Baltimore's ambassador in 'Hairspray'

First things first: The name is pronounced "DU-wayne."

Actor Eric Anthony - the only bona fide Baltimore native in the cast of Hairspray, the hit Broadway musical set in 1960s Baltimore - is discussing the fictitious biography he has invented for his character. In the program, that character, a member of the chorus, is identified merely as Duane.

But engaging in a practice many actors find helpful, Anthony, a 1997 graduate of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, has filled in the gaps in Duane's personal history.

He describes his character as a 15-year-old African-American who grew up in a rowhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, around the corner from the West Baltimore rowhouse where the actor himself grew up. Now a sophomore at Patterson Park High School, Duane has a girlfriend, Shelley, one of the Caucasian characters in the Hairspray chorus. Their imaginary romance, Anthony explains, reflects the musical's pro-integration theme.

Duane also participates in extracurricular activities. "He is the president of Future Business Leaders of America," Anthony says. And then, as if to indicate how closely he identifies with Duane, the actor slips into first person as he adds, "I am in the school choir."

The cast members of Hairspray are such staunch believers in the usefulness of fictional bios, they have even created a mock Patterson Park yearbook. In its pages, Duane is voted "best-dressed student and the most likely to succeed."

Extrapolating into the future, Anthony has made sure that the yearbook's prediction of success comes true. He's given his character the full name, Duane Rudolph Reade, the first and last names being that of the New York drug store chain, Duane Reade, which he envisions his character founding.

Although Anthony's own alma mater didn't hand out such accolades, if the school had chosen someone "most likely to succeed," Anthony's burgeoning stage career suggests he would have made an excellent candidate. Tomorrow night, he will be honored in his hometown when he receives the first Eubie Award, an honor created by the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center to recognize "young performers and artists who bring pride to Maryland."

'Dazzling' Duane

Anthony made his professional debut only 16 months after graduating from Carver. He spent a year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, then decided to jumpstart his career. His first professional audition led to a role in the national tour of Rugrats: A Live Adventure, which played the Lyric Opera House in 1999.

By the time he auditioned for Hairspray, he was in his second year in The Lion King (one year in Toronto and the second on Broadway). Leaving a proven hit for the uncertainty of a new show could have been risky. But in Lion King, Anthony was only a swing, the term used for an understudy who can play several roles. From one day to the next, there was no guarantee he'd be on stage. In Hairspray, he's in every performance, and he also understudies a key supporting role, that of Seaweed J. Stubbs, a part he has now played five times.

But even when he's just Duane in the chorus, Anthony is "dazzling," says Hairspray director Jack O'Brien. "When he's moving on stage you can hardly watch anyone else. I've never seen anyone so thoroughly kinetic. He's kind of a spark plug. He's an energy source wherever he is on stage.

"Sometimes you have to tap him down a little bit because he's virtually ready to explode. ... He has a gift and he's going to be able to exploit it in his career."

Anthony's talent also caught the early attention of filmmaker John Waters, whose 1988 movie is the basis of Hairspray. "I noticed him right from the beginning. I can remember in the first rehearsals he really jumped out, and it thrilled me when he said he was from Baltimore," Waters says.

The actor's promising career as well as his loyalty to Baltimore - he comes home to visit family, friends and former teachers at least once a month - are among the reasons he was chosen to receive the Eubie Award. Anthony will accept the award at a gala dinner at the Eubie Blake Center. Waters and Mayor Martin O'Malley are honorary co-chairmen of the event.

Tomorrow morning, the actor will participate in a panel discussion on the journey from Baltimore to Broadway.

The Baltimore expert

For Anthony, being honored by the Blake Center has particular resonance. In the mid-1990s, when he was studying at the Arena Players Youtheatre, he was cast as a newsboy in a revival of Shuffle Along, produced by the center. "He was just wonderful and so agile and just made a little nothing role into something," recalls Camay Calloway Murphy, the center's executive director. A year later, Anthony played the lead in a dramatization of Murphy's children's book, Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?

But besides his talent, Anthony's "devotion to Baltimore" impressed Murphy; it's a quality she compares to Blake's. And it has served the young actor well in Hairspray, where he says he's "more than happy to be the honorary spokesperson for Baltimore. I told everybody [in the cast], 'If you have any questions about how to make it genuine, just ask me.' "

Anthony's Baltimore upbringing gave him at least one early advantage over the rest of the cast - he came into the show knowing how to do the Madison, a line dance that originated here. It was one of several dances he learned from his grandfather, Baxter Rudolph Jones, who was once part of a dance group that won a contest at New York's Apollo Theatre.

Thanks to Jones and Anthony's grandmother, Annie Williamston, the actor was also familiar with The Buddy Deane Show, the former WJZ-TV dance program that inspired Hairspray. Anthony talked to both grandparents about the show and particularly about "Negro Day," the once-a-month broadcast when black teens danced on the show, an event that figures prominently in the plot of Hairspray.

"It was the first time that black kids got to be on television dancing, so naturally everybody watched," says Williamston. A retired MTA bus driver, she believes her grandson inherited some of his performing talent from her as well as from his grandfather. "When you drive a bus 23 years, you've got to learn to act," she says.

As one of her grandson's biggest fans, Williamston has watched him perform on stage since he was a student at the Sarah M. Roach Elementary School. Seeing him on Broadway doesn't surprise her, nor does his facility as an understudy (in his two years in The Lion King, he played 18 roles, from the left leg of an elephant to a blade of grass).

"He's a natural understudy," she says, explaining that, even as a child with the Arena Players Youtheatre, "if the kids forgot their lines, they would look to him. Eric knew everybody's part."

Big break

His biggest break as an understudy came on Nov. 17, 2002, when he got to play Hairspray's Seaweed - a considerably bigger role and one that includes a show-stopping solo - for the first time. Corey Reynolds, who usually plays the role, was scheduled to sing the National Anthem at a 76ers game in Philadelphia, and Anthony had two weeks notice to prepare for the part. This also gave him time to line up tickets for his family and friends.

That day, as the orchestra launched into the opening number, Good Morning Baltimore, Anthony recalls standing in the wings and "jumping up and down like a jackrabbit - 'Oh, my God, it's starting!' And then I ran to my place center stage, and I saw the audience, and I was standing in a different position than I usually stand in. I saw my family right away, and I saw my mother's big smile. It was better than I could have imagined."

Before the performance, he remembers thinking, "God, please don't let me stand in anybody's way; don't let me forget a line." Far from such gaffes, when he came off stage at the end of the first act, the cast applauded him. "It went off without a hitch," he says.

In October, Anthony missed six shows himself when he dislocated a rib and strained a muscle in his back performing the number Welcome to the '60s in the first act. He made it through the rest of the performance, a feat he attributes to "the adrenaline of the show," but the next morning he couldn't twist his back and ended up in physical therapy. "I hated missing the show," he says. "When I was out those six shows, I nearly died because it's so much fun."

As everyone from his grandmother to Waters and director O'Brien have predicted, Hairspray may prove a stepping stone in Anthony's career. He's already had auditions and meetings with casting directors from NBC, Warner Brothers Television and Fox. But while the young actor has ambitions, none of the attention has gone to his head.

"I haven't done half of the stuff that I know I will do, but if I stopped today, I would be the proudest person in the world because my family has been there to smile and clap and laugh for me," he says. "I'm so proud to be from Baltimore and doing stuff that Baltimore can be proud of."

What:Dance Fever Gala and presentation of Eubie Award to Eric Anthony

Where:Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, 847 N. Howard St.

When:7-10 p.m. tomorrow


Also at the center:"Breakfast With Eric," a panel discussion

When:9-11 a.m. tomorrow


Information on both events:410-225-3130