Category Archives: Dime Museum

Oddities Worthy of a Dime Museum

Business Card from John Waters’ Hairspray 1987

Rummaging around old files today, I spotted this gem.  These cards, made for just a few of the pre-production staff (casting director, Pat Moran, art director, Vince Peranio,  line producer, Robert Maier, and John) were designed by Waters’ wardrobe designer, Van Smith.  They were rushed into print in February, 1987 after months of waiting for Wall Street tycoon, and hopeful executive producer, Stanley Buchthal, to give the go ahead.  With the ’87 savings & loan scandal and  stock market crash, we were very nervous about  committing to the project, until big money for the $ 2 million budget was in the bank.

Since the movie had to be shot in the summer, it was imperative to begin pre-production in early spring.  We had to push Buchthal hard for the $100 to buy the business cards to give some credibility when doing casting calls, location scouts, and union negotiations.   In a way these were little prayer cards that showed the film would go forward.  At that time, it was very unsure and stressed.  Buchthal was a complete unknown to us,  John hadn’t been able to raise money for a film in five years and this might have been the last chance.

A few weeks after these cards were made, surprising us all, New Line Cinema entered the picture and bought the whole package from Buchthal, guaranteeing the funding.  John’s company, Madison Films, handed over the production to New Line, and these cards were discarded.

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.

Edith Massey’s Long-lost Brother, the College Professor

Brother and sister in an orphanage in 1922

Edith Massey and her brother Morris Grodsky c. 1922

Yesterday while snooping through my office shelves, I pulled out a book by one Morris Grodsky, titled The Home Boy’s  Odyssey: The Saga of the Journey from Orphan Boy to Criminalist.  The title page was inscribed “To Robert Maier with appreciation for your efforts on behalf of my sister Edith (Edie)”.

Yes, Morris was Edith Massey’s brother– one of them.  Around 2004 he found my DVD, Love Letter to Edie, while surfing the Internet.  I knew Edith had a sister who occasionally visited her in Baltimore, but had no idea about a brother.  In all our conversations, she never mentioned him—or at least never made a big deal about him.  Morris and I exchanged emails and phone calls for a while, and he sent me his book, one of several he wrote and published.

Morris was quite accomplished.  He went to college, and got a Masters Degree in Criminology.  He headed the San Mateo, California crime lab for years, and then spent many more years in the Caribbean and South America training policemen for the U.S. Department of Justice.  He taught advanced forensic courses at several universities.  Morris was 85 years old when he contacted me, and had retired to Florida many years before.  He wrote for the local newspaper and played bridge with the other old folks in a typical upscale Florida retirement community.  No one knew he was the brother of one of the most famous underground movie stars of the 1960s and 1970s.

What a very different path he had taken from Edie.  He knew of her career, and admitted that only recently had he realized how popular she was, and regretted not being closer to her in her more difficult times.  He was pleased and grateful that he could communicate with me, and maybe capture some of what he had missed.  He was full of questions, because he never had contact with people from Edith’s show business life.  “We had both taken different paths, and they just never crossed,” he told me.

I was planning a larger documentary about Edith’s life and work, and Morris was anxious to include tales of their life together in the orphanage where they were sent during the depression, and contribute his insights to her many fans.  He and Edith were two of ten children, and their mother and father just threw up their hands one day, dropped off those who couldn’t fend for themselves at a local orphanage or “home,” and disappeared.  Unfortunately we couldn’t round up enough funds to get the documentary going, and other work pushed it to the back burner.

Morris wrote a book about the orphanage life, which he claims was not so bad, but I haven’t found it.  Edie’s story, as she tells it in Love Letter to Edie, is that she was sent from the orphanage to a foster home.  The family was so mean that she ran away to Hollywood.  Edie was only a teenager at the time, but bound and determined to be a part of the Hollywood Dreamland.  Forty years later, she was discovered by John Waters and his Dreamland Studio in a cheap Baltimore artist bar.

Feeling nostalgic, I decided to contact Morris again.  It had been a few years, but I still had his email address and zipped off a quick message.  Not hearing anything by the next day, I Googled his name.  It turns out my email was a letter to the dead.  Morris passed away on December 19, 2007, according to an obituary I found.  It was a sad moment.  I hope Edith is remembered.  A star in the sidewalk in front of her old Fells Point store would be wonderful.

The photo included is from Morris’ book, and was taken at the orphanage.  The caption says his “little friend,” but he told me it is actually him and Edith (she was 3 or 4).

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.

How I Nearly Burned Down Edgar Allan Poe’s House

In celebration of Halloween, here is a nice Low Budget Hell Story.

Front facade of the Baltimore home of Edgar Allan PoeFilm crews can be pretty careless about others’ personal property when working on location.  For them, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, and if they leave a place a little worse for the wear, well they paid a fee, and that’s how it goes.  But as experts in illusion, they can usually cover their whoopsies pretty well.

Around 1980, I worked on a film about Baltimore’s celebrated 18th century African-American astronomer, Benjamin Banneker.  One of the locations, in an old section of Baltimore, was the Poe House, where the hapless poet had lived for several years as he bounced between Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.  His grave was less than a mile away.

The curator was rightly very nervous about our using the historic and invaluable site, but they needed the hefty location fee to keep the doors open (the Poe house is in one of Baltimore’s bleakest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and people were afraid to go there).  He laid down specific ground rules of no food, no drinks, no smoking, which we absolutely swore we would follow.  Around noon the curator left to go to lunch, and said if we went to lunch, leave someone there to guard the place.

After finishing our shots, we went out to lunch, figuring we’d wrap up when we returned.  We forgot to leave a guard, but at least locked the door behind us.  A half-hour later, we returned, opened the door, and found the house full of smoke.  In a panic, we ran upstairs which was even thicker with smoke, and saw one of the hot movie lights had been left on under the lintel of a doorway.  It was smoking the paint off and charring the wood black.

No water was upstairs, but we had brought back bottles of soda.  We shook them up, and sprayed  about a gallon on the red-glowing, smoking wood, like fire extinguishers, soaking it and half the room creating billowing clouds of Pepsi steam to add to the smoke.

The art crew quickly started mopping up the mess, and brought a can of white paint to “dress” the still-steaming lintel.  Through the window, I saw the curator walking up the sidewalk.  I pulled out my pack of cigarettes, gave one to each crew member, then told them to sit at the bottom of the stairs, smoke up a storm, and sip their sodas— but whatever, don’t let the curator upstairs.

The curator opened the door and shrieked as the smoke hit him in the face.  Enraged, he pulled the lounging crew out of the house and dressed them down on the sidewalk.  Hadn’t he expressly told them no smoking and no drinking in the house?  Were they morons?  Idiots?  Had they no respect for anything?  Everyone apologized profusely, and we opened the windows to air the house out.  By the time the curator had calmed, the art department had finished their clean-up, including freshly painting the lintel, still quite warm to the touch.  We quickly packed and left.

We never ever heard back from the curator.  In the dim upstairs light, I guess he didn’t notice the damage, though at least an inch of the doorway had been charred or chipped away.  In the end, I suppose it looked like any other well-used 150 year-old Baltimore row house.  We had only added to Poe’s many mysteries.  Archeologists a hundred years from now, scratching away at the old house will perhaps wonder why a doorway, of all things, would suddenly catch fire.  Ghosts? Poe himself, in a moment of madness?  Perhaps.

In a sign of the economic times The Poe House was de-funded from the Baltimore City budget.  It may close, but people are working to save it.

Save The Poe House

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.

About Low Budget Hell

Book cover to Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies With John WatersLow Budget Hell is an unauthorized insider’s story of outrageous ’70s and ’80s low budget filmmaking where every rule was broken in a crazy world of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

In his journey through the underground, Maier rubs shoulders with folks like Johnny Depp, Divine, Ricki Lake, Andy Warhol, Jack Palance, Tab Hunter, Bill Murray, Sonny Bono, the Coen brothers, artist Jean-Michel Basquait, The Ramones, and Blondie.

Low Budget Hell is a roller coaster ride of bizarre low-budget movie stories:  lunches of Kools, Cokes, and soggy meatball subs; riding the subway with $25,000 cash; a Federal drug bust on set — at gunpoint; meeting with Deborah Harry and Chris Stein — in bed;  getting death threats from the mob, fending off attacks by irate husbands; placating enraged stars and producers;  and going on dates with John Waters to topless movies at Baltimore’s sleaziest theaters.

It was a time of irresponsible experimentation and the story of artists who went from living in their cars to buying million dollar Manhattan lofts — and as John Waters says, how fortunate we are for the statute of limitations.

RoberPortrait photo of Robert Maiert Maier is a writer/producer/production manager who worked for fifteen years with John Waters on his movies, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray, and Cry-baby, plus a dozen other low-budget movie-makers in New York City and Baltimore.  He made the noted 30-minute underground documentary, Love Letter to Edie, and is the author of two additional  books on film and video production.  Robert lives in Davidson, North Carolina where he teaches audio and video at a nearby community college.

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 other booksellers around the world.

Smoking Warning

I just watched a movie yesterday with an MPAA rating graphic warning that some scenes included  “Smoking.”  Was that a joke?  I mean as a progressive liberal, I’m all for government regulation, but this needs further explanation.  Smoking is a public activity.  It’s bad for you, but so are many other activities.  Will scenes of people eating pancakes require warnings?  Will there be a list of foods that diabetics should avoid watching, lest they pounce on the snack bar if a shot of Raisinettes appears?  Will the new rage be Odorama-like on-screen warnings for chocolate sundaes or chili-cheese fries?  Will we be warned if a scene shows a reckless driver?  A sign on a nearby walking path has a list of user instructions 2 feet long.

If people are so weak that they cannot be trusted to watch someone smoking on screen,  what will we do when the Chinese Red Army begins streaming across the the Canadian border?

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.