Broadway balm helps heal wounds of segregation

August 18, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK - During Hairspray's intermission, I bump into two guys from Baltimore who used to dance on the old Buddy Deane TV show. They're up in the balcony, loving life: Mike Makarovich, who now owns Hampden Junque, and Duane Schline, a former Committee member on the show who makes his living at Just Your Style in Hampden as - what else? - a hairdresser.

"When they open the show with `Good Morning, Baltimore,'" Makarovich says, "we started to weep. 'Cause, you know, it's our home, and here they are singing about us in New York City."

"Wonderful," Schline says. "Wonderful."

"And," says Makarovich, "we're sitting up there next to four ladies from Pikesville dancing the Madison in their seats."

Nobody from Baltimore needs translation. Hairspray, the musical version of John Waters' 1988 movie romp, opened last week to loving reviews, sold-out crowds, and advance ticket sales dwarfing everything else on Broadway. It's a frothy, feel-good, musical hoot that also happens to be a cleansing hymn to Baltimore as conceived by one of its original naughty boys.

Those back home who lived through the era already feel like members of the story's original cast. The show's about the Buddy Deane after-school teen-age dance show, which ran on WJZ-TV from 1957 to 1964 and left the air rather than have black teen-agers dance on the same afternoons as whites.

But that's only part of the Hairspray story line. Because it's Waters' original tale - and because Waters would rather joke than preach - it's also a good-natured morality tale in which the fat girl gets the handsome guy, a cross-dressing "mother" can dance with her husband and nobody blinks an eye, and the homely Baltimore of 1962 learns to make belated peace with itself.

The fat girl (Tracy Turnblad, played winningly by Marissa Janet Winokur) might be the personification of H.L. Mencken's wish: "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

Tracy's desperate to go on television and be popular, to be a member of the Corny Collins (Buddy Deane) Show. Her mother (the hysterical Harvey Fierstein, in the role originated by Divine) utters the show's most poignant line, which feels symbolic of the way Baltimore sometimes looks in its own collective mirror: "They don't put people like us on TV," she says, "except to be laughed at."

Instead, Tracy's a hit - and she leads the charge to integrate the TV show. From a distance of 40 years, we can make music and jokes about such things. But 40 years ago, the Buddy Deane Show was a public playing-out of a city's - and a nation's - most vulnerable sore spot, the mixing of different races of people.

Winston "Buddy" Deane still remembers what it was like. He left Baltimore shortly after the program was pulled off the air in 1964 and returned to his native Arkansas, where he bought half a dozen radio stations. He still owns four of them. But at 78, he's looking to sell them and retire.

In Hairspray, Deane's Corny Collins character doesn't have a problem with integrating the show. "Negroes buy hairspray, too," he says. Hairspray's the show's sponsor.

"I didn't have any problem with integrating the show," Deane recalled on the telephone the other day. "We had black artists on all the time. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Shirelles, all the groups."

In Hairspray, blacks teens are allowed on the show once a month. It's called Negro Day. Deane remembers it was once every week or two (white teens did not appear on those days), and it was called Special Guest Day. Deane would have one of the local black radio jocks - Fat Daddy, Hot Rod, or Larry Dean - join him on the program.

"But then the pressure mounted to have all the kids on together," he said. "I thought that was fine. So we sat down all the Committee members [the show's white teen-age regulars] and asked them how they felt. They said fine, they didn't care. They loved the black music of the day. They went to school with black kids.

"The problem, they said, was their parents. They're the ones who wouldn't want it. They said their parents wouldn't let them come on the air with black kids."

In the face of social pressures (and, Deane remembers, bomb threats) the TV station took the easier course and simply canceled the show. In Hairspray, passion prevails instead. The kids overcome community misgivings and learn to dance with each other. Maybe this, too, is a metaphor for the country.

Does the show feel like Baltimore? Yup. It's got Formstone rowhouses, marble steps, Patterson Park High School, North Avenue, Essex Community College, crabs, scags, cooties, Druid Hill Avenue, the dirty boogie, a governor named Millard (as in Tawes) and, of course, the Madison, the dance invented by "the nicest kids in town."

As it happens, of course, they were the nicest white kids. Hairspray is a wink at the American changeover. It is hilarious and happy, and the songs and dances are a hoot. Is that how we remember the awkward and often painful time of integration?

Yes - in the same way that Mel Brooks thumbed his nose at Nazis in The Producers. After all this time, what's left but to have a laugh at the things that once frightened us? Hairspray is great laughter and, thus, great healing.

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