awlmer -- 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."
A few years ago, Waters attended a Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce dinner, where he urged civic leaders to drop the usual boosterish slogans and focus on an alternative Baltimore. "This is the strangest, coolest, most peculiar city in America," Waters reminded them before pitching his own slogan: "Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked!" No one bought that pitch, but in 2002, it did become a visitors bureau-supported sticker that was included in a pink leopard print gift bag with information about Baltimore (as well as some Aqua Net hairspray); it was given to 1,400 celebrities and media hounds attending the "Hairspray" premiere in New York.
"We suggest people come here and they'll be very pleasantly surprised," says Nancy Hinds, vice president of communications for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "John Waters certainly represents the quirkiness of Baltimore and the quirky people. He's a very creative guy, and a huge advocate for Baltimore, and we're proud to be able to lay claim to him."
According to Waters, "People come to Baltimore and say to me, 'I didn't realize you made documentaries!' " For a while after "Hairspray" opened on Broadway, the visitors association offered a link on its Web site to "John Waters' Baltimore," where he pointed people to, among many other places, the Atlantis Club as "best male strip bar -- next to state prison for easy access" (sadly, now closed), and Read Street and Park Avenue, the corner of two midtown streets that served as the location for the infamous doggie doo-doo "Pink Flamingos" finale.
Only in Baltimore.
Asked to pick a spot that exemplifies his kind of Baltimore, John Waters chooses Hampden, the working-class neighborhood where he filmed parts of "Hairspray" and pretty much all of "Pecker." Its centerpiece is "the Avenue" -- formally West 36th Street -- a strip of cafes, galleries, thrift stores and antique shops.
"If you went to 36th Street in Hampden in the day and walked up and down, you would see all the extremes," Waters notes of the population. "You'd see old money, scary, beautiful, ugly, white, black. I actually like the other side of Hampden -- Hampden at night. In the day, it's closet Roland Park [the upscale neighborhood where acclaimed Baltimore writer Anne Tyler frequently sets her novels], but at night it's still Hampden and there's an uneasy mix that I like."
Hampden is home to Cafe Hon (1002 W. 36th St.; 410-243-1230), a '40s-style creamery known for its "Much Better than Mom's" meatloaf, vegetarian Mexi-Hon Salad with black-bean stew, home-baked pies and ice cream topped with tasty hot fudge from a secret recipe salvaged from the cafeteria at the landmark Hutzler's department store, which closed in 1990. Sometimes the waitresses sport '60s-style beehive hairdos; they always call you "hon" or "sweetie."
Denise Whiting, a former caterer who opened the restaurant in 1992, explains its origins. "My mother always said, 'If I had a restaurant, I would make pie.' Then she'd say, 'I would take Hutzler's hot fudge and put that on the menu. And egg salad on cheese toast and really good turkey clubs.' That was the beginning -- it's family-inspired. And I was talking about names to a girlfriend, and she asked, 'What's it going to be?' I said, 'It's going to be a cafe, hon.' "
A year after opening, Whiting created the Best Hon contest to honor Baltimore's working women, and it quickly grew into the annual HonFest. Held in June, the festival now attracts 20,000 people to the crowning of "Baltimore's Best Hon," which includes a contest for best Bawlmerese. This year's winner was Mary Dawson, a 45-year-old dental hygienist from Timonium who took home $1,600 in gift certificates from Avenue shops, as well as plastic pink flamingos for her lawn. There were also Lil' Hon and Honette competitions for girls ages 3 to 7 and 7 to 14, respectively -- building hairdos for the future.
You'll find even more Baltimore treats across the street at Hometown Girl & Co. (1001 W. 36th St.; 410-662-4438). Owner Mary Pat Andrea has gathered all things Baltimore -- cookbooks, tour books, city histories and city-inspired fiction, postcards, toys, board games, videos on Baltimore's historic painted screens (including a "How to . . . ") and various endeavors by local artists. You can also get Pink Flamingo ice cream, ice cream sodas, and root beer and coke floats in back at an old-fashioned soda fountain. (The site was previously a pharmacy.)
If you prefer gourmet chocolates -- or fabulous shoes -- toddle down the street to Ma Petite Shoe (832 W. 36th St.; 410-235-3442), which specializes in what store manager Glenn Bennett calls "a woman's two favorite things." Susannah Siger, who since 1997 has operated the nearby women's clothing and accessories boutique Oh! Said Rose (840 W. 36th St.; 410-235-5170), opened Ma Petite Shoe two years ago as a natural extension of that store. Its collection of shoes, slippers, sandals and handbags is augmented by delicious chocolates from France, Belgium, Germany, Ecuador and New Mexico, headquarters for Sugart, whose Stevie Famulari is known for her edible fashion and art. Try -- no, really -- the Chocolate Sushi: no fish (thankfully) but a handmade confection with a rich, colorful center of dried fruits and candies rolled with Belgian white chocolate, complemented with an outer layer of Belgian dark chocolate and coconut topping. "It has the artistic intricacies of sushi but is made from all-natural chocolate and other baker's ingredients," says Siger, adding that "it looks like sushi and tastes like heaven."
And check out Atomic Books (1100 W. 36th St.; 410-662-4444), home to "Literary Finds for Mutated Minds." "That's where I get all my fan mail, so people don't have my address," Waters says. "It's a great store -- they have extreme books of all types!" The store keeps a supply of books autographed by Waters, along with lots of postcards and offerings from local novelists, poets and comic book artists such as Emily Flake, whose "Lulu Eightball" strips for the Baltimore and Washington City Papers have been collected in the first book published by Atomic Book Co.; she'll have a book signing there Aug. 6.
Fells Point, one of the nation's oldest maritime communities, is home to antique dealers and junk shops, boutiques and galleries, pubs and restaurants, with a shopping area that runs along South Broadway to the Thames Street Wharf. In the 1700 block of Thames Street you'll find the Fells Point Rec Pier (now known as City Pier). The block-long, red-brick structure was once a public bathing and boating pier that was later abandoned, only to be revived in the early '90s as the main set for "Homicide." Its roof proved a favorite location because of the scenic waterfront backdrop, and "Homicide's" harried detectives were often filmed up there discussing cases.
City Pier, still dressed as a police station, has been vacant since "Homicide" ceased production in 1999, though people still wander around, asking where the cops are. City officials are supporting plans to convert the huge building into a 170-room hotel. According to David Simon, a small plaque commemorates the television series' tenancy. "Incredibly, it hasn't been stolen, and it's been there for years!"
Like the show's detectives, you can still order crab cake sandwiches, Mrs. Rooney's chili and Henry VIII's meatloaf at the original Wharf Rat (801 S. Ann St.; 410-276-9034), a tavern whose authentic decor reflects the neighborhood's origins as "Sailortown."
Waters fans might want to stop in at Flashback (728 S. Broadway: 410-276-5086), at least on Tuesdays and Saturdays after 2 p.m., when they can visit with owner Bob Adams, a Waters pal of such long standing that 1972's "Pink Flamingos" was filmed on his farm. Adams has made cameo appearances in most of Waters's films, most notoriously as Ernie in "Female Trouble." The store's shelves are stuffed with videos, vinyl and tape, assorted knickknacks and memorabilia, while the walls are full of posters and artwork from Waters's films. Adams gets asked for a lot of addresses, some of which he won't give up (Waters's, for instance) and some of which he will (Divine's grave site at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Towson). Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) was the 300-pound drag queen/actor, Waters's childhood friend (they grew up across the street from each other!) and his key collaborator in a conspiracy of bad taste that spanned two decades. Divine died in his sleep in 1988, a week after the opening of "Hairspray," in which he played both permissive mom Edna Turnblad and racist TV station manager Arvin Hodgepile.
Inspired by the Art Brut collection in Lausanne, Switzerland, the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Hwy., 410-244-1900) is all about outsider art and self-taught artists with original visions, such as Paul Darmafall, the eccentric "Baltimore Glassman" who created shimmering art out of bits and pieces of debris picked up off the streets.
"What a perfect jewel for Baltimore to have," Waters says of the museum, which opened in 1995 behind Harborplace. "It goes along with the art of mentally unstable people, and I can't think of a better place to have it than here, where [such art] is treated with great, great respect."
Museum founder and Director Rebecca Hoffberger has created a magical, mysterious, whimsical and inspirational site that keeps growing: November marked the opening of the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, a wood and brick showcase in what was once the Four Roses whiskey warehouse. With 45-foot-high ceilings, the space is perfect for such towering sculptures as Andrew Logan's 20-foot statue of Divine, complete with stacked hairdo and billowing fishtail dress. Appropriately, Divine is standing next to Fifi, a 14-foot-tall, bicycle-powered pink poodle, one of the "contestants" in the annual museum-organized Kinetic Sculpture Race. Through Sept. 4, the museum is presenting "Holy H2O: Fluid Universe," 150 works by 40 outsider artists exploring meanings and associations of water in history, religion, mythology and science.
Not surprisingly, Waters is on the board of advisers of the American Dime Museum (1808 Maryland Ave.; 410-230-0263), which describes itself as "the world's only re-creation of a 19th-century collection of the most peculiar objects and unusual creatures known to man." You'll find two-headed animals, a nine-foot-tall Peruvian Amazon mummy, a woman's figure made entirely of chewing gum and the hand of "Spider Lillie," a prostitute who killed her victims by releasing a poisonous spider from a large ring on her finger. In the 1880s and '90s, dime museums (named after the price of admission) were as popular a form of entertainment as movies are today, the cousin of circus and carnival sideshows. "I grew up going to the freak show at the Timonium fair every year, which is also where Diane Arbus photographed stuff," Waters says. "It was very important, and I'm still a carnie."
By the way, the mammoth ball of string in the museum's front window is an homage to the real Ball of String, which can be found in Fells Point at Antique Man (1806 Fleet St.; 410-732-0932; Saturdays and Sundays only). For decades, the ball was housed at Haussner's, a landmark Baltimore restaurant that closed in 1999. The four-foot-diameter, 825-pound ball had been amassed over three decades from laundry twine used to secure bundles of napkins; unrolled, it would extend 3371/2 miles. Bob Gerber, who owns the antiques and collectibles shop, got the ball at an auction (for $8,700), along with 200 pounds of string that never made it onto the ball. Antique Man is home to Kap-Dwa, a 12-foot-high, two-headed mummy, as well as a four-legged chicken and a Siamese duck.
Since 1982, the Senator Theatre (5904 York Rd., 410-435-8338) has been the place where Barry Levinson, John Waters and others hold premieres -- often world premieres -- of their films. This 900-seat art-deco theater on the outskirts of town heading toward Towson also showcases other features shot in Baltimore and other parts of Maryland, as well as special "in dialogue with" events, as evidenced by the 100 or so hand-painted commemorative blocks on the sidewalk in front of the theater, each concrete slab featuring the signatures of key participants.
Owner Tom Kiefaber, whose grandfather built the Senator in 1939, and who began the ritual of premieres in 1982 with Levinson's "Diner," points out that the blocks don't have hand or footprints like the fabled Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles; the names are etched from faxed-in signatures (rope stapled into the signatures' indentations prevents the cement from caving in and mucking up the letters). " 'Hairspray' was the last block actually done with wet concrete, which is more crude," Kiefaber points out. Theater manager Gayle Grove has to repaint the blocks every spring to correct weather-related damage. Some are extra cool, like the block for "Seabiscuit," which alludes to the classic showdown race at nearby Pimlico via four Maryland-made Victory Horseshoes. The next premiere will be this fall, for "Rent," one of whose stars, Tracie Thoms, is a Baltimore gal. The historic theater itself has appeared in a half-dozen films as well.
"The Senator is our Radio City Music Hall," says Waters, adding that "the Charles Theatre [downtown] is our Angelica [art house]. And we have two working porn theaters at peace with the community: the Apex, which I filmed part of 'Cecil B. DeMented' in, and the Earle. What other city has porn theaters left for the VCR impaired?"
The five-screen Charles Theatre (1711 N. Charles St., 410-727-3456) is across the street from one of Waters's favorite haunts, the Club Charles (1724 N. Charles St.; 410-727-8815), once a grungy, dimly lit bar and now a centerpiece of the gentrification that's spiffed up the north end of Charles Street.
"That block is the best block in Baltimore," Waters says. "If there is a cultural life in Baltimore, if you move to town and want to go to a cool place, that's where you should go first." When Waters first went there, Club Charles was the Wigwam, with a sign advertising "Grub and Fire Water" (the owner was Native American). "Baltimore magazine called it the scariest bar in Baltimore. I used to go there, and it was terrifying and wonderful. I saw a man get his nose bitten off in there -- things happen in Baltimore!
"Bars are very important in Baltimore," Waters adds. "We have beauty parlors, bars and churches on every corner in some neighborhoods. That's how you get to know the people, and that's how I end up making a movie about a certain neighborhood. They say in Baltimore, when you find a good look, you stick with it. It's the same thing: You find a good bar, and it lasts forever and ever and ever." Another favorite Waters watering hole: The Ottobar (2549 N. Howard St.; 410-662-0069), which he has dubbed "a great rock 'n' roll, punk hangout."
C. Grimaldis Gallery (523 N. Charles St.; 410-539-1080), which specializes in post-World War II American and European art, is where you can find several of Waters's "stills lifes," consisting of photos shot off a television screen and rearranged into storyboards Waters calls "imaginary movies." For a more comprehensive look at his art, you'll have to travel to Pittsburgh, where the Andy Warhol Museum (www.warhol.org) is hosting "John Waters: Change of Life" through Sept. 4. It's a retrospective exhibition of more than 80 of Waters's photographic and sculptural works and the only place you'll see his three earliest, unreleased films: 1964's "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket," shot during Waters's senior year in high school; 1966's "Roman Candles," which marked the debut of Divine and Mink Stole, the latter of whom continues to appear in all of Waters's films; and 1968's "Eat Your Makeup," in which models are kidnapped and, as advertised, forced to eat their makeup. "Pink Flamingos" was still a few years ahead of these films, which even Waters has described as "juvenilia."
One of those "Makeup" models, Maelcum Soul, was Waters's first "star." The artist-model (who died of a drug overdose in 1968) was famous for her outlandish makeup and wacky thrift-store chic and worked as a barmaid at Martick's Restaurant Francais (214 W. Mulberry St.; 410-752-5155), which has its own odd history. It began life as a grocery store operated by Morris "Mo" Martick's parents, became a speakeasy during Prohibition and, after repeal, a legal bar. Mo, who was born upstairs, closed the bar in the early '70s and went to Paris to learn how to cook French style; when he came back, he brought classic French dishes at populist prices.
"Morris is still in there cooking, one of the great eccentric restaurateurs in Baltimore," Waters says. "Visually it's exciting because outside it looks like an empty building, and there's this one little buzzer you ring [perhaps leftover from the speakeasy days]. It's theatrical in the best sense of the word."
Richard Harrington is the music writer for Weekend.