Actress and two-time Emmy winner Julie Bowen loves to toss a few “hons” around Hollywood. When she discovers a fellow Baltimorean living in Los Angeles, ever the actress, she’s right on cue. “We have to do the accent,” Bowen laughs, switching into a pitch- perfect “How ‘bout dem O’s, hon?” Recently, she met a casting director in L.A. When they discovered their mutual Maryland roots, long oooohs enthusiastically followed. The rest of the room, Bowen recalls, looked on in confusion. “When I first moved to L.A., I thought that there weren’t many of us out here, but there’s a big Baltimore community,” says Bowen who is in her 10th season of ABC’s sitcom “Modern Family.”
When HBO’s “Veep” was produced in Baltimore, Bowen grilled her friends in the cast and crew about the neighborhoods they lived in and where they were shooting in the city. Her vicarious trip down memory lane was also a chance to spread the word about her hometown. “No one knows anything about Baltimore outside of Baltimore. It has its hot flashes in the news, but it’s a great place,” she says, rattling off adjectives like “fun,” “friendly,” “laid back” (and a local favorite descriptor: “not D.C.”).
Bowen, who grew up in North Baltimore and attended Calvert School and Garrison Forest School before going to boarding school (a family tradition), elaborates, “It’s like a place out of time but modern. People are really invested in Baltimore.”
One of those people is her childhood friend, JM Schapiro, Continental Realty CEO, who co-founded the nonprofit Baltimore Homecoming with fellow Baltimore native, Nate Loewentheil. When Schapiro asked Bowen to be part of the first-ever Baltimore Homecoming, Oct. 3-5, she didn’t hesitate. “JM is so impassioned about Baltimore as an interesting city and not one for grabbing headlines for bad moments,” which, she adds, every city has.
“The goal of Baltimore Homecoming is to expose the guests to a variety of programs and people and get them excited about Baltimore,” explains Loewentheil, Baltimore Homecoming’s CEO and president. “Baltimore has been at the center of innovation for centuries, and it’s still true today. Our artists are leading the nation’s conversations about art and race. We want to make that story concrete for people and hear those stories directly.”
He and Schapiro spent 18 months planning the event and selecting innovators, entrepreneurs, artists and activists from across the region to participate alongside the accomplished alumni. While both see great potential for mentorships and ongoing connections beyond October, a key take-away is great word-of-mouth. “Our hope is that [the alumni] become brand ambassadors and spread the good word and reinvest in some way, shape
or form,” adds Schapiro, who serves as Baltimore Homecoming’s treasurer.
The organization’s definition of alumni is purposefully broad: If you were born, raised or worked in Baltimore or currently live and work here, you’re part of the city’s alumni group. Participating alumni include actor Josh Charles, SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan, author Wes Moore, Tony-winning producer and filmmaker Amanda Lipitz, Cal Ripken Jr., Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, artist and MacArthur Genius Award-winner Joyce Scott and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Tom Rothman, among others. (For a full list, visit baltimorehomecoming.com.)
With Mayor Catherine Pugh serving as honorary chair — Bowen is one of several host committee co-chairs — it’s an invite-only program of presentations, receptions and site visits to places such as the Hopkins FastForward Technology Venture Labs and Station North Arts District. Rounding out the activities are two public events — an art show reception at City Hall and an arts panel at SNF Parkway Theatre — and the inaugural Hometown Hero Awards. During Baltimore Homecoming, five inaugural Hero Award recipients, culled from Baltimore’s community and nonprofit leaders, activists, artists and innovators, will receive $3,000 each to reinvest in the city.
The idea for Baltimore Homecoming rose from one of Baltimore’s uglier chapters. Three years ago, Loewentheil, a writer and nationally recognized public policy expert, was working in the Obama White House as a special assistant to the president at the National Economic Council. In April 2015, he watched his hometown erupt in unrest following the death of Freddie Gray and was quickly tapped by President Obama to be part of the Taskforce for Baltimore City. (Coincidentally, during the unrest, a Baltimore tourism marketing campaign featuring Bowen was set to roll out, she says.)
He returned on weekends following the unrest to clean up and participate in peaceful marches and community gatherings. “I was glad to be able to put my personal time into the city. Once I took over the task force [in January 2016], I was able to throw all of my energy into something I felt could make a real difference.” he explains. The task force helped bring more than $110 million in federal funding to Baltimore for a new major jobs program, the Safe Streets program and for schools to deal with the aftermath of violence.
Schapiro, a fifth-generation Baltimorean, was equally moved: “It became clear
that I needed to be involved to help my city have a lasting impact.” When Loewentheil invited him to a White House event, one conversation led to another, and soon, they were in Detroit, another city beleaguered by headlines, to learn more about Detroit Homecoming, the first program of its kind in the country. Baltimore’s Homecoming program is the third.
“Baltimore has a real loyalty of alumni,” Loewentheil says. “When we’ve asked people [to help with Baltimore Homecoming], the response has been, ‘We’ve been waiting to be asked.’”
Bowen is excited to reconnect with all that is happening in her hometown today. “Baltimore Homecoming is putting Baltimore front and center for me,” she says. But she’s especially thrilled for a rare visit home to see parents Susie and Jack Luetkemeyer. Her father co-founded Continental Realty in 1960 with Schapiro’s dad, J. Mark Schapiro, so visits typically include her father proudly showing her various real estate projects and up-and-coming neighborhoods, or what she jokingly calls “the nostalgia tour with light drinking.” (As a former Mount Washington Tavern hostess, Bowen tries to fit in a stop by the legendary watering hole.)
Her agenda also includes soaking in as much of Maryland’s greenery as possible. “All the nature takes me back,” she says. “My dad and I will walk down the stream to Lake Roland like we did when I was growing up. It’s the same damn walk every time, and every single time, I love it.”
Though this shorter visit is solo, thanks to her boys’ school schedules, last Thanksgiving, they came East for what was the first-ever Baltimore visit for Oliver, 11, and 9-year-old twins Gus and John. “They thought Baltimore was the coolest thing ever,” Bowen says of the trip, which included grandfather-led stream walks, fall foliage at the Irvine Nature Center and a visit to the Inner Harbor. “The boys keep asking me when we are going back.”
Once in Maryland, Bowen also was able to perform a parenting task nearly impossible with young boys: getting them in the shower without a fight. “We live in a drought-ridden area in L.A., and the kids were amazed that they could take longer showers at my parents’ house.”
The close-knit Luetkemeyer family also gets together regularly in Santa Barbara, since all three Luetkemeyer sisters are California transplants. Bowen’s older sister, Molly Luetkemeyer, is an L.A.-based interior designer whose firm, M. Design Interiors, has clients around the country. Younger sister Annie Luetkemeyer is an associate professor in the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. (After graduating from Brown, Bowen moved to L.A. and put in her time waiting tables and with minor T.V. roles before her break as Adam Sandler’s love interest in “Happy Gilmore.”)
With “Modern Family” winding down — ABC recently bought Fox, and there is talk, she says, of an 11th season — Bowen is expanding her repertoire. She recently participated in TV producer Ryan Murphy’s Half initiative, which focuses on expanding the number of women and minorities behind the camera. She is directing a short for Google and will be directing a few “Modern Family” episodes.
Whatever her next adventure, she hopes her journey always circles back home, in person or in spirit. “I would love to get a job [acting] in Baltimore,” she admits. “There would be no better way to reacquaint myself and work and live there.” If the star-aligning potential behind Baltimore Homecoming and Bowen’s Charm City cheerleading have anything to do with it, it just might have a Hollywood ending.