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