BALTIMORE -- Tracy Turnblad is a big girl with big hair and a big love for her hometown.
She gets top billing in the new movie "Hairspray," but the city of Baltimore is also a star.
"Good morning, Baltimore. Every day's like an open door," sings Tracy (played by Nikki Blonsky).
But Tracy's 1962 version of Baltimore is different from the lively Inner Harbor attractions and Camden Yards ballpark, the main tourist draws today.
Tracy lives in the blue collar Highlandtown neighborhood, where positive attitude gets her through the day. The film is as much about integration as dance contests and beehive hairdos.
The story debuted in director John Waters's original "Hairspray" movie in 1988. Waters, who also directed "Pink Flamingos" and other cult classics, has filmed many of his movies in his native Baltimore.
Producers of the new "Hairspray" decided to film in Toronto -- a decision based mostly on the fact that the Canadian city boasts soundstage facilities superior to Baltimore's.
But capturing the ambience of Baltimore in 1962 was key, said production designer David Gropman. Before creating the sets for "Hairspray" he toured the Highlandtown neighborhood of East Baltimore where Waters filmed the original movie.
The neighborhood is in a 1960s time warp with the row houses little changed from that time. Many are still covered in Formstone, fake stone that was put over brick to give it a fresh look -- much like aluminum siding was put over wood. It's a distinctive local architectural detail.
The house where Tracy lives with Edna, her laundress mom (John Travolta in drag), and Wilbur, her joke shop-owner dad (Christopher Walken) has the fake stone look in the movie. An area of East Baltimore Street at North East Street was re-created in Toronto, where the production team converted some 60 modern-day buildings into Baltimore circa 1962.
Gropman said the streets were given such a Baltimore look, "I don't think people would know the difference."
The three-block area is the setting in the movie for the big production numbers "Good Morning Baltimore" and "Welcome to the Sixties." Waters appears in the "Good Morning Baltimore" scene in a cameo role as a neighborhood flasher.
While the movie is not exactly a travelogue, Gropman said the closest people can come to a "Hairspray" ambience is taking a stroll around Highlandtown. "If they like what they see in the movie they should definitely go to Baltimore," he said.
There were plenty of beehives on display in Highlandtown in the late 1950s and early '60s, but not these days. For beehives, head to the kitschy Hampden neighborhood, where Waters filmed the 1998 movie "Pecker."
West 36th Street is known as "The Avenue" and is home to Cafe Hon, with a giant pink flamingo on its façade and a late 1950s ambience inside, complete with a life-size Elvis statue at the entrance. The waitresses don't always wear beehives but they do call customers "Hon," and the place serves comfort food including creamed chipped beef on white toast ($7.95) and cherry pie made with sour cherries ($4.95) at Formica tables, with the added benefit of bar service.
The menu features beehive hairdo photos and a "Bawlmer-eeze" primer -- for car say "kooer," for America say "Murca." Travolta bravely tackles the accent in the movie.
The gift shop at Cafe Hon is the place to stock up on beehive wigs, cat's eye sunglasses, and feather boas.
The hairdos are best on display at the Honfest, which this year, its 12th, attracted 30,000 revelers. Held on 36th Street, the festival features music and food and such activities as the crowning of Balti more's Best Hon. It's a wonderful tribute to Baltimore once being dubbed "beehive hairdo capital of the world." Next year's event is June 14-15.
"The Avenue" also boasts funky, affordable shopping at antique and retro shops where you can find original 1960s furniture and collectibles, including the jam-packed Hampden Junque, with such items as original cat's eye sunglasses and movie and TV posters.
A must stop is Atomic Books, the colorful little independent bookshop and "zine" specialist, where Waters has for years picked up his fan mail.
Continue your tour of the city with a visit to The Senator Theatre at Belvedere Square, where the original "Hairspray" had its world premier. Waters and all the stars were in attendance including Ricki Lake, who played Tracy, and Divine, who gained fame as Edna (appearing as Travolta does in drag). Beehive hairdos were very much on display.
The theater is a classic, built in 1939 and still showing off its Art Deco splendor. First-run movies are shown on the 40-foot curved screen.
On the sidewalk outside is a Baltimore movie Walk of Fame featuring movies with Charm City ties including the Waters classics.
The best place to pay tribute to Divine, who died two weeks after the premier in 1988, is at the American Visionary Art Museum on the waterfront, an excellent national museum dedicated to the work of untrained artists. In the adjacent Jim Rouse Center for Visionary Thought, there is a giant revolving statue of Divine, with flowing blond hair and wearing a skin tight red ballgown.
Like the movie, it's a reminder that what goes around, comes around.
Fran Golden can be reached at FGolden505@aol.com.