What an absolute hoot to read Robert Maier’s new book about his trials, errors and successes surrounding underground movie production in Baltimore and beyond. It made me laugh out loud all by myself over and over. It is an intelligent and forthcoming memoir describing his unglamorous yet glamorous life making underground movies. “Low Budget Hell: Making Movies with John Waters” begins before 1973 when I met Robert in the film department at University of Maryland Baltimore County. I was a naive yet ambitious would-be filmmaker like the other the students in our small group. Robert was extremely supportive of us as we were left on our own to figure out how the equipment worked. As the staff member in charge of the film cage, Robert made sure that the valuable cameras and sound recording equipment were checked out properly. He suggests in his book that our often absent department head dreamed of being an independent filmmaker more than he cared to teach.
Most importantly Robert describes his business and friendship with a younger John Waters still riding the crest of the “Pink Flamingos” wave. John was introduced to the film department members via the aforementioned enterprising professor. Waters had a desire to improve his production quality and they figured the students would provide some intern assistance, too. I remember my initial sighting of Waters entering the door to the editing room/office where he and another student quietly edited “Female Trouble” on the precious flatbed Steenbeck. And wasn’t that Divine recording obscene sound effects for the film’s post production in the screening room — where students otherwise sat on a waterbed for classes?
On Friday nights hordes of us gathered at Bertha’s in Fell’s Point for cheap wine (about 50 cents a glass) and hip conversation about French or Italian cinema. The soundtrack was by Miles Davis, Stan Getz or Gato Barbieri. I think the bartender’s name was Brown who played piano in various Baltimore nightclubs. We dreamed of making films and soaked up all the bohemian atmosphere that we could hold. There was a fooseball table that really provided a place to lean or sit rather than for sporty amusement. The “restroom” was about on par with any gas station men’s room of the 1960’s only this one had very imaginative and inspiring graffiti. I loved meeting and watching the characters from Waters’ movies. Most of them were friendly yet oh so cool. The mood of this era was what had been sorely missing from my suburban childhood and I felt that I finally found the off-beat, colorful and artistic atmosphere where unconventional creativity was encouraged.
Within this bohemian time frame of my life, in 1975 I worked for Bob as a key grip on his movie “Love Letter to Edie.” That is a tale to tell on its own sometime. I will write about it here later perhaps. Working on “Love Letter” is where I acquired a sincere appreciation for Edith Massey. It was not easy at all for her to remember her lines – often adding curse words that were not in the script. Whether she realized it or not, Edith gave many of us permission to be what we wanted to be without fear of ridicule. Edith’s thrift shop was close to Bertha’s and she was open late for the bar trade on weekends. Bertha’s closed at 1 a.m. when we promptly moved down the street to Pop and Sis’s bar called Zeppi’s (now John Stevens’).
The elderly Pop and Sis served 25 cent beers and so we had our nightcap there. Sis once told me that for her vacation, when they closed the bar for a week or two during the summer, all she wanted to do was sit on her front steps of her row house and watch the neighbors. I knew what she meant. As we closed that bar around 2 a.m. sometimes we’d witness a gang fight, a la West Side Story, in the metered parking lot at the foot of Broadway. Occasionally it ended with a boy getting wounded by a switchblade and the girls crying for their boyfriends. That signaled it was time to head home to my roommates and roaches in Bolton Hill.
I highly recommend reading “Low Budget Hell.” Robert gives an honest and humorous account of just how low a budget can go. The book is chock full of little gems and secrets. A good example is his description of Waters’ metamorphosis from Prince of Puke to Broadway Musical Darling. Robert can tell a story and I am so happy that he told this one for now I know I did not imagine some the things I thought I saw during those free-spirited college days