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Obituaries

Peter J. Koper, writer, reporter, producer, actor, journalism professor and longtime supporter of John Waters, dies

Peter J. Koper, a writer, reporter, producer and professor of journalism and an actor who was a longtime supporter of filmmaker John Waters, died of cancer May 21 at his home in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. The former Fells Point and Hampstead resident was 75.

“Peter was a great explorer of alternative lifestyles and was an incredibly open-minded person. I first met him when he was at Hopkins and living in Fells Point and was part of the left-wing crowd at Hopkins,” Mr. Waters said. “He was an incredible journalist and one of my closest friends in life.”

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Douglas Wanken, who was a Johns Hopkins University classmate of Mr. Koper’s, remained a close lifelong friend.

“Peter, on the surface, looked rough and tough and was a man who suffered fools, but not gladly. He always tried to let them down gently and had no time for stupid,” said Mr. Wanken, who was a 1969 founder of Harry, a Baltimore underground newspaper.

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“His roots were always in Baltimore and in the burgeoning demimonde of Fells Point and John Waters in the 1960s that coalesced into a lifestyle,” Mr. Wanken, a retired businessman, said. “It was John who had the vision, and the rest of us just enjoyed it and showed up.”

Peter Jan Koper, son of Antoni Koper, a World War II Polish resistance fighter, and Sophie Koper, a Holocaust survivor, was born in British-occupied Quakenbrück, Germany, and immigrated in 1952 with his family to Pacific Grove, California, then moved six years later to Washington when his father took a position with the United States Information Agency and his mother with the Central Intelligence Agency.

When he was 16, he attended the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, where he heard protest singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Years later, Mr. Koper still spoke of the experience and how much he was moved by it; he thought that someday, the struggle for civil rights could be won.

After graduating from Washington & Lee High School, now Washington-Liberty High School, in Alexandria, Virginia, Mr. Koper began his college studies at the Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 1965. He worked as a staff member for The News-Letter, the college newspaper, and became its co-editor.

He also landed his first paying job as a professional reporter while still in college when he went to work for The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. There, he covered such stories as the Catonsville Nine draft protest in 1968 and, later that day, a political rally for George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor and presidential hopeful, that ended in a demonstration at what was then called the Civic Center.

Despite showing his media credentials, Mr. Koper was arrested for resisting a police order. The charges against him were ultimately dismissed.

“I was there that night at the Civic Center when the cops had had enough and unleashed the dogs and horses on Lexington Street, and I was maced,” Mr. Wanken recalled. “As the police dragged Peter away, who was covering it for The Afro, to the patrol wagon, I could hear him saying, ‘Take it easy on the dry goods, Bub.’”

While at Hopkins and living in Fells Point, Mr. Koper met Mr. Waters at the Hollywood Bakery, a former industrial bakery that Vince Peranio, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who later became production designer for many of Mr. Waters’ films, transformed into a communal studio and living space.

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The group became the cast and crew of Mr. Waters’ films. They took their name from his production company, Dreamlanders Productions.

“We weren’t hippies by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Koper explained in an interview. “It was much more like ... freaks is what we called ourselves, and it was a sort of coming together of all the misfits and malcontents and juvenile delinquents.”

Mr. Koper sometimes assisted Mr. Waters and helped him direct star Edith Massey and other Dreamlanders in the 1973 documentary “Edith’s Shopping Bags” about her Fells Point thrift store.

After graduating from Hopkins in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities, Mr. Koper went to work for The Associated Press and covered the police beat. In 1972, he became an assistant professor in the communications department at the University of the District of Columbia, where he remained until 1980.

In 1973, Mr. Koper obtained a master’s degree from American University and, six years later, began writing for the weekly Baltimore City Paper. In 1980, he became a syndicated writer and foreign correspondent for the Independent News Alliance/United Features Syndicate.

He later taught journalism at Hofstra University and film at Columbia University, and was a visiting professor at Rutgers University, while continuing to work as a reporter covering everything from the underground press that defied Soviet-era martial law to the rise of the street drug phencyclidine, or PCP.

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When Mr. Waters made “Desperate Living” in 1977, Mr. Koper was living on a 26-acre farm in Hampstead. Mr. Waters asked if he could build sets for the film’s fictitious Mortville on the property, and he agreed, with one codicil: All traces of Mr. Peranio’s plywood castle and recreation of a slum had to be removed upon completion of the film.

Mr. Koper appeared in an uncredited role in Mr. Waters’ 1981 film “Polyester,” while continuing to be an investor and arranging other investors in the Baltimore filmmaker’s movies. He also assisted Mr. Waters in developing the Odorama scratch-and-sniff cards that were distributed to “Polyester” audiences.

“I love lowlife,” he explained in an interview, an interest he’d developed while covering crime for the AP. In 1983, he tucked away in his mind a headline he had read in the New York Post: “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” which resulted in a 1995 cult movie by the same name that he wrote and produced. It became known for its “dark humor and implicit social commentary,” wrote his wife of 38 years, Gina Consoli, a visual artist and former Baltimorean, in a biographical profile of her husband.

Other film credits include ZDF German Television’s “Variety,” Unpaid Films’ “Island of the Dead,” Koper’s “Land’s End” and The Learning Channel’s “Castle Ghosts.” He also was associated with the Discovery Channel, Paramount Television and Lorimar Television, and wrote for American Film, Rolling Stone and People, among other publications.

Since 1985, the couple lived in a loft that they renovated on Prince Street in Lower Manhattan, which became a venue for noteworthy artists, designers, writers and other celebrities.

Avid travelers, in 2013 they embarked on a yearlong journey around the world, which they followed in ensuing years with lengthy trips.

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“He embodied the ultimate flâneur, embracing travel as a wandering serendipity and wholly believed the harder the travel, the better the destination,” Ms. Consoli wrote.

They spent summers at Springs on New York’s Long Island, where during World War II, six Nazi saboteurs came ashore from a U-boat. An alert from a Coast Guard surfman foiled their plot, and they were later executed in Washington. Mr. Koper became involved in the local effort of preserving the history of the event.

“The thing about Peter was that he was never self-righteous and always saw humor,” Mr. Waters said.

“He was a man of constant creation and recreation,” Mr. Wanken said. “He was really very old world and would like to be remembered for the rough and tough life; he was a real rough and tough cream puff.”

He added: “Peter is one of those people in our lives who really never leave you. He will always be with us.”

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

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Ms. Consoli is his only immediate survivor.


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