John Waters :: Holiday Kitsch and Camp with the Pope of Trash

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Sunday November 26, 2017
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"I get the Bay Area Reporter every time I'm in San Francisco," said John Waters in probably the coolest unsolicited endorsement of our newspaper. The prolific filmmaker, bestselling author, and master raconteur is back in town, and he'll share the latest edition of his Christmas show on Tuesday, November 28 at Great American Music Hall.

Waters' show includes tales of his young life in Baltimore, which of course led to creating some of the most revered cult film classics of our time.

If you haven't yet enjoyed "Pink Flamingos," "Desperate Living," "Female Trouble," "Serial Mom," "Hairspray," "Polyester," or his other films, you owe yourself a holiday viewing binge, if not a cultural illiteracy bead-reading.

Since the 1970s, Waters and his stars, including Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey and other Baltimore natives, turned film culture upside down with a series of crass, hilariously subversive classics.

For local fans who've enjoyed Waters' previous solo shows in the Bay Area, you'll enjoy his new edition. Waters, now 71, recalled the first time he performed a Christmas-themed show, in 1996 at the Castro Theatre.

"That was the first time I did a Christmas show, with Marc Huestis," he said of the sold-out event that featured the late Arturo Galster. "The Castro's always great. I've played there many times for many different shows and movie screenings. It's a great neighborhood."

Waters, who rents apartments in San Francisco and New York, and owns a home in Baltimore, mentioned that he used to live in the Castro, "in my wild youth."

"I love returning to San Francisco. It's my greatest luxury, having an apartment there. I usually go back in January, August, or whenever I have to be on the West Coast. It's my getaway."

At the mention of fans seeing him on local buses, Waters, said, "I wanted to do an ad for Muni," imagining a similar version of his classic 'no smoking in the theatre' PSA, "but they wouldn't pay me. I take all the different routes. My favorite is when they have the raids of people who don't pay their fares. It's always the most normal-looking little old ladies, and they're so indignant! That's why I ride every day."

A Christmas also inspired a 2004 album anthology of lesser-known renditions of holiday classics and obscurities, like "Here Comes Fatty Claus" by Rudolph & Gang.

His books "Carsick: Hitchhikes Across America," "Role Models," "Crackpot," and "Make Trouble" are also hits.

Asked about his least and most favorite aspects of Christmas, Waters said, "The awful thing now in certain households is having to talk with a relative who's a Republican good boy. But actually, I like Christmas. I find it insane and extreme. When someone in a store wishes me a Merry Christmas, I say, 'Excuse me. I don't believe in the Virgin Birth.' That's a fair response. It's a religious thing. I'm very much against church in the state. I support the Satanic Temple, even though I'm not a Satanist. They're like the Yippies. They fight church interference in the state, force Satanic statues to be near Nativity scenes. I'm for infiltrating living cr�ches that start speaking in tongues."

From his films like Multiple Maniacs (which includes Divine's rosary sex scene shot in a church), Waters' obsession and rejection of his Catholic upbringing runs throughout his work.

"I feel bad for Joseph. He is the most underwritten person. He did nothing. He didn't even get to impregnate Mary. Was he impotent?"

Among Waters' holiday tradition targets are excessive home decorations.

"We have one block in Baltimore that's famous for it, called 'Miracle on 36th Street,' where all the houses are completely overdone. There are traffic jams up and down the street. The children must be mortified. You can't go to sleep because the lights won't stop blinking. They're assholes. I'd like to buy a house there and refuse to put one light up. I'd be so hated!"

Waters adds another target of tackiness to his holiday favorites.

"One new thing that's ludicrous are the inflatable Nativity scenes. When they collapse, I thought that vandals had punctured them, but often, people turn the air pumps off to save on their electric bill. They didn't want to be 'fuelish.' That's the new tacky Christmas decoration. I say, if you can't afford them, don't buy them."

Stocking Stuffer

Along with a DVD, another gift idea is his first spoken word vinyl record, "Make Trouble," which marks another milestone for the prolific filmmaker, author, and solo performer. Produced by Grammy-winning producer and acclaimed author Ian Brennan, the album includes Water's tales of evil nuns, sneaking into burlesque shows, and avoiding high school reunions. The work is based on a commencement speech he gave at Wesleyan University, where he also donated materials for their special collections archives.

Waters has also spoken at other colleges, like the Rhode Island School of Design, where he noted, "Somehow I've been able to make a living doing what I love best for fifty years without ever having to get a real job."

Of course, Waters' 'real job' has long been the unique career path of shocking, outraging and amusing film audiences. From his early 8mm shorts to his midnight movie underground hit "Pink Flamingos," Waters has been praised by his actors and colleagues as a consummate businessman, a master of PR and practicality, from his early no-budget films, to his more commercial successes. Writer William S. Burroughs dubbed him 'The Pope of Trash.'

Waters said he's proud of the audio version of "Make Trouble."

"It looks kind of like a real 45 record; it's red like an old Rosemary Clooney record. I just like the idea of being on new vinyl. I thought it would be good for my street cred; as good as hitchhiking."

Asked about his latest kitsch discoveries, or if new kitsch exists, Waters said, "What it used to mean was: Find something so bad it's good. You can still do that, but now everybody tries to be bad. Big Hollywood tries to do that, making arch comedies that aren't funny. It's switched around a little. That's why I say in my book, 'I want to be an insider.' That used to be a terrible word. But now, everybody wants to be an outsider. I've only been an insider recently."

Waters revels in his 'insider' status headlining the Great American Music Hall, because it's next to the O'Farrell Brothers porn and strip club.

"I remember the days when you got little flashlights and you could examine pussies. Can you imagine doing ten shows a day like that? Even James Brown didn't work that hard."

At my mention of a new queer-inclusive cabaret show at the venue, Waters asks if it's "new hipster burlesque."

"That's not doing floor work. I love that term." He switches to the voice of a jaded stripper: "'We don't do floor work.' That means split beaver. That would be a good punk band name."

Waters also mentioned the Nob Hill Theatre and Blow Buddies as gay venues he likes, but doesn't visit. "But I'm so happy they're still in business."

Cha Cha Heels

Without going far back into Waters' career, but while keeping with the holiday topic, mention of the infamous and frequently imitated cha cha heels Christmas tantrum performed by Divine in "Female Trouble" bears mention. Waters is quick to fact-check.

"Most drag queens don't know what cha cha heels are," he said. "I've seen cha cha heels contests. They're not high heels. They're short dancing shoes."

As for the Christmas tree accident in "Female Trouble," Waters said, "It really did happen to my grandmother. Nobody pushed her, but I heard her scream. I heard presents smashed, and as a selfish child, I thought, 'I hope mine didn't break.' My grandmother even thought it was funny, later. It's not in my current show, because I always rewrite it, but people have told me their horror stories about the tree falling, usually involving liquor or the dog."

For his own celebrations, Waters recalled his annual party in Baltimore, where last year, he couldn't attend, because he was hospitalized for a kidney stone.

"I actually like not going to my own parties, so I might do it again. I had one year where Jean Stein [the late writer and New York socialite] threw me a book party, but said, 'Oh, I'm not coming!' I copied her, because I thought it was a good idea; just have parties and don't go."

Themed Christmas parties, attended or not, sound better with another Waters-esque twist.

"Office parties where you're supposed to trade gifts for ten dollars? You should purposely get a gift you know a coworker would hate the most. That'd be fun. One year, someone gave me the soundtrack to 'Rocky.' At the time, I lived on the seventh floor, and threw it out a window. Someone could have been hit by it. Imagine being killed by a 'Rocky' soundtrack on Christmas Eve."

Commenting on contemporary holiday mishaps, Waters predicted, "This year, people don't want to go home, because of all the political arguments. I tell people to pass out whistles, so any time someone starts in, they can blow a whistle and they'll stop. If not, it's gonna be a big year for trees and turkeys gettin' knocked over. It's gonna be a mess, a big mess."

'A John Waters Christmas,' at Great American Music Hall, November 28, 8pm. $55, $125 meet & greet. 859 O'Farrell St.