Hardscrabble Hampden's seedy character and insular charm inspired John Waters to make the neighborhood one of the stars of his latest movie, 'Pecker.'



When they turned off Falls Road and saw the dead-end house, the three of them gasped. It was perfect: An immaculate three-story frame home with yellow siding and forest-green trim, both a front yard and porch carpeted with artificial turf, a gate topped with a perky sign that chirped: "Hi!"

This was where Pecker and his family would live if they were real: A life-size doll house lovingly smothered in bric-a-brac, with a tidy yard and space enough on the side for a pit-beef stand.

In their search last summer for locations for the new film, "Pecker," director John Waters, production designer Vincent Peranio and location manager Debra Donaldson Dorsey had set out in quest of "the real geography" of Hampden. As much as anything, the movie was intended to be a fictional, but on-pitch travelogue through the insular and idiosyncratic working-class Baltimore community.

And as much as the sweet-tempered Pecker and his quirky family would dominate the film, so would the old mill town, plagued by unemployment and teen pregnancy, burnished by a hard coat of pride.

"I saw this [film] as much about the community as the characters," says Peranio, as he strolls through Hampden on a dazzling late summer day. Indeed, Hampden is "one of the main characters," says the soft-spoken man who has worked with Waters since 1970's "Multiple Maniacs."

Like all of Waters' casting choices -- Tab Hunter and Patricia Hearst to name two -- Hampden is an odd one. For that reason, it's oddly appropriate. Blue-collar Hampden is a place where banality and character coexist, a paradoxical blend that supports Peranio and Waters' decided prejudice for the underdog.

By now, the two friends have achieved a certain "shorthand" in their communications. They know each other's "anti-art" sensibilities, and share an appreciation for the homely aesthetics of real life, from concrete back yards to nasty graffiti to Formstone.

Waters and Peranio's vision, applied to Hampden, might smack of wishful thinking and a tincture of condescension. Pecker's family doesn't distinguish between straight and gay, and accepts deviance with a good-natured imbecility. The real Hampden has a hard-to-shake reputation for racial intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

But at Peranio's first stop on a tour of "Pecker" locations, it is easy to see how his camp sensibility and Hampden's dated personality intertwine. The Brite Wash laundromat on Keswick Road is the setting for the Spin n' Grin, where Pecker's obsessive/compulsive girlfriend, Shelley, played by Christina Ricci, reigns as laundry dominatrix.

"It's a little plain on the outside," Peranio says. "We're not looking for beauty, we're looking more for honesty."

Inside, a kidney-shaped table for folding laundry, and the alternating tangerine and yellow-hued washers shout "1970s!" The Spin n' Grin sign created for the movie hangs on one wall. As the art director leaves, the manager, a woman with long gray hair declares, "I was born and raised here. Hampden is a great place."

As he saunters down W. 36th Street, Peranio says, "There's so much character in this area, it's amazing."

D'Amici's, a non-descript carry-out on the 1100 block, was transformed for the movie into the "Sub Pit." While the staff readies for the lunch hour, he admires a new aquarium, home of two fat fish, and wishes it had been there for the filming.

"Pecker" takes place in the old Hampden, not the new Hampden, where galleries, bistros and trendy shops flourish. Peranio's goal was to find places that were as close to his cinematic vision as possible, "and then accessorize."

Across the street, David's, a shop where you can buy a kitchen table with a porcelain top or a fine radiator cover, served as the funky thrift shop run by Pecker's mother and frequented by a jolly homeless couple.

Around the corner, on Falls Road, Peranio found the ideal restaurant/bar, where Pecker's father operates the Claw Machine. Peranio painted the facade of BJ's Pub and Grille a bright blue, added a parade of folk-arty crabs and repainted the exterior Formstone "to look like Formstone." He also put Formstone inside the pub, something he has always wanted to do after seeing it in a bar. The famous faux rock siding is "one of my favorite things about Baltimore," says Peranio, who grew up in the Formstone sea of South Baltimore.

Across the street from BJ's, a non-descript storefront became the lesbian strip club that bedevils Pecker's dad. To Peranio's delight, the "real geography" of Hampden emerged at this juncture, because "literally and in the movie," the bar and the club sit across the street from one another.

Around the corner on Quarry Avenue stands "the house," where Anna Burke has lived for 36 years. Not only did Peranio, Waters and Dorsey love the outside, they were crazy for the inside, too. It was a fine example of interior decorating, Hampden style, from its brown Styrofoam beams to its brown paneling to its brown wall-to-wall carpeting. It is "a spectacular little place," Peranio says.

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