Well, it wasn't exactly Edna, the zaftig stage mom from Waters' "Hairspray," who took to the stage at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Rather, it was actor John Travolta, who brought Edna to the big screen in the 2007 musical version of Waters' film, up there on the stage. But the crowd embraced him like one of their own.
"You've always been my favorite actor," one fan said from the audience, noting that she spent her teen years with pictures of Travolta plastered to her wall.
Travolta, dressed in the sort of all-black outfit that would have perfectly fit the character he played in 1994's "Pulp Fiction," spent about an hour chatting with the amiable Waters. He answered questions about his big-time feature-film debut in 1977's "Saturday Night Fever" (he thought it was going to be a little-seen art film), about his star-turn in the most profitable musical ever made, 1978's "Grease" (the studio head thought that film was unreleasable, but Travolta was confident it would be a success), and about the movie that cemented his status as an enduring Hollywood star, "Pulp Fiction" (that dance move he made famous, making his fingers into a sideways "V" and drawing across his eyes, was lifted from an episode of TV's "Batman"). He applauded the Baltimore firefighters who worked so closely with him and rest of the cast of 2004's "Ladder 49" when it was being shot in Baltimore.
The audience loved every moment, but saved their loudest reaction to his discussion of "Hairspray." He noted how the film's producer initially rejected his suggestion that he play Edna with a Bawlamer accent, but acquiesced when he threatened to leave the picture otherwise. And he noted that the key to his portrayal was playing Edna not as a guy in drag, but as a woman. As Waters himself noted, it was only the audience that knew Edna was a man underneath. The characters in the film didn't have a clue.
Saturday's event was held as a fundraiser for the Maryland Film Festival.
Although Travolta has never lived in Baltimore, he's no stranger to the city. In the early 1970s, as a teenager, he played in a roadshow production of "Grease" at the now-shuttered Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. And in 2003, he spent several months in the area during the filming of "Ladder 49," in which he played a captain in the Baltimore Fire Department.
"There's some very real connection to Baltimore," said Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. "I just think he is a very warm person who, beyond being a great movie star, draws people to him. And he really enjoys that. He's got real friends here."
Dietz, who said he's been invited to attend several events at which Travolta appeared, said the connection to Baltimore, and the warmth with which he regarded the city, came as a welcome surprise. He noted that the actor has several close friends in the area, including Cal Ripken Jr. and his family.
"I was aware of the professional side of it, and I knew the city meant something to him," Dietz said, "but the personal connection, that's new, that's something I didn't know."