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Port of Call Talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell lends a hand for children's museum party -- and quickly has Baltimore eating out of it.


Rosie O'Donnell came to town yesterday for the first time since her days as a stand-up comic in the late '80s. And as her limo glided soundlessly from the airport past the new downtown stadiums and into the glass and metal canyons of the Inner Harbor, her take on the city's updated look was a trademark: "You rock, Baltimore!"

The star of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" was here to lend her considerable celebrity to pre-opening festivities at the Port Discovery children's museum, and Baltimore responded by going into full-tilt Big Event mode: crowds straining behind metal barriers, satellite trucks, banks of TV cameras, grim-looking cops on horseback, beefy security guys in windbreakers, jittery PR flacks whispering into cell phones.

At a little before 11 a.m., a black limo the size of a freighter pulled up to the sidewalk and out jumped Ms. O'Donnell.

Resplendent in a charcoal pinstripe suit and fashionable black winter boots, she began gracefully working the crowd, encircled by a security retinue that would impress the pope.

Despite her oft-stated policy of signing autographs only for children, she signed for a few adults and posed for a few snapshots with, among others, Denise Kesselman, 34, of Pikesville and her mother, Harriet.

"She supports our town, she's bringing revenue into the city, she's helping to take kids off the streets," said Harriet Kesselman, and for an instant you wondered if Rosie was running for mayor and you were the last to get the word.

Then again, this was a neutral crowd only if you thought the crowds that worshipped Eva Peron in Buenos Aires were neutral.

"I like everything about her," said Lynn Fox of Joppatowne, a T. Rowe Price employee taking an early lunch hour. "She's personable, she's funny. How can you not like her? She's so down-to-earth."

In fact, Fox and a co-worker, Terri Hett of Baltimore, were trying to find out just how personable O'Donnell really was: Both women were hoping she'd sign their copies of her book "Kids Are Punny 2."

Shouts of "Rosie rocks!" and "We love you, Rosie!" erupted from the overwhelmingly female throng as O'Donnell finally climbed a podium outside the museum, where she was joined by Douglas L. Becker, chairman of the Port Discovery board and various other bigwigs, among them Congressman Benjamin Cardin.

If there was irony to the whole sun-dappled scene, it was this: Baltimore, it seems, is not particularly enamored with "The Rosie O'Donnell Show."

In the November sweeps, it got only a 3.2 rating (each point represents 10,000 viewing households), finishing behind the "The Guiding Light" (5.4) and the chair-throwing freakiness of "The Jerry Springer Show" (8.0.) in its daily 3 p.m. time slot. But none of that seemed to matter. These were mostly hard-core fans, in the Cult of Rosie all the way, people who delight each afternoon in her humor, her kindness toward her guests, her star-struck manner in front of such mega-stars as Barbra Streisand and Tom Cruise, her "regular-girlness."

And when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke welcomed O'Donnell to Baltimore with a booming, caffeinated introduction, the crowd roared again.

Like another famous talk show, David Letterman, O'Donnell seemed taken with the variety of ways available to mangle the mayor's last name.

"Holy SCHHHH-MOKE!" she said playfully over and over, with the mayor and his wife, Patricia Schmoke, laughing along.

It was shortly after she took the microphone that someone in the crowd screamed "Hi, Rosie!" in a voice that could be heard in Delaware.

"Hi! Where were you? I've been here, like, 30 minutes!" O'Donnell quipped and the crowd laughed. The whole thing sounded like a line from one of her famous K mart commercials with Penny Marshall, down to the feigned intimacy.

After a few brief remarks about the importance of the museum ("Children are the most important commodity in this nation ..."), O'Donnell and the other dignitaries participated in a hokey, pull-the-string unveiling of a sign indicating that just 19 days remained until the museum's official opening Dec. 29.

Then they were whisked inside the museum, although "whisked" might not be the precise word to use here: The entrance was partially blocked by the Port Discovery Dream Squad, the Walt Disney Imagineering-designed family of characters who, the story line goes, live at Port Discovery.

The characters -- actually shadow puppeteers with such names as Ivan Idea, Wanda Whye and Howie Lovitt -- are said to represent a step along the way to exploring one's dreams and fantasies, although at the moment, they seemed to represent more of an impediment to the buffet table, groaning with Danish.

Another crowd of several hundred schoolchildren, dignitaries, museum workers and their families was shoehorned inside the lobby itself.

O'Donnell was escorted to another podium and given another rousing introduction ("A woman who treasures the most important element of this country -- children"), after which she gave another brief speech. ("Did you hear what I said outside? No? Well, then I'll give the same speech.")

After that it was time to tour the facility itself, although what followed in the next 30 minutes amounted to Rosie leading a snaking media horde from floor to floor, rather than a chance for her to see the various exhibits.

At her one opportunity to study a hands-on exhibit, she played a game called Wonder Widgets. This is an exercise where kids compete to place the most correctly shaped parts in their widgets.

After she and a young boy got smoked -- or SCHHHH-MOKED, as she put it -- by two other kids, O'Donnell exploded: "We were ripped off, man!"

From there, she was led to a gray conference room, where she graciously submitted to brief one-on-one interviews by the local and national media. In a short while, she would limo back to the airport for the flight back to New York and her two young children.

But there was one final matter to attend to.

The mayor of Baltimore, who would be appearing that evening on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, needed a pep talk.

"Be careful out there," O'Donnell said, shaking Schmoke's hand. "And remember: he's supposed to be the funny one."

"Oh, I know, I know," smiled the mayor.

Then the former standup comic smiled, too.

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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