John Waters

John Waters hasn't changed, he says. The world has. (Sun photo by David Hobby)

  • Related
  • John Waters

    What is your favorite John Waters film of the '80s and '90s?

    What is your favorite John Waters film of the '80s and '90s?

    • "Hairspray"
    • "Cry-Baby"
    • "Pecker"
    • "Serial Mom"
    • They were all really bad.
    • I only like his "trashy" movies.
SEATTLE -- You might think John Waters has seen it all.

But the Prince of Puke, the Pope of Trash -- or as he prefers to think of himself these days, "Filth Elder" -- remains amazed by the world around him.

It's downright amazing how often the word "amazing" crops up in conversation with Baltimore's beloved shock-meister. He uses it to describe reunions of WJZ's former teen dance program, The Buddy Deane Show. He uses it to describe the forthcoming Broadway musical, Hairspray, adapted from his 1988 feature film about the TV show.

And that's not counting the anything-but-ordinary events that occur if you happen to be John Waters, spending a week in Seattle where Hairspray is trying out for Broadway. Consider, for example, the member of the "order" of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who shows up sporting a brand new, bright-red, shin tattoo of Waters' late star, Divine; or the film critic whose blazer lapel is adorned with fake dog doo; or the fans bearing cans of Aqua Net to be autographed.

Then there's Bruce Vilanch and Roseanne Barr, who accompany Waters to successive performances of Hairspray. "It was just great. I loved it -- like one of the best things I've ever seen," Barr gushes. ("I want to send her every night because she has a very distinctive laugh," Waters says the next day.)

Not to mention a retinue of '60s counter-culture mini-celebrities Waters doesn't even know but probably should, such as Cherry Vanilla, a purple-haired veteran of the Theatre of the Ridiculous and the theater of Andy Warhol, who travels up from Los Angeles with three cohorts to see the show.

And of course, there's the requisite press swarming around the ever-indulgent Waters. In one morning alone, he's interviewed by National Public Radio, Variety and Seattle Weekly.

Nor is Hairspray all that Waters is up to in Seattle. The Seattle International Film Festival is showing the recently restored print of his 1975 movie, Female Trouble, preceded by a discussion with the filmmaker; the evening is the best seller of the three-and-a-half-week festival. And at the Greg Kucera Gallery, which is exhibiting a show of Waters' photography, a second "walk-through" with the artist has to be scheduled to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Although Hairspray's producer, Margo Lion, is herself a native Baltimorean, she has taken her new musical as far from Baltimore as it's possible to get and still be in the continental United States. If the West Coast reaction is any barometer, Lion doesn't have to worry about whether non-Baltimoreans will understand Waters' distinctive sensibility on Broadway. They definitely "get" Bawlamer in Seattle.

"Oh, my God. They should just give him the key to the city, the underground city," says Seattle sculptor Randolph Bolander, who arrives at Waters' photography exhibit clutching a vintage scratch-and-sniff card from the filmmaker's 1981 "Odorama" feature, Polyester. "He just kind of liberates America. He lets them indulge their decadence."

He's been doing that, or trying to, for more than 30 years now, with such tasteful film scenes as: Divine eating fresh dog poop; Kathleen Turner spearing a teen-ager's liver with a fireplace poker; or Melanie Griffith allowing her hair to be set on fire. Now his off-kilter viewpoint is taking center stage on American theater's most established stage, which may be the most amazing thing of all.

Does the idea of a John Waters musical on Broadway mean mainstream America's sense of humor has changed?

"Very much so," says Waters, who is serving as a consultant to Hair-spray's creative team. "Young people today don't even do trash anymore or gross-out humor because Hollywood does it. ... American humor now, what we export all over the world, is what I loved in 1954 when I had a little paperback book called, It's Sick, Sick, Sick, Sick, Sick Jokes. What used to be that is now just the top-rated sitcom."

That explains, at least in part, why the Great White Way is ready and willing to welcome Waters' story of an overweight teen-age girl who dreams of becoming a star on a local TV dance show -- a story with references to rats, pimples and prison, and with the protagonist's mother portrayed by a large man in a dress. (The Broadway cast is headed by Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur as mother and daughter, Edna and Tracy Turnblad.) The New York Times has called the show "perhaps the most eagerly anticipated theatrical event of the summer."

Even so, Waters is, yes, amazed "that something that I thought up in Temple Gardens Apartments on Madison Avenue ... is a Broadway musical. Damn! How did this happen?"

'There was little irony'

Sitting in the balcony of Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, Waters reflects on exactly how it did happen. Overhead is a giant gold dragon's head chandelier, the showiest of many showpieces in the elaborately gilded 2,100-seat theater, modeled after China's Imperial Palace. On stage, the cast of Hairspray is rehearsing a number set in the Patterson Park High School gymnasium. In the lobby, a camera crew from Good Morning America is setting up to interview Waters for a segment about the return of big hair.

Discreetly taking out a monogrammed silver case from which he removes a toothpick (a substitute for the cigarettes he used to chain smoke), Waters drifts back to the late '50s and early '60s, when he was a die-hard fan of The Buddy Deane Show and its Committee, as the show's teen regulars were called.

"I watched it every day and I used to draw my favorite Committee members and exaggerate their fashion and hairdos and imagine fictitious criminal biographies of all them," he says.

He even danced on the show twice, first at the Timonium Fair and then at Beaver Springs swim club. Both times, he and his friend, Mary Vivian Pearce (who went on to appear in all of his movies), danced the Dirty Boogie, or as it was called in Baltimore, the "Bodie Green." And both times, they were told to stop, for fear that the suggestive dance might be caught on camera.

Nor was dirty dancing all that he and Pearce were up to. At Beaver Springs, he recalls Pearce "putting gum wrappers in a Committee member's beehive without her knowing it."

Waters' self-described "obsession" with The Buddy Deane Show continued into the 1980s, when, after a few drinks, he and his friends would gather at his house and dance the Madison, a line dance that originated in Baltimore and is featured prominently in the musical.

Then in 1984, he attended the first Buddy Deane Reunion, which was held in Essex. "What was amazing to me was that I was like a fan, really a fan of the Committee, and I sat there, 'Oh, my God, there's that one! There's that one!' But what was also amazing to me is how serious some of them were about it. There was very little irony, and to see a line of 30 50-year-old women doing the Locomotion without irony is quite an experience."

A year later, he wrote an article about the TV show for Baltimore magazine. The article became the seed for Hairspray, Waters' first -- and only -- PG-rated film. The nearly $3 million movie was also his first with a seven-figure budget (the musical's budget is $10.5 million) and his first with a Screen Actors Guild cast. A teen slumber-party favorite, Hairspray earned the approval of, among others, Deane himself.

"I liked it," says Deane, who now lives in Arkansas and played a bit part as a reporter in the movie. "He took literary license and changed some things, but obviously it basically was the program."

The chief difference was the ending. In Hairspray, Tracy leads a successful effort to integrate the TV show. In reality, integration spelled the demise of The Buddy Deane Show, which ran from 1957 to 1964.

Neither Deane nor Waters believes Baltimore was ready for an integrated teen dance program in 1964. "Every one of the kids said the same thing: It's OK with me, but my parents aren't going to like it," Deane recalls. "When management heard the parents wouldn't let them come, I knew it would be a big problem."

Misfits triumph

With its civil rights theme, Hairspray may be Waters' most socially conscious movie, but the filmmaker's vision of society has always been an inclusive one -- with the exception, that is, of the self-righteous, the humorless and the so-called normal.

To Waters, inclusiveness means championing the cause of outsiders: "the filthiest person alive" in Pink Flamingos (1972); a model with an acid-scarred face in Female Trouble (1974); juvenile delinquents in Cry-Baby (1990); a homicidal housewife in Serial Mom (1994); and a band of "cinema terrorists" in Cecil B. Demented (2000). This focus on misfits may be one reason his films strike a chord with Americans, who tend to root for the underdog. In Waters' world, the misfits triumph.

"If we're going to get philosophical," says producer Lion, "the heroine of this show is really John Waters' spirit. Here's the outsider winning the cute guy and changing the world."

Lauded as a founder of the independent film movement, celebrated by the Cannes Film Festival and the Baltimore City Chamber of Com- merce, the subject of two documentaries and two biographies, Waters, who once might have seemed the ultimate Buddy Deane outsider, eventually became a bona fide Deaner.

Film critic Roger Ebert has written that Waters "could never in a million years have made the Council" (as the Committee is called in the film and musical). But after the movie came out, Waters was granted an honorary Committee membership, and he has the certificate to prove it.

None of this, however, could have foretold Waters' leap to Broadway -- a move that came as something of a surprise to the show's producer as well. Convinced that the movie had the makings of a Broadway musical, Lion -- whose credits include Jelly's Last Jam and Angels in America -- set up a meeting with Waters at a theater district restaurant three years ago. "I am frequently kidded as being 'Miss Tastebuds' and I thought, 'Here, Miss Tastebuds is sitting with Mr. Outrageous,' " Lion recalls.

"My first impression of him was -- and that impression that has been sustained in the whole process -- he's the most polite, generous person ... intelligent, fun ... that I can imagine. He's not outrageous in his superficial, surface personality. Except for the mustache."

Being dubbed a "consultant" could have been a mere courtesy, but Waters' input genuinely matters to the show's creators -- songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Like Lion, they are intent on capturing the filmmaker's sensibility on stage.

"Luckily, he's loved it and his approval means so much," says lyricist Wittman. Waters cried the first time he heard the romantic duet the songwriters wrote for Edna Turnblad and her husband, adds Wittman, who describes himself and Shaiman as "huge John Waters fans."

An American prophet

For Waters, who has sat in on readings, meetings and rehearsals, his introduction to Broadway has been a crash course in the making of a musical. One thing he's discovered is that it's a highly collaborative endeavor. "I have never collaborated on anything in my life. I'm way too much of a control freak," he says.

Another major difference, he says, is that a stage show is "one big master shot," as if the action were filmed continuously by one fixed camera, with no close-ups. "It's more like my early movies, when I didn't know how to edit. Pink Flamingos, the way we made it on that sound-on film, you couldn't edit. So they had to do six pages of dialogue at once without a mistake, and that's what theater is."

While the musical retains the basic plot, characters and Waters' favorite dialogue, its changes -- which include an all-new score and "even a new Madison" -- appear to delight him.

The fact that the score is composed by Shaiman, whose best-known credit is the movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, would seem to be one more indication of the proliferation of Watersesque humor. South Park may be rude and crude, but it's also hugely popular.

Yet another indication springs from the subsequent stardom of Ricki Lake, who got her big break playing the lead role of Tracy in the movie of Hairspray and went on to become a queen of tabloid television. "Ricki Lake is living proof that John Waters has infiltrated the American middle class," writes Robrt L. Pela in Filthy, his new biography of Waters.

As Pela puts it, "If scandal, sleaze and celebrity worship have become our national religion, then John Waters is an American prophet."

But while America's tastes may have shifted, Waters' have not. Instead, he says, "I've re-invented myself over and over. You have to if you want to get the next generation to come see your stuff, and I've said a million times I'm not as insane as I was at 20, but to be 56 and be angry and insane, you're a jerk. When you're angry and insane at 20, you can be appealing."

One of his re-inventions is photography, an art he has been practicing for more than a decade. His photos are shot off a TV screen, then re-arranged into storyboards for imaginary movies -- plastic surgery transforms Elizabeth Taylor into John Waters; a similarity is captured between Francis the Talking Mule and Jessica Lange portraying Frances Farmer; or Farrah Fawcett hairdos are shown adorning the heads of celebrities ranging from Julia Roberts to Don Knotts.

"The work is not about photography, it's about editing, really, and I take images from all different movies to create new narratives and make my own little movies. It's about humor," he explains.

Unlike his movies, Waters' photography is deliberately aimed at a narrow audience. "The greatest thing about the contemporary art world is, in movies you always have to pretend everybody in the world is going to love it, and in art, if everybody in the world loves it, it stinks," he says. "I'm for the elitism in art. I want it to be just three people and one piece of artwork."

His photos, however, have been exhibited from New York (where one is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art) to Los Angeles, from Paris to Vienna -- just about everywhere except Baltimore, although he says a show is in the works for later this year.

Bittersweet feelings

Waters' foray into the rarefied art world doesn't mean he has any intention of forsaking his ever-increasing public. To the contrary, he may be on the verge of reaching his widest audience yet -- as a cartoon character. He's in "deep development" with MTV to star in an animated series titled, John Waters' Patent Leather Dream House. A show about what he calls "my fictitious life," it will be produced by Film Roman, the company behind The Simpsons.

This won't be the first time Waters has played a cartoon character. He made his debut in 1997, as the voice of a gay antiques dealer on an Emmy Award-winning episode of The Simpsons called "Homer's Phobia." "More people have seen that episode of The Simpsons than any of my movies, I'm sure," he says.

He's also completing a development deal for his 15th motion picture, A Dirty Shame, a comedy about sex addicts. He's devoting much of the summer to writing the screenplay -- when he's not involved with Hairspray, that is.

As excited as he is about the Broadway musical, the experience is not without a degree of personal sadness. Hairspray was Waters' last film to star his 300-pound cross-dressing diva, Divine, who died unexpectedly at age 42. His death came only months after the premiere of the movie that became his greatest hit.

The musical, Waters says, is a "real twilight zone for me, melancholy in a way, too. I've said it before, but it's true -- Divine, dead, would be honored; alive, would want to play the part."

"Honor" is also the word the filmmaker uses to describe his reaction to inspiring a Broadway musical. But at the same time, he's relieved that he's not the one in charge.

"I'd really be nervous -- and I'm still nervous," Waters says. "I see full-page ads in The New York Times, I say, 'Oh my God, now this!' "