out instructions to the teenage dancers. The Madison was later featured in both Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) and John Waters’ Hairspray (1988).


Al Brown calls out "The Madison"

Al Brown's Tunetoppers featuring Cookie Brown

Skillfully edited scenes also offer commentary on the verses and contrasting images: a shot of flowers is juxtaposed with one depicting the metal petals of a window rotary fan; a window display of brassieres is followed by an image of teat-shaped balloons at a festival; a painted screen of a bucolic horse-drawn fruit vendor is followed by footage of a Baltimore “Arabber” cart slowly making its way down a city street. Verses about rural landscapes are recited over scenes of Baltimore’s Block. Formstone, another Baltimore tradition, is seen everywhere, framing the painted screens.







Elysium was written and directed by Dr. Lincoln F. Johnson, an art historian and teacher who chaired the fine arts department at Goucher College until his retirement in 1985. A painter himself, Johnson championed film as the 20th Century’s major artistic medium and in the 1960s helped organize the Maryland Film Festival (later the Film Forum).
Johnson was the author of the book Film: Space, Time, Light and Sound (1974) and in the 1970s wrote art criticism for The Baltimore Sun and introduced films shown at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.



"My ideas lead in the direction of poetic documentary, as far as educational films are concerned,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1968. He explained he was interested in making films about Baltimore that examined “vanishing aspects” of its culture and contrasted the different levels of society in the city.


One of those different social levels in the city was its African-American community. That’s why the film segment showing young Black girls dancing the Madison was significant. As Mary Rizzo observes in Come And Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), “The Madison symbolized the complicated cultural politics of race in Baltimore.” Though it was created by Black Chicagoans and popularized by two Black Baltimore DJs, it was only after “it was featured on the segregated Buddy Deane Show that ensured that white teens in Baltimore and, soon enough, the rest of the country, would be dipping and swaying in Madison time.”


Elysium is also a wonderful time capsule capturing the architecture, fashion and culture of the city before the many changes that were to come in the turbulent 1960s. But many traditions have endured the winds of change: Formstone, painted screens, Arabbers, street cars (now called “light rail”) and even the notorious Block have stood the test of time. Dr. Johnson died in Towson in May 2001, age 80; the Baltimore Sun's Jacques Kelly wrote a touching obituary. Elysium was photographed by Roland Read; the music was composed by Sherodd Albritton, then a Goucher music professor; and the verse was narrated by Hilary Hinrichs, whose rich, drawling intonation reminds me of Hermione Gingold if she was a poetry professor. In a clever touch, Elysium's opening and ending credits are superimposed over painted screens.





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