In 1988, Pope of Trash John Waters surprised fans by releasing his tamest cult movie to date. Hairspray told the story of Tracy Turnblad, a “pleasantly plump” teenager in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show. But she soon aims for the nobler goal of integration after befriending a group of black students and their matriarch, Motormouth Maybelle.
Waters drew on his own memories of Baltimore in the 1960s to make the movie, which featured his perennial star Divine as well as famous musicians like Debbie Harry and Ruth Brown and future daytime talk show host Ricki Lake. (Plus a pop star you might’ve missed.) Here are a few facts on the film, the sequel to which is still sitting on some Hollywood exec’s desk as we speak.
1. IT WAS JOHN WATERS’ FIRST (AND ONLY) PG MOVIE.
John Waters has proudly been a thorn in the MPAA’s side for his entire career. Most of his movies have been slapped with R ratings at best, NC-17 or X at worst, and they’ve forced the board to issue some rather creative warnings. But Hairspray earned the director his first and last PG rating, much to his surprise and mock horror. “I made a family movie. It was PG—a shock,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “I remember when it got [that] rating, I wanted to commit suicide.”
2. STOCKARD CHANNING TURNED DOWN A ROLE.
In a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Waters recalled the actresses who had declined parts in his movies. At the top of his list? “Stockard Channing for Hairspray.” Waters also revealed that Lisa Marie Presley and Mamie Van Doren, who “said she deserved better than Divine,” turned down offers for non-specified movies.
3. IT WAS SHOT AT PERRY HALL HIGH SCHOOL IN BALTIMORE.
For Tracy’s high school, Waters used an actual Baltimore public school: Perry Hall High. Although it opened in 1963, a year after the events in Hairspray take place, Perry Hall was an historically savvy pick. Integration was still a new concept when the first graduating class received its diplomas, as former students recounted to The Baltimore Sun.
4. THE CORNY COLLINS SHOW WAS BASED ON THE BUDDY DEANE SHOW.
While growing up in Baltimore, Waters was obsessed with The Buddy Deane Show, an American Bandstand knock-off that featured local teenagers demonstrating all the latest dance crazes. Sound familiar? The Corny Collins Show is a very obvious ode to this WJZ-TV series, which ran from 1957 to 1964, except The Buddy Deane Show didn’t end in a multiracial dance party. The people running the show actually did want to integrate it, but experienced pushback from the market—or, more specifically, from the dancers’ parents. Deane himself explained in an AP interview that when the station ran the idea by each of the dancers, or “Committee Members,” the response was unanimous: they were fine with it, their “folks” weren’t. The show was thus canceled, but Deane stepped behind the camera again for a Hairspray cameo, as a reporter covering the protests at the governor’s mansion.
5. RUBY BRIDGES INSPIRED LITTLE INEZ.
In the movie, Tracy’s fight for integration is ignited by an afternoon she spends with record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle and Maybelle’s kids, Seaweed and Little Inez. According to The Village Voice, Inez was based on another determined young girl: Ruby Bridges. Bridges was the first black child to attend New Orleans’ all-white William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 and the subject of Norman Rockwell’s painting, The Problem We All Live With.
6. TILTED ACRES WAS BASED ON A REAL, RACIALLY-FRAUGHT AMUSEMENT PARK.
Toward the end of the movie, riots break out at Tilted Acres, the segregated amusement park owned by Tracy’s nemeses, the Von Tussles. Waters shot this sequence at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but he based Tilted Acres on Gwynn Oak Park. The Baltimore amusement park was the site of demonstrations in July of 1963. Members from CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), CIG (Civic Interest Group), NCC (National Council of Churches), and the NAACP first gathered to protest the park’s segregation policy on July 4. About 300 people were arrested, but the group showed up again on July 7, and this time, national outlets like TIME were there to cover it. Facing enormous public scrutiny, the owners of Gwynn Oak integrated the next month. The amusement park no longer exists, but you can still ride the carousel on the National Mall.
7. DEBBIE HARRY SLYLY DID A VERSE ON THE SONG “HAIRSPRAY.”
Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry has a starring role as Velma Von Tussle, but she had to be careful about her involvement with the film. As Waters explained to CMJ, “Debbie—because of her recording contract—we couldn’t really say it was her. I mean, we could say it was her, but we couldn’t put out an album or single.” This is why she only sneakily popped up in Rachel Sweet’s title track on the Hairspray album. Sweet opens the song by asking, “Hey girl, what you doing over there?” Harry responds, “Can’t you see? I’m spraying my hair.” Those are her only two lines in the song, but she does appear in the music video. Watch closely—you might miss Harry under that giant brunette beehive.
8. VITAMIN C PLAYED AMBER.
The part of Amber Von Tussle is billed to Colleen Fitzpatrick, but you probably know her by her stage name—Vitamin C. Fitzpatrick was just 16 years old when she filmed Hairspray. After graduating college, she decided to pursue a career in music, not acting. Her first gig was lead singer for the band Eve’s Plum, but after the group broke up, she dubbed herself Vitamin C and released her platinum-selling, self-titled debut album. It included this inescapable graduation party anthem, “Graduation (Friends Forever).”
9. THE VON TUSSLES QUOTE GEORGE WALLACE.
When Franklin and Velma Von Tussle are interviewed by a news crew outside Tilted Acres, they rail against integration, saying, “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” The chant is an almost verbatim quote from the 1963 inaugural address of Alabama governor George Wallace.
10. RIC OCASEK AND JOHN WATERS HAD CAMEOS.
Baltimore-bred musician Ric Ocasek (who you probably know from The Cars) nabbed a minor role as a bizarre Beatnik painter that Tracy, Penny, Link, and Seaweed visit. Not to be outdone, Waters gave himself a quick cameo as Dr. Fredrickson, the quack psychiatrist Penny’s parents hire to make her break up with Seaweed.
11. JOSH CHARLES MADE HIS FILM DEBUT AS A DANCER.
Ocasek and Waters weren’t the only Baltimore natives with cameo roles. Actor Josh Charles also appeared as one of the dancers on The Corny Collins Show. At the time, Charles was a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts and had never acted in a movie. But soon after his debut in Hairspray he nabbed roles in movies like Dead Poets Society and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.
12. IT WAS DIVINE’S FINAL FILM.
Mere weeks after Hairspray hit theaters, Divine was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room. The actor, whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead, had suffered a heart attack. At the time of his death, Divine was earning excellent reviews for Hairspray and had just nabbed a role on Married… With Children. “I’ve never seen him happier,” his manager Bernard Jay told People. “His career was taking off. He was actually going to play a very good character role on a network television show. That’s what he wanted. To show them that he didn’t have to play women, that he was respected as an actor, that he was not regarded as a freak. But he didn’t make it.”
13. THE REMAKE INCLUDED SEVERAL ORIGINAL CAST MEMBERS.
Hairspray was turned into a smash-hit Broadway musical in 2002, which led to a 2007 movie remake. While stars like John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer received top billing, many of the original film’s cast members appeared in the reboot. Jerry Stiller, the original Wilbur Turnblad, plays Mr. Pinky of Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway. Ricki Lake cameos as a talent scout. And John Waters nabs the best part of them all, as the “flasher who lives next door” in the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore.”
14. THERE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SEQUEL.
After the remake of Hairspray earned nearly $120 million at the box office, Waters wrote a wild treatment for a sequel titled Hairspray 2: White Lipstick. The script moved the characters into the late 1960s and called for, among other things, Link (Zac Efron) to take acid. Director Adam Shankman was enthusiastically on board in early 2009, but apparently the deal fell through. In June 2010, Shankman confirmed that New Line Cinema had dropped the sequel.