The Man Who Hated Musicals 

John Waters talks about rumors, roaches,and Hairspray.

Why would I want to be married?" John Waters asks wickedly. "I thought that was the great privilege of being gay. We didn't have to be married; we didn't have to go in the army or have children. Now gay people have more children than Catholics. I'm in favor of an all-lesbian volunteer army, and I think the big growth industries of the next 10 years are going to be gay divorce and tattoo removal. Those are the things I'd invest my money in."

The 58-year-old filmmaker, a pioneer in the field of tasteless cinema, knows that same-sex marriage is a hot topic these days and that his joke will probably offend somebody. But offensiveness has always been Waters' strongest suit. He's never been afraid to push the boundaries of decency, and he's never been politically correct. I've never been gayly correct either," Waters says.

Inspired by his native Baltimore -- a city he's often described as "the hairdo capital of the world" -- the underground-artist-turned-Hollywood-commodity has satirized American trash culture and shocked middle America with his offbeat and off-color films for the better part of three decades.

In 1988, Waters' film Hairspray became a surprise hit. It was a kitschy comedy about a chubby white teenage girl who champions racial integration on The Corny Collins Show, a weekly televised dance party aimed at teenagers in the early 1960s. The film struck a chord with the public and critics alike. And when Hairspray the musical, a stage version of Waters' film, premiered on Broadway in 2002, it garnered nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Hairspray opens at the Orpheum on December 28th, and Waters tells the Flyer why this mainstream success might turn out to be his most subversive triumph to date.

Memphis Flyer: You've always made films where extreme moralists and puritans are the villains. Since America is apparently in the midst of some new "moral awakening," your films are more relevant than ever. So tell me, if there were no John Ashcroft, would John Waters have invented him?

John Waters: Ashcroft? As a villain? Oh, I don't know. He's not really very colorful, is he?

But do you have more targets to satirize with all the new morality-speak in the media?

You can't get angry any more, because you get co-opted by the mainstream so quickly. George and Barbara Bush went to see Hairspray on Broadway. [Former President] Bush did the twist outside the theater, and he posed with people in drag. So what can you say when you get co-opted before you can even get mad? I've always said that Hairspray was the most subversive thing I've ever done. Think about it. Whole families sit there and watch two men sing a love song to each other. They think it's family entertainment.

The conventional wisdom is that Hairspray is the big mainstream crossover, and that makes it harmless.

It is a big mainstream crossover, and that's exactly why it's so subversive. It's not preaching to the converted. Here's a movie that teaches people to be chubby-chasers. It encourages teenage integration in dating. It encourages men to be married and have a functional marriage. [Same-sex marriage] isn't actually a part of the plot. [In the story] it's a marriage between a woman and a man, but everybody knows that [the woman] is a man. All of those things are really exciting if you can make them appeal to a whole family. And no one, as far as I've seen, has ever objected to Hairspray on any grounds, really.

And so many films and plays that have a message or an agenda really do preach to the choir.

Yes. That's all greeting-card stuff. I don't like most Broadway musicals because they are like singing greeting cards. I ran from them for 20 years. I have a real problem with power ballads. I always thought I was the only gay man who couldn't stand Broadway musicals. I never fit in. But everything went well with Hairspray the musical. Everything went well with the movie as well, until it came out, and Divine died. I think all the joy I've gotten from the play is the joy I should have gotten from the movie. On the night it won the Tony, I was free to wear an ascot for the rest of my life. I have the absolute freedom at last to be a complete fool.

When you were making films like Pink Flamingos, could you imagine opening on Broadway? Could you have imagined having a commercial success in a landscape dominated by Disney? Could you foresee winning a Tony?

Oh, as if I was an idiot savant or a hillbilly who lived in a trailer who couldn't ever, ever imagine success. When I went to see the first reading of Hairspray, I couldn't say it was going to be a hit. Nobody could say that out loud, but we all felt it. And after the first reading somebody said, "You're really going to have to be careful with this one because all you can do is fuck it up."

How did your memories of racial tension in Baltimore in the 1960s develop into Hairspray?

Dick Clark's American Bandstand never played in Baltimore because we had Buddy Dean [the inspiration for the Corny Collins character]. I think The Buddy Dean Show was more extreme than American Bandstand ever was. The girls had much higher hair, and they wore more makeup. The boys all wore tighter pants and pointier shoes. Baltimore was very segregated at the time, but all the cool white kids listened to black radio. The main disc jockey was named Fat Daddy. And there were other deejays like Rockin' Robin and Long Tall Lanky Larry Dean. These were all the people who turned into the character of Motormouth Maybelle. There were no black people on The Buddy Dean Show though. They had what they called Negro Day, and it was called worse in some neighborhoods.

The rest of the time it was lily-white?

The dancers were all white, but the musicians were black. There was even a black drag queen in Baltimore named Peaches who sang at all of the fraternity parties. He was really good, and all of the fraternity boys would applaud him on stage and then beat him up when he left. I guess as long as he was singing, he was all right.

Did you recognize all the extreme fashion and hypocritical behavior when you were growing up or is it something you only saw looking back?

Well, it wasn't everywhere. In my neighborhood, girls didn't look like they did on The Buddy Dean Show. But the girls who went on Buddy Dean didn't really have a rebel look either, because they looked just like their mothers looked. It was a great time for beauty parlors, and on Saturday these girls went to the beauty parlor with their mothers, and they would get their hairdos done together. The guys were all still trapped in some kind of Elvis Presley mode. They were tough guys but good dancers -- and dancing was for sissies. Everybody would get high by drinking cough medicine. Nobody had ever heard of joints; they were all drinking Robitussin.

You were obsessed with The Buddy Dean Show?

I would come home and draw the girls. I would make fake biographies about how one of the girls [on the show] had poisoned other girls in school. There was a big rumor that Pixie, one of the Buddy Dean dancers, had roaches in her hair and that became such a teen rumor that Buddy Dean had to go on the air and announce that it wasn't true. It became a big rumor in Baltimore that if you teased your hair too high roaches would get in there, and they would feed on the hairspray.

Where did the "hair hoppers" come from?

These were working-class people, and their daughters weren't going to be dancing with a black man on television. I'm not so sure that would even fly today. I think it would still be touchy to have white and black 15-year-olds slow dancing together on television. Nobody realizes it, but nothing has changed. [White] parents say, "Stop listening to that rap music," [like they used to say], "Stop listening to that race music." The way I used to listen to Little Richard screaming Lucille in my bedroom is the way kids are listening to Fifty Cent today. They love it, because their parents hate it.

Were there ever attempts to integrate The Buddy Dean Show?

Overnight, the girls who teased their hair decided to iron it straight. That's about the time the Beatles came to America and right about the time Buddy Dean went off the air. The girls who ironed their hair went on to become the hippies. When the 1960s really happened -- when the youthquake happened -- [shows like Buddy Dean] couldn't go on.

If Hairspray is so subversive, why has it become such a mainstream success story?

I think it's been successful because the main character is a fat girl, and a fat girl stands for every kind of outsider there ever was. Today everybody thinks they are an outsider. Even [President] Bush thinks he's an outsider. •

Hairspray is at the Orpheum from December 28th through January 2nd.

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