John Waters doesn’t want to give away exactly what he’s going to say at his Valentine’s Day show at Baltimore Soundstage, but given that it’s called “A Date With John Waters: End Of The World,” you can probably expect a dash of vinegar in those hearts and flowers.
“Lots of people are coming in love to my show, but there’s one who always loves the other one a little more,” said the well-known Baltimorean filmmaker, provocateur, author and lovingly off-center man about town. “Never be the one who loves the other more. That can change by the hour.”
It’s not like you’d expect the mind behind “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester” to have a benign take on a holiday whose preferred form of communication, the valentine itself, “is really like stalking people.” Waters’ holiday-themed show is actually his second here this year, after he did a makeup last month for his annual Christmas show, which worked, he said, “because you can have Christmas in January.” I agree, as I conducted this interview by phone in January sitting next to my own Christmas tree, which was still up at the time. (It still may be. I won’t be judged.)
Talking to Waters is like getting a gleefully eclectic travelogue of Charm City. “Eastern Avenue was famous for male prostitution,” he recalled. “At one point, you could find a license plate for every state in the country there.” Ahem.
When I mention my native Northwood, he brings up not only the Black students, from what was then Morgan State College, who integrated the movie theater there, but famed atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who lived in the neighborhood as well. “She was my idol!” he enthused. “I had one of her bumper stickers. I went to Calvert Hall [College High School] and they told us we should break her windows. I said, ‘No, that’s not fair.’”
It tracks that Waters wouldn’t want to vandalize someone’s home just because of their beliefs, because his whole philosophy seems to be an egalitarian truth-telling. As controversial as he’s been considered, his work isn’t just about making you clutch your pearls. He wants to be clever about why you’re clutching. “Shocking is easy,” he told me. “Shocking and witty is a little more difficult. I’m always trying to make you laugh, and a little nervous.”
Waters sees himself as an equal-opportunity nervous-maker. “I make fun of things on the left and the right. The only politics I’m against is self-righteousness. There’s a thing happening that’s not fun, when actors at the Spirit Awards talk about their journey. I like to take the piss out of myself. The original Baltimore Sun film critic, Lou Cedrone, said, ‘Why did you beat us to the typewriter by calling yourself trash first?’”
That talent for making fun stems all the way back to Waters’ childhood. He recently recorded “It’s In The Book,” his interpretation of two 1950s routines by the late comic Johnny Standley that are, as Waters tells it, part of his own origin story. Both pieces are a comically self-serious rendering of how seemingly innocent childhood stories, including “Little Bo-Peep” and “Rock-a-bye Baby,” are kind of twisted at their core. (Who hangs a baby in a tree and sings about it falling?) It makes perfect sense that they’d trigger something in the young mind that would one day create the murderous “Serial Mom” — taking something that seems innocuous and turning it on its head.
Standley’s bits were “Theater of the Absurd. Some haughty, witty individual making fun of the fairy tales your parents told you. It’s rebellious, in a way,” Waters said. “It was my first sick joke. I was seven. It was an obsessive thing I really, really loved. I sent a copy to his family, who admitted that not that many people had called about that recently.”
You can hear in Waters’ voice how moved he was to show Standley’s family how much the comic’s work meant to him, and that’s probably because Waters is a notoriously nice person. To me, the throughline in everything he does is a slightly twisted positivity. He’s trying to get us to laugh at ourselves because it generally makes us less insufferable. Even “Hairspray,” his masterpiece about racial integration, featured a dance called “The Roach.” Upbeat. Weird. Kind of gross. Easy to dance to.
That quirk is obvious in “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” the exhibit on display through April 16 at the Baltimore Museum of Art that showcases the personal art collection from his homes in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York. His houses now “all look like someone robbed them. There’s dirt and nails sticking out. I’ve lived with [the pieces] everywhere,” he said.
The exhibit is probably as close as we’ll ever get to being invited to any of Waters’ personal abodes, but walking through it gives you a sense of his taste — which is, as expected, off-beat. There’s Baltimore artist George Stoll’s “Toilet Paper,” which literally looks like a bright roll of bathroom tissue on a wall dispenser, or Jonathan Horowitz and Rob Pruitt’s “Fleischmann’s Gin Carton,” which is rendered festive in gold glitter.
While there are locally born artists like Stoll and painter Vincent Peranio featured, Waters likes his collection of art just because he likes it; being local “isn’t a reason to show it.” He doesn’t want to support something just because they share a descriptor. “I always say, ‘Gay is not enough.’ It’s a good start, some sort of progress. But there is bad gay.”
Next up for the ever-busy Waters is writing a screenplay based on his novel “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” as well as “all the usual stuff, radio stuff, shows. I’ve got more jobs than I’ve ever had in my life.” And though Waters has homes in other places, he plans to remain in Baltimore in all its weird, shabby and lovely glory.
“The funny thing about COVID is that everywhere else is now like Baltimore, too,” he said. “San Francisco used to be fancy, but now it’s like ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ I feel more at home now.”