Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Female Trouble, Polyester, Pecker, Cry-Baby and a dozen more movies, most of which are guaranteed to shock and amuse. They’re all products of the feverishly obsessive mind of John Waters, provocateur-auteur.
Waters sets his self-described “celluloid atrocities” in his native Baltimore, the city he affectionately named “Hairdo Capitol of the World.” His no-budget, convention-splattering early works, such as Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, star the writer-director’s Baltimore friends—Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Edith Massey and, most notorious of all, Divine.
The crossdressing Harris Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine, starred in nine Waters movies, including 1988’s Hairspray. An uncharacteristically family-friendly project from Waters, the successful Hairspray became a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2003. In July, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the film with a 30th anniversary screening and cast and crew reunion.
Although Waters hasn’t made a feature film since 2004’s A Dirty Shame, he’s busied himself with acting, photography, sculpture and writing best-selling books. He tours annually with two one-man shows, This Filthy World and A John Waters Christmas.
Just before his breakthrough with 1972’s Pink Flamingos, the filmmaker briefly lived in New Orleans. He returns to the city often, appearing at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and exhibits of his photos at the Arthur Roger Gallery. New Orleans is a frequent stop for his one-man shows, too. A John Waters Christmas comes to the Civic Theatre on December 15.
Did the “Why I Love Christmas” chapter in your book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, inspire your Christmas show?
Yes, it did. Well, it inspired the promoter (Marc Huestis) to ask me to do a show about it. And I always had a Christmas party every year, so that stuff was always in my mind. That’s how it ended up in a book.
You performed your first Christmas show at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Did it catch on quickly?
It always had good business, yeah. So, every year I’ve got to rewrite it and do new material. It’s my annual search for Christmas jokes. But that’s alright. The jokes keep coming. You can turn a lot of human behavior into Christmas material.
Do you still throw a big Christmas party every year in Baltimore?
I do. It’s not especially a movie star party. Sometimes movie stars come, but the party is more based on all the people I know in my real life. But in Baltimore, of course, a lot of those people are in my show business life, too. They work with me in movies and artwork and everything I’ve done for many, many years.
You’ve brought your one-man shows to New Orleans many times through the years.
It’s always been a really good city for me.
And you lived in New Orleans before the success of Pink Flamingos?
When I was very young. Right before Pink Flamingos opened. It was the poorest I ever was in my life. I used to go to Buster Holmes [restaurant]. Rice and beans was thirty cents. I lived in a shotgun apartment across from Schwegmann’s, below the Quarter. It was open 24 hours a day. So, all night I heard, ‘Mrs. So-and-So, your groceries are ready!’ And I found out way later that John Kennedy O’Toole lived right down the street, with his mother, when he was writing The Confederacy of Dunces. But I was there [in New Orleans] before that, because Mary Vivian Pearce and Danny Mills, who played Cotton and Crackers in Pink Flamingos, lived there a lot.
Do you have a preferred restaurant or bar in New Orleans?
The Corner Pocket is still my favorite place. I took the entire Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts board of directors there after Hurricane Katrina. We came down to give grants and stuff. But I’ve always had a good time in New Orleans. Who doesn’t like New Orleans? I just hate the weather. I hate hot weather. I’m like a fat person.
Isn’t Clarence “Frogman” Henry, a singer from New Orleans (“Ain’t Got No Home,” “I Don’t Know Why But I Do”), one of your favorites?
I have his autographed picture right on my desk in my office. I called him in New Orleans. He answered the phone once.
Several years ago, you planned to make a Christmas movie called Fruitcake. Will that come to fruition?
I doubt it. We had a big interest to do it in animation, but that never happened either. So, who knows? I’m not saying ‘never.’ I never thought Hairspray would end up as a Broadway musical.
Your hometown, Baltimore, and the state of Maryland have a Catholic heritage. Did you grow up Catholic?
Half Catholic. My mother was and my father wasn’t. I didn’t go to Catholic school until high school. But by then, at that period of my life, it wouldn’t have mattered what school I went to, really.
Christmas is a big deal in the Catholic Church. Even though you were only half Catholic, did you go to Christmas Mass?
I had to go to Midnight Mass. I hated it. But we didn’t go much. Later, in the ’60s, my friends and I all went to Midnight Mass with Divine, who was dressed in drag. But not like the Divine you know from the movies. More like Elizabeth Taylor. Calmed down. And he passed completely. And Divine was not a trans in any way. He didn’t want to be a woman. He never wore those clothes later, except when he was making a movie or doing a show.
But at Midnight Mass with Divine, it was odd because the parents there, all the adults, didn’t blink. They totally thought Divine was real. But for some reason the children all knew. They were laughing and giving Divine dirty looks.
What was the Christmas season like for you when you were growing up in Baltimore?
It was wonderful. I had a good time with my family and everything—nothing traumatic about it. But the Christmas tree did fall on my grandmother once. I put that incident in my movie, Female Trouble. But nobody knocked the tree over on my grandmother on purpose. Relatives were yelling and stuff, but she wasn’t taken to the hospital or anything. It wasn’t that dramatic.
How about when you first realized Santa Claus wasn’t real?
Well, I knew there wasn’t a Santa Claus. When we all went down to the little square in our community, I could see that Santa was the man who lived up the street. They should have gotten somebody from another neighborhood. So, I kind of pretended that I believed in Santa, for my parents’ sake.
But I balked at all of it. Too many things you were supposed to believe in seemed false. And I always rooted for the Tooth Fairy. I still think we should have a Tooth Fairy—but he should be a big queen sitting there with a scepter and a day-old beard and a beer in his hand, scaring children when their teeth fall out.
In addition to your annual Christmas party, what holiday traditions do you observe?
I still have my family to dinner in Baltimore. I send Christmas cards that I design and make. But I certainly take all the traditions and twist them. That’s what’s fun about it.
And are you a big gift-giver?
Oh, I have to buy so many Christmas presents. I just realized it’s almost November. Oh, my God. When I’m on tour I can’t go shopping. What am I gonna do? Lug all that stuff around with me?
Why don’t you like the tradition of nativity scenes that feature real people and animals?
They scare me! I feel like Diane Arbus every time I look at them. And people allow their children to be in there with mules that are forced to pray. We know animals can’t pray. And candles and straw? Your child’s going to end up like that burning video log. You shouldn’t let your kids be Baby Jesus. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
In general, though, you still enjoy Christmas?
I do—but I understand why people hate it. And this year it’s going to be tough to not have fights about politics when people go home. Families are divided, just like the country. So, I’m telling everybody to get a whistle and blow it every time someone mentions politics. And then maybe people will just start laughing and not discuss it. Because nobody’s going to change their mind. That’s the problem.
You have apartments in New York City and San Francisco, but your primary home is still Baltimore. Why did stay loyal to your hometown?
A lot of people from here do stay here. There’s a big music scene with Beach House and Future Islands and a lot of successful groups. And they all bought houses here. That’s great. That’s happening way more in America now. When I do my Christmas tour, everywhere is cool. It looks the same in Paris as it does in, I don’t know, Idaho.
Well, at least the people who come to see me are cool. The rest might be different. But everybody stays where they are now and makes it better. Which is going to make America even cooler. Maybe there’ll be a bohemia in every city but the expensive cities. You can’t afford to be a bohemian in Manhattan anymore.
When you come to New Orleans for your Christmas show, do you notice anything distinctive about the holiday season in the Crescent City?
To be honest, when I’m on tour in 17 cities in 22 days, I don’t go out. I get there. I do the show. I meet the people. I get up the next morning, go to an airport and fly somewhere else. So, I don’t have time on the Christmas tour. I have more time when I come there for This Filthy World or something else. I get to stay a day or two. But I’d like to see the Christmas decorations in Chalmette. That would be a good tour.