The John Waters Experience
When the John Waters' movie, Pecker, was announced in 1999 it brought up many memories for me. After seeing the movie, I wrote a personal review.
Before Pecker (1999), if you did an internet search for “john waters” you got a hodge podge of stuff, mostly personal pages about Pink Flamingos. There was a website for the movie Pecker at Fine Line Films, but even the trailer wasn’t online yet. After Pecker, if you did a search for “john waters” you’d get mostly Pecker related links. Pecker, Pecker, Pecker.
There was one fan page for Cookie Mueller. Now (2000) there are more than 100 websites or pages referencing Cookie. It is as I envisioned, the new movie, Pecker, has begun a renaissance, a new generation of John Waters' fans. John Waters' influence reaches far into Americana.
The movie opened such a rich vein of memories for me that I re-focused the Pecker review into a John Waters' retrospective with Pecker at its hub and I’m calling this Pecker and The John Waters Experience.
I was in Denver when Pecker was released. The movie opened at the Mayan Theater on a Friday and I decided to attend. The last time I had been to an opening of a John Waters movie was in Provincetown.
The World Premiere of Desperate Living was in Provincetown. A switch from the usual Baltimore World Premiere. There were some conflicting reports about the opening of these films. But it doesn’t matter, perception is what counts and many thought they were attending the World Premiere in Provincetown that summer night in 1977. Visitors and citizens of Provincetown filled the movie theater. It was a big deal. People dressed up.
The theater was at the back of the outdoor French cafe, Cafe Poyant. People lined up and paraded through the cafe to get to the theater.
After the movie John Waters and Edith Massey were at the back of the theater greeting people as they left. A friend introduced me to John, then Edith.
Edith asked, “Did you enjoy the movie?”
Yes, I said with a big grin.
Edith responded in her signature high pitched grandmotherly voice, “That’s good, I’m so glad.”
As I was getting ready to see Pecker, I started thinking about my various associations with Waters' movies. I thought about my trip to Baltimore, the people there and their accents and attitudes. Baltimore considers itself a southern city - it’s just south of the Mason-Dixon line. I am always amused by this because it is just a few hours drive from New York City and New England. I thought about the huge rat I saw run across a Baltimore parking lot one night (I thought it was a cat until friends corrected me). I wondered how Waters found a new generation of actors for his new movie. Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, and Divine had all passed on.
In January and February, 1975, I worked on a play in Provincetown. The play was The Life of Lady Godiva. Cookie was Lady Godiva. I was a stage hand helping to move props and sets. We rehearsed in January and early February, then the show played one weekend at Piggy’s. I was also the doorperson, taking tickets or cash at the door.
Cookie was great as Lady Godiva. As you know (or not, spoiler ahead), at the end of the story Lady Godiva has to ride a horse through town naked. The twist is that Lady Godiva lets down her hair down and it’s enough to cover her breasts. Cookie had long blond hair – long enough to play the final scene with her own hair.
The last day of the play was my birthday. The cast and crew presented me with a cat – a young cat but not quite a kitten. Just two weeks before I had chosen a kitten from a new born litter a neighbor had and suddenly I would have two cats. Funny thing is, they were a matched set, one gray and white, one black and white with the colors in the same places on both. I named one Godiva, the other Govinda.
Cookie and I both made clothing for sale on consignment in Provincetown shops. We made different things and were never competitive and neither of us had any trouble selling everything we made. I remember running into Cookie at one of our shops called Crosyafingas. Cookie had her son Max with her. He was around six years old at the time. Max had platinum blond hair (in 2000, at 30, Max’s hair was black). We also sold clothes at a shop called Vetromile. In those days Cookie and Sharon were often together (for more please see All the Beauty and the Bloodshed a documentary by Laura Poidras on Nan Goldin’s effort to expose the Sackler’s involvement in the opioid epidemic).
Although Sharon Neisp’s name doesn’t appear in the opening credits of Pecker it was great to see her as the Bouncer at the Pelt Room in the movie. Last time I saw Sharon we were at a restaurant called Food in Soho. This was around 1979. [update: Then again in 2000 working at Spiritus in Provincetown.]
The first time I saw Divine was in Female Trouble. And live later that year performing an early version of Neon Woman at the Pilgrim House in 1976. Divine delivered a dynamic performance that wowed us all.
John Lysenring was a familiar face in Provincetown. He was in Waters' earlier movies. He looked a lot like the hippie in the grocery store in Pecker. John worked in town as a cook.
One time I bought an usual piece of cloth. It was damask white with a blue tie-dye through the center of it. A beautiful piece of fabric. I didn’t want to cut it, but eventually I made a dashiki style top with it. I presented it at a yard sale – what today would be called a Trunk Show. John Lysenring bought it on sight. I saw him wearing it in town.
Last time I saw John Lysenring was in San Francisco, March, 1983. We had spent the previous Thanksgiving at a friend’s house in Berekely. John was also an artist. He made the hilarious Thanksgiving “menu”, a copy of which I still have.
I don’t recall seeing Mink Stole in Provincetown, but as a Waters' fan I’ve come to look for her in his movies. It was with some relief that I saw her name in the opening credits. I thought, “a familiar name, thankfully still alive”."
Mink Stole is amazing in a John Waters' movie. Her roles have such stylized characters it appears she actively participates in creating these characters. Her mere presence is enough to get a reaction from the audience.
A couple of weeks after seeing Pecker I found myself sitting in a workshop on alternative media given by Robert Bray of The Spin Project. Robert, at first appears quite ordinary: tee-shirt, flannel shirt, khaki pants and a San Francisco flair: pressed creases in the khakis, calf-high black leather boots. He stands straight upright and clicks his heels in front of the group and as he walks around the room. I can’t help but think of Mink Stole as the precinct captain in Pecker. Inside I am laughing my head off. I think it shows a little on the outside and Robert doesn’t like it/me. Sorry. Robert thinks he is being scorned. It isn’t true, but he is giving me dirty looks. It just makes him seem more like Mink Stole.
By the time I got to the theater to see Pecker, I am excited. Overwhelmed with anticipation. The theater is two-thirds, maybe three-quarters full. Later, someone tells me this is good. I expected to be in a room FULL of my peers, fans of John Waters' movies.
Opening credits, some familiar, but mostly names I don’t know. Mink Stole, good. Pecker takes pictures. Pecker appears ordinary. Pecker’s girlfriend doesn’t get art. Pecker works in a sub shop. Pecker’s girlfriend runs Spin and Grin, a laundromat.
In an early scene, Pecker takes a picture of a large cockroach on a plate of french fries he just served at the sub shop. Recall: Desperate Living - the movie opens with a rat on a dinner plate. Ok, now we’re at home. The movie is bizarre and it’s funny.
Pecker’s mother runs a thrift shop: tribute to Edith Massey. Cookie would have been wonderful as Pecker’s mother. I kept thinking of places in the film where Cookie would have been wonderful. Mary Kay Place does a great job of it too. The shop resembles Edith Massey’s actual shop in Baltimore.
Pecker’s grandmother, played by Jean Schertler, runs a “pit beef” sandwich operation in her front yard. I thought, this is so typical Baltimore, not because I had seen a “pit beef” shop, but because one of the characters I met in Baltimore took in old ladies who had Social Security checks for a living. She had three of four of them at her house at any one time and one more lined up in case any of them “passed”. Jesus crosses and Mary statues were all over the house. Hanging on the wall at the landing between the first and second floor was a Holy Water fount, with water!
When the first man pulls up to order a “pit beef” sandwich, I thought I was seeing the apparition of Divine. Recall: in Female Trouble, Divine plays two roles, one a male opposite herself.
Pecker’s grandmother, Memama, has another quirk. She’s intent on creating the miraculous apparition of Mary, mother of Jesus. So intent on this, she has a doll arranged as a statue and set up as a puppet. She speaks outloud as the voice of the puppet. She tells people it is “Mother of God” as if no one knows she is quite obviously doing the speaking. She tells Pecker to come up to her room to witness the miracle. This is the point at which Pecker, played by Edward Furlong, wins me over. When he gets to the room he says, “Hi Mary” and the words are spoken with the sweetest voice you’d ever want to hear and he uses this voice throughout the scene.
Waters' pokes fun at an everlasting hustle. Pecker’s older sister, a look-a-like for Cookie, is played by Martha Plimpton. She runs a “trade bar”. Trade is “straight” guys “entertaining” gay guys. The ultimate trade hag, she proclaims, “Trade is my life.” “Baltimore is the trade capital of the world,” she says. When her house is robbed, she wonders if they were cute. On a bus, she asks a nearby male passenger, “Are you homosexual?” He answers “No, m’am, I’m not.” And she replies, “Well, you wouldn’t understand then.”
Pecker’s little sister, played by Lauren Hulsey, is a baby Divine. If ever there would be a tribute to Divine, this is it. The little girl is addicted and “all sugared up” in the beginning of the movie. She even gives Waters' trademark performance, the puke scene - even if it is only a little spit up. The puke scene appears in every Waters' movie. Midway through the film, little Chrissy gets a course of Ritalin therapy and later she is snorting green peas. It occurs to me later that this character may be dedicated to Mink Stole as “Taffy” in Multiple Manicas.
The theme is spelled out on a billboard, “Happiness is Helping Other People."
The plot turns. Pecker chases the upset Shelly. He finds her in a voting booth and converts her from someone who perceives the world as artless, to someone who sees art everywhere. This is such a momentous occassion, she tells Pecker, “Use a condom!”
Pecker’s photographic art is “discovered” and shown in New York City. The resulting fame results in an unwanted spin on Pecker’s family and friends. Pecker turns it around though. He gives his own show in Baltimore. The locals love the captured moments of the New York art scene. “Nice tits, m’am.” The New Yorkers get to laugh at themselves, which is really very healthy for anyone. Pecker and Shelly are better paired now that Shelly gets art. It is a happy occassion.
One of the New Yorkers adds to Pecker’s toast, “And to the end of irony!” This is a little joke because Waters' movies are irony on top of irony. And, the end of irony is not in sight.
Pecker is a John Waters' masterpiece. In Pecker, Waters honors the original members of his team by playing with a weave of their little quirks and ghostly likenesses. Yet, Pecker, the character, offers us a hint that more of Waters' work is coming in a new generation.
Some names have been changed (Angel and Star) but this happened
In 1988 I was in Kansas City. I had a friend named Steve. Steve lived his life like a soap opera. He described his friends and family in the most dramatic terms. When I was around him I sometimes felt like I was living in a John Waters' movie. I must have mentioned it at some point as he was carrying on about something. I asked if he had seen any John Waters' movies. He had seen Pink Flamingos, he said, but he had a friend who had all of John Waters' movies on tape and we should get together sometime to watch them. This was arranged at a gathering at Steve’s apartment.
First on the guest list was Angel. Angel worked with Steve and I had heard about her, but hadn’t met her until this night. Angel confided all of her sexual fantasies and encounters in great detail to Steve. Steve, in turn confided them all to me. Besides all of that, my mental picture of Angel, from Steve’s talk, was something akin to Morticia with make-up as high art and long painted finger nails. In reality, Angel wore no make-up; she didn’t need to, she had a natural appearance that needed no enhancement and she had a flawless figure. Also, she was the daughter of a Baptist minister, which explains the sexual fantasies imo.
Angel brought with her a man she had met the night before at a laundromat. Now on their first date together, a John Waters' festival at Steve’s apartment. The man’s name was Star, as in Star of David. He was tall, very thin, and had waist length straight dark brown hair. But wait, there’s more – he also had a long, narrow nose, and, next to his hair, it was his most erotic feature. Altogether, Star was a beautiful man in a strikingly unusual way. I later told Angel I thought he looked like Jesus. She still brings this up to me everytime we meet.
There was Steve and me and Ed, another friend of Steve’s who was pretty quiet throughout the night.
And there was Larry, who was the Waters cult-head with the tapes. I had met Larry before. You’d never guess Larry to be into Waters' movies. Heck, you’d never guess anyone in Kansas City to have even heard of a Waters' movie. I was even surprised they had roads and cars when I got there. Larry was an insurance adjuster. He was originally from Louisville (he pronounced it “Loo’vulle”), Kentucky, and he had a sharp exaggerated twang to match. Larry was a genuine and dedicated fan of John Waters' movies. Being in the insurance business, he could afford to own all of the tapes of every John Waters movie (back then videotapes of hard to find movies were expensive). He brought them with him a suitcase.
We were told we could vote on which one(s) to see that night. I still hadn’t seen Pink Flamingos at that point, so I peeped a vote for that. Angel and Star hadn’t seen any of them and didn’t know what they were getting into. Steve and Larry had seen Pink Flamingos.
I remembered Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living playing on a regular basis at The Movies in Provincetown, so I thought that everyone who had seen those wanted to see them over and over again as much as possible. Larry selected ones no one else in the room had seen, Multiple Maniacs and Mondo Trasho.
Not only was Larry a big fan of Waters' movies, not only did he own every tape of every Waters' movie, Larry knew every word of every line in every scene. He either mouthed the words or spoke them out loud during the entire movie.
Angel and Star left early. I loved the rosary scene. The night ended and I still hadn’t seen Pink Flamingos. I had to do that on my own years later.
A few weeks later Angel announced that she was pregnant. Right after that announcement came the news that Divine had died. Angel and Star married in June. Tabitha was born just before Christmas, 1988. Steve was the godfather. I was supposed to witness the birth, but it took place a day sooner than expected.
We later learned that Ed had had an HIV test that day and it was positive. He died that year. Steve died in January 1994.
I happened to see John Waters one day in Provincetown when I had the laptop with me. By that time he had already made Cecil B. Demented. I showed him the [2000 version of this] article which was online at the time. He said someone would print it out for him.
The Academy Museum, 2023
The Academy Museum has an exhibition of John Waters work. It’s called John Waters Pope of Trash. Along with the exhibition there is a film series of Water’s films in September and October. It’s where I’ll be on several Thursday nights.
I am in Los Angeles. I’ve come because I’ve written a screenplay.
Someone will want to make April In Colorado into a film. Someone will want to Produce this screenplay. Someone will want to Direct this screenplay. People will want to act in this film.
To my knowledge John Waters hasn’t made a movie he hasn’t written. He might want to look at this one though and perhaps recommend someone who might want to make this movie. There are elements in this screenplay that would attract John Waters. There are bad boys and girls on both sides of a culture war. There is redemption for both sides. There are evil cult leaders that made this war and no one has talked about that before. And it’s happening again IRL. It’s time to expose these cult leaders. It’s time to make this film.
While writing April In Colorado I had a particular actor in mind for one part. This actor has the personhood to play the part. I don’t know if they would take on the role. It’s possible this actor would be a producer on the film. Now that the writer’s strike is over I am attempting to contact this person.