John Waters, the Baltimore-born-and-raised filmmaker known for directing such movies as the classic Hairspray, told Enoch Pratt Free Library staff members yesterday about the impact the library had on him as a child and a professional, and how important a role they can play in the lives of children.
Waters also entertained the crowd of more than 250 with tales about his life and experiences in Baltimore as part of training for the staff at the Pratt.
"I really looked up all the wrong things in the library ... but there's really nothing bad to look up in the library," Waters said about his childhood.
"The library saved my life as a kid. We really have to make books cool again."
Earlier this year, Waters gave a similar talk to 2,500 librarians during a convention in Baltimore, provoking controversy when he offended some of the attendees. But Pratt officials booked him anyway for yesterday's event. "We knew about [the other incident], and it did not affect the decision whatsoever," said Roswell Encina, library spokesman. "He's always had a love for libraries."
Pratt officials invited Waters to speak at the annual Staff Development Day about the impact the library had on him - and about the importance of the library as a resource for children.
Some staff members laughed at his candid take on social issues and experiences with Baltimore's dive bars, heroin users and thrift stores. Some didn't. But all remained for the entire hourlong engagement.
And nearly everyone lined up afterward for Waters to sign their DVD copies of Hairspray.
"What I think is important in the workplace is humor, regardless of what the humor is about," said Julie Dietzel-Glair, assistant children's services coordinator for Enoch Pratt Free Library.
In March, Waters made a similar speech at the Association of College and Research Libraries' annual convention, held in Baltimore - full of sexual jokes and profanity. About a dozen people left the room. But Dietzel-Glair and other library employees who attended yesterday's event agreed that - while some librarians at the March convention might have found Waters' jokes offensive - this group couldn't stop laughing.
"I didn't really find anything actually offensive," Dietzel-Glair said. "I think people knew what to expect."
Waters, whose other films include Pink Flamingos, Polyester and Serial Mom, has become a well-known proponent of freedom of speech and, to some, political incorrectness.
Cindy Kleback, a branch manager for the Pratt library, said she and her co-workers even discussed at work a few days ago how people would react to the filmmaker's talk, but all she saw was "people laughing and smiling."
"My table - we were all hysterical laughing," Kleback said.
But amid the sarcasm and raw humor, Waters talked about several of his Baltimore library experiences, including the days he spent in the Maryland Room of the downtown library to help him with the 1990 musical Cry-Baby.
The Pratt's Executive Director, Carla Hayden, said that, in choosing speakers and activities for annual staff development day, organizers look for topics and people who can benefit the staff both professionally and personally.
"We heard a lot of people talking about the talk with John Waters," Hayden said. "That tattoo idea was great," she said, referring to Waters' suggestion that librarians create temporary tattoos of authors' faces to encourage youngsters to read.
"Someone even said I should take him to Annapolis" to lobby for libraries, Hayden added.
Both Dietzel-Glair and Kleback agreed that the impact that the library system has had on Waters is inspiring. "That makes you feel all warm and fuzzy," Kleback said with a grin.