Because of the coronavirus, Vince Peranio and his wife Dolores Deluxe, owners of The Palace on Dallas, never got to have a farewell party before they moved to Portugal last month.
But before he left, Peranio was honored for his contributions to the Maryland film industry at a gala at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Peranio worked for 50 years as a production designer for filmmaker John Waters and others and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Maryland Film Industry Coalition, a group that works to improve business conditions for filmmakers in Maryland.
The award presentation, which included a tribute from Waters, was the highlight of a gala fundraiser that drew several hundred people to the hotel, shortly before the coronavirus began spreading in the U.S., last November.
In one of his patented spoken-word presentations written just for the occasion, Waters gave a movie-by-movie rundown of how much Peranio contributed both to his work and the larger film industry. He made the point that since the vast majority of Peranio’s movie and television work was in Maryland, it was fitting that he should be honored in Maryland, too.
“I always knew that Vincent Peranio was great,” Waters said, addressing his longtime friend. “Everybody knows that. But it’s nice to get awards, and especially from your peers, especially in your hometown…You’ve been a huge part of my success, and of course many other directors’, too.”
Peranio told the audience that he never set out to work in the film industry. He said the first assignment he had from Waters was to design and make the costume for Lobstora, the giant lobster that rapes Divine in “Multiple Maniacs,” a film made in 1969-1970.
What wasn’t mentioned in the movie credits is that Peranio and his brother Ed were also inside the lobster suit on screen, during the attack scene.
A Baltimore native and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Peranio was a painter when he met Waters and became part of the Dreamlanders, the group of friends and collaborators who have worked with Waters for decades.
He started with Waters when the director was filming Multiple Maniacs. Beginning with “Pink Flamingos” in 1970, Peranio was the production designer for all of Waters’ Baltimore-based movies. After “Pink Flamingos,” the list includes “Female Trouble,” “Desperate Living,” “Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Pecker,” “Cecil B. Demented” and “A Dirty Shame.”
In the film industry, a production designer is responsible for the overall ‘look’ of the production down to the smallest details. Production designers make sure each shooting location is consistent with the director’s vision for the film. The job is sometimes described as the set designer or art director. It can mean coming up with wallpaper patterns, period furniture and other touches that reflect the personalities of the characters onscreen and support the storyline.
As the production designer, Peranio was responsible for some of the raunchiest and funniest scenes in John Waters’ movies: the trailer that burned down in “Pink Flamingos;” the lesbian strip club in “Pecker;” the penis-shaped topiary in “A Dirty Shame,” the community of Mortville in “Desperate Living.” His work was featured in a 2003 exhibit at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore, “Trash to Treasure: The Production Design of Vincent Peranio.”
Peranio was also the production designer for Barry Levinson’s 1999 movie, “Liberty Heights,” and David Simon’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” a series on NBC (84 episodes from 1993 to 1999); “The Wire” for HBO (51 episodes from 2002 to 2008) and “The Corner,” a mini-series for HBO (six episodes in 2000). Along with the directors, he has helped give the world an idea of what Baltimore is like, based on the way it has been depicted on film.
Peranio and Deluxe decided to relocate to Europe last year, but their move was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, they listed their home in Fells Point for sale. Their home in the 400 block of South Dallas Street is four properties combined into one, with an Italian-style garden in the back. He’s donated his archives to Yale University and sent most of his Waters-related movie props to the Divine Museum in California.
Peranio, who recently turned 75, told the audience at the Lord Baltimore that he has filmed in just about every corner of Baltimore. “Somebody asked me today, ‘Did you film here in this ballroom?’ ” he told the audience at the Lord Baltimore. “And I said, ‘I must have. I’ve filmed everywhere.’ ”
He said the good thing about being based locally is that he was the only production designer in Baltimore, so when movie producers came to town, they pretty much had to turn to him. “We would just hang out and wait for the little producers to come into town, and then, like a spider in a web…”
Waters noted that creating Lobstora was an inauspicious way to start a film career.
“Not only did he make it, he was in it,” Waters said. “You can see his legs sticking out in the scene, with his brother. Now is this the highest level or the lowest level entry show business job you’ve ever heard of?”
Peranio was also responsible for the décor of Divine’s trailer in “Pink Flamingos,” down to the playpen where Edith “The Egg Lady” Massey devoured her favorite food.
“That’s when he joined us full time,” Waters said. “He did the trailer, the famous trailer that burned to the ground at the end, that Divine lived in. We went through hell with that trailer. It cost $100, and Vincent turned it into something that is still remembered today.”
One of Peranio’s most elaborate sets was Mortville, the town in “Desperate Living” that was made entirely out of trash (long before recycling was a thing).
“Maybe that was his masterpiece.,” Waters said. “He built a whole town out of garbage. Completely…At the John Waters Camp, they built another Mortville in honor of that.”
Waters recalled that the two met when Peranio was living in Fells Point in the late 1960s.
“I met Vincent — Sue Lowe introduced me to him — at Pete’s Hotel in Fells Point,” he said. “Vincent practically invented Fells Point. No one went there that I ever met before he did. He lived in a commune called the Hollywood Bakery, where my gang met his gang, and we were kindred spirits right from the beginning.”
Waters said he marvels at Peranio’s ability to select telling details that say so much about the characters.
While recently rewatching Criterion’s restored version of “Polyester,” he said, in the scene where Divine and Edith Massey are eating an entire cake, “I noticed the most ridiculous paper towel rack that I ever saw in my life, upstaging both of the characters. I’ve seen the movie a thousand times and I had never noticed it. It was the perfect detail. So awful. So funny. And so brilliant. And this is Vincent’s work. It’s beyond production design. It’s over-the-top art directing, into a realm of screen lunacy that becomes movie madness at its best.”
In “A Dirty Shame,” Peranio planted bushes in Hampden that looked like phallic symbols.
“What other production designer makes friends with the neighbors and then puts penis bushes on their lawn?” Waters asked. “That was… Vincent. He was friendly and crazy and hit the nail right on the head every time.”
“Hairspray” was especially realistic in evoking the set of the old Buddy Deane dance show, on which the film is based, Waters noted.
“The real Buddy Deane Committee…showed up on the set and said, ‘This is like being in the Twilight Zone, it’s so authentic,’ ” Waters said. “And even the big Broadway musical used the exact design from the movie in their stage design.”
Waters pointed to the work Peranio did for David Simon and Barry Levinson, among others, as proof of his contribution to the film industry.
“Just look at his resume without me,” Waters said. “He worked with Don Knotts! And a lot of the films he made, and TV shows, made way more money than mine did.”
Peranio told the audience he never wanted to leave Baltimore to make movies.
“I always loved Baltimore, my city, and was pretty stubborn about it, that, why do I have to go to Hollywood or New York to do films, you know?”
Staying in Baltimore also meant less direct competition, he pointed out. “It was a lot better than being in L.A. There were hundreds of them there.”
The decision had benefits from a creative standpoint, too, he said. “I would have never had the opportunity to do so many great, creative, meaningful films anywhere else…What a wild ride this career has been.”
After the formal presentation, Peranio said he’s looking forward to living in Portugal with Deluxe and eager to see others in the industry step up.
“It’s time for younger people to take over,” he said. “I’ve passed the torch.”
To read the entire transcript of the remarks made by John Waters and Vincent Peranio at the Maryland Film Industry Coalition’s Reel to Reel gala, click here.
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