Imagine being part of such a strong cultural movement that the films you worked on are used as signposts for disruption, artistic freedom, taboo-breaking and the ultimate celebration of camp, glamour and sleaze. Imagine being so completely dedicated and immersed in your craft that you bedded down in one city for 50 years and made every corner of it yours. That is how film maker and designer Vincent Peranio lived and worked, sharing it with his wife and fellow creative, Dolores Deluxe, spending his entire career working in Baltimore.
Peranio made all but the very first of John Waters’ films, starting with Multiple Maniacs. He also worked closely with David Simon, first on Homicide: Life on the Streets and later, on all five seasons of The Wire – widely credited as one of the greatest shows in the history of American television. That’s a deep well of talent in a small patch of middle America.
Over a patchy line between Sydney and a small village on the coast of Portugal, Peranio explains just how a Happening, well, happens.
It all started in the late 60s in Fells Point – the oldest part of Baltimore, full of turn-of-the-century charm, built on a dying industrial waterfront. A collection of recently graduated students from Maryland Institute College of Art found and rented a row of old houses – 22 rooms in total for just $100 a month – and it soon became the beating heart of the Baltimore college arts scene.
“Everybody had a studio, everybody had their bedrooms. There were creative spaces. We set up a little stage.” says Peranio. “So we were a happening little scene. It was called the Hollywood Bakery. Because the first door was a bakery at one time.”
One evening, a friend of Peranio’s turned up with John Waters and the stars of his first feature film, Mondo Trasho – among them were Divine, Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Van Smith. Waters was just starting his second film, Multiple Maniacs. “John says, ‘Oh, hey, you're an artist. I need a 15 foot lobster.’”
“That was really my first experience in the film world. I was a fine arts painter. And little did I know that was the beginning of a 47-year-career.”
I tell Peranio that as a kid, I was obsessed with Hairspray, Serial Mom and Cry-Baby. “Ah,” says Peranio, not unkindly. “All the safe ones.” I try to tell him I was only 10 when I first saw Tracy Turnblad dance The Roach on The Corny Collins Show but I can tell I'm already a square.
“Hairspray was a very special film for us too,” he says. “When we were teenagers, we all experienced this Baltimore dance show. You'd run back from school, and sit in the living room in front of the TV, and you got to know all the dancers and all the music.”
“And I got to re-create that. To see the young actors who had no idea what this music was about, or what kind of dance they were learning and then dressing them up in crazy 60s clothes… it was a magical experience for me.”
Before Hairspray is Waters’ far more risque catalogue – movies that, in the early days, were mostly made up of a crew of Fells Point creatives pooling together and just playing. It was a time with few limits and limited budget. “You know, we were just artists,” says Peranio. “We embraced the fact that we didn't have a big budget and we made fun of the fact.”
“I liked being able to have fun and feel like there's some real buzz creatively,” he says. “There was no pressure. It was the pure work that got us going. Nothing was off limits.”
This is an excerpt from issue 2 of Swill. Grab a copy of Swill today to read the whole thing!