Legendary cult filmmaker John Waters is most synonymous with his Baltimore hometown, but folks in the D.C. area can catch his live holiday show “A John Waters Christmas” at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, on Dec. 21 — just days before Christmas.
“I rewrite it every year,” Waters told WTOP. “It’s about how everything’s broken, nothing’s working, COVID killed everything, did it kill Christmas? So, I’m in despair in the first act, and then I rally, I’m a half-full kind of guy and so is my audience, so I give you advice on how to make everything better even though it would be a completely insane way to do it.”
The original 70-minute monologue applies comedic Christmas themes to crime, religion, politics, fashion and music, followed by 20 minutes of audience questions.
“I don’t ever get walkouts — and I talk about hideous things,” Waters said. “The people that would hate me, they know enough not to come now. Not many people are dragged innocently into one of my shows and completely think that I was going to come out and sing Andy Williams Christmas carols or something. … Bad Santa watches over me.”
When WTOP last spoke with Waters in 2017, he insisted that “Baltimore is so much cooler than D.C.” He still believes that, but he says D.C. audiences have always been welcoming.
“Everybody in Baltimore thinks D.C. is kind of square, and everybody in Washington thinks everybody in Baltimore is redneck, and they’re both right,” Waters told WTOP. “The only think I hate about Washington is driving there. It’s all drunks on the road, but it has great museums, great clubs … so I’ve always had a great home for my movies in Washington.”
He also has other, more risqué memories of protesting in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been to lots of good riots there,” Waters said. “I peed on the Pentagon once and [President Nixon’s Attorney General] John Mitchell looked out the window and saw me! Just different crazy revolutionary stuff in the 1960s. I was at a Martin Luther King march. … Always take a train if you’re coming for a protest because parking in a riot is not so easy.”
Born in Baltimore in 1946, Waters grew up in the nearby suburb of Lutherville, Maryland. His mom was ironically Roman Catholic and he has fond memories of childhood holidays.
“It was very functional and great, I loved it,” Waters said. “The Christmas tree fell over on my grandmother once, which I remember with glee. She wasn’t really injured or anything, but I used that in one of my movies … when Divine knocks over the Christmas tree.”
The iconic drag queen Divine starred in Waters’ indie flicks from the start, including short films like “Roman Candles” (1966), “Eat Your Makeup” (1968) and “The Diane Linkletter Story” (1970) and feature films like “Mondo Trasho” (1969) and “Multiple Maniacs” (1970).
“Divine lived down the street with his parents when we were in high school,” Waters said. “His parents ran a day nursery for children and Divine was their only child. … Divine was very different in high school. He was hassled by the teachers and the students. He was really tortured in school, so he used that rage later to create the character of Divine.”
Together, they created the cult classic “Pink Flamingos” (1972), which joined “Female Trouble” (1974) and “Desperate Living” (1977) as Waters’ so-called “Trash Trilogy.”
“I think [critics] just put [that label] around it because after that I made ‘Polyester’ and that wasn’t a midnight movie, it was rated R and it was more commercial,” Waters said. “It just all sort of happened accidentally, including ‘Hairspray’ being that commercial.”
Indeed, his 1988 film “Hairspray” became a smash Broadway musical in 2002 with songs like “Good Morning Baltimore,” “Welcome to the ’60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
“They did a great job and it respected my movie,” Waters said. “‘Hairspray’ was a dance movie, there was no original music. … ‘Hairspray’ turned it into a musical and made it sing. I was there through the whole thing like a studio executive, I gave notes, I was there in every city when they did it. … It was a very good experience. I learned a huge amount.”
Today, his legacy remains with the 50th anniversary release of “Pink Flamingos.”
“It just came out this year, Criterion put it out and we had theatrical runs and everything,” Waters said. “When I went to theaters to introduce it, the audience was 20 years old, they’d never seen it and it still worked — I am the filthiest person alive, I won!”