" 'The Corny Collins Show' is . . . now and forevermore . . . officially integrated!"
This declaration, proudly uttered by Tracy Turnblad, a chubby white chick from East Baltimore, signals the beginning of the end of the hit Broadway musical "Hairspray," which formally kicks off its national tour when it opens tonight at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. After Tracy's decree, there is jubilation and singing, and a whole lotta white folks instantly shed their racism and learn to love -- and dance -- with their black neighbors.
" 'Hairspray' makes everything turn out right," the show's Baltimore-born producer, Margo Lion, says. "It's the dream version."
It's the dream version because the story of "The Corny Collins Show" is really a fictionalized account of Baltimore's "Buddy Deane Show" -- with one striking difference: "The Corny Collins Show" integrates successfully, while "The Buddy Deane Show" was abruptly canceled in January 1964. The dance show was "the victim of an 'insoluble' integration problem," said host Deane, who died in July at 78.
Before Sunday's preview performance of "Hairspray" at the Mechanic, the University of Maryland School of Law, located just blocks away, offered a kind of reality check with a program titled " 'Hairspray' in Context: Race, Rock 'n' Roll and Baltimore."
" 'Hairspray' is about music and hair and costumes, but its context is what was happening in our city in the early 1960s," says Karen Rothenberg, the school's dean and a "frustrated musical comedy actress" who is spearheading an ongoing collaboration between the law school and various Baltimore playhouses. "So the show gives us an opportunity to use our wealth of expertise and scholarship to educate people about history."
Taunya Lovell Banks, the school's Jacob A. France professor of equality jurisprudence, offered the audience a primer on the civil rights legislation that was passed during the seven-year run of "The Buddy Deane Show," noting that 1964 saw not only the show's cancellation but also Maryland's first statewide open accommodations law.
Marie Fischer Cooke, a Baltimore criminal defense lawyer and one of "The Buddy Deane Show's" regular dancers (aka Committee members), says that for a long time she was embarrassed about having been a Buddy Deaner. "I didn't like to tell people I'd been on the show," says Cooke, who inspired the character of Penny Pingleton in the 1988 John Waters movie "Hairspray," on which the musical is based. "Because people assumed that if you were involved with the show you were a segregationist, which I wasn't."
Much of Waters's movie is pure fiction -- the fat girl who gets the hunk, the wisecracking mother played by Divine and so on. But much of "Hairspray" is also faithful to the story of "The Buddy Deane Show." In 1985, Waters, who'd watched the show religiously as a teenager in suburban Baltimore, wrote an article about the show for Baltimore Magazine, interviewing Cooke, among others.
When "The Buddy Deane Show" debuted on Baltimore's WJZ-13 on Sept. 9, 1957, it was an instant hit. Hundreds showed up to audition for a spot on the Committee. Thousands wrote to request the daily guest tickets. And even more tuned in every afternoon six days a week to dance in their own cramped living rooms, just like Tracy Turnblad and sidekick Penny Pingleton in "Hairspray."
And just like "The Corny Collins Show," "The Buddy Deane Show" was completely segregated.
"When my show went on, management discussed the matter and decided they would follow 'the local custom' of segregation, and we were going to have separate but equal," Deane told Tony Warner, author of "Buddy's Top 20: The Story of Baltimore's Hottest TV Dance Show and the Guy Who Brought It to Life."
"Separate" meant that the Committee consisted entirely of white dancers and nearly every show was for white guests only. "Equal" was a bit more of a stretch: It meant that black youths were invited onto the show, usually through church groups or Boys or Girls Clubs, on one Monday each month. Among Buddy Deaners, this day was known as "Special Guest Day." Among black kids in Baltimore, it went by the name "Black Monday." In "Hairspray," it's called "Negro Day."
"Schools being integrated was one thing, but dancing cheek to cheek on TV was another," says Arlene Kozak, who ran "The Buddy Deane Show" behind the scenes. "It was the way things were."
The way things were, however, was not how some people believed they should be. In 1958 the Baltimore City Board of Education withdrew support for "The Buddy Deane Show" as a result of its segregation policies. And some black kids in Baltimore who loved dancing and rock-and-roll refused to attend the segregated show. "Buddy Deane was something I didn't care about," says Janice Green, who was a student at Baltimore's Western High School at the time. She watched only to see the black groups, or to see Committee member Mary Lou Raines do the moves Green and her friends had taught her in the gym at Western.
"It didn't bother me that Mary Lou took our dances back to the show," says Green, now a branch chief for the Social Security Administration. "And even though they were our moves, she always did them 'white.' "
Green's real-life memory has its fictional parallel in the scene in "Hairspray" in which a black youth named Seaweed teaches Tracy Turnblad the dance that wins her a coveted spot on the Committee. A later scene in "Hairspray" features Tracy, Seaweed and friends picketing "The Corny Collins Show" to protest its segregated policies. That, too, has its basis in reality: On an afternoon in late June 1962, 20 white and black members of the Civic Interest Group, an integrationist organization founded at Morgan State College and composed of college and high school students throughout the city, picketed "The Buddy Deane Show."
"We did our best that day to get arrested, and they did their best not to arrest us," recalls Marc Steiner, a Baltimore public radio host who attended the protest. A few months earlier, Steiner, then a 16-year-old white CIG member, was among a group of interracial couples that tried to get on "The Buddy Deane Show" but was refused entrance.
Though much of "Hairspray" is true to the events of "The Buddy Deane Show," the similarity ends at the climactic moment when Tracy and Seaweed and their integrated crew storm a nationally televised broadcast of "The Corny Collins Show" and dance their way onto the air. The bold move results in their ultimate victory: The show is officially integrated.
On Aug. 12, 1963 -- a Black Monday -- a group of black and white kids staged a similar sneak attack on "The Buddy Deane Show." But it didn't have the same happy ending.
The group was known as Baltimore Youth Opportunities Unlimited (BAYOU), and members had gotten tickets through the customary channels: requesting them from Kozak. What wasn't customary, however, was that BAYOU was not an all-black group, as Kozak assumed. It was the Baltimore branch of the Northern Student Movement, an integrated civil rights organization.
"A number of our kids had complained about Black Monday," remembers Bill Henry, then head of BAYOU and now a counselor for Baltimore's Project Place, a transitional housing facility for homeless people with special needs. "And so we came up with a plan that was fairly simple. We hired a bus from the Baltimore Transit Company to take the black teens over that day. When the studio doors opened, the black kids from the bus -- and the white kids from the cars -- just rushed in. The object was to catch the TV station off guard, which we did."
The station staff was indeed caught off guard, but it was live TV and the show had to go on. And so those tuning in to "The Buddy Deane Show" that August day witnessed the unthinkable: black and white kids dancing together.
"A white guy would grab a black girl and the screen would dissolve into squiggles and squares -- like the producers were trying to hide what was really happening," says Mary Curtis, a native Baltimorean who is now executive features editor and a columnist at the Charlotte Observer. "I've never forgotten it."
Henry also watched that day. "I remember that the lights on the show got so dim the kids were silhouettes," he says. "But you could still tell it was white and black kids dancing together."
In the wake of the surprise integration came bomb and arson threats, sometimes so close to airtime that the show had to be broadcast from the relative safety of the parking lot. According to Kozak, the reaction showed WJZ's management "they couldn't just integrate overnight" -- though that's exactly what they wanted to do.
In "Hairspray," the TV station management in the form of Velma von Tussle is staunchly segregationist; Velma is the perfect villain for Tracy Turnblad to challenge. In reality, WJZ station manager Herb Cahan was a passionate integrationist "who thought the station could be used as a force for change," says Gwinn Owens, then WJZ's editorial director. Shortly after taking the helm in 1962, Cahan decided "The Buddy Deane Show" -- as popular and as lucrative as it was -- would either fully integrate or go off the air.
But after witnessing the hysteria that followed the Aug. 12, 1963, integration, Cahan came to believe what Deane and Kozak had said all along: Though the kids probably wouldn't mind, their parents would not tolerate integrated dancing on TV. "I can't resolve the problem with the parents," Cahan told a local civil rights activist. "I have to get rid of the show."
On Jan. 4, 1964, nearly five months after the first -- and only -- day that black and white kids danced cheek to cheek on TV in WJZ's studios, Buddy Deane put "The Party's Over" on the record player. After the song ended, he walked beyond the bright TV lights into the darkness and the show went off the air forever.
The end caused disappointment for many: Deane, Kozak, Cahan, the Committee members and, of course, young fans like John Waters. Even for those who'd opposed the show's segregationist policies, the cancellation was, as Bill Henry says, a "hollow victory."
When asked whether "Hairspray's" fairy-tale finish sugarcoats the complicated and controversial ending of the real story, Waters says, "I feel that by making the movie, I brought 'The Buddy Deane Show' back -- no one would know about it otherwise." Besides, he adds, "my movie was never supposed to be the truth. It's not even the dream version. It's the John Waters version. It's a comedy about integration."