Peter J. Koper, a writer, journalist, producer and journalism professor and actor who was a longtime supporter of filmmaker John Waters, died of cancer on May 21 at his home in New York’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 lived in Fells Point and was part of the left-wing crowd at Hopkins,” Mr. Waters said. “He was an incredible reporter and one of my closest friends in life.
Douglas Wanken, who was a Johns Hopkins University classmate of Mr. Koper, remained a close lifelong friend.
“Peter, on the surface, looked tough and tough and was a man who suffered from fools, but not with pleasure. He always tried to let them down gently and had no time for mischief,” said Mr. Wanken, who was one of the founders in 1969 of Harry, an underground newspaper in Baltimore.
“Its roots have always been in Baltimore and the booming demi-monde of Fells Point and John Waters in the 1960s that coalesced into a lifestyle,” said Mr. Wanken, a businessman at retirement. “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 Polish World War II resistance fighter, and Sophie Koper, a Holocaust survivor, was born in British-occupied Quakenbrück, Germany, and immigrated in 1952 with his family in 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.
At age 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”. Years later, Mr. Koper was still talking about the experience and how moved he was by it; he believed that one day the fight for civil rights might be won.
After graduating from Washington & Lee High School, now Washington-Liberty High School, in Alexandria, Virginia, Mr. Koper began his college education at Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 1965. He worked as a staff member of The News-Letter. , the college newspaper, and became its co-editor.
He also landed his first paid job as a professional journalist while still in college when he went to work for the African-American newspaper The Baltimore. There he covered stories such as the protest against the Catonsville Nine project in 1968 and, later that day, a political rally for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate, who ended with a protest 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 got tired of it and let the dogs and horses loose on Lexington Street, and I was massaged,” Mr Wanken recalled. “As the police were taking Peter, who was covering him for the Afro, to the patrol wagon, I heard him say, ‘Rest 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 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who later became production designer for many of Mr. Waters’ films, converted into a common studio and living space.
The group became the cast and crew of the Mr. Waters films. They take 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 a lot more like…monsters, that’s what we called ourselves, and it was kind of a gathering of all the misfits, malcontents, and juvenile delinquents.”
Mr. Koper occasionally aided Mr. Waters and helped lead star Edith Massey and other Dreamlanders in the 1973 documentary “Edith’s Shopping Bags” about her Fells Point thrift store.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Hopkins in 1969, Mr. Koper went to work for the Associated Press and covered for the police. In 1972 he became an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of the District of Columbia, where he remained until 1980.
In 1973 Mr. Koper earned 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 went on to teach journalism at Hofstra University and film at Columbia University, and was a visiting professor at Rutgers University, while continuing to work as a journalist covering everything from the underground press that defied the law warfare from the Soviet era to the rise of the street drug phencyclidine. , or PCP.
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 fictional Mortville on the property, and he agreed, with a codicil: all traces of Mr. Peranio’s plywood castle and recreated slum were to be removed at the end of the film.
Mr. Koper appeared in an uncredited role in Mr. Waters’ 1981 film “Polyester,” while continuing to be an investor and organizing other investors in the Baltimore filmmaker’s films. He also helped Mr. Waters develop the Odorama scratch and sniff cards that were distributed to “Polyester” audiences.
“I love the low life,” he explained in an interview, an interest he developed while covering crime for the AP. In 1983, he hid in his mind a headline he had read in the New York Post: “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” which resulted in a 1995 cult film of the same name that he wrote and produced. He became known for his “dark humor and implicit social commentary,” wrote his 38-year-old wife, Gina Consoli, visual artist and former Baltimorean, in a biographical profile of her husband.
Other films 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 has also been associated with Discovery Channel, Paramount Television and Lorimar Television, and has written for American Film, Rolling Stone and People, among other publications.
Since 1985, the couple have lived in a renovated loft on Prince Street in Lower Manhattan, which has become a hangout for notable artists, designers, writers and other celebrities.
Passionate travellers, they embarked on a year-long trip around the world in 2013, which they followed in the following years with long trips.
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“He embodied the ultimate flâneur, embracing travel as wandering chance and a firm believer that the harder the journey, the better the destination,” Ms Consoli wrote.
They spent summers in Springs on Long Island in New York, where during World War II six Nazi saboteurs landed from a U-boat. An alert from a Coast Guard surfer foiled their plot, and they were later executed in Washington. Mr. Koper has been involved in the local effort to preserve the history of the event.
“The thing about Peter is he was never self-righteous and always saw the 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 his rough and tough life; it was a real rough and tough cream puff.
He added: “Peter is one of those people in our lives who really never leaves you. He will always be with us.”
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
Ms. Consoli is his only immediate survivor.