By Lisa Russell
April 15, 1991 12:00 PM

M.C. Hammer may dance better, Mariah Carey may sing better, and Vanilla Ice may have taller hair. Still, there was no question last week about who was the hottest act in the music business—at least in the expert opinion of the Louisville, Ky., police department. That distinction went to rambunctious New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg, 21, who, police say, poured vodka onto the carpet of a hotel hallway and set it afire.

Wahlberg, who was charged with first-degree arson, which can carry a sentence of 20 years to life, denied that he had done anything wrong. “The report is that I ran down the hall pouring vodka all over the place, trying to burn the place down,” he said at a press conference after he was released on $5,000 bail. “There was no vodka, there were no matches. I didn’t even rub two sticks together.”

The authorities say that, during the early morning hours of March 27, Wahlberg, while partying with co-Kid Danny Wood and a number of teenage fans (the three other Kids had not yet arrived in Louisville, where a concert was scheduled that night), set fire to the carpet outside rooms 942 and 944 of the landmark Seelbach Hotel, charring a small patch of material. The rooms were occupied by two women who had called police to report that some of the cavorting fans were underage (their lawyer says they now regret having done so). Officials suggest that Wahlberg lit the blaze in retaliation for the call.

Wahlberg drew an SRO crowd, including many courthouse employees and their kids, at his arraignment later that day. “It was crazy,” said Judge Jim Green, whose children, Suzanne, 9, and Jamie, 7, sat in the front row. “I kept thinking what a zoo the courtroom was and wondering how I was going to maintain order.” The subdued singer spoke only two words during the hearing—”Yes, sir,” when asked to affirm his identity—and his Louisville lawyer, George Salem Jr., entered a not-guilty plea on Wahlberg’s behalf. A pretrial hearing was set for April 11.

Fans and reporters besieged police for information on the case and anything Wahlberg touched during his three hours in custody. Bids of up to $11,000 were allegedly made for his mug shot, fingerprints and even the paper bag that had held his wallet and keys. According to corrections-department worker Howard Cox, who guided Wahlberg through the booking process, the New Kid was polite, signing autographs for a dozen cops and worrying mostly about the reaction of his mother, Alma Conroy, back in Braintree, Mass.

Mom could be excused for fretting that her boy is becoming a mutant ninja pop star, even if he’s no longer a teenager. Last September, aboard a flight from Salt Lake City to Atlanta, he tussled with a Harvard student who was napping across three seats and refused to move after Wahlberg ordered him to. A month before that, Wahlberg had faced off with several Georgia Tech students who, he claimed, had tossed a Frisbee in his path while he was motorcycling.

Karen Carter, 26, a fan from Lebanon, Va., who had driven to Louisville for her 13th New Kids show, was in the Seelbach that night. “People provoke him,” says Carter, who has met Wahlberg several times. “I think he gets into arguments because he just won’t back down. They antagonize him because they know he’ll strike back.” The question before the court is whether, in striking back this time, Wahlberg got too fired up.

Lisa Russell, T.L. Stanley in Louisville