Prairie Pop: ‘King of Nasty’ John Waters returns to Iowa City for one-man roadshow

John Waters — “Filthier and Dirtier”

The Englert Theatre — Saturday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.

Illustration by Blair Gauntt
Illustration by Blair Gauntt

Prepare yourself. Hide the children. John Waters — the Auteur of Ordure — is once again bringing his one-man roadshow to the Englert, on Oct. 1. “Filthier and Dirtier” is the latest iteration of his vaudevillian act, a freewheeling roadtrip down memory lane (with several detours through the puke-filled alleys of Waters’ mind).

“I just wrote a whole new version,” Waters told me, calling from San Francisco. “I did it last week in Fire Island, so I’m always adding new stuff. I’ve been to Iowa City every five years, so you’re definitely going to have plenty of new stuff.” He paused. “I don’t do any juggling, though. I always kind of wanted to do a trampoline act or something, but — no.”

In the lead-up to Waters’ visit to Iowa City, FilmScene features several of his early films, including a new restoration of his second feature film, Multiple Maniacs (1970). The cinema will also be screening Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Polyester (1981), with the last being presented as it should always be experienced — in “Odorama!” (For those not in the know, I won’t reveal the sensory surprise.)

Those films are among the most over-the-top entries in Waters’ canon, and mentioning them got us talking about his original sources of inspiration. “Very early on, the thing that was really a big influence on me that no one ever talks about anymore was the Theatre of the Absurd,” he said. “That was huge for me in the early ’60s, when I was in high school. That was my obsession, and that’s what really influenced me.”

Waters, attending a Baltimore high school during that time, became an avid reader. The trade book industry was in the midst of the paperback revolution — a low-cost publishing model that gave the masses access to plenty of left-of-center ideas. “I read Evergreen Review, everything Grove Press did,” Waters said. “Oh, I loved Grove Press.”

“I hated reading in school because they made us read Benjamin Franklin, and, like, I didn’t want to read that stuff. But I wanted to read [Jean Genet’s] Our Lady of the Flowers, so it was all Grove Press and Evergreen Review that made me love reading. They used to send out these little stickers that said ‘Join the Underground’ that we would put everywhere. So I was completely corrupted by Grove Press.”

He continued, “They did sell Grove Press books in Baltimore, because I used to shoplift them, but they’d only have one copy. … I worked in bookstores when I was young, and so I knew about that. It was my first job, in a bookshop — Doubleday Bookshop in Baltimore — so that’s actually the only real job I ever had.”

Waters read about weird films in the Village Voice every week — particularly Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal” column, which planted several subversive seeds in his young mind. “He was my lifesaver,” Waters said. “That’s how I knew about everything when I was living in Baltimore.”

The teenager would sometimes sneak off to New York City on a Greyhound bus to take in the underground film scene. “I went to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative,” Waters recalled. “I went to see the early Warhol movies, Jack Smith movies, all that stuff. Yes, that was a huge, huge influence on me.” These experiences in New York shaped his decision to attend New York University as an undergrad, but his only formal encounter with higher education went down in flames.

“I was at NYU for five minutes. I was a freshman in college and they had a marijuana bust,” he said. “But it wasn’t really NYU’s fault. I didn’t go to class. I went to Times Square every day and saw movies. I stole books from their bookshop and sold them back the next day to make money. I took drugs. I probably should’ve been thrown out.”

New York was actually slow to embrace John Waters’ films. “They were shown in Provincetown, San Francisco, L.A., around the country. New York was the very last place they were shown. The very first place was in Baltimore, when I opened them in churches.” (Just imagine experiencing the Divine-driven depravity of Mondo Trasho in a church basement!)

“After that, usually in Provincetown, at an art house movie theater — where I would get the theater and then pay the owner his percentage of the ticket price. I’d bring my 16mm projector and set it up in the balcony. I only had one projector, so there’d have to be a break in between reels. I would show the films and we would give out flyers on the street with people dressed in the costumes and stuff.”

Then came the Palace Theatre in San Francisco, which was another turning point in Waters’ early career. “We played around the country before they showed at the Palace — that wasn’t until about 1970 — and so I had already showed those movies elsewhere. Divine appeared with those movies before, when we would go to colleges and stuff, but it was the first time Divine really made a big splash.”

In San Francisco, he and Divine met their sicko soul mates: a troupe of radical cross-dressing freaks named the Cockettes. “John Waters is one of the funniest human beings I ever met,” recalled Lendon Sandler, a member of the Cockettes who shared a house with Waters for a while. “I remember the first time I met him, he did this imitation of Tina Turner as a Singer Sewing Machine. He would do sort of a version of ‘the pony’ dance.”

Waters regaled me with memories of that time. “We made fun of hippies, even though we lived in that world. So we would dump meat and refined white sugar on the doorsteps of communes, like this one called Kaliflower, run by Irving Rosenthal. … It was fun. It was hippie wars.” Waters added, “I made all of my movies to offend hippies. We were just punks, and they didn’t have a name for it yet.”

Kembrew McLeod once screened Female Trouble in college, complete with promotional silkscreened barf bags. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 206.

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