Hairspray’s Revolting History
By Polar Levine.
The Hollywood version of Hairspray opens this week as a big screen and big star version of John Waters original film celebrating 1960’s youth culture. Yet there is a “back story” that Hollywood ignores and News Dissector Danny Schechter remembers as recounted by Polar Levine.
The Invisible Star of the Show Behind The New Movie
August 1, 2003
Buddy Dean died last month on July 16. Probably not too many people besides Baltimore-bred baby boomers noticed. John Waters and Danny Schechter did.
Before The 60’s there was a sliver of time that never got a zingy name. America in The 50’s was marked by a mania for order and predictability following the prolonged chaos of WWII and the Depression. Post-war America had a psychic need to lacquer in place every hair on Uncle Sam’s beard. That era lived its final days as the aerodynamic JFK jettisoned America into a dayglow future. But the future crash-landed onto the streets of Dallas late in 1963.
The Kennedy assassination left in vertigo an American society absolutely sure of God’s favor, yet deeply paranoid of possible agents of destruction within and without. Within a year of the assassination, the British had invaded the airwaves, further polluting our children’s rock & roll-infested DNA. These mutant offspring grew up to channel the dormant remains of the commie virus that spawned the dreaded New Deal. They would soon turn the known world upside down with the arrival of the Beatles/Dylan/hippie cultural trinity that certified the 1960’s as “THE 60’s.”
That short period has been a historical orphan child in America’s cultural imagination until the recent phenomenon of HAIRSPRAY — both John Waters’ cult film and the Broadway musical adaptation. HAIRSPRAY has fabricated the definitive image of the early 60’s with a vaudeville take on that transitional era. When the curtain falls, what sticks in our memory is the explosion of pastel colors, period hair sculptures and cross-gendered burlesque of suburban motherhood.
While white America was distracted by yellow waxy buildup, the grandchildren of slaves were setting off a storm that would forever end the official narcolepsy of The 50’s. The part of the HAIRSPRAY craze that has received less attention is the actual canvas for this ugly-duckling love story and period caricature: the segregated TV dance show actually existed, and its host city, Baltimore, was on the frontier of the segregated South as it was undergoing explosive change. And that’s where the recently deceased Buddy Dean becomes a nplayer in this story. It was the Buddy Dean Show that John Waters used as a model for The Corny Collins Show.
Dean’s show was a six-day-per-week magnet for Baltimore’s teen set. Dean was very conscious of his role in the community and apparently was not opposed to integrating the show. “It was just the times. The kids said they didn’t care if we let black youngsters on the show. Hell, they were going to school together. But they said their parents didn’t want it.” One day a month, and later, one day a week were set aside for an all-black show, including a black co-MC. The blurb on the Broadway show’s website illustrates the weight it intended to give to the civil rights aspect of the story: “… can a trendsetter in dance and fashion… win the heart of heartthrob Link Larkin, and integrate a television show without denting her ‘do?”
The racial drama that was beginning to rattle the silverware in Camelot reached most Americans on black and white tv where the teen set watched a sea of spit-shined white kids twisting to black beats.
But their parents and grandparents watched a more troubling picture unfold: Rosa Parks rearranges the seating of buses, fire hoses and attack dogs are aimed at unarmed people, black churches are bombed and both blacks and whites are murdered for trying to register black voters.
On the lighter side of the drama a white boy from the Bronx, NY decides to ram de facto integration into a segregated teen dance show through a brazen political prank.
In 1963, 21-year old Danny Schechter moved to East Baltimore to join the civil rights movement. The Buddy Dean Show was Baltimore’s answer to Philadelphia’s nationally broadcast American Bandstand. Schechter, working with the black youth he was organizing, dreamed up what might have been the first act of political theater in the 60’s. The event was chronicled in the climax of HAIRSPRAY — when a bi-racial crowd of clean-cut teens scammed its way into the Buddy Dean Show: Teen America was integrated for all to see while the sponsors and their lawyers were overheating the phone wires. It was the movement;’s first “Dance-in.”
In his book THE MORE YOU WATCH, THE LESS YOU KNOW, Schechter describes the coup: “Dancers on the shows were all white except for one day every other week when they were all black. To add insult to injury, the show packed in twice as many dancers on the black kids’ day, so that no one could really show off their best moves.
“We came up with a plan to desegregate the show through what no doubt was the first and probably last civil rights ‘dance-in.’ Using our BAYOU (Baltimore Area Youth Opportunities Unlimited) group as a cover, the kids secured tickets to one of the black-only sessions presided over by Fat Daddy, a black radio DJ who co-hosted these ‘Negro shows.’ With my encouragement, they invited a group of white college tutors from our Northern Student Movement (NSM) ‘each one teach one’ tutorial project to come along. The black students went into the studio first while the whites waited in the parking lot until the last minute. With two minutes to air time, we rushed into the studio for the live show. The ticket taker was confused but let us in. The TV crew was equally perplexed. TV then was still black and white but those two colors weren’t meant to be mixing in Bal’more, not then, not ever.
“It was probably the first interracial dance party on TV. On Buddy’s shows, the guest organization was invited to say a few words about who its members were and what they did. One of the black teenagers and I were pushed forward. We made political speeches, speaking out against segregation on the show, looking right into the stupid grin plastered on Buddy Dean’s face. He was beside himself. Seething. Fat Daddy chuckled.”
Later, at the Sundance Film Festival in 002, Schechter met John Waters. He told him about that day in the summer of l963 and asked if he had seen it, and if it influenced him. He smiled and said that he had and that it absolutely had influenced Hair Spray. And yet you will find no references to this event in any of the publicity hoopla surrounding the release of the new star studded Hairspray Movie.
The Buddy Dean Show was cancelled on January 1964 — the same month that The Jack Paar Show ran a clip of a ridiculous looking British band howling Yeah Yeah Yeah at Royal Albert Hall. It was screened for comic effect. Everybody laughed. Six months later Yeah Yeah Yeah sent The 50’s packing.
Danny Schechter went on in 1970 to become the controversial News Dissector for Boston’s pioneering FM rock radio station WBCN. He continued his civil rights work in South Africa, bringing weekly reportage of apartheid onto American TV and spearheaded, with rocker Little Steven, the WE AIN’T GONNA PLAY SUN CITY protest involving the major pop musicians of 1984. Sun City was the South African resort that contracted many famous Americans to entertain whites-only audiences. He was among the first producers for CNN and 20/20.
Today Schechter produces documentaries on subjects as diverse as China’s persecution of the Falun Gong, the disputed presidential election of 2000 and the re-recording of Nile Rodgers’ WE ARE FAMILY after 9/11. In the past three years he’s authored THE MORE YOU WATCH, THE LESS YOU KNOW about his career in broadcasting and the dumbing down of news reporting on tv; DISSECTOR, an anthology of Schechter’s essays over the course of thirty years; MEDIA WARS, about news coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath; and, most recently, EMBEDDED about the effect “embedded” journalists had on coverage of the Iraq War. He serves as global media watchdog on his MediaChannel.org supersite and continues to force fresh air into our new era of hairsprayed certainty.
– Polar Levine
Yankin’ The Food Chain