- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Home is where the heart is, and the heart of my hometown of Baltimore beats hot pink. It is the fuchsia of a flamingo, the happy pastel hues of a roll of Necco wafers. Its row homes sport sparkly, proudly fake facades of Formstone, and its residents often dress in colors that evoke bubble gum — loud, snappy and full of pop.

Right now, Baltimore’s hot-pink beat is hot.

With the blazing success of the musical “Hairspray,” which earned 13 Tony Award nominations this year (and is an odds-on favorite to win best musical and other top prizes at tomorrow night’s awards), Baltimore once again blips on the pop-culture radar.

The show, based on John Waters’ 1988 movie, is a bright and boppy — but never mushy — valentine to Baltimore in the early 1960s, a time of the mashed potato, finger-popping doo-wop and towering hairdos welded to the head with a few gallons of Aqua-Net.

“Hairspray” tells the tale of Tracy Turnblad (a pre-diet Ricki Lake in the movie, Marissa Jaret Winktour on Broadway), a chubby teen in an era of sylphlike Sandra Dees who wants nothing more than to show off her dance talents on “The Corny Collins Show,” a homegrown Baltimore version of “American Bandstand.” Tracy triumphs with cheerful determination, belief in herself and some wicked moves — and the fat girl even gets the cute guy.

This being a John Waters vehicle, “Hairspray” also features a man in drag (Harvey Fierstein, playing the role pioneered by the transvestite Divine, the plus-sized and plus-hearted Edna Turnblad) and a subplot about racial integration.

If “Hairspray” has whetted your curiosity about Charm City, you can tour many of the sites that inspired the movie and the musical and immerse yourself in the culture of a place that locals like to say is the town that taste forgot.

Start your “Hairspray” tribute on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, the east Baltimore neighborhood that put the blue in blue collar. The feisty, gritty community served as the inspiration for many of the characters and settings of “Hairspray” — John Waters took the musical’s design team to Highlandtown for a “white trash tour” so they could get a feel for the people and the Formstone facades (think fanciful fake stone) that grace many a house. In fact, the main set of “Hairspray” features a row of Formstone houses fronted by Baltimore’s famous white marble steps.

All along Eastern Avenue are the hair salons that still create the big hair seen in “Hairspray.” (The Artichoke remains a favorite.) You’ll also want to visit the Patterson (3134 Eastern Ave., 410/276-1651), formerly a movie palace and now the headquarters for the quirky and always original Creative Alliance, a group that brings art, music, theater, spoken word and other “happenings” to the city.

The inaugural show at the Patterson is the funky and fascinating “Trash to Treasure: The Production Design of Vince Peranio,” running through Aug. 9. Mr. Peranio has been associated with shock- and schlockmeister John Waters since the 1960s, and their partnership has resulted in such unforgettable moments as the giant killer lobster from “Mondo Trasho,” the burning trailer scene in “Pink Flamingos” and the electric chair in which Divine perished in “Female Trouble” (which usually sits in the foyer of Mr. Waters’ posh Guilford home).

Among the artifacts are the original jukebox from “Hairspray” and Mr. Peranio’s sets for the TV series “Homicide, Life on the Street,” “The Wire” and “The Corner.” Mr. Waters interviews Mr. Peranio about the exhibit on July 25. (Go to www.missiontix.com for information.)

If all this culture makes you hungry, there is a terrific coffee shop/used-book store, High Grounds, across the street from the Patterson on Eastern Avenue, and one block north from High Grounds is Matthew’s Pizza, home of the best pies in the city.

The other quintessential “Hairspray” neighborhood is Hampden. Its main drag is 36th Street, known locally as “The Avenue.” Hampden is the site of the annual Honfest (see sidebar), and here, folks are proud of their working-class roots — Mr. Waters’ movie “Pecker” was filmed in and around the neighborhood.

The Avenue hosts a wacky collection of shops and restaurants — no visit to Baltimore would be complete without a meal at Cafe Hon (410/243-1230), a down-home restaurant where the fried chicken is crispy and the sundaes sport thick, homemade hot fudge sauce. No fusion cuisine here, just solid, comforting fare.

Across from Cafe Hon on 36th Street is Hometown Girl (410/662-4438), a shop dedicated to all things Bawlmer, where you can pick up a “Hon” bumper sticker, among other curios. If you wonder what ever happened to Mr. Roper’s waffle polyester leisure suits, you might start your search in Fat Elvis (410/467-6030), a ‘70s yard sale come to life. Ma Petite Shoe (410/235-3442) is a place dedicated to footwear and chocolate, a bizarre pairing on the surface, but not really if you have ever had premenstrual syndrome. Another great store is Oh! Said Rose (410/235-5170), which features vintage and antique-looking clothing for the closet romantic.

Other John Waters favorite haunts are the Charles Theatre, 1711 North Charles St. (410/727-3456), Baltimore’s art-movie house for more than two decades.

Now a multiplex, the Charles has a scruffy, funky decor, and the house cats prowl around the lobby. The snack bar features home-brewed iced tea and coffee drinks served up by some of the nicest alterna-girls and -boys around. The Charles used to host Mr. Waters’ movie premieres — at one, Divine pulled up in a rickshaw toted by handsome men.

Across the street from the movie theater is the Club Charles, known affectionately as the Club Chuck (410/727-8815). Home to killer drinks, the best jukebox in the tri-state area and fabulous retro-kitsch decor, the Club Chuck has cool that hasn’t abated in 20 years. You even can get food far beyond the usual pub grub — try the Yin-Yang Tuna — from Zodiac, the restaurant next door.

Not too far from the Club Charles is another destination of fun and weirdness, the American Dime Museum at 1808 Maryland Ave. (410/230-0263). If you’ve ever lamented the passing of the carnival sideshow, this oddball museum is the place for you. It features such novelties as shrunken heads, outrageous tattoos, magic tricks and freaks of nature.

Most visitors to Baltimore know about the Inner Harbor, but few might venture to the Federal Hill side of the harbor to experience the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway (410/244-1900). The building’s sweeping design, the gift shop and the Joy America Cafe are reason enough to spend the day, but open-minded souls who take in the galleries will no doubt be disturbed, moved and inspired by the works created by “outsider,” or self-taught, artists. Many of the artists suffer from various psychological disturbances, and the captions on the works often read along the lines of “After going on Thorazine, Bill never painted again,” but the roiling creativity and power of these works cannot be denied. This is one of just two outsider art museums in the country, and there are just three in the world.

For other ideas on John Waters’ Baltimore and more “Hairspray” sights, log onto www.baltimore.org, or call 1-877-BALTIMORE.

Sidebar One: How to be a “Hon”

OK, so “Hairspray” and the working-class wonders of Baltimore have inspired you to fling off those Florsheims and pouf up that classic bob. You feel an irresistible urge to be a Baltimore “Hon,” one of the city’s most beloved icons — a woman (or a man) who calls everyone the affectionate and familiar “hon” (as in, “Do you want fries with that, hon?”) within a few seconds of meeting and who never met a can of Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer) she didn’t like.

It’s easy to become a Hon, either for the day or for a lifetime. All you have to do is follow these eight simple rules:

1. Spandex and Lycra are not the exclusive privilege of those who diligently jog, go to the gym or practice yoga. Wearing them is a God-given right.

2. Hairdo requirements: teased bouffants that defy gravity or Farrah Fawcett-style “wings” from the “Charlie’s Angels” era for women, the mullet for men.

3. Leopard-skin prints are appropriate 12 months a year.

4. High-heeled mules to go to the Farm Store — you betcha.

5. A hot-pink scarf — either tied around your hairspray-shellacked tresses or around your neck, always lifts your spirits.

6. Cat’s-eye glasses, red lipstick, black eyeliner that recalls Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra.” What do you mean, retro? We never stopped wearing ‘em.

7. Plastic pink flamingos should adorn your lawn year-round. String them with colored lights at Christmas, bunny ears at Easter, a green bowler on St. Patrick’s Day, an American flag on the Fourth — you get the idea.

8. Loose-fitting clothes are for wimps. If it ain’t tight, why bother? And remember, it is not the Baltimore Orioles. It is “dem O’s, hon …”

Sidebar Two

Hon Events and Tours

Hon Tour: This tour features a costumed Hon guide who leads you through Baltimore’s ethnic neighborhoods, including Little Italy, Greektown, Corned Beef Row, Pigtown and Butcher’s Hill (site of some of the city’s finest Formstone row houses). You also can play Baltimore bingo for prizes. Weekends only, $15 per person, a minimum of 20 participants required for the tour to take place. Contact Baltimore Rent-a-Tour, 888/842-6323, or www.baltimorerent-a-tour.com.

Honfest: On June 14 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Hons come out to play during Honfest 2003, the annual celebration in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood of big hair, big mouths and big attitude. Get yourself a real “Hon” makeover — beehive hairdo, sparklin’ eye shadow, cat’s-eye glasses and feather boas — and maybe feel brave enough to enter the “Baltimore’s Best Hon Contest,” where the winner receives a dream day in Hampden valued at more than $1,000. This year includes a Lil’ Miss Hon contest for aspiring working-class heroines.

The Honfest also features Bawlmer cuisine — Ostrowski sausage, Cloverland Dairy products, Heil’s meats, and Esskay hot dogs. There will be Spam Bowling, with stacks of Spam serving as duckpins; a parade; a fashion show; and a Bawlmerese Contest, in which competitors tell stories in the town’s famous nasal patois. For more information, call 410/243-6800. Don’t forget to visit the Hampden Hairdo Museum, where hometown hotties will go-go dance to “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

“Hairspray! The Musical”: The national tour of “Hairspray” runs at Baltimore’s Mechanic Theatre downtown Sept. 9 through 21. Individual tickets go on sale in late July, but subscriptions are available to the 2003-04 season (which includes “The Producers” at the newly renovated Hippodrome Theatre six months before the Kennedy Center’s engagement) by calling 1-800/343-3103, or www.broadwayacrossamerica.com/baltimore.

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