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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Dateline Baltimore: Living "Hairspray"

Actor John Travolta gets critical kudos for his trans-gender feminine role as Edna, in the musical turned hit-movie "Hairspray", but, the actual story is a non-fiction flashback for those of us who lived the plot.

People typically look aghast when I tell them how "Hairspray" and its segregationist theme, is a true story. "It's hard to imagine," I hear people say, time and again.

"Hairpsray" is a musical based upon a 1981 cult movie by the Baltimore film producer John Waters. It's about a group of '60s kids from East Baltimore who defy the segregationist cultural norms of their parent's generation by insisting on merging with Negro kids of their age. Moreover, Tracy Turnblad, the slightly plump teen main character of the show, wants to bring the Negroes and Caucasian kids together, to dance on a very popular afternoon Buddy Deane television show, something like American Band Stand.

This cultural change, i.e., merging the races, came about, not just because Tracy was a perky idealistic kid who believed in racial integration. Actually, the landmark Supreme Court Case, "Brown versus the Baltimore Board of Education" made the Baltimore City and County public school systems among the first in the nation to mandate racial integration - a landmark case.

In other words, I never attended a racially segregated school.

On the other hand, socialization between Negro and Caucasian kids was more difficult because neighborhoods were segregated as were other social institutions - like dances.

First of all, here are the facts:

1. There really was an after school dance show in Baltimore called the "Buddy Deane Show". Only the popular kids became regulars. Teens were selected based on their ability to look beautiful on television and because they could dance. In fact, several dances, invented by Baltimore teenagers, later became national fads - they started on The Buddy Dean Show.

2. There really was "Negro Day" on The Buddy Deane Show. In other words, selected days when only Negroes danced. There was no mixing of the races on a dance floor in the early 1960s. Just like in "Hairpsray", Negro Day was widely watched by Caucasian kids in the safety of their home televisions, because, frankly, Negroes really knew how to create dance. Later, Caucasian kids re-invented the Negroes' moves and created specially named dances that became the newest crazes.

3. There really was a culture of trans-gender homosexual men in Baltimore - although, they were a far cry from looking like John Travolta. The men were, actually, very beautiful women. I worked with many trans-gender men in Baltimore's hospitals where they didn't seem to have any problems finding jobs as male orderlies. They were almost always white (Caucasian) men. They came to work in their white male orderlies' uniforms, while wearing their female make-up.

Edna Turnblad's role was created by producer Walters for "Divine" a well known Baltimore trans-gender personality, who acted the part of Tracy's mother in the original cult movie. This role remained a trans-gender, male playing a female, out of respect for Divine, the first "Edna". Honestly, (also, hard to believe) as a naïve Baltimore teenager, I grew up believing all homosexuals were "trans-gender" men, because I saw them so frequently.

4. Tracy's Alma mater, Patterson Park High School, still exists and my cousins graduated from there. Tracy wins a scholarship to Essex Community College, which also exists. Taking the bus to North Avenue is another truism in "Hairspray". Indeed, East Baltimore kids never took the public bus to North Avenue, unless, it was to mingle with the Negroes.

Unfortunately, people who say "Hairspray's" plot is hard to believe don't see Baltimore through my rainbow colored glasses. Unfortunately, life in the 1960s was threaded with hope for a better future - even with the segregationist culture very evident. As I visit Baltimore today, the neighborhoods have not changed much for the better. Urban improvements in the Inner Harbor have not expanded to outlying areas of the city. Some attempt to preserve and improve on the past is succeeding. For example, Tracy Turnblad's back yard, today, is a trendy restoration district called Fell's Point. I'm hopeful East Baltimore will grow into becoming "Greater Fell's Point". Frankly, however, as I observe the neighborhoods while traveling down Broadway, toward the trendier area, even the graffiti on the cement sidewalks and brick walls doesn’t seem to fade.

Obviously, times have changed the racial social mores. People think of social segregation as an evil anachronism, something that should never have happened in the first place.

Thank goodness for John Waters, who brings out the best of youth and the worst of the segregationist era.

"Hairspray" will, hopefully, bring a reality check to those in Baltimore who like to pretend they live a better life today. I'd say, it is "we" who lived the better life, when our generation of Tracy Turnblad's made change happen, regardless of the consequences. Tracy even goes to jail for expressing her idealism and making change happen. Perhaps it was the turmoil caused by the inner city riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, but (in my opinion) Baltimore has not regained its inner self respect. For example,it does not take tax revenue to wash graffiti off of walls and cement sidewalks.

Those who are brave enough to ride Baltimore City's Number 10 bus today, look out on the same world as Tracy Turnblad. But, it's decidedly less safe a journey then when she took the same bus, with a transfer ticket, to go to North Avenue.

I'm told Divine still walks the streets of East Baltimore - but nothing much has improved. What's missing - what the decades eroded - is the hope for a beautiful tomorrow. Maybe the kudos Travolta will receive, even an academy award nomination for his role as Edna, will wake up Baltimore. Like the opening song, "Good Morning Baltimore", the attention brought to East Baltimore through the hit musical "Hairspray" may be the city's best chance at raising itself back to craving Tracy's idealism.

For me, it's not hard to believe segregation happened. Instead, it's hard to believe so little about East Baltimore has improved since those "Hairpsray" days. Segregation was, actually, less of a problem than the drug dealing and guns seen in the same streets today. Baltimore's segregation is gone, but so is the city's urban idealism.

Obviously, film maker Waters loves East Baltimore as much as I do - I remember when East Baltimore was a real neighborhood. You have to love and identify a problem before it can be solved. "Hairspray" puts a fresh coiffure on an old city's norms. Through music and humor, the show raises the potential for the future by using the power of love - and, "Without Love", is the show's closing song.

For people who wax nostalgic for the "Hairspray" days, let's hope the love we see in Water's hit show is contagious.

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