Hey, Hon! It's John Waters

BILLIE HOLIDAY called Baltimore a tough town. Frank Zappa moved away at the age of 10 and never came back. Edgar Allan Poe died here. John Wilkes Booth is buried here.

But John Waters? John Waters, the one-time Pope of Trash, thrives on the place, and Baltimore's better off on account of it.

Until last August, Baltimore's principal claim to fame for the year 2002 was that it led the league in Wheels Falling Off Buses. But then Hair- spray opened on Broadway and became a big hit - the biggest hit of the season - and suddenly there was a national spotlight shining down on a raucous, big-hearted, cross-dressing, mashed-potato-dancing version of the city's hidden, happy self. Who wouldn't feel better about that?

Sure, it's a myth. It takes us back to 1962, and a backward Baltimore that expunges its segregated past and in the end gets race relations right. OK, it didn't happen that way. To heck with history. The myth's more fun.

John Waters has been making trouble in these precincts for years. From the scatological to the homicidal, he's been churning out films that seem to come from a parallel universe to the one where good taste resides. (That parallel universe, by the way, had its Big Bang origins right around Broadway - the real Broadway, the one that crosses Eastern Avenue, near where the wig store used to be.) He made Hairspray the film way back in 1988, but it's the stage version, in which he also had a hand, that has put Charm City on the map.

And that's why John Waters is The Sun's Marylander of the Year.

We know what you're thinking. Have we forgotten Pink Flamingos? And Odorama? Do we approve of Serial Mom? Or Pecker? And what about that pencil-thin mustache?

Here's our answer: You don't have to love them all to appreciate the singular mind behind them.

Let's face it. We live in a society that's not altogether completely 100 percent healthy in every possible way. That's what John Waters is all about. Life is full of things that are a little bent or a little out of whack or that just generally need to be trued up a tad. We try to ignore them; Mr. Waters makes his art out of them.

Hairspray, in particular, tells us to embrace what's weird or different about ourselves, to be proud of being fat or black or gay or straight, and to lighten up - about everything.

And it is, above all, a love song to Baltimore.

It delights in the Formstone and the big hair and the marble steps and the old Buddy Deane Show.

It opens with "Good Morning, Baltimore," and the lead character, Tracy Turnblad, sings about the flasher who lives next door and the drunk on his barroom stool - both of whom wish her luck on her way to school.

In Mr. Waters' 1962 Baltimore, much like the real Baltimore of that time, segregation is being challenged by teen-agers who dance on an after-school television show. The kids want to boogie together, black and white, but their parents are horrified.

In actuality, The Buddy Deane Show chose cancellation over integration, but in Hairspray's most poignant moment, Mr. Waters' characters do the right thing.

And the good news doesn't stop there. Tracy Turnblad is frumpy and overweight, but she gets the hot guy on the dance show. All is right in this world - and the world is Baltimore.

Acceptance is the theme, and that's a message that Baltimore and New York and the whole United States would do well to take to heart.

Hairspray the film offered us the late Divine as Tracy's mother, and Hairspray the musical gives us Harvey Fierstein, lighting up the place. Uh, yes, that's a man as a mom. Anything out of the usual about that? Are you going to be unaccepting of that?

John Waters was born in 1946, and he fell in years ago with an odd bunch of people, the kind of people you don't run into in any old American city. They took Baltimore literally. You wouldn't have found them in, say, Topeka.

Mr. Waters once called Eastern Avenue "the Hairdo Aorta." It ran through the City Council district - just to bring politics into it - of the late Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, who memorably and accurately pointed out that one good thing about Baltimore is that "we ain't got no volcanoes here."

Mr. Waters and his colleagues prospered, and finally even Hollywood and Broadway had to notice. Think of their success as Eastern Avenue's contribution to American culture.

And here it's worth pointing out that Hairspray puts Maryland's metropolis on the big stage for the first time since Lanford Wilson's Hot l Baltimore, which was an off-Broadway hit in the 1970s and has been a staple of regional theater ever since. Mr. Wilson's play is about lost souls and relentless decay, which is certainly one way of looking at Baltimore.

Hairspray is about - well, it's about the stuck-up and the narrow-minded and the well-groomed getting their just deserts, courtesy of a lot of rock 'n' roll music.

Produced, incidentally, by Margo Lion, another Baltimorean, it has become one of those hot-ticket shows that gladden hearts up and down Broadway. It has made a star of Marissa Jaret Winokur, an ingenue who's not afraid to throw her (ample) weight around. It's the truth and beauty of Baltimore, on the Great White Way.

One of the things that's most appealing about Mr. Waters is that his work is especially popular among twentysomethings. Here's a baby boomer who didn't get stuck on his own generation. He's not morose, he's not smug, he's not prone to amber lighting, and his movies feature neither explosions nor characters who are able to outrun explosions. (James Bond is a good deal weirder than Edna Turnblad.)

Heartwarming? Forget about it. Hairspray deals in the triumph of the good, but it doesn't exactly bring a lump to your throat. John Waters can be gory, and grotesque, and off-center, and grossly funny - but never manipulative. He's a good boy from Lutherville who set out to become an eccentric - how many people do you know who keep electric chairs as conversation pieces? - but he's not a phony.

And neither, we would suggest, is Baltimore. And that's saying a lot.

Recently Mr. Waters has been exhibiting his photographs, which he is proud to point out are nowhere near as popular or accessible as Hairspray or his roster of films - proud because "art" is supposed to be niche-seeking. Hmmm. At the same time, he's working on a new film, to be called A Dirty Shame, that's going to be about head injuries and carnal ... oh, well, that's not this year's topic.

No. John Waters is the Marylander of the Year for the lift he's given Baltimore and the whole state. (Don't forget, by the way, that a lot of Polyester was shot in Glen Burnie.) There's no denying we could use it.

If you're reading this newspaper you know that these aren't the best of times. And maybe that's why the story of Tracy Turnblad is such a big hit on Broadway. Given enough energy, and enough music, and enough stubborn determination - and plenty of hair- spray - the world can come out right.

Since the first Marylander of the Year was named in 1987, the title has been held by an eclectic group, from Orioles' owner Peter Angelos to Cardinal William H. Keeler to the creators of the television show Homicide: Life on the Street. Anyone except politicians and those who have died may be selected.

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