The Scene of the Crimes

By Stephanie Shapiro
Rabid fans of the Baltimore police drama are traveling from all over this weekend to see the stars of 'Homicide Live!' and enjoy the gritty side of our city.

While gabbing online with "Homicide: Life on the Street" fans last summer, Maura Crowther, a technical writer from Toronto, tossed out a suggestion: Why not meet in Baltimore, munch a crab cake and get to know one another in person?

The first unofficial "Homicon" took place in October. About 30 "Homicide" fanatics, including Crowther, came from as far as California to experience Fells Point, drink at Koopers Tavern -- where the NBC show's cast and crew really hang out -- tour taping sites and just maybe bump into someone like Reed Diamond, the good/bad cop whose permanent dark night of the soul speaks eloquently to this mordant ilk and who was in town for a guest appearance after being banished from the force.

On Sunday, many of those same folks will again hoist one at Koopers, this time before heading to Center Stage for "Homicide Live!," the cast's annual opportunity to get silly, parody their on-air personas and meet their ardent following. This is the fifth year for the cabaret-like show, a benefit for the Fells Point Creative Alliance and the future Patterson Cultural Center.

Last year, the show sold out at the tiny Vagabond Players theater in Fells Point, largely because of the volume of tickets purchased via the Internet by fans as far afield as Oregon and Miami. This year, fans feel a particular urgency about getting here, as this may be the show's last season. An unconfirmed rumor has it that Parvesh Mehta, the "poet laureate" of the "Homicide" online newsgroup, will fly in from India to attend.

Such out-of-town passion may surprise you, the local, more casual "Homicide" fan, who tunes in for the pleasure of watching a staged car chase down your alley, or the perverse thrill of seeing art imitate death in Baltimore. Talk to these far-flung devotees, however, and they may teach you a thing or two about your town, especially if your faith in its character is a day-to-day affair.

They may also tell you that it's not easy being them. Outside of "Homicide's" online community and Baltimore itself, "being a fan of the show is a pretty lonely business. One tends to get a lot of blank stares and shrugs," says Amanda Paulette, a 25-year-old graduate student who will drive from Yorktown, Va., for her third "Homicide Live!"

A harmonic convergence of elements is what attracts Paulette and other out-of-towners: The show's realism, its credibly imperfect characters and the fact that it is taped in the Waterfront, Daily Grind and other real places with real names in a way that makes it "of" as well as "about" Baltimore.

"The idea of walking on the same streets, eating in the same restaurants, and drinking in the same bars that our favorite detectives do holds a strong appeal for the fans," says Nabeil Sarhan, a 22-year-old Harvard research scientist who will attend with his mom and girlfriend.

They like Baltimore
And then there's the plucky, weary, sparkling, seedy character of Baltimore itself, an endearingly quirky city with its own wobbly moral valence. It's a place these visitors view as a glass half-full, rather than half-empty. Which is just about right. "Homicide" tourists are, by definition, realists. Otherwise they'd spend their vacations on the West Coast. Besides, if Baltimore's glass were full, they probably wouldn't savor it as much. The city would appear too perfect, too much like a Hollywood fake, re-created with impossible verisimilitude.

This will be Kelly Y. Kinlow's first "Homicide Live!" The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student loves the way Baltimore looks so real on air: "There are so many TV shows that only show the suburban neighborhoods or only show the inner city. It's nice to see a city portrayed to actually have regular blue-collar-type neighborhoods and blue-collar people," Kinlow says.

"I could open my own 'Homicide' tour-guide business with all the people I've shown around Fells Point over the last year," says Kathy Wilhelm, a 36-year-old Shrewsbury, Pa., resident and avid "Homicide" fan.

When Crowther, 31, first visited Baltimore, she was a little worried. "Was it really going to be like Disney World, where the castle is just hollow?" she asked herself. She was concerned that she might "lose the magic of its show But it turned out to be just the opposite. The show seems more real to me now and the characters seem more real."

This "Homicide Live!" is Crowther's first, but she has made a habit of visiting Baltimore regularly. Before her epiphany, if anyone had told Crowther she would willingly "get in the car and drive nine hours and meet people I met on the Internet in a city with one of the highest murder rates in America, I probably would have said, 'Sure.' [It would have seemed like an] utterly ridiculous thing."

When "I think about it, it really does boggle the mind," says Crowther, a tad sheepishly. "It's just a TV show. I hate to say it; it really has had an impact on my life. It introduced me to people who are absolutely creative and talented I never would have known before. And the show really inspired me in terms of my own writing."

Paul Patterson, 39, will fly in from Chicago with his brother. He has watched the show since its post-Super Bowl premiere in 1993. As an African-American male, "I enjoy the positive portrayals of the leading characters," says Patterson, who works in circulation for the Daily Southtown, a suburban newspaper. "You just don't see a lot of African-American males in leads like this."

Patterson's fascination with "Homicide" has led him to subscribe to the Baltimore Sun. His friends tease him about knowing more about Baltimore than Chicago. They tease him, too, about his anticipation: "People roll their eyes and ask, 'You're going to Baltimore and you're excited about it?' " (Patterson pays no mind: He's studying a Baltimore map so he can trace "Homicide's" travels through the city.)

A Richmond paramedic who once worked in Baltimore for an ambulance company, James L. Jenkins Jr., says he is "infatuated" with Baltimore and tries to get to "Homicide" shoots whenever possible. He's allowed to walk freely around the set, peer through viewer monitors and chat with cast members. Jenkins, 29, often contributes police patches to the Waterfront's collection in hopes of seeing them on air, which he occasionally does.

As part of the Homicon festivities last year, Cheryl Rabin, a former patrol sergeant and now information coordinator for the greater Kansas City Convention and Visitors Center, organized a tour of Baltimore sites seen on "Homicide." She was undeterred when the bus driver asked, "Are you sure you want to go into these areas?" Visitors saw the rowhouse where Bayliss was shot, traveled through drug kingpin Luther Mahoney's domain, saw Pigtown, the Reservoir Hill lot where the body of a little girl was discovered and the lot where her television counterpart's body was found. At most sites, "Homicide" fanatics hopped out and snapped photos.

Jenkins, who took the tour of streets he already knew well, was apparently the only one who noticed that in one neighborhood, some kids tossed rocks at the bus, shouting something like, "K mart is that way."

Crowther has a vague theory about the appeal of "Homicide." Those drawn to its flawed heroes and troubled town "tend to have a bit of darkness in themselves" or have experienced trauma in their lives. "The show works as a catharsis for them," she says.

In the same vein, Jennifer Moses, a 24-year-old fan flying in from Charleston, W.Va., cites the episode "A Many Splendored thing," in which Det. Frank Pembleton "tells his partner that he must learn to embrace his dark side before he can fully understand himself. I thought this was such a good moment because it articulated the fact that we all have an aspect of ourselves that we'd rather ignore -- but rather than ignore these aspects we must make peace with them."

Then there's good old-fashioned sex appeal. Kinlow, the Milwaukee college student, confesses, "It wasn't the show's greatness that first got me hooked. It was Clark Johnson's face. I was flipping channels on a Friday night and saw what I thought (and still think) was one of the most gorgeous men that I'd ever seen!"

Crowther and others are disappointed in the show this year, and disappointed that it may not return next fall; a decision is expected in May. "It's not the show it once was maybe it's just time to wrap it up. On the other hand, what am I going to do without 'Homicide'?"


This article originally published March 4, 1999 and is 1999 by The Baltimore Sun