Film crews can be pretty careless about others’ personal property when working on location. For them, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, and if they leave a place a little worse for the wear, well they paid a fee, and that’s how it goes. But as experts in illusion, they can usually cover their whoopsies pretty well.
Around 1980, I worked on a film about Baltimore’s celebrated 18th century African-American astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. One of the locations, in an old section of Baltimore, was the Poe House, where the hapless poet had lived for several years as he bounced between Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. His grave was less than a mile away.
The curator was rightly very nervous about our using the historic and invaluable site, but they needed the hefty location fee to keep the doors open (the Poe house is in one of Baltimore’s bleakest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and people were afraid to go there). He laid down specific ground rules of no food, no drinks, no smoking, which we absolutely swore we would follow. Around noon the curator left to go to lunch, and said if we went to lunch, leave someone there to guard the place.
After finishing our shots, we went out to lunch, figuring we’d wrap up when we returned. We forgot to leave a guard, but at least locked the door behind us. A half-hour later, we returned, opened the door, and found the house full of smoke. In a panic, we ran upstairs which was even thicker with smoke, and saw one of the hot movie lights had been left on under the lintel of a doorway. It was smoking the paint off and charring the wood black.
No water was upstairs, but we had brought back bottles of soda. We shook them up, and sprayed about a gallon on the red-glowing, smoking wood, like fire extinguishers, soaking it and half the room creating billowing clouds of Pepsi steam to add to the smoke.
The art crew quickly started mopping up the mess, and brought a can of white paint to “dress” the still-steaming lintel. Through the window, I saw the curator walking up the sidewalk. I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, gave one to each crew member, then told them to sit at the bottom of the stairs, smoke up a storm, and sip their sodas— but whatever, don’t let the curator upstairs.
The curator opened the door and shrieked as the smoke hit him in the face. Enraged, he pulled the lounging crew out of the house and dressed them down on the sidewalk. Hadn’t he expressly told them no smoking and no drinking in the house? Were they morons? Idiots? Had they no respect for anything? Everyone apologized profusely, and we opened the windows to air the house out. By the time the curator had calmed, the art department had finished their clean-up, including freshly painting the lintel, still quite warm to the touch. We quickly packed and left.
We never ever heard back from the curator. In the dim upstairs light, I guess he didn’t notice the damage, though at least an inch of the doorway had been charred or chipped away. In the end, I suppose it looked like any other well-used 150 year-old Baltimore row house. We had only added to Poe’s many mysteries. Archeologists a hundred years from now, scratching away at the old house will perhaps wonder why a doorway, of all things, would suddenly catch fire. Ghosts? Poe himself, in a moment of madness? Perhaps.
Robert Maier lives in Davidson, N.C.. and is the author of “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters”. You can read more of his stories on his blog. The Poe House has faced serious budget cuts recently and its fate is still questionable. Several fund raisers are underway to help keep the historic house open.