Welcome to Baltimore, Hon

By Richard Harrington
Friday, July 8, 2005

Bawlmer -- aka Baltimore -- has always been a lot more than steamed crabs, white marble steps, the O's and Harborplace.

Just ask filmmaker John Waters, who has satirized and immortalized his home town in a dozen features dating to the '60s; all have been set and shot in and around Baltimore. Like the city itself, Waters's filmography has undergone transformations without losing its basic character, even as he moved from the margin to the mainstream, and from trashy, low-budget classics to slightly more expensive entertainments that embody his long-held mantra that "nothing is in bad taste if it makes you laugh."

Last year's "A Dirty Shame," shot in a six-block area of Baltimore's Harford Road, found Waters returning to his demented ways. It starred Tracey Ullman as a convenience store owner who gets a concussion, turns into a sex addict and finds sexual fetishists trying to take over her middle-class neighborhood. (Easiest laugh: A yuppie couple notes, "We sure didn't have this in D.C.!") Though it contains no actual sex, "A Dirty Shame" was shameless enough to get an NC-17 rating (the equivalent of the old X) from the Motion Picture Association of America, though it now also comes in a R-rated "Neuter" version so national video chains will carry it.

Waters obviously enjoys contradictions. His first full-length feature, 1969's "Mondo Trasho," led to his arrest for "conspiracy to commit indecent exposure." But 1988's "Hairspray" -- the first Waters film to play outside of art house cinemas and midnight showings, the first with a seven-figure budget and Screen Actors Guild cast, and Waters's first and only PG-rated film -- was transformed in 2002 into a family-friendly, Tony Award-winning musical comedy. The show, which makes its Washington debut Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House (see box), became one of Broadway's biggest hits and earned Waters "Baltimorean of the Year" honors from the Baltimore Sun. A film version of the musical comedy is scheduled for release in 2007.

A campy show about Baltimore teen culture in the '60s -- in which overweight high schooler Tracy Turnblad tries to become a regular on TV's "The Corny Collins Show," racially integrating it in the process -- "Hairspray" is a hit road show even as the original production continues to pile folks into New York's Neil Simon Theatre. Broadway theatergoers discovered a particular, peculiar Baltimore via "Hairspray": sets depicting Formstone-draped rowhouses fronted by lovingly polished marble steps, actors dressed in the gaudy Day-Glo fashions of the era and -- especially -- girls sporting immense beehives and bouffant variations that once led Baltimore to be called "The Hairdo Capital of the World." Waters's Bawlmer vision has made its way to such far-flung places as Tampa, Indianapolis, Dallas and Cleveland. "Hairspray" has even gone home to Baltimore.

"I'm still amazed when I go to the Neil Simon and see that it's completely done in Formstone out front," Waters says of the faux-rock-like material that's become a trenchant symbol of Baltimore architecture. "A full half-block on 51st Street in New York City!"

Waters served as a consultant to the musical's creative team, which included book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songwriters Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. There have been a number of "John Waters Days" in Baltimore -- the first when "Hairspray" the movie came out -- "but they do that a lot," Waters says. "I parodied that in [2000's] 'Cecil B. DeMented' when they had Melanie Griffith Day in Baltimore right before she's kidnapped. [City officials] have always been supportive. Even [former] mayor [William Donald] Shaefer, when the Censor Board banned me and no one ever said my films were good, he'd say, 'I don't care what they are, just keep making 'em here!' Even my most notorious ones, they were weirdly supportive."

Waters's Baltimore is getting a workout at the video store: Last month marked the DVD release of "A Dirty Shame" and "The John Waters Collection," a box set that, besides "A Dirty Shame," features such notorious early films as "Pink Flamingos," "Female Trouble," "Desperate Living" and "Polyester," as well as "Hairspray" and 1998's "Pecker." The latter is about a naive young photographer (Waters's alter ego) who takes pictures of Baltimore characters for fun until members of the New York art world discover him and Baltimore, setting up a culture clash between art and trash. A director's cut of 1990's "Cry-Baby" comes out Tuesday, and that film -- Waters's version of an Elvis Presley movie, starring Johnny Depp -- is undergoing its own transformation into a Broadway musical.

Waters may have been the first to champion the city's peculiarities and eccentricities, but he's not the only one. Another native son, Barry Levinson, has made an acclaimed quartet of period films ("Diner," "Tin Men," "Avalon" and "Liberty Heights"), their bittersweet nostalgia balanced by Levinson's realistic portrayal of the city during the seven years he was executive producer of the hit television drama "Homicide: Life on the Street," which was shot entirely in Baltimore in the mid-'90s.

There's also David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who wrote the book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" chronicling detectives' day-to-day struggles to eliminate cases from an ever-growing list of unsolved murders. (Levinson originally optioned the book for a film before deciding it was better suited to television.) Simon has continued to shine a harsh spotlight on contemporary Baltimore on HBO: the miniseries "The Corner," inspired by his fact-based account of one of Baltimore's most notorious open-air drug markets, less than 20 blocks from Camden Yards, and "The Wire," which over three seasons has focused on microcosms of Baltimore crime, from drug wars and crooked maritime unions to corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.

"We are writing different Baltimores," Simon says of Levinson and Waters, "and they're all credible in their own way. There are certain elements of Baltimore that appear in John's films that are as much nonfiction as anything in 'The Wire.' They may be wrapped around certain things that are outrageous, but John will still find certain ways to get things that are absolutely authentic."

"No one's making a movie about Harborplace or the aquarium, and no one's going to," Waters says. "The extremes of Baltimore is why people like it, and it took a long time for our city to realize that. When I grew up, Baltimore had an inferiority complex, much the way Cleveland and Pittsburgh still do, but once we embraced and exaggerated the things that we used to try and hide, then people felt good about the city."

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