30th anniversary of ‘Hairspray’ film: Extras, extras! Read all about them
It’s been 30 years since director John Waters’ “Hairspray, the inspiration for the Broadway musical, was released.
But a year before in 1987, the making of the film was all the buzz in the Lehigh Valley.
Shock-auteur Waters typically shot his films exclusively in his hometown of Baltimore, but for “Hairspray” he brought his crew to South Whitehall Township to shoot a pivotal scene at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, which served as a stand-in for Tilted Acres, a fictional Baltimore amusement park.
Hundreds of Lehigh Valley hopefuls lined up to be extras in the movie, but Lehigh Valley filmmaker Zeke Zelker, whose great-grandfather Robert Plarr founded Dorney Park, was one of the lucky ones who got a plum part as one of the teens on the Corny Collins Council.
“I was basically a dancer on the show,” he says. “I was quite thrilled to be there.”
Dorney Park was the setting for a lengthy sequence in the film in which “The Corny Collins Show” is broadcast live from Tilted Acres, based on Gwynn Oak Park, an amusement park in Baltimore County, where there had been racial problems in the 1960s.
The leads in the cast came to the Lehigh Valley for the shoot, including Ricki Lake, who played pleasantly-plump Tracy Turnblad, and Divine and Jerry Stiller, who played Tracy’s mother and father.
The owners of Titled Acres were Velma and Franklin Von Tussle, played by Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono. Scenes featured main characters riding the Thunderhawk, built in 1923 and one of the oldest operating wooden roller coasters in the northeast, and other rides.
For Zelker, however, the shoot took an unfortunate turn when he was injured.
“I was showing some of the cast members from New York City and Baltimore around,” he says. “We lost track of time and realized that if we didn’t run we would be late.
“As we approached a barricade leading into the set I caught my face on a bench screw which cut the skin under my eye pretty badly. Having boxed in my youth, I just told the medic and John [Waters] to put gobs of vaseline on it to stop the bleeding.”
But the boxing quick fix didn’t quite work.
“We start the scene, which called for a lot of energy where I do a fast turn,” he says. “Well, as I did my turn, the blood-filled vaseline blob flew off my face onto a extra. John yells, ‘Cut!’ and tells me I have to go to the hospital. I reluctantly did.”
It turned out the cut required stitches and the injury prevented Zelker from going to Baltimore to finish the shoot.
“John tells this story when he starts every shoot for everyone to be careful,” Zelker says.
He says other than the accident, everyone was “awesome.”
The extras in scenes filmed at Dorney Park included Miriam Kiss, believed to be the only local who received a credit in the film. She’s listed as Slob Redneck Woman.
Also among the extras: Ronnie “Rock” Sabol of The Trendsetters punk band; Paul Willistein, Focus editor of Lehigh Valley Press, and Joie Jackson, Office Manager of The Press, and her son, Atty. Ron Jackson.
The Titled Acres scene culminates with a race riot that results in Tracy’s arrest. The off-beat role made a star of Ricki Lake.
“I felt badly for Ricki.” Zelker says. “They kept feeding her milkshakes so she wouldn’t drop weight during the shoot.”
“Hairspray” included a great part for Divine, a drag queen and Waters’ muse, as Edna Turnblad. Divine was double-cast in “Hairspray” as Arvin Hodgepile, a TV station owner.
“Divine was great,” Zelker says. “He and I had lunch twice.”
The 1988 film, which became a cult classic, was the basis for the 2003 hit Broadway musical, “Hairspray,” which was made into a 2007 film musical starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron and Christopher Walken, which, in turn, became “Hairspray Live!,” starring Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson and Martin Short, telecast in December 2016 on NBC-TV.