THR Web Features   /   February 8, 2024

Famous, But Studiously Ignored, in Baltimore

A quirky way of taking care of our own.

Vincent Ercolano

( John Waters is never incognito; THR illustration.)

“I remember John telling me about the time he shot a scene with Doris Day in a chicken delivery truck.”

My wife and I were having brunch at the café around the corner, and Cindy, the proprietor, had stopped by our table to greet us and get caught up. (We hadn’t seen her since before Christmas.) Dialogue from an old sitcom was competing with our conversation—the volume had been set a little too high on the TV in the bar—so we weren’t too surprised when Cindy momentarily slipped into reminiscence about a conversation she’d once had with one of our neighbors, like us a steady customer of the place: John Astin.

A Baltimore native known to every baby boomer as Gomez Addams, patriarch and happily demented genius of his household in the sixties series The Addams Family, Astin will turn ninety-four in March. These days, he takes his meals less frequently at Cindy’s place. But for years, we and others in our neighborhood have often seen him at his favorite table, a round six-topper, genially holding court with friends and family, including on occasion his sons Mackenzie and Sean, the former most recently a guest star on the 2023 HBO Max series Love & Death and the latter best known for his portrayal of Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings films.

In 2001, when he made Baltimore his permanent home, Astin began teaching, directing, acting, and fundraising his way to getting theater courses brought back to Johns Hopkins University (another of our prominent neighbors), from which he had graduated with a drama major in 1952. The theater where what is now the Program in Theatre Arts and Studies resides, having been thoroughly renovated, was renamed in Astin’s honor in 2011.

Fans of Doris Day will recollect that her scene with Astin in the poultry wagon is from the 1962 romantic comedy That Touch of Mink, in which he plays an unemployment office clerk and would-be lecher so oily he’d easily merit an invitation to join the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. His competition for the pert, innocent gal from the sticks played by Day is a suave millionaire portrayed by Cary Grant. (Hardly a fair fight.)

To get Day to the fleabag hotel where he hopes to consummate the conquest of his dreams, Astin borrows his brother-in-law’s delivery wagon, a panel van full of freshly butchered chickens. This being an early-sixties rom-com, Grant somehow ends up among the wings and thighs in the back of the van and manages just in time to throw Day over his shoulder—literally—and abscond with her before Astin can as much as lay a lubricious finger on her.

When dining at our neighborhood café, Astin is invariably happy to chat with passersby about the old days, but if he seems occupied with his meal or a conversation at table, other guests make sure to let him be.

I like to think that this kind of deference is a Baltimore thing. We are a beaten-down city in many ways. We long ago fell out of the top ten among US metro areas in population, but now all too often can be found among the top ten in murders per capita. But we still have pride in our off-kilter culture—more Hairspray than Homicide, we like to think. Indeed, in January the New York Times rated Baltimore one of the top fifty-two locales to visit in 2024—right up there with Paris, Maui, and a place called O’Higgins, Chile. Daniel Scheffler, the writer who compiled the list, wrote that “instead of actively homogenizing itself, [Baltimore] took all its quirks, magic and specialness and enhanced it and celebrated it.”

Perhaps granting a hometown celebrity the courtesy of being studiously ignored is just our, yes, quirky way of taking care of one of our own. I’ve seen similar treatment given to Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. (at a northside restaurant esteemed for its hamburgers) and five-term US senator Barbara Mikulski (whom I once spotted amid the throng in the vitamin aisle at our local Whole Foods, scanning a shopping list written on the back of a sheet of used Senate stationery).

Mention of Hairspray brings to mind another notable resident of my neighborhood, an uptown tract called Tuscany-Canterbury wedged between the Hopkins campus and Roland Park, the upper-class section made famous by the novelist Anne Tyler. Among Tuscany-Canterbury’s gracious brick townhouses and 1920s apartment buildings can be found the filmmaker John Waters’s handsome residence, a stucco-sided detached house the Baltimore Architecture Foundation has described as Arts and Crafts eclectic. Once affixed to a movie house marquee, a large plastic X in a second-story window is a souvenir of Waters’s breakout opus, the shoestring-budget 1972 underground film Pink Flamingos, in which a pair of jealous small-time crooks scheme to dethrone a Baltimore crime boss whom the tabloid press has crowned “The Filthiest Person Alive.” Eventually besting the two pretenders, the incumbent celebrates with an act of gustation so vile it cannot be described in a respectable journal—nor in many an unrespectable one, I’d wager.

Today, in large part thanks to Hairspray—first a movie set in 1962 in which a white Baltimore girl achieves stardom on a hometown version of American Bandstand (racially integrating the show in the process), then a play based on the movie, then a movie based on the play, all enthusiastically received, and both films rated PG—Waters has become an esteemed figure in the cinema world. (He even has a star, installed last September, on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.) He is also a popular author and public speaker, as well as a philanthropist who in 2020 donated his collection of nearly four hundred paintings, photographs, and other works—by Diane Arbus, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, among others—to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Times has anointed him “The Droll Bard of Baltimore,” though he enjoys being known as “The Pope of Trash,” and has sustained his bona fides in that regard with projects such as a cable TV anthology movie series titled John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You and his first novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance, published in 2022 and soon to be a made into a motion picture.

Despite his distinctive appearance—half Ichabod Crane, half lounge lizard—Waters can also count on being left alone when he is out and about in Baltimore. A young couple who used to live in my building told the story of taking a Los Angeles friend to dinner at a local boho hangout. The visitor from LA became excited when he spotted Waters at a nearby table, quietly eating his roasted brussels sprouts, and it was all my neighbors could do to keep the out-of-towner from dashing over to Waters’s table, no doubt to beg the great man for an autograph, or worse, a selfie.

My most recent John Waters sighting was several years ago, in the snack food aisle of a local supermarket. There he was—tall, lean, well dressed, his fellow Baltimoreans streaming past his motionless figure on either side like a flood tide coursing around a low-country cedar. As oblivious to them as they were to him, he seemed particularly interested in a display of Cheetos. It was late on a winter weekend afternoon—the Sunday of the NFL championship game, in fact. This was obviously a man on his way to a Super Bowl party.

I found myself wondering who would invite the creator of Pink Flamingos to something so prosaic as a Super Bowl party. And what that party would be like.

I could have asked him, of course. But of course, it never occurred to me.