The notion of a Christmas Show by John Waters is somehow alarming, as if the Big Bad Wolf had decided to perform as the Easter Bunny. Waters has made a career of cheerfully exploiting the transgressive and offensive. When he appears at the Harris Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, he promises to discuss such questions as whether Santa Claus is erotic, whether it's a gay holiday, and why stars on Christmas tours always seemed to go crazy onstage when they get to Baltimore.
"My vaudeville show," he calls his performance: "I'm always hoping that my career can end in Baltimore so I can have a nervous Christmas breakdown on stage in the tradition of Judy Garland."
I've seen him in performance once earlier, with his tribute to the exploitation film pioneer William Castle. Reproducing Castle's promotional stunts, Waters had fake ghosts fly over the audience, stationed a nurse in the lobby to care for anyone who collapsed from fright, and activated buzzers under seats after warning that The Tingler might escape from the screen and crawl under the feet of the audience.
He takes his shows seriously. When I told him he comes across as conversational, he said, "That's a compliment. Every single word is written and rehearsed. However, people think I'm just up there riffing and talking."
Waters has had success making what he calls "exploitation films for art houses." His classics include "Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray," "Polyester" and "Cry-Baby," and his stars have ranged from Johnny Depp and Patricia Hearst to the 300-pound transvestite Divine. He feels some regret that his movies were too funny to play in real grind houses: "To my great shame, they never would have worked at the Loop Theatre in Chicago, my favorite ever exploitation theatre, which played 'Vixen' 24 hours a day at one point. Because those audiences did not want irony."
Some people have fetishes. I think fetishes themselves are John Waters' fetish. Instead of being turned on by high heels, leather or rubber, he's turned on by people who are turned on by fetishes, preferably the strangest possible, such as a man who has spent 30 years filming straight Marines having gay sex. If Waters himself has a fetish, it may be the singer Johnny Mathis. In his new book Role Models, which I read with steadily mounting fascination, the first chapter is about Johnny Mathis, a singer he became fixated on when very young, and finally interviewed for the book.
"I just went to see Johnny Mathis two weeks ago when he was back in Baltimore, first time I'd seen him since the book," he told me, "and he was so hilarious. He joked, 'Oh, you made me famous again.' Really made me laugh because nobody's more famous than Johnny Mathis."
I asked, "Are you more in love with Johnny Mathis, or with the idea of Johnny Mathis?" We were communicating via telephone.
"I'm always in love with the idea of something more than the reality because then you can't be disappointed. When I say that I stalked Johnny Mathis, I didn't mean it as a boyfriend; I meant it as the fan for all the wrong reasons that I hoped he would take it in the right way, and he did. But the idea of something being such a big influence on me is always the strongest attraction. I never can decide if it's torture to be Johnny Mathis, or great freedom. And everything in my book is about people surviving and leading a more extreme life than I have."
Although he's been a successful professional for years, Waters at 64 still has something of the fanboy about him:
"I still go to see movies in movie theaters the Friday they open and read the reviews that night. I never watch DVDs, and I never watch television. I'm still really old school; I like the art films, I like the foreign films, I like the weirdo ones. I mean, the only magazine that asks me to write my 10-Best every year is Artforum. And I write it for the exact audience that I think would like the movies I like best. This year I liked 'Buried' and I liked 'Jackass.' I think 'Jackass' is the only movie in the spirit of my 'Pink Flamingos' and my really early films; I think Johnny Knoxville is making his movies in the same spirit that we were making them when we were kids."
Although everyone assumed John Waters was gay, for years he seemed to follow an informal DATD policy. In the new book, he's open and frank about his sexuality, but he isn't Gay PC, if there's such a thing:
"I don't fit in with gay people either. I'm gaily incorrect. I kinda want gay people to be outlaws again. I don't wanna get married but I certainly believe that people have the right to be married. I never fit in. There's too many rules in the gay world too. So if I ever talk about my homosexuality, which I certainly do, I don't do it in a very gaily correct way. I think people should hang around with gay, straight, everybody, completely mixed. Many of my friends are straight. It's just as much fun to me. I don't wanna hang around with everyone that's exactly like me. I went to a wedding in Chicago between a straight man and a straight woman but they had a gay commitment ceremony, a bad one on purpose -- like a bad separatist female folk singer and bad gay music, and it was really good. The relatives were confused."
And for your Christmas show, what will surprise people?
"I talk about how it's even sometimes good to get sticks and stones, and what kind to get."