This story is featured in CityBeat's Sept. 6 print edition.
When Fathom Events — the presenter of special cinematic screenings in North American movie theaters — announced its upcoming 35th anniversary presentations of Rain Man, it didn’t mince words about the 1988 film’s legacy.
It's worth remembering as a “Powerful and Poignant film,” the media alert says. Fathom Events and co-presenter/film distributor Park Circus bring it to theaters on September 17 and 20.
Directed by Barry Levinson, Rain Man stars Tom Cruise as a fashionable but financially imperiled and hot-tempered Los Angeles car dealer who discovers he has an autistic savant older brother in Cincinnati poised to inherit their father’s substantial estate. Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt comes here to intervene by leading Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond through unusual encounters in Greater Cincinnati and on the road to L.A.
Released as a prestige title in December of 1988, it won four Academy Awards for that year, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (by Ronald Bass), and Best Actor for Hoffman’s memorable performance as a man who can’t meaningfully interact with the outside world, but is a veritable genius with numbers and esoteric facts.
In Cincinnati at the time, the film won the enthusiastic support of a local populace thrilled to not only see Greater Cincinnati sites on the big screen, but also to have a major hit movie with a script specifically set in Cincinnati. It also increased local (and national) awareness of autism.
And it helped set in motion the city’s establishment of a film commission which, over the decades, has lured such notable movies as Traffic, A Rage in Harlem, Carol, The Fits, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Ides of March, Miles Ahead and Dark Waters to be at least partially filmed here.
“It is what prompted the need for a film commission,” says Kristen Schlotman, Film Cincinnati’s executive director, of Rain Man.
According to her, Levinson and his team had gotten in touch with Ohio’s head for film production, Eve Lapolla, and asked for a local contact to see Cincinnati. “She got in touch with (the late) local television producer Lori Holladay and asked if she could help tour these filmmakers around Cincinnati,” Schlotman explains. The Greater Cincinnati Film Commission was established in 1991. “It was the first film office to be incorporated as a 501(c)(3) anywhere in the country,” she says.
In a way, Schlotman says, the film commission has come full circle from the huge boost it got from Rain Man. Levinson recently completed filming here of Wise Guys, starring Robert DeNiro in a dual role as warring mobsters. “It is the largest budget feature film to ever come to Cincinnati,” she says.
There were quite a few significant local sites used in Rain Man — St. Anne Convent in Melbourne, Kentucky, served as Wallbrook, the care facility that was home to Raymond; also seen are the Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and more.
But there are two particular scenes in Rain Man that have come to be regarded locally as iconic. They both involve beloved Cincinnati institutions: Newport’s Pompilio’s restaurant, which serves old-fashioned Italian food; and Oxford’s WOXY FM radio station, which in the 1980s had a pioneering modern rock sound that it famously called The Future of Rock and Roll.
In the film, Charlie and Raymond stop in for breakfast at the gracefully aged front dining room of Pompilio’s — which dates its history back to a saloon called Kettenacker’s that started in 1901 at the corner of Washington Avenue and E. 6th Street. A server, trying to find toothpicks for Raymond, spills a box on the floor by the handsome wooden bar. To her and Charlie’s stunned amazement, Raymond almost instantly counts the number, revealing how brilliantly swift his brain can compute.
Today, Pompilio’s still has framed memorabilia from the film in the room where the two Hollywood stars sat. And, on a wall is a colorful mural with sculptural elements depicting aspects of the film. People still come to see where a key Rain Man scene was filmed.
The second iconic Rain Man moment for locals is a spoken one-liner as much as it’s a colorful scene visually, while Charlie and Raymond are in a beautifully preserved 1949 Buick Roadmaster along Columbia Parkway. Charlie’s radio, tuned to WOXY, plays a station promo (or liner) that goes: “97 X…the Future of Rock and Roll,” There is a short synthesizer sound between the two parts.
Raymond quickly repeats it, adding a “Bam!” between the parts, and then starts repeating his altered version on the spot. As soon as the station learned that scene would be in the film, it made the promo its official ID, say both Doug Balogh, the station’s former co-owner (with his wife Linda), and manager Steve Baker in separate interviews. (There is also an account of the promo’s creation in Robin James’ recent book, The Future of Rock and Roll).
Baker had originally recorded the promo and it is his voice on it. Though WOXY as a modern rock station is long gone, that station ID and its Dustin Hoffman-created variant remain a powerful symbol of Cincinnati life in the 1980s. “I still run into more people who remember me for that than for the Miami University football and basketball calls I’ve been making for 35 years,” says Baker, the school’s assistant athletic director and director of broadcasting.
After the movie came out, Doug Balogh got an Ohio custom license plate that said “97X BAM” and drove it with pride. After selling the station and eventually moving to California, he wanted to get a new one there. But there was a surprise.
“I was trying for 10 years and somebody had it,” he says. “Finally, my daughter said to try to get it with two Ms rather than one. So, I ordered that and I’ve now had it for about three months.”
He wonders if that somebody who has a California 97X BAM license is Hoffman, and if they’ll ever run into each other at a streetcorner. But he’s happy with his BAMM plate. And he knows he’s doing his part to keep alive WOXY’s modern rock legacy, which Rain Man played a key role in creating.
“It really looks cool with the colors black and yellow,” Balogh says of his license plate. “And I have a dark gray car, so it looks really nice on there.”
For more information about where and when the Rain Man screenings will take place across Greater Cincinnati, visit fathomevents.com.
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