Filmmaker John Waters talks Christmas, career, criminals and more

HOLIDAZE: John Waters has been performing his Christmas-themed stage show for 12 years, and he knows a thing or two about handling the holidays. From ornaments with pictures of ugly relatives to a decorated electric chair, “I think that you just can take the traditional things about Christmas and have a little more fun with them,” he says. Photo by Greg Gorman

For decades, the incomparable John Waters has influenced offbeat artists everywhere. Now, like a twisted Santa on a mission, he’ll be coming to town with his one-man show, A John Waters Christmas, at Diana Wortham Theatre Monday, Dec. 18.

“I talk about everything — Christmas decorations, criminals, fashion, music, art, crime — you know, even criminals have to have a good Christmas,” Waters says of his stage show. He also discusses “how you can avoid politics every year when you are going to your family’s: Just pass out whistles. So anytime anyone talks about politics, just blow the whistle, and people start laughing, and you won’t knock over the Christmas tree! It’s good advice at Christmas.”

It’s worth taking tips from the filmmaker — if his career path wasn’t orthodox, it was certainly inspired. Early on, instead of letting production budgets cower him, Waters armed himself with an 8-mm camera and embraced a style of his own. His company of renegade actors, coined the “Dreamlanders,” were far from Hollywood starlets. They looked plucked off the street and were seemingly willing to do anything on celluloid, like sex involving a chicken, fornication on a church pew and eating dog feces. Such acts helped surge female impersonator Divine to notoriety.

Baltimore-born Waters has always had a knack for provoking audiences. During the 1960s and ’70s, his grungy cult films, often shot obscurely, developed “the underground film movement.” Waters squirmed his way to stardom, directing and writing such jaw-dropping films as Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble and the trashy, yet iconic, Pink Flamingos.

“Shock art” is meant to catch the viewer off guard. “I just think that you need to surprise people to get their attention,” Waters confesses. “It’s easier to shock people. It’s harder to use wit to make them change their mind. So, if you can make somebody laugh and you grab their attention, they will at least listen to you. And that’s the first step in changing someone’s mind.”

Nowadays, despite pleas from movie-hungry fans, Waters focuses on his stage productions. “I’ve been doing this Christmas show for 12 years,” Waters says. “Even when I made all the movies, I used to always do a show called This Filthy World or An Evening with John Waters. It began when I use to tour with the movies to introduce them. I’ve always had a stage show of some kind or other — I never gave up on vaudeville.”

Asheville’s association with fringe arts and eclecticism is a good fit for the filmmaker. “It has the reputation, definitely,” he says. “I think I will be with my people.”

This isn’t the first time Waters has visited the area. He was part of a distinguished speaker series at UNC Asheville in 2007, and, because of high demand, the university is eyeing his return. “My whole view of everywhere is by the fans who come to see me — who I meet at the signing, during the meet-and-greet or see in the audience — and they are all cool everywhere, now,” Waters says. “I always say that all the people who come to my show always get their roots done that day. So it’s really good for the hairdressers when I come.”

After the tour, the Waters household is gearing up for an annual holiday party with 200 hundred guests. “Every four years, it’s my turn to cook the Christmas dinner for the family — it’s not my turn this year, thank God,” he says. “It’s traditional, in a way, but the trappings are parodies of a traditional Christmas.”

At the party, he’ll pay tribute to his muse. “We decorate the electric chair that Divine was fried in, in Female Trouble,” Waters says. “I have, like, Christmas balls with ugly relative pictures on them. I think that you just can take the traditional things about Christmas and have a little more fun with them. I still do all the ‘normal’ things about Christmas, just, hopefully, in an offbeat way.”

Perhaps “offbeat” best explains Waters’ entire career. From puppet shows at age 12 to ghost stories told at camp that sparked concern among parents to making his first movie — Hag in a Black Leather Jacket — at 16, he’s never relented.

Like any trailblazing artist, it took time to gain acceptance. As years passed, Waters’ tamer side emerged in more mainstream movies, starting with Polyester. He eventually charmed critics with the satirical Serial Mom and, of course, Hairspray — Divine’s final performance at the peak of his stardom. The story lives on as a Broadway musical and was staged at Asheville Community Theatre in 2012.

“I was always ambitious, but certainly things have happened that were way beyond my dreams,” Waters says. “So, I’ve had a good life and people have been very fair to me.”

WHAT: A John Waters Christmas
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Monday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m. $46 general/$116 meet-and-greet

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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5 thoughts on “Filmmaker John Waters talks Christmas, career, criminals and more

    • Sharon Lee Keller

      I agree, John Waters is a living legend, a genius among us. so absolutely courageous in his art. His seemingly outrageous early productions finally led him to the acceptance and success, by well, almost all! I remember reading about the Christmas parties Mr. Waters would host for his interesting guests. The article described the decoration and the unique affair. My birth-son Christopher, was one of Mr. Waters extras in”Hairspray” . The “line dance segment” if I recall correctly. He was so proud of having a small part in this great film. Since graduation from Towson State (now University) he lived and loved Brooklyn NY. However, he and his partner we forced to relocate to Manhattan. Christopher has written, produced and acted in his plays. One was greatly lauded by writers in NY, and accepted by Fringe Fest. He speaks out publically against bullying. Recalling his own experiences of being on the receiving end of this devastating assault to one’s soul. When writing the play, he came to the shocking realization, that he too had been a bully at times. A bully to his own beloved, younger stepbrother. Christopher has written two heart wrenching, unique plays regarding his own, my surrendered of him at birth. His dedication to children and education has led to him accepting many invitations to conduct seminars throughout our Northeastern states. They have been heavily praised by the educators who attended. If you would like to find out more about his insight on a new way of teaching our children, etc. visit www. eavesdrop.com.

      Mr. Walters, should you happen to read this blog, just a few thoughts about Christmas years ago. I too grew up through the 50s, 60s, 70s and on, and on, in Anne Arundel County. Our favorite and most likely only “big store” to visit was the huge Montgomery Wards on Monroe Street. I remember the elevator attendant, and the smell of their carmel corn, throughout every single floor of that building. The exciting car rides, during the Christmas week evenings, with my parents. We, as a lot of folk, would drive around the Baltimore area neighborhoods stopping every so often to stare in awe at a great homeowners Christmas displays. However, the biggest thrill before Christmas was to board the bus to Baltimore, with my Mom, to visit Howard Street. Do you remember the mesmerizing animated window displays at Stewarts, Hechts, and Hochschild Kohns. Then, in the early 60s we visited the awesome Edmondson Village Shopping Center, where they dressed their rows of leafless trees and the strip stores with all white lights? A first I believe, and it was a sight to behold!

      Happy Holidays to everyone at Mountain Express and it’s followers. May 2018 be one of good health, love, and success in your individual undertakings. This response is respectfully written to you all, and Mr. Waters, by a fan , and one proud birthmother,
      Sharon Lee Applegarth Simmons Keller

      Yes, you see I too, was surrendered, or orphaned as the terminology was back then. Hence my multiple surnames. My birthmom lived in Irvington. Monastery Avenue to be exact. No birthfather listed on the paperwork, well…dark hair, blue eyes, but she couldn’t remember his name.. alrighty then! I was “surrendered” to Baltimore City Social Services in December of 1950. Then it was on to an orphanage in Baltimore, and finally, after 16 months, my wonderful parents rescued me from “hell”. I was re-homed by them, to a loving cape cod home, in the then, very tiny town of Glen Burnie! Quite similar now to the stringent procedures of a local SPCA or Animal Control. Ah ha! It’s all good.

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