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Film Central

Filmgoers will always have Central Park. A tour of its film locations is an evocation of memory and a promise of unflagging inspiration for the cinematic future.

STEVE PERSALL
Published October 22, 2004

NEW YORK - Perhaps you've seen that short film playing at many AMC Theaters: In it an aging woman's discarded film of her childhood ballet recital gets tangled in a bicycle's pedals. Aided by the coincidences of a soda bottle and a flashlight resting in precisely the right spots, the footage is beamed onto the side of a parked truck as the pedals turn like a projector's gears.

A treasured movie memory is revived for a few sweet moments by serendipity and a bicycle.

On a recent crisp Saturday morning in Central Park, something like that happened to me.

Visitors can tour this 843-acre oasis in the urban jungle several ways. Walking and guided bus rides are the easiest, but not as romantic as gliding through Central Park on two wheels. Since a film critic's job is never done - even during a weekend getaway slightly longer than Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly's On the Town shore leave - I chose a bike tour of Central Park movie sites, at a cost of $35 and several sore muscles.

The second lesson learned (after gear-shifting) was that two hours isn't long enough to explore the entire park or its cinema history. Central Park is to films set in New York what Monument Valley is to Westerns: a signature locale that becomes vital to so many stories simply by being there.

Central Park is where Dustin Hoffman walked with his son in Kramer vs. Kramer, and jogged into shape for a harrowing chase in Marathon Man. Woody Allen scouted production sites from his former apartment across Fifth Avenue. Hippies from Hair and Godspell pranced on Central Park's meticulously manicured lawns, while Jack Lemmon slept on them playing uptight businessmen in The Apartment and The Out-of-Towners.

Time is changing few locations, while others remain surreally indiscriminate. Wollman Rink, where Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel discussed Carnal Knowledge, is being remodeled. Any of the pathways could be where Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder hatched a scheme in The Producers, and Al Pacino went Cruising undercover. Mostly, the park looks the same as it did all those years ago through theater projectors, inviting a Southern boy who watched those films to visit the landscaped core of the Big Apple.

After several previous New York visits consumed by work, at times staying in a hotel with a tantalizing Central Park view, I finally had an opportunity to see where filmmakers already had made me feel at home.

My guide was Denise Garcia, 27, a college student working part time for Bite of the Apple Tours (www.centralparkbiketour.com) Garcia's relative youth gave her a distinct advantage on the uphill grades and maybe a disadvantage in movie lore. She's more likely to point out the Plaza Hotel in the skyline as the place where Macaulay Culkin stayed in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, than where Cary Grant was kidnapped in North by Northwest.

We toured the park's perimeter, veering inward occasionally for splendid sites such as the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir, where Edward Norton in Keeping the Faith jogged a generation after Hoffman, and an elm tree preserve with turning leaves, where Garcia noted that two Jennifers - Aniston (Along Came Polly) and Lopez (Maid in Manhattan) - were romanced by leading men.

We visited Bethesda Terrace and its angelic fountain, where Mel Gibson's son was kidnapped for Ransom and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan flirted inWhen Harry Met Sally. Or was that George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day, or Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell in Green Card? Actually, it was all of them.

"Another movie shot here was Autumn in New York with Winona Ryder," Garcia offered, "Remember that movie?"

No, I assured her, nobody does.

At many points along the tour, I felt a sense of deja vu without fully grasping the past experience. Places simply looked familiar, triggering movie memories that wouldn't come into focus. The path through Shakespeare's Garden, a melange of flora noted by the Bard in his writings, did just that. I was certain that Three Men and a Baby wasn't the only film to use Belvedere Castle and its Great Lawn view from the park's highest point, but couldn't pinpoint any other until later research identified Stepmom.

Capping the tour was a visit to Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial that isn't technically a movie locale but possibly provided a preview of a coming attraction.

Some enterprising documentary filmmaker should train a camera on Ayrton Ferreria Dos Santos Jr. "They call me Gary because nobody can say it," said the disheveled man. "Cops call me the Mayor of Strawberry Fields. The (park) conservatory calls me the geek."

Dos Santos Jr., looking years older than the 40 he claims, says he has visited the memorial almost every day for the past year, and semi-regularly for a decade before that. He brings flowers thrown away by pricy florists nearby, carefully arranging them in a peace symbol on a tile mosaic with a one-word tribute to Lennon's politics of peace: Imagine.

On this breezy day, Dos Santos added a second peace symbol to the pattern, plus small pumpkins as a sign of harvest, always adhering to the mosaic's symmetry. He doesn't have patience for a tourist who can't spot the second peace sign. Reach for a souvenir and he'll growl like his dog Mary Jane, nestled in a gunny sack, who won't. This is a duty too important for tampering or theft.

"I'm not only doing it for me," said Dos Santos, "I'm doing it for the world. What John wanted was peace. If we don't grab onto that, we're all going to die. And I don't feel like dying."

Someday, Dos Santos' story - and you get the feeling it's a long one - may inspire another Central Park movie. Maybe even become part of the tours. As a title, The Mayor of Strawberry Fields already has a nice ring.

- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or Persall@sptimes.com

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