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Baltimore Backstage: How ‘Grease’ has roots in Charm City; fireworks back with a BSO bonus; Baltimoreans worked their way into ‘The Wire’

Summer is officially here, and while it’s warm outside, the B’more arts scene is even hotter. Keep cool — 1950s style — as Baltimore Backstage takes you behind the scenes:

With the 50th anniversary of its Broadway debut, a Baltimore-born producer of the original “Grease,” shares how some Charm City jewels were added to the hit musical about teens in the ‘50s and dishes on his new book.

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And speaking of “Summer Nights,” we go behind the scenes of an Independence Day tradition that is returning to the Inner Harbor with a bang after two summers without Fourth of July fireworks.

Finally, as celebrations surrounding “The Wire’s” 20th anniversary conclude, learn how Baltimore worked its way into more than the set and storyline of the HBO series.

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How Broadway’s ‘Grease’ relates to Baltimore

Grease” debuted on Broadway on June 7, 1972, and while the hit musical became famous in New York City, 50 years later we’re learning that much of the show has roots in Baltimore.

Ken Waissman, co-author of the new book, “Grease, Tell Me More, Tell Me More: Stories from the Broadway Phenomenon That Started It All,” produced the original show alongside Maxine Fox — both graduates of Baltimore’s Forest Park Senior High School.

“Baltimore influenced ‘Grease’ right from the beginning,” said Waissman, who began producing shows in the basement of his Penhurst Avenue home at 11-years-old. “‘Grease’ is a continuation of what I did and what I learned at a tender age doing shows in Baltimore.’”

In the summer of 1971, Waissman’s Forest Park friend Phil Markin called to tell him about a show he saw in Chicago about high schoolers in the ‘50s who reminded him of the “ducktail kids” they went to school with — the term deriving from the “ducktail style” hairdos.

Waissman flew to Chicago, went to a basement of an old trolley barn where there were no seats — and sat on newspapers to watch the first iteration of “Grease.” He said the stage was level with the floor and the set had hand-painted posters and homemade brown paper scenery to illustrate the mythical Rydell High backdrop.

“However, once the show began, I saw my own Forest Park high school yearbook coming to life,” Waissman said. “They each mirrored people I remembered from high school in Baltimore. I felt their fears, their bravado and their need to fit in.”

Waissman and Fox convinced writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey to rework the show’s book (musical theater lingo for script), and “Grease” went from off-Broadway to its June 1972 Broadway debut at the Broadhurst Theatre.

The Baltimore-born producers tapped fellow Forest Park alum Carrie Robbins to do costumes and called a meeting with director Tom Moore. In the meeting, Waissman said he and Robbins had their own “Forest Park shorthand.”

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“At one point Tom brought up [the character] Rizzo. I turned to Carrie and said, ‘Arlene Sinsky.’ Arlene Sinsky was a classmate of ours who had a tough bravado, wore sexy tight skirts and bleached the front of her hair,” Waissman said.

When adding a proscenium to the set (a suggestion made by “American Bandstand’s” Dick Clark), Waissman and Fox used photos from their old Forest Park yearbook to decorate it. One of the photos was of Marilyn Wolf Picht, whose sister Sheri Wolf lived in New York and saw “Grease,” in previews.

“Sheri glanced up at the stage and let out a scream. It was so loud everyone around her turned to look. She got up and ran up the aisle to look for me. ‘That’s Marilyn up there,’ she said,” Waissman recalled. The following Saturday, Wolf, her parents, Picht, and her husband were in the audience looking at the Baltimore girl’s face as part of the hit show.

“Grease, Tell Me More, Tell Me More,” which Waissman and Moore co-authored with the show’s original Rizzo actor, Adrienne Barbeau, includes anecdotes from more than 100 members of the creative team, cast and orchestra. Even John Travolta (who played Doody in the show’s original national tour and on Broadway) shares in the book how he always wanted to play Danny Zuko, before ultimately landing the role in the 1978 hit film.

Fireworks to return with a bang — and BSO as added bonus

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic limiting in-person celebrations, fireworks are returning to the Inner Harbor for the Fourth of July, and this year there will be some extra sparks to go along with the pyrotechnics.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), which generally organizes the fireworks show annually, is working with the Mayor’s Office and Baltimore Waterfront Partnership to create a celebratory experience for those near the Inner Harbor and surrounding areas.

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“It’s our civic duty, if you will,” said Tonya Miller, BOPA chief marketing and program officer. “The whole point is to activate.”

With an Orioles game earlier in the afternoon, Miller said activities will kick off at 4 p.m. to catch game goers who want to leave their car parked at Camden Yards and head over to the Inner Harbor for pre-fireworks fun.

Continuing the longtime tradition, the festivities will begin with a performance by the United States Navy Band at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater. Further down the promenade at West Shore Park, Waterfront Partnership will be hosting a food truck, pop up bar and lawn games.

This year the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) is joining in on the Independence Day commemoration, with an 8 p.m. concert called “Star Spangled Celebration, which features the full orchestra. Writer and performer Wordsmith will be joining the orchestra, performing Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Closing out the show will be the fireworks display put on by Pyrotecnico; the BSO will also be performing during the fireworks.

“It should be really spectacular and celebratory,” Miller said.

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Working with Baltimore: “The Wire” cast dishes on Baltimoreans on set

For many, including the stars of the show, part of what makes “The Wire” so brilliant was Baltimore’s role. As this column concludes 20th anniversary coverage of “The Wire,” I asked some of the cast about moments they recalled while filming that illustrated Baltimore’s quirks.

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“Baltimore was the best character on the show. It just gave us a platform to work and be truthful,” said actor Andre Royo, who played the drug addicted Bubbles.

Royo, who has told a story of receiving his “street Oscar” — a bag of drugs offered to him while filming the show — said when in costume, a group of local guys would regularly walk with him from his trailer to the set.

“They would always try to give me as much input as they could because they were proud of me. But then at the end of the day, when I would go into my trailer and change, and get ready to go jump in my rental car, these same people would be like, ‘Oh look at you. Look who’s [expletive] clean now.”

From that experience, the actor said he realized how important the character of Bubbles was to street culture at large.

“It was crazy to be a part of that, and it was heartbreaking at the same time,” he said.

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Jamie Hector, who played the young hustler Marlo Stanfield, told a story when the scene called for the characters to put out “testers,” or samples of new drugs on the streets. Though cameras were around, some of the neighborhood folks thought the testers were real.

“The frustration started to happen because [people were] like, ‘Oh this is fake.’ But you saw everybody that was dealing with an addiction ran towards our section, and it was just mind-blowing.”


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