John Waters’ 8th grade graduation photo was published in his first book Shock Value, but not much outside. I thought this shot was especially interesting because it shows him in context with his classmates from the late 1950s (this photo was taken in early 1960). This was when the Buddy Deane teen dance show was all the rage (though John was too young to appear on the show at the time), and inspired the Hairspray movies and musical.
The Buddy Deane show played for more than two hours every afternoon six days a week and Baltimore teens and tweens were glued to their black and white TVs hoping for a clue for the latest hairstyle, make-up, and clothes from the fashionistas who made their appearance on the show their first career (unpaid).
You can see a wild variety of looks from these kids who create a great snapshot of the time. The boys’ duck-ass haircuts were borrowed from Baltimore’s greaser “Drapes,” Elvis, and the other pre-Beatle hair-hoppers. The girls, being products of the stuffy ’50s upper-class Baltimore suburb of Towson, would never have been permitted to fluff and spray their hair dos like the trashy city girls from the blue collar neighborhoods of Arbutus, Dundalk, Glen Burnie, and Highlandtown.
At this point in his life, John’s parents still had control of his look, so they made him leave the already slightly naughty public school system for the buttoned-up Catholic Boys High School of Calvert Hall. The boys there wore blue blazers, white shirts, ties and grey slacks. Any infringement of the rules like fashionable hair, sexuality of any sort, and smoking in the boys’ room were punished by the Christian Brother instructors who would throw offenders against the lockers and kick the shit out of them. Parents paid good money to see that their kids were kept on the straight and narrow path, and encouraged the harsh discipline meted out publicly so that all the boys would get the message– or there would be hell to pay.
Naturally, quite a few rebelled, or had nervous breakdowns, and many of them were trucked off to military boarding schools, and then the Vietnam War if they didn’t learn to act right. Like many Calvert Hall survivors, John saved his weirdness and rebellion for the afternoon Buddy Deane Show or visiting Baltimore’s few Beatnick restaurants and it’s Communist Bookstore, and pot dealer pads in Bolton Hill, waiting for the moment they could escape their parents’ clutches.
Studying this group portrait, and knowing the movies John would be making just a few years later, you can see a young man with different influences, all around him, just before he exploded into one of the most amazing cultural icons of his time.
Special thanks to George Stover who provided the image from his personal collection.
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.