Archivist finds fast friendships on movie sets

Player: When John Waters makes a movie, Bob Adams is there. Gathering props. Taking on a less-than-starring role. Befriending the actors.

November 23, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Shooting on yet another John Waters film was coming to an end last week, so it was essential that Bob Adams make it to the set of "Cecil B. Demented" before the final wrap. He had presents to deliver.

Adams is a card-carrying member of the original Dreamland Players, the group of eccentrics who helped Waters create his first guerrilla films more than a quarter century ago and who have remained fiercely connected ever since. Every Waters film doubles as a reunion for the Dreamlanders, who often marvel over how seminal has been their association with the filmmaker.

"So many of us have had careers or hobbies because of him," says Adams. "I've told him, he's like the Jimmy Stewart character in `It's a Wonderful Life.' Where would we have been if we hadn't known him?"

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about Bob Adams in yesterday's Today section, his vintage store in Fells Point was misidentified. The correct name is Flashback. The Sun regrets the errors.

Where Adams was in the early '70s was Phoenix in northern Baltimore County. He was house-sitting on a 200-acre farm, which Waters deemed a perfect locale for shooting his new project, an outrageous piece of movie-making he would call "Pink Flamingos." He asked Adams if he could film on the property.

Why not? Adams agreed before realizing that the script called for burning a house trailer down on the site. So on that particular day of the shooting, he decided to remove himself to New Jersey. He wanted to preserve "deniability" should Waters accidentally incinerate the entire countryside, which seemed entirely possible.

"When I saw the scene on film, I almost passed out," Adams says. "The whole woods could have burned down. I would have been in big trouble."

Adams worked as a soundman on "Pink Flamingos." Over the years, he has performed many other tasks in Waters' productions. As the surviving owner of Fastback, a Fells Point thrift shop (the late Edith Massey, the Egg-Lady in "Pink Flamingos," was his partner), Adams often hunts down hard-to-find props for Waters' films. For "Cecil B. Demented," he found a lamp on deer feet. Not an everyday household appliance.

He has had many on-screen roles, too. In the new movie, he's a patron of a porno movie theater, a -- shall we say? -- not-altogether-passive patron. In earlier movies, he played a pervert, a customer in a male strip bar, a nudist, a car salesman, a cop and -- in his sole speaking role -- a man invited to a woman's home (Massey is the woman) to entice her son into homosexuality.

These are not the sort of roles you'd expect to see Harrison Ford play. "You'd think I'd want to kill John for giving me these parts, wouldn't you?" says Adams.

Perhaps Adams' most significant function, however, is as Dreamland's designated archivist. During each production, Adams freely roams the set taking photos and collecting mementos that become the behind-the-scenes record of each film.

By giving Adams such access, Waters reaps unexpected benefits, because Adams fulfills another service, acting as a cross between goodwill ambassador and den mother to the actors and crew. Though Adams, 54, is of bearish proportions, his manner is warm and comforting. Many actors who come to town for a Waters film leave with an unexpected friendship. Among others, Adams has forged lasting relationships with Ricki Lake, Patty Hearst, Traci Lords and Johnny Depp. When Depp left Baltimore after completing "Cry-Baby," he wrote a tender two-page letter to Adams pledging always to remain "family." Adams still hears from Depp and many of the others.

As to his impressions of the actors, he's happy to share.

Depp: "More talent than anyone I've ever met and more generous and caring. He just made you happy."

Lake: "I've seen her mature from a young girl bouncing all over the place to a mature mother and wife. I'm real proud of her."

Hearst: "I told her on the set of `Pecker' that of all the people I met, there's nobody that affected me the way she did. I mean there are a lot of actors, but she's the only Patty Hearst."

Iggy Pop: "He's the quietest, most gentle person, the exact opposite of what you see when he performs. What a wonderful man!"

Christina Ricci: "I didn't get to know her that well because the day I went to meet her, her dog had just died. I sent her a condolence card."

Kathleen Turner: "I thought she could have been nicer to people."

Stephen Dorff (the title character in "Cecil B. Demented"): "Lots and lots of talent. A star on the rise and a nice person."

Adams got into the habit of bringing little presents to some of his favorite actors while they were in town. For Polly Bergen, there were cigarettes. For Depp, a Hawaiian guitar. And last Wednesday, Adams had to get to the decrepit Town Theater on West Fayette, where Waters was finishing his latest movie.

Adams had gifts to deliver to Dorff, his newest friend. He had found a metal sign advertising a Gibson guitar, which he knew Dorff would covet, and a poster of Jim Morrison of the Doors, a favorite of the actor's.

"As soon as he saw me, Stephen started saying, `Where's my gift? Where's my gift?' "

The next day, at his waterfront bungalow in Bowleys Quarters, Adams reflected on these relationships, so unexpected but so rewarding. "These kids, they're all away from home. They respond to kindness, just like everyone else.

"You know, I don't believe you get much wisdom in high school, but I did, and it came in my seventh-period typing class. Over and over, we had to type, `There was a man, they called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had.' "

Everyone who knows Bob Adams knows he is more than a touch mad.

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