Self-recognized talent for spotting celebs Essay: If that isn't somebody famous then an imagination has run wild. It's understandable, seeing that more stars are placing their faces in Baltimore.

September 09, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

That woman in the turquoise leggings. Isn't she someone? Of course she's someone, but isn't she someone?

What about the short, athletic man with the flat nose? Or that one, with the incredibly well-cut arms?

And that guy in the bagel shop, the one with the expressive features and what appears to be a heavy layer of pancake makeup at 7 a.m. -- he must be an actor, right?

Suddenly everyone in Baltimore looks famous to me. Or at least vaguely familiar. It is late summer, after all, time for the Capistrano-like return of "Homicide." It also has been a summer full of filmings, from "Species II" to "Beloved." Oprah Winfrey, Tim Allen, Natasha Henstridge. They walk among us, from Baltimore to Westminster to Cecil County.

Now, my work has brought me into contact with famous people on a regular basis -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Boris Yeltsin, Al Gore, Ann Jillian -- all the biggies. These encounters impressed me not at all, although I do like to call my sister with the tidbits that don't make the paper ("Mr. Famous So-and-So travels with a large supply of surgical gloves").

And I never pursue a star, even a willing one, with camera or autograph book in hand. What I crave is the accidental encounter, the more pedestrian the better. But like the addled stripper in Carl Hiaasen's "Strip Tease," I have begun to imagine I see well-known people everywhere in my ordinary life.

Over the years, I've seen Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon walking down Charles Street, Julie Harris schlepping her shopping bags up Calvert Street and John Waters studying the light bulb selection in the Rotunda Giant. I'm assured that was Marlo Thomas I saw when I was 8 and she was "That Girl." A little girl's father wouldn't lie to her about something like that, right?

But recent months have brought an embarrassment of potential riches. If the Maryland Film Commission continues to do such a bang-up job, I'm not going to have any time left to lurk around Eddie's, hoping for an Anne Tyler spotting.

There's probably an interesting story to be written here, one about Americans and their obsession with even second-rate fame. This isn't it. This is about Baltimore and fame, which just don't go together. This is a workaday place for workaday folks. Seeing a celebrity here is like finding a zircon in your oyster: It's not really valuable, but it's shiny, eye-catching and good for dinner conversation.

In New York, by contrast, a star sighting is about as extraordinary as having a foreign-born cab driver. At the Algonquin Hotel, my sister rides in an elevator with Peter Ustinov. Ho-hum. In Baltimore, my husband shares a steam room with Vincent Gardenia, and I'm in awe. Vincent Gardenia! This from someone who fell asleep during "Bang the Drum Slowly."

It's a sickness, I admit. Most days, I wish I could excise that part of my brain with the pop culture jones, put those cells to better use. I don't want to know who Hanson is (are?). I don't want to argue with a colleague about the age of the youngest Hanson. And I sure don't want to be right, as it turned out I was (Zach's 11).

Then I see the woman in the turquoise leggings, the one at my health club, and my brain starts racing again. Who? Why? Why do I care? Don't know.

All the signs of celebrity were there. A beautiful face (Sign No. 1: Actresses tend to be beautiful) with the tentative, frightened-doe quality of someone wary of being recognized, yet leery of not being recognized (Sign No. 2). The face was perched on top of a body that seemed slightly smaller than normal human scale (Sign No. 3: Actresses tend to be tiny). Also, she seemed to be recycling that same pair of leggings pretty frequently (Sign No. 4: An out-of-towner).

The woman was, in fact, Marg Helgenberger, best known for the TV series "China Beach." I finally put it together when I wrote about the filming of "Species 2," in which she's starring. Once on the set, though, I couldn't tell Michael Madsen from his stunt double.

But with this one successful identification under my belt, I became even more convinced of my ability to ferret out the famous in Baltimore.

So there I was, studying the guy in the bagel shop, when I realized he looked familiar because he resembled ... my former veterinarian. And if he was looking back with that wary-leery nervousness -- well, maybe it was just because a strange woman had been staring him full in the face for several minutes.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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