Monthly Archives: December 2011

Video from “Love Letter to Edie, Director’s Cut DVD” – Robert Maier’s Additional Comments 25 Years Later

Love Letter to Edie was made in 1975 right after meeting John Waters and working on the crew of “Female Trouble.”  I added a fifteen minute bonus commentary in 2001.  This clip is an excerpt from that.  The DVD of the original “Love Letter to Edie” and the commentary is only available on e-Bay.

Click to view on YouTube.

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.

 

My Movie Dates with John Waters

I first met John Waters as a crew member on Female Trouble, his follow-up to his ground-breaking film, Pink Flamingos.  We hit it off well as young movie-crazy counter-culturists from the Baltimore suburb of Towson.  Working together nearly every day until Female Trouble was released, we also became Friday night drinking buddies in the “art crowd” that prowled Baltimore’s Fells Point bar scene in the 1970s.

When Female Trouble went into distribution, John wasn’t so busy during the week.  One night he called to see if I’d go to the movies with him.  He loved going to the movies, but hated to go alone.  Most people he knew were tied down in a relationship, or didn’t have the money or desire to see two or three movies a week, like John did,—or they weren’t the type John wanted to be seen with.  Plus, it was hard to find people who wanted to see what John liked.  That would be films like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS; Scream Blackula Scream; or Russ Meyer quadruple feature nights with titles like Mud Honey, Common Law Cabin, and Mondo Topless.  I had the time and the money, was happy to see the B-movies John obsessed about, and was happy to get to know him better.  John told me he had a usual date, Roger, Chuck Yeaton’s brother, who was single, straight, and easy-going, but he didn’t really like the movies.  He also looked old enough to be John’s father.  As a hetero 23 year old movie lover, I was a much better escort.

In the mid-1970s, Baltimore still had a handful of 1930s deco-style theaters scraping a living from dwindling audiences.  They played B-movies that were slightly violent and sexually suggestive (though revealing nothing more than the occasional topless woman).  Admission was a buck; the refreshment counter was sparsely stocked, and the popcorn machine was usually broken.  An usher in a stained maroon uniform took tickets and sold boxes of stale Goobers, Raisinettes, Hot Tamales, and cups of flat soda that tasted like dishwashing liquid.  The aisles were so sticky with countless spilled sodas they nearly tore the soles off our shoes.  Some of the velveteen seats were so encrusted with squashed candy they gleamed.

John poured over the Baltimore Sun’s movie listings every day, and called to let me know what movie he had picked.  These were the days before VHS, DVD, cable, satellite, or Internet.  To see a skin flick, or any weird, obsessive film you had to go to a movie theater.  They generally only played a day or two, so catching them required a sharp eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies.  John subscribed to Daily Variety and the Daily Hollywood Reporter, so he knew what was what.  If a Russ Meyer film like Vixen or UP! was in town, we had to see it.  He dragged me all over the city, and I discovered theaters I never knew existed.  Many were in Baltimore’s blue-collar northeast corridor, along Harford and Belair Roads.  While the theaters have all closed, John still visits the local biker bars in that area to be with the people for whom these movies were made.

John usually picked me up and drove because he knew the obscure movie theater locations so well.  He was always 10 minutes early and sat in his big old American car of the moment listening to a black radio station, puffing on a Kool and tapping the steering wheel with his nervous energy.  In the laid back 1960s hippie culture, arriving early was not a common trait, and I knew if I was to stay on his good side, I would have to be early too.  It was a good life lesson.

We only went out weeknights, and were usually the only people in the theatre.  One couple might be in the very back row doing who knows what.  On our first date, I was shocked at his behavior.  We walked down the aisle and plopped in the center seats about ten rows back from the screen.  John ripped open a box of candy and had poured the last bit straight into his mouth before the previews ended.

“Dinner,” he grinned.

I had been taught to eat one Raisinette at a time to make them last for the whole movie, and marveled at John’s flouting of this rule.  But that was only the beginning.  Next, he put his long legs up on the seats in front.  This was a shameful act.  I had been taught to never put my feet up on the back of a theater seat.  I’m sure John had been too, but he was always thrilled to break any parental rule.  About five minutes into the film, since it had been about fifteen minutes since his last cigarette, he pulled a Kool from the pack in his shirt pocket, and fished his lighter from another.

“You can’t smoke in a movie theater John!” I whispered.
“Oh sure you can,” he said with great conspiratorial glee.  “ Watch this.  Duck down to light it, and make it fast.”

He put his head down between his legs, and with a quick flick of his Bic, lit the cig in a brief unnoticeable flash.
“Now you have to shake it while you hold it so the smoke doesn’t go straight up, and they can’t tell where it’s coming from.”
I thought, like, we’re the only people in the theater, who the fuck do you think they’ll think is smoking?  Then he said,
“Cup it when you take a drag, to hide the glow.”  Which he did, “and blow the smoke down into your lap to spread it out.”
I watched his well-practiced ritual a few times and sure enough, it worked—kind of.
“Go ahead, have one too, they won’t catch us,” he whispered.

Game for anything, I lit up, and there we were smoking cigarettes in a movie theater, wiggling our hands like palsy patients to disperse the smoke.  John looked at me with a triumphant smile—he had once again corrupted his innocent little hetero date.  Smoking in a movie theater with John Waters—what was next?

Sometimes we got caught smoking.  An usher would appear at the end of the aisle and flash his light at us.
“Are you smoking?!”John would shout,
“No!” hiding the still-lit butt under his seat.
“If I catch you, I’m gonna throw you out,” the usher shouted back.  “And get your feet off the seats!”

John would lazily move his feet and sneer back.  After checking over his shoulder to see if the coast was clear, he’d take a fresh puff, and put his feet back up.  Usually the usher never came back.  Sometime later, when John had returned from his first trip to London, he told me how wonderful it was because smoking was allowed in the movie theaters.  “The have ashtrays built into the seats,” he said with the great reverence usually reserved for Buckingham Palace.

Besides the white rough-neck titty-films, John also loved the Blaxploitation movies that were hitting in the mid-1970s.  Blaxploitation movies were action movies featuring violence and soft-core sex scenes that were a big hit for the urban audience, usually made and distributed by black companies.  They played only in the big old downtown Baltimore shopping district theaters like The New, The Town, and The Hippodrome.  These theaters once played mega hits like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life.  Now, the shopping district had fallen victim to suburban white flight, and the magnificent rococo theaters limped along with Blaxploitation titles like Monkey Hustle, Hell Up In Harlem, and John’s all-time favorite, Mandingo, which we saw three times, and actually broke through to the white suburban theaters.

The Blaxploitation theaters were pretty scary.  We were always the only white people in the audience, which was made up of a combination of 1970s pimped out Shaft wannabes and ghetto punks in big afros with afro “pick” combs stuck in them.  Even as a pre-teen, John idolized black culture, and he fearlessly spent as much time as he could at black music clubs, record stores, clothing stores, etc.  Baltimore’s edgy black AM radio stations like WSID with rule-bending unashamedly honest black DJs like Fat Daddy drew John out of his comfortable white suburban cocoon, like millions of emerging teen baby boomers nationwide.  They offered a 24×7 siren song of a sexy, dangerous lifestyle that satisfied the white kids’ itch to escape their parents’1950s conformity.

http://www.thewrap.com/movies/blog-post/my-movie-dates-john-waters-33608?page=0,2#cmts-block

Read about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.

The Censored Scene in John Waters’ Hairspray

Though his three previous films, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester had New York premiers and national press coverage, Hairspray was John Waters’s breakthrough to the big time.  It was quite unexpected.  He had searched for years to raise money for a raunchy, never-produced Pink Flamingos 2, and out of desperation shelved it in favor of the much more mainstream Hairspray.  Despite Hairspray’s nearly G-rated subject matter the fund-raising was tough.  His old supporter, New Line Cinema, had moved to Hollywood and was doing splendidly with its Nightmare on Elm Street series.

New Line was out of the underground movie business.  They wanted nothing to do with the rag-tag John Waters movie bunch that never made them much money, and, they thought, never would.  So John was forced to find on his own a measly $1 million from investors who were more gamblers looking for an exciting bet, than experienced producers.  That bunch has always been a precious few—dentists, plastic surgeons, and Wall Street tycoons—dreamers with spare change burning a hole in their pockets, and an itch to be famous.

John eventually found one for Hairspray, Stanley Buchthal.  Stanley was a young and astute Wall Street financial guy who recognized that John could be a good bet, one way or another.  At the time he was looking more to make a few fast bucks than a ground-breaking movie, but he was the man who stepped up to the plate and would change John’s life more than anything else.

The original Hairspray budget that “Bucky” bought into was laughably tight for a period musical.  Fortunately, when New Line learned that John was going ahead without them, they got an attack of movie envy and bought the entire package from Bucky in the middle of pre-production.  The ballgame turned around and the budget was re-written.  Suddenly a growing studio stood behind Hairspray to guarantee wide distribution, good press, and a big pool of money to spend on marquee names.

This also marked the beginning of constant pressure to make Hairspray truly a family film.  New Line didn’t want scenes of people eating crap, nudity, sexual deviants, or downers like mass murderers.  Hairspray was to be a carefree romp through the 1950s—like the big ‘70s TV series “Happy Days.”  John had willingly consented to that decision with the script.  He had seen the writing on the wall– struggle in Low Budget Hell with underground movies for the rest of his life, or compromise and become acceptable to mainstream America, which would open the gates to real fame and fortune.

One Hairspray scene especially recalled the old John.  The movie generally danced around the racial prejudice theme, but pulled out all stops for the Tilted Acres Amusement Park race riot scene.  This was a full-fledged battle between white racists, backed by the Baltimore City Police, and the progressive kids and their black friends.  Rebel flags flew, redneck women tossed cherry bombs, stars were punched in the face, bodies littered the ground, and poor Ricki Lake was dragged kicking and screaming into a paddy wagon.  In the melee, one extra was accidentally hit in the face by a camera and taken to a hospital for stitches (ironically, it was a friend of Stanley Buchthal).

This explicit riot scene was written out of the Broadway musical stage and screen versions.  The script doctors wanted a more positive peaceful protest march instead of a disturbingly honest race riot.  Actually the scene was based on a real race riot at Baltimore’s Gwyn Oak Amusement Park in 1962 when 238 demonstrators were arrested—including many religious clergy.

In fact, New Line was worried about it during the original production.  Not only was it the most edgy scene in the film, it was  by far the most expensive, because the entire company had to move 150 miles to Dorney Park in Allentown, PA, which was rented out for three days.  I remember keeping the owners away from the riot scenes and a few others like kids vomiting on kiddie rides, so we wouldn’t get tossed out on our butts.

In the original Waters version, a toned-down Tilted Acres sequence survives, and is quite funny.  But you can tell the punches were pulled way back.  Much of the more violent footage was left on the cutting room floor.  As a young filmmaker, John Waters railed furiously against censorship of his movies.  But he now freely admits, at some point in life, youthful ideals give way to financial reality.  Stuff happens, things change, and you discover value in compromise too.  Nevertheless,  I still chuckled when I first saw the Hollywood happy ending that substituted a Kumbaya peace march for a riot,  and wanted to yell “Fake! Fake!” in the theater.

Read more about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and other booksellers around the world.

Photo by Camillo Alfaro

The Mystery of David Lochary

Photo from the award-winning documentary “Divine Trash” by Steve Yeager

David Lochary was the leading man in most of John Waters’ earliest films, beginning with the 8mm Roman Candles and ending with Female Trouble.  In many ways, from his bright blue dyed hair to his fanatic, original obsessions and perceptive wit, he helped shape the look and content of Dreamland.  Due to his death at age 32 David has received only a fraction of the attention of other Dreamlanders.  His story has more than a touch of pathos and mystery though.

I met David during the two months of shooting, when I worked on Female Trouble.  He was a key inspiration for John’s work.  Besides the movies, they criss-crossed the country together on wild underground 1960s adventures. While John graduated from a private school and then attended New York University film school, David and Divine both attended what would normally have been a dead-end  blue-collar Baltimore beauty school.   At the school, David introduced Divine to the concept of “drag.”  David had really lived the wacked-out, flamboyant “hi hon where’d ya get your hair done?” Baltimore life.  And it was this life that inspired and pulled the teenaged John Waters away from his suburban birthday party puppet shows into Baltimore’s demi-monde.  David’s hilarious, absurdist view of art and culture helped mold “Divine” as a character, and many of the ground-breaking images and excesses of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble had David’s touch.

I didn’t know what a really innovative artist was until I met David.  His film roles were always the elegant, twisted fop, but off camera, he was warm, friendly, earnest, and open.  David impressed the Female Trouble crew members as probably the best actor in the troop.  On the set he and Divine appeared to be the most seasoned pros.  They were believable characters, and on my first day of shooting, I knew they would both go places.  David and I would talk during breaks, and he would grill me about how to get jobs in other movies, or if I knew any other movie directors he might audition for.  He wasn’t having much luck in New York.  Knowing his role in Pink Flamingos, I wasn’t too surprised, but he said his passion was to be a serious actor, and Female Trouble would probably be his last Waters film, to avoid being typecast.  He was also upset that the success of Pink Flamingos seemed to focus on John and Divine and no one else in the the Dreamland troupe.

David was ambitious and so confident.  He was the only Dreamlander besides Divine to leave Baltimore for the greater opportunities of New York City, when Pink Flamingos became a success.  He struggled in New York though, because the downtown art scene didn’t begin to flourish until after he died.  David’s frizzy platinum blond hair that wreathed his balding head and his ear-to-ear gull wing mustache was far from the classic 1960s Beatles pretty-boy look, and even New York City didn’t quite know what to make of him.

After Female Trouble, David scooted back to downtown Manhattan to await fame and fortune.  Unfortunately, neither came fast enough for him.  Experiencing the lines around the block and major press for Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble naturally fed his ego.  He thought his phone should be ringing off the hook with job offers and his mailbox should overflow with royalty checks.  But most mainstream critics saw the films as cultist sideshows, and William Morris was not interested in pioneers like David Lochary or Divine.  As usual in the movie biz, the box office income was split many ways, and nothing trickled down to the actors. (However, soon after Female Trouble, John did set up a profit sharing plan with the key early Dreamlanders, including David).

David became more obsessed with the idea that John and Divine, his two creative buddies, were becoming “rich and famous” while he struggled to pay rent.  Obsession turned to anger, and David turned more and more to drugs to soothe his hurt feelings and boost his ego.  He became so difficult that John decided to leave him out of Desperate Living.  Sadly, being so far gone on drugs, disappointment, and paranoia, David probably wouldn’t have done well in the film.

However, the fact that neither he nor Divine were in Desperate Living, and non-Dreamlander, semi-celebrity Liz Renay was hired as the marquee name signaled that John might also be testing the mainstream to see if he could make successful movies on his own, without  two of the great pillars of his earlier films.  It’s curious that in his book, Shock Value, John says that David’s death prevented him from appearing in Desperate Living, but David died on July 29, 1977, nearly nine months after Desperate Living went into production.

The circumstances of David’s death are mysteriously vague and contradictory.  The most circulated story is he died of a PCP overdose, but others say he bled to death during a PCP trip after falling on a broken glass.  It wasn’t discussed much in the Dreamland circle because David was on the outs with John, and when you’re on the outs with John you become invisible.  David’s death could have been anything—murder, suicide, or heart attack.  There are many ways to die from PCP.  Falling on a piece of glass and bleeding to death is a little sketchy.  Dying at 32 was such a shock, no one wanted to face it, and I don’t think anyone has covered it very well.  It’s an interesting overlooked detail, and David’s life including his miserable last years and deep influence on John Waters in his early years deserves more attention.

Read more about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and other booksellers around the world.

Special thanks to Steve Yeager for his permission to use the photo of David Lochary from his documentary “Divine Trash,”  available on Amazon.com

 

 

Cookie Mueller — Underground Movie Star

Portrait photograph of underground movie actress Cookie MuellerCookie Mueller was an amazingly complex person.  She was a daring and fearless artist.  She was always on the fringe, and always broke, but was always dedicated and hopeful.

I saw Cookie a lot in New York City because we lived in the same downtown neighborhood and hung out in the same places.  But she was much more in tune with the riskier side of New York’s downtown scene in the 1980s than I was.  She was extremely witty, and even though she had a big following and was one of the queens of the underground, she still warm and encouraging with me, as one of the handful of Baltimoreans who dove into the NYC underground hoping to hit the big time.

In that atmosphere, a lot of jealousy and backstabbing goes on, but not with Cookie.  A good break for you was a huge break for her.  It seemed that every week she had a new idea going:  writing stories, poetry and magazine articles, performing monologues, and being in nearly every single downtown underground film.

When Cookie was diagnosed with AIDS in the late ‘80s I saw less of her.  To die at 40 at that time was inconceivable, and I heard from friends that her reaction to the fatal illness was she was not scared or depressed, but “really pissed off” that she wouldn’t be able to pursue her work anymore.  She’d worked really hard being on the fringe and doing things her way, and was just about to make it big.  So unfair.  I really understand the “pissed off” thing.

Read more about Robert Maier’s fifteen years working with John Waters in the new book “Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters.”  Available on Amazon.com and other booksellers around the world.