John Waters talks about Christmas, Divine and Atlanta


Event preview

"A John Waters Christmas," 8 p.m. Dec. 12. $35 General /$100 VIP. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.

“I talk fast. I’m like a speed freak,” John Waters warned at the beginning of our recent phone interview.

Waters, who grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s, will forever be known as the director of the bad-taste midnight-movie masterpiece “Pink Flamingos” (1972), which starred his cross-dressing friend and muse Divine.

Later, of course, Hollywood crossover success came, starting with “Hairspray” (1988). But Waters’ obsessions with the weird and wild continue in books such as his new fiction-meets-fact hitchhiking chronicle “Carsick,” due out in January, and irreverent one-man shows such as “A John Waters Christmas,” which arrives Dec. 12 at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.

We talked about the book and the show and Christmas and some of Waters’ inspirations, including B-movie director William Castle and actor Vincent Price. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Q. I thought your recent “Vincent Price by John Waters” TCM Star of the Month tribute was not only brilliant, but rather touching in revealing a lot about both Price and you.

A. You know, he called me once because I did another TCM show about William Castle. I thought that was so nice. I always joked that I wanted to steal his career. And I kind of have in some ways. People always say I didn't make horror movies. But ask my mother, she thinks they're all horrible.

Q. In the clip from “House of Wax,” Price says, “I’m going to give the people what they want — sensation, horror, shock.” You sort of did that, didn’t you?

A. Yeah. William Castle is who pointed me to show business. Well, first, when I was a kid, my parents took me to New York and I was on "Howdy Doody." I walked in there and I thought, "It's all fake, it's all a lie, and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life." Then, when I saw that skeleton on the wire in "House on Haunted Hill" going across the theater, creating anarchy, that was it. I always tried to equal that. And I almost did with the ending of "Pink Flamingos."

Q. I'm fascinated by your recent hitchhiking exploits, which took you thumbing from Baltimore to San Francisco.
A. The first two thirds of the book are fiction. Before I left and did it for real, I thought up the 15 very best rides I could imagine, which are sex, adventure, you know. Then I thought up the 15 worst. I can really do the worst, right. I wrote my death, which I think is pretty funny. The reality was 21 rides over nine days. But it's a very optimistic book.

Q. Without giving away any spoilers, any takeaways?
A. I would recommend everybody hitchhike. The people that pick up hitchhikers are usually people that have survived something bad in their life and are now very positive and generally trust people. I didn't survive anything terrible but I have always believed in the basic goodness of people. So I was never frightened. I was just terrified it was going to take ten years, because one day I stood there for ten hours before anybody picked me up.

Q. You’re not hitching but you’re coming to Atlanta for “A John Waters Christmas” for the second year in a row, so you must like Atlanta or Atlanta must like you …

A. Well, I'm happy about that. Atlanta is the only city I've ever been in where there are S&M bars in shopping centers, so I know it has that certain weird edge. I'm looking forward to coming back. When they invite you back, it's great because I change stuff and I add stuff. I was all morning writing new material for it.

Q. It’s billed as “putting the X in Xmas.”

A. I hope people will get a Christmas laugh. It's an optimistic show. But if you hate Christmas or really dread it, I give you advice, too. I think I talk to everybody, no matter what your feeling could be about Christmas. And I encourage you to have fantasies about Christmas.

Q. What’s your Christmas fantasy?

A. My evil fantasy is to break into someone's house on Christmas Eve while they're at midnight Mass and just open all their presents. Don't steal anything. What would people do when they came in? [laughs] The kids would think, "Bad Santa" was here. It could be exciting. It could be a new kind of anarchy.

Q. So what is your thing with Christmas?

A. My thing with Christmas is that I'm obsessed with it because it brings out extreme behavior in all people, from children to adults. People act like lunatics at Christmas. And I encourage that. I participate. I buy presents. I do traditional stuff at Christmas. But then at the same time, I make fun of it. I talk about what you should give for Christmas. What you shouldn't give.

Q. Like?

A. It's not about money. It's finding the right gift. I like stuff about the Beagle Boys who constantly try to rob Scrooge McDuck in the Disney comics. It's really hard to find that stuff. I like signs from closed sex bars. As a kid, all I ever wanted for Christmas was sticks and stones. That would be so exciting. The most evil thing you could do is give your children things like deodorant in their stockings.

Q. Do you have any special Christmas traditions?

A. I have a big Christmas party in Baltimore every year for 200 people. It's catered and it's a very varied guest list — from movie stars to the governor to the state's attorney to actual murderers I taught in prison to the guy who played the singing anus in "Pink Flamingos."

Q. Speaking of “Pink Flamingos,” you gave your blessing to the recent “I Am Divine” documentary.

A. I liked it very much. It was a very fair picture of what he was like. People assume that he lived in drag like that character. Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. He was never in drag except when we made a movie. He really wanted to play men more.

Q. Do you have a Divine Christmas memory?

A. I talk about it in the show. Christmas drove him crazy. He almost went to jail every year because he was so obsessed by Christmas. Way more then I am. He would write bad checks for Christmas decorations. In my bedroom in Baltimore, I still have a cashmere blanket that Divine gave me for Christmas. And believe me, he could not afford it.