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To keep it real, they film it in Baltimore

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Special to The Times

Just past Little Johnny’s Diner, a ramshackle place itself, is a rundown dock not so well guarded by a chain-link fence missing quite a few links. The dock is long past its former glory with a lawn of weeds and dandelions covering its football-field expanse.

Four men just off work at this dock on the once-busy Canton waterfront area are peering out in the late-spring, hot-and-humid haze toward the Baltimore harbor.

“See that one, that big crane there,” said one man, excitedly chain-smoking, pointing out to one of about a dozen cranes a half-mile distant. “They’re going to implode that in an hour. That’s what we’re here to see. Great, huh?”

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John Waters, the offbeat movie director whose vision of Baltimore can be seen on Broadway these days in the eight-Tony production of “Hairspray,” said the men were of a hearty Baltimore type.

“They’re obviously explosion junkies,” said Waters by phone from his summer home in Provincetown, Mass. “We take pride in our explosions. We are, indeed, an explosive town.”

This may well be Baltimore’s explosive moment in the popular arts, a time when the unvarnished grittiness of this mid-Atlantic city is resonating with producers looking for a particular kind of realism, whether in urban dramas or Broadway musicals.

In addition to the plethora of kudos for “Hairspray,” the HBO series “The Wire,” which is concentrating this season on a story line around those explosive Canton docks, has received similar superlatives from critics. “Ladder 49,” a Touchstone production about the trauma of firefighting starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, has been filming in Baltimore for three months. About the time “Ladder 49” will wrap in a few weeks, Waters will gear up for his next movie, “A Dirty Shame,” a Waters-cult-classic-to-be about, as he said, “sexual dementia,” starring Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair and Paul Giamatti.

All this is fine, but the attention rubs David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” a bit the wrong way. “So much of TV is set in New York and L.A. that I think they become parochial when you do something elsewhere,” said Simon, whose books on Baltimore cops and crime were also turned into the NBC series “Homicide” and the HBO miniseries “The Corner.” “I love Baltimore. I live here. But I hope we are doing universal themes and in reviews from Pittsburgh to Phoenix to St. Louis, they seem to see that. In L.A. and New York, they just see it as, I don’t know, cute that we are in Baltimore.”

Simon makes a point of saying that the Baltimore of “The Wire” is not John Waters’ often bizarre Baltimore, nor is it the sentimental Baltimore that Barry Levinson celebrated in movies like “Diner” and “Avalon” or the homey Baltimore of Ann Tyler’s novels like “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “The Accidental Tourist.”

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“At no point have I said that the show, which is very dark, represents the totality of Baltimore,” said Simon. “A city the size of Baltimore is too all-encompassing and its stories are manifold. When we rub up against John Waters’ Baltimore, that is real, too.”

Simon, along with fellow executive producer-writer Ed Burns and story editor George Pelecanos, discussed the show and posed for photographs. A short distance away, the large cast was shooting interior scenes for the show in a nondescript warehouse that stood in for everything from a police station to a shipping container converted into a union office.

“Ladder 49” producer Casey Silver loved that “real” quality of Baltimore as well.

“It just fit for the story, which is about a working-class guy in an urban environment,” said Silver. The director, Jay Russell, shot 2002’s “Tuck Everlasting” mostly in the suburbs and countryside around Baltimore and suggested it as a locale for the decidedly urban “Ladder 49.” “It’s a specific place that I don’t think has been over-explored. Plus, everyone has been so cooperative, from the city to the firefighters to the people on location. No hassles make for a good experience.”

The legacy of Waters and Levinson, who was also an executive producer during the seven-year run of “Homicide,” in addition to his Baltimore-based movies, left Baltimore with an extensive base of local actors and production people. Waters’ longtime casting director Pat Moran, for instance, also cast “Head of State,” the Chris Rock film that shot in Baltimore last year, and now works for Simon on “The Wire.”

“We don’t kid anyone. This is not New York or L.A., but we do have a base where we can do two or three productions at the same time,” said Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office. “It helps that Levinson and Waters and Simon always give us a first shot. But it also helps that within 20 minutes of the city center, you have so many diverse looks -- from gritty to lush, like in ‘Tuck Everlasting,’ to the harbor and the suburbs.”

Waters is unabashed in his love for Baltimore’s diversity, even while admitting he loves playing with it. “Barry Levinson and I grew up 15 minutes from one another. He once told me that he didn’t know there was anyone who wasn’t Jewish and I told him that I was grown up before I met a Jew,” said Waters. “And Harbor Place [once a flourishing dock area that has been converted into a shopping and eating destination for tourists], well, it’s all well and good. But I had more fun before that when it was all lesbian bars and sailors and rats. I’d much rather look at a rat and a sailor than some fancy chain restaurant.

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“What I think is best about all of us is that we can laugh and in some ways be proud of the worst things of our city,” said Waters. “You look silly if you are too fancy here.”

Simon is sure he is not celebrating the best parts of Baltimore. “The Wire” has taken a dim view of the war against drugs and, in its second season, focuses on corruption on the docks and the rapid decline of middle-class jobs in the city. For a time in the fall, some City Council members proposed a resolution condemning “The Wire” for painting Baltimore in such stark terms.

“But it is clear that those of us who make this show and made ‘Homicide’ love the place,” said Simon. “But you can’t hide the bad things. Still, I hope ‘The Wire’ and its themes are more universal. It isn’t just Baltimore that has these problems.”

If “The Wire” is about modern Baltimore, Waters admits that he and Levinson, especially, can sometimes be mired in their youthful Baltimore.

“Frankly, we all celebrate the extreme sides of the city,” said Waters. “But the Baltimore we make movies about is vanishing. I’m always afraid to say where I hang out because they may overrun it or knock it down.

“We love our history here, and we have a perverse one. I mean Edgar Allan Poe and Billie Holiday and we even have a good-natured laugh about Spiro Agnew,” he said. When he was in Catholic school, Waters says, teachers encouraged him to throw eggs at the house of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the celebrated atheist who came from Baltimore. “She had a bumper sticker, ‘Praying is begging.’ Maybe she wasn’t too far off.”

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Simon came to Baltimore as a young reporter for the Sun in 1983. He grew up 30 miles south in Washington, which he says is a completely different world.

“Baltimoreans hate Washington. Too many lawyers. Too much government. Too many suits. Those guys in the Harbor Place restaurants, all Washington,” he said. “But in Washington, they don’t even think about Baltimore, except maybe when there is a football game between the Redskins and the Ravens. That would make Baltimoreans even madder.”

Simon said he knew he was a Baltimorean when he started rooting for the Orioles. “I could only do it after they started a season 0-21,” he said. “I knew it would be more work rooting for that, and that is a Baltimore trait.”

Then he found an old New Yorker cartoon and stuck it on his desk at the Sun. It had a guy lounging by a kidney-shaped pool, shaded by a palm tree and drinking a fancy cocktail.

“The caption was great,” said Simon. “It read: ‘It isn’t Baltimore. But, then, what is?’ ”

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