“Diner” the movie hits 30 year old milestone

recreation of the opening graphic for the movie “DINER”

I’m not sure when I first heard that there was going to be a movie coming out called “DINER”, but I seem to recall the news came from an old acquaintence of mine by the name of Bob Festa. But if I had to guess, I would say it was possibly the summer of 1981. I am sure that I had not heard what the storyline was going to be and that probably would not have mattered. With a name like Diner, I was definitely going to see it!  Anyway the movie came out in the spring of 1982 and was the first movie written and directed by Barry Levinson, a journeyman writer and sometime actor who had cut his teeth writing for TV variety shows and Mel Brooks movies.

The publicity poster from the movie. This version was reworked by adding Paul Reiser to the image for the release of the DVD a number of years ago.
The original did not have Reiser in the shot.

Levinson, a Baltimore native had been telling stories to his Hollywood friends and acquaintances for years about his experiences hanging out with his buddy’s at Brice’s Hilltop Diner in Northwest Baltimore in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He got encouragement from Brooks and others that the stories he was relating could be made into a movie. So Levinson took a leap of faith and wrote the screenplay. Long story short, Diner was born.

He did all the filming primarily in Baltimore but there was one big hangup, Brice’s Hilltop Diner was not being used as a diner anymore. It was now a liquor store and somewhat disguised. Also, the neighborhood had gone downhill since Levinson and his pals had frequented the area.

recent photo of the former Brice’s Hilltop Diner, currently operating as Pepper’s Liquors. Photo courtesy of Randy Garbin

recent photo of the former Brice’s Hilltop Diner, currently operating as Pepper’s Liquors. Photo courtesy of Randy Garbin

A true factory-built diner was needed for the exterior and interior scenes and Levinson found out that there was a used diner at the Paramount Modular Concepts factory in Oakland, NJ that could fill the bill! The diner that was at Paramount was the former Westbury Grill that had operated for years in Westbury, Long Island (NY). This diner evidently was taken in on trade for a newer replacement. It was in pretty original condition when Levinson’s production people saw it. The decision was made to use the diner and it was transported down to Boston Street in the Fells Point area of Baltimore and set up to be filmed for the movie.

former Westbury Grill as filmed in the movie.

Levinson outside the diner during filming of the movie.
Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

The film featured a group of young actors. A few had been in other films previously including Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon. Newcomers were Ellen Barkin, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser. Levinson made it a point to have the cast hang out together prior to and during filming which helped the illusion that these people were longtime friends and made the premise of the film work. The characters were loosely based on real people who Levinson knew. In some cases a character may have been a composite of more than one person for story-telling purposes.

A scene from the movie with L – R… Tim Daly, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern,
Kevin Bacon and back to the camera, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser.

another scene featuring Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern

A prize piece of my collection. A promo coffee mug that was made available to me by Jim Dunn, a friend and co-worker from around 1990.

I am not going to get into a description of the whole movie except to say the plot revolves around this group of friends who have spent a number of years hanging out at the diner. It involves how they relate or not relate to women in their lives, with varying degrees of success. The have all come altogether around Christmas, 1959 to celebrate the upcoming marriage of Guttenberg’s character Eddie. It also covers to a degree their reaching a point in their collective lives when they realize that like it or not, the world as they know it is changing and they collectively have to grow up and figure out what they are going to do.

I have watched it too many times to keep track of. In fact I watched it again just a week ago (in preparation for this post) and it still holds up tremendously! An all-time favorite of mine to be sure! As mentioned in a previous post, after seeing the movie for the first time, I was planning a trip down to Baltimore to see if I could photograph the diner and possibly have a meal.

Well myself and Steve Repucci did make it down on Memorial Day weekend of 1982 and quickly found out that the diner was only there for the filming of the movie. We did find the neighborhood and the empty lot where the diner had been……

the empty lot where the diner had been for the movie.

another recognizable view from the movie, just across the street from where the diner had been.

So needless to say no meal and no photos of the Fells Point Diner that day. In fact as time went on, we found out bits and pieces of the puzzle, lttle by little. On August 26,1983, David Hebb visited the Paramount Modular Concepts Company and shot the next photo…..

the former Westbury Grill at PMC in Oakland, NJ. This was of course after the movie was shot. Photo courtesy of David Hebb

Earlier this year, The Baltimore Sun ran a piece detailing this diner’s history in Baltimore:

1981 — Location scouting begins for the MGM production “Diner,” which is to be filmed in and around Baltimore. The Hilltop Diner, the northwest Baltimore hangout that inspired Barry Levinson’s screenplay, has by now devolved into a liquor store, unrecognizable as its former self.

The production team eventually discovers and leases the diner it wants from Paramount Modular Concepts of Oakland, N.J. The diner, which was manufactured by Mountain View Diners of Singac, N.J., was formerly the
Westbury Grill on Long Island, N.Y., according to Paramount sources. The “Diner” is not a replica of the Hilltop Diner, however.

For filming, the diner was placed on a Canton lot near the intersection of Boston and Montford streets, currently the site of the Anchorage town homes.  After filming, the diner is returned to Paramount.

March 3, 1982 — Diner has its world premiere at the Senator Theater.  In the movie, the title hangout is named the Fells Point Diner. Mayor William Donald Schaefer puts the return of the diner to Baltimore on a much publicized “wish list,” a plea for private citizens to donate goods and services to the city. WBAL Radio fulfills the diner wish, purchasing the diner back from Paramount for $34,000 and donating it to the city.

The above article was given to me around 1988 by John Messinger a co-worker I had around that time who recalled the piece and still had the magazine. The age of the diner mentioned in the article is slightly wrong, it is a 1950’ish diner. In fact it is Mountain View Diner No. 326.

January 1984 — The diner is trucked back from New Jersey to Baltimore and placed at the corner of Saratoga and Holliday streets, where it stands today.  The diner is camera-ready but not ready for customers – it has no kitchen or
bathrooms. Local businesses and private citizens donate nearly $1 million in cash, services and equipment to renovate the diner and set it up as a training center for entry-level restaurant jobs.

September 18, 1984 – The Kids’ Diner opens. The diner is run by the city schools and the mayor’s office of volunteer services. “Food service is one of the largest industries in the United States,” says Fontaine Sullivan of
the volunteer office. “(The Kids’ Diner) will be unique training ground for vocational educational students.” The first customer is Mayor Schaefer, who is talked into ordering an “SOS,” which turns out to be a creamed chip
beef on toast. “It’s good but it’s not great,” the mayor says.

Kid’s Diner 400 East Saratoga Street, Baltimore. July 1, 1985 photo by
Larry Cultrera

Kid’s Diner 400 East Saratoga Street, Baltimore. July 1, 1985 photo by
Larry Cultrera

Kid’s Diner menu cover from my collection

As evidenced by the previous 3 photos, I managed to finally have a meal at the Diner from the movie Diner! In fact after the diner was back in Baltimore, it made it convenient for Barry Levinson to shoot some scenes for his movie “Tin Men”, the second of his Baltimore movie series.

Here is more of the diner’s timeline in Baltimore…..

October 1984 – Dissatisfied with the offerings and prices at the newly opened diner, the mayor orders an assessment of the operations.  “The prices were out of line,” Schaefer says — a hamburger is $2.35, a grilled
cheese sandwich is $1.95.

April 1986 — A May 14 closure is announced.  According to news reports, the Kids’ Diner runs a $100,000 deficit per year. City officials float the idea of turning over the diner’s operations to Baltimore Culinary Institute (later the Baltimore International College). Alternate proposals include keeping the diner under the school system, allowing the BCI takeover and relocating the diner to the downtown fish market (now the home of Power Plant Live),
where it would be run by private owners. But by month’s end the city reconsiders, and Schaefer defends the diner’s mission, saying that it was never intended to make money.

1991 –A Brooklyn (Md.)-based nonprofit, the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development (now the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development), takes over the diner’s daily operations, working under a contract with the city’s department of juvenile services.  By May, the diner is shuttered by the finacially strapped city department, and Chesapeake applies to take over the diner’s financial management.  In September, Chesapeake reopens the newly named Hollwyood Diner and begins offering six-month training program for
juvenile offenders. An informal placement program with the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, now the Renaissance Harborplace, is inaugurated.  The diner continues to lose money, a Chesapeake official say, but not as much. 
“We might lose $20,000 to $25,000 per year compared with the Kids’ Diner, which lost $100,000 to $200,000 per year. “

ca. 2001 – The Chesapeake Center signs a 20-year lease on the Hollywood Diner with the city’s office of real estate, according to Ivan Leshinsky, the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development’s  current executive director.

September 2009 – Crema Coffee Company, which operates eateries at the University of Maryland’ s downtown law and medical centers, takes over the diner under an operating agreement with CCYD.  Training remains part of the diner’s mission.

November 2010 — Crema Cafe at the Hollywood Diner closes in November 2010. “It was tough,” owner Terry Jett says, “It’s been a really hard year.” Jett admits that Crema’s home-made ingredients and locally sourced
coffee and breads may not have appealed to a value-seeking lunch audience.  Attempts at keeping late-night hours, in what has evolved over the years into a small nightclub district, ends up costing Crema more in security than it makes in sales, Jett says. By December, Chesapeake has lined a new operating partner, Cheryl Townsend, a caterer of southern-style food and owner of the former Red Springs Diner on Calvert Street.

March 2011 – Hollywood Diner presents Red Springs Cafe opens with a menu of Southern food.

September 2011 – Townsend posts a closing notice, saying that she will use the diner as catering facility until her contract with Chesapeake runs out. But Chesapeake balks, saying that Townsend is contractually bound to operate it as training facility. Red Springs Cafe stays open.

October 13 – The comptroller’s office informs Chesapeake that its lease is being terminated. The center is given 60 days to vacate the premises. Chesapeake clears out by Dec. 14, but Townsend does not.

Feb 2012 –  After a brief hiatus for renovations and menu updates, Townsend reopens the diner. The comptroller’s office says, though, that Townsend will only remain on the property until the end of March.
The city announces on Feb. 17 that it will seek a new operator for the diner and will issue formal request for proposals in April 2012

a recent photo of the Hollywood Diner courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

Happy 30th anniverary to the movie DINER, my favorite!