Christmas is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name of self-described “filth elder” John Waters.
More than likely you think of his beloved Baltimore where he established his cult-status as a “midnight movie” filmmaker with movies such as “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble” and “Desperate Living.” Even after his star began to rise with movies such as “Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom” — in which he cast Hollywood names such as Tab Hunter, Pia Zadora, Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner, respectively — he remained true to his hometown roots.
When it comes to finding the right words to describe Waters, you could say groundbreaking filmmaker, actor, writer, raconteur and artist. You could also say lover of Christmas, because every year in December, Waters is a torchbearer and flag waver for Christmas in the way that only he can do it. His “A John Waters Christmas” show and tour is the stuff of legends and laughs, and the 2019 edition is sure to be no exception. Additionally, Waters’ recently published book, “Mr. Know-It-All” (Macmillan Publishers, 2019), an entertaining and informative memoir crossed with a how-to, would also make for an ideal Christmas gift.
Waters talked with us in advance of his Dec. 16 appearance in Manhattan:
One of the first things we think of when it comes to you, John Waters and Christmas, is Dawn Davenport’s Christmas meltdown in 1974’s “Female Trouble.” Did you or anyone you know ever have a Christmas morning like that?
“Actually, I know someone that was arrested Christmas morning and the tree was knocked over when the police came. That happened after I shot the scene. It wasn’t a fan or anything. Many people on the Christmas tour, through the years, have told me similar stories about the tree falling over on their mother. It happens a lot. Usually liquor or the dog is involved.”
How much of that scene in “Female Trouble” would you consider to be inspiration for your annual “A John Waters Christmas” show?
“I don’t know that it has too much to do with it. I think it has more effect earlier, in the ’70s and ‘80s when I had my big Christmas party that I still have. We purposely gave each other gifts that we would hate. We used to throw them out the window, which I think was rather irresponsible because I lived on the seventh floor. (laughs) I think it was more a case of ‘How dare you give me this present.’ I think it inspired that.”
Your 2004 album “A John Waters Christmas” is one of my all-time favorite holiday albums. Do you include any of the songs on the album in your holiday show of the same name?
“I think sometimes the theaters play it as people are coming in (from the lobby). The last time I did something publicly with it was when the mayor of Baltimore was Mayor (Martin) O’Malley, who later became the governor. Every year they have the big ceremony where they turn on the Christmas lights in the city. He and I came out to the song ‘Santa Claus is a Black Man’ and we turned on the lights.”
In addition to wintry climates, there are warm and snowless cities such as West Palm Beach, San Diego and Tucson among the places you’re performing “A John Waters Christmas Show.” Are you the kind of person who needs to have snow on the ground to get in the Christmas spirit?
“No, not at all. I’ve had Christmas in foreign countries. I kind of like extreme weather. My favorite Christmas view used to be in L.A., on a hot day when it’s Christmas, in front of the Scientology Center, which has Christmas lights around from the city. It was such a bizarre sight and I always liked that.”
In your new book, “Mr. Know-It-All,” you make mention of your annual Christmas party, as well as the “A John Waters Christmas” show. What’s the best way to let the readers know that tickets to “A John Waters Christmas” would make a perfect winter holiday gift?
“I’m right in the middle of rewriting the whole show. It’s almost completely different every year. I think it’s a good gift. If you have a first date for ‘A John Waters Christmas,’ you’re either going to get married or they’re never going to speak to you again. It’s hit or miss. I’ve met many people that have told me that they got married after a first date of seeing one of my movies or being at the Christmas show. Now they come to the John Waters Summer Camp every year. I think it would be a romantic date.”
I describe “Mr. Know-It-All” to my friends as a memoir crossed with a how-to. What was the impetus for writing the book in this fashion?
“Because I wanted to share my negotiation skills that I had somehow developed over the last 50 years so that you, too, could fail upwards. You, too, can be f—-ed up and triumph. You, too, can never have to get a real job.”
Finally, the music world recently lost one of the greats, Ric Ocasek of The Cars. Ric played a “beatnik cat” in 1988’s “Hairspray.” Do you have any memories of Ric that you’d like to share?
“I remember Ric. He was from Baltimore. He was a beatnik, probably. The first thing I ever wanted to be was a beatnik. We’re the same age. He was lovely. He came for the day. He got along very well with Pia Zadora. He came to the premiere (of ‘Hairspray’) in Baltimore, I remember, with (wife) Paulina (Porizkova). I’m not sure I have ever seen him since. I think when we had the big 30-year reunion (in 2018) of ‘Hairspray’ at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in L.A. I tried to get him to come. He was very favorable about it and said to send his love to everybody, but he didn’t come. I’m not sure if he was ill for a long time or not at the end, but that could have been the reason. I was always a fan. He was a gentleman and a music legend. I’m really privileged that he was in that movie. I think people remember that scene well.”
“A John Waters Christmas” will be presented at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 at Sony Hall in Manhattan. For more, visit sonyhall.com.