Category Archives: John Waters & Underground Films

Underground Films Blog

Visions of the South- “The Charlotte Observer” Observes Etiquette of Cleavage Display

Edie-the-egg-lady-webHere are two photos, inspired by a shocking exposition in the local paper.   The first is of underground movie actress, Edith Massey, in a scene from the notoriously unfashionable movie, “Pink breastFlamingos.”

Edith has committed the fashion crime of allowing her breasts to actually touch!

Photo 2, Actress Sofía Vergara at a Hollywood premier, displays  the “natural and elegant look,” with breasts pushed flat and out-of-sight. The pinnacle of good taste for your holiday party look, according to The Observer’s fashion- casualty writer, Olivia Fortson.

Charlotte, North Carolina is home to many who’d rather be in New York.

It’s a squeaky clean city, where “upscale” and “exclusive” are most aspired-to adjectives.  The “Charlotte Observer” is the local standard bearer of charming Southern social conformity, and regularly publishes howlers like this, full of Dos and Don’ts, so that local country club doyennes can be perceived to be as “achingly chic” as the Saturday night crowd exiting a Path Train in downtown NYC.

Don’t let this happen to you ladies.  But do enjoy some good laughs in the article

One of the article’s expert advisors had this to say about his fashion creds…

One word for what we are all about: connaissance, French for “in the know.” Knowing which Celine satchel will be the “it” bag this season and what Miucci Prada has up her sleeve for the season to come. Even better, Coplon’s knows you. From the runways in Paris and Milan to New York’s most up and coming atelier, we’ll know what look will work for you before you’ve even thought about it.

Check out the Charlotte Observer Article here. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/12/11/4538516/how-much-is-too-much.html#.Uqmv1-I9K71

John Waters’ Cry-Baby Main Location “Milford Mill Swim Club”- Up For Auction in Baltimore

milfordmill3900_quarrylake1The Swim Club used as the primary filming location for John Waters’ Cry-Baby is up for auction.

The Milford Mill Swim Club in the Catonsville suburb west of Baltimore City has been closed for more than a year, and is now more than bit worn around the edges.    It was a favorite teen hangout in the 1950s, and a big inspiration for Waters’ comedy that pit the rival social gangs, the Drapes and the Squares, against each other. milfordmill3900_sign

The swim club was actually an old quarry that closed when the owners hit a spring and sold cheap to an enterprising local family made lemonade from lemons.  The 18 acre site was a perfect place where teens could show off their hot rods and hot bods.  There were plenty of hiding places in the woods where they could smooch and drink cheap beer and wine, smuggled in trunks of their cars.

milfordmill3900_bathhouse1

Cry-Baby rented the swim club for several weeks in May, 1990, before opening day, but the shoot went over schedule, and the owners threw a fit when they weren’t able to open for their regular crowd after Memorial Day.  They held up the very unhappy producers for big bucks to make up for their loss.

The neighbors, were at first fascinated by the movie goings on, which included frequent appearances by its star, Johnny Depp (before he was really famous). But they began to loudly complain about the 100 ft. high Musco movie lights that lit up half the neighborhood, and noise of the crew when they switched to a week of night shoots that began at 9pm and went to 6:00am.

milfordmill3900_office_pavillion1The worst night was the staging of a hot-rod chicken race with squealing wheels and window-rattling straight pipe exhausts that eventually attracted the cops and local politicians, because there were so many complaints from neighbors.

I was the unfortunate location manager in the middle.  They finally allowed us to finish the night when we promised it would be our last shoot, and we’d never come back there.  Ah showbiz!

Edith Massey, “Edie the Egg Lady” the Underground Movie Star: Her Life as an Orphan

Edith Massey as Edie the Egg Lady, played Divine's mother in "Pink Flamingos." It was her defining role, but not exactly what she dreamed of as an star-struck orphan in the 1920s.

Edith Massey as Edie the Egg Lady, played Divine’s mother in “Pink Flamingos.” It was her defining role, but not exactly what she dreamed of as an star-struck orphan in the 1920s.

Through occasional magazine articles, John Waters’ writings and stories, a few paragraphs in movie databases and my short film, “Love Letter to Edie,” brief snippets of Edith Massey’s life story have drifted along the edges of hipster culture in the thirty-three years since her underground movie debut in Waters’ “Multiple Maniacs” (April 10, 1970).

Since she was a little girl, Edith had “always wanted to be in the movies.”  She struggled through a unique and usually difficult life, generally in poverty while living and working on the bad side of  whatever town she landed in.  Her sweet, innocent personality, though, delighted millions of viewers of John Waters’ films—especially when he cast her in his favorite role as an addlepated old bag.  Edie was fine with that.  She was delighted to be the permissive, anything-goes-free-spirited godmother of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ’80s counterculture.

One of Edith’s claims to fame was her willingness to present her over-sized breasts on film.  That, and her senior citizen characters who refused to honor the straight and narrow path were ground-breaking artistic statements of the early 1960s.

Still from "Love Letter to Edie."  Edith plays a barmaid at Pete's Hotel.

Still from “Love Letter to Edie.” Edith plays a barmaid at Pete’s Hotel.

Was she acting, or was she for real?  Even Newsweek wondered,  “It’s not clear whether she deserves an Oscar or a 24-hour nurse.”

In a recent phone call to Edith’s brother, Morris Grodsky, I learned more about Edith’s young life as an orphan.  This previously unpublished information provides additional pieces to the puzzle of her life.

Edith was born in Chicago on May 28, 1918 to a Jewish family.  Her father fought in Europe in World War I, but returned home early, after his lungs were severely burned in a gas attack.  The family moved to Colorado for the healthier air, which was where Edith was born.  Unfortunately, the fresh air didn’t help her father who wasted away and died when Edith was an infant.  Edith’s mother, destitute with three children re-married.  She had more children with this new husband, but he too died within a few years, leaving her alone with five children.

Desperate, the young widow took them all to a Jewish orphanage outside Denver, and then disappeared.  It was the best she could do.  According to Morris, the orphanage was not a terrible place.  The food was healthy, if not plentiful (he remembered being always hungry).  Their clothes were donated hand-me-downs.  The children had chores; cleaning and sewing for the girls, and grounds-keeping for the boys.   Most of the projects were pointless busy-work things like moving piles of rocks for the boys or washing dishes that weren’t dirty for the girls.   Every weekday morning they walked to a nearby school.  Saturdays were holy days, with nothing to do and Sundays were chore days.

Edith at the orphanage c. 1922.  Photo courtesy of Morris Grodsky, Edith's half-brother who was with her at the orphanage.

Edith at the orphanage c. 1922. Photo courtesy of Morris Grodsky, Edith’s half-brother who was with her at the orphanage.

Boys and girls lived in separate wings of the orphanage and rarely mixed, following religious tradition.  Morris didn’t see Edith, except for a few minutes on an occasional weekend.  The orphanage discouraged sibling contact.  They never celebrated birthdays or other events together.  Parents and relatives never visited.   It was a lonely existence.  The orphans yearned for just one new piece of clothing.

At school, they saw happy classmates with parents who gave them gifts and new shoes.  Every orphan child hoped and prayed to be adopted into a family.  But that day never came, for anyone.  They were outcasts, which must have helped form Edith’s sympathetic personality.  As an adult, she was an instant friend to everybody, and every animal that crossed her path– when I lived around the corner from her in Baltimore, she had 30 cats.

To escape her colorless life, Edith collected movie magazines that were donated to the orphanage.  It was the roaring ‘20s, and they lit up her life like a Roman candle.  She had a pair of scissors and on Saturdays carefully cut and arranged glamorous movie star photos in her own notebooks.  Morris was shocked, when on one of the rare visits, she showed him a stack of the notebooks that must have taken hundreds of dreamy hours to assemble.  He called her “movie crazy” when she swore that as soon as she could get out of the orphanage, she would go straight to Hollywood and get into the movies.

The orphanage had a strict path for its charges.  The boys learned Hebrew, to prepare them to be observant Jews.  The girls, having no role in religious services, were given no religious instruction.  In the eighth grade, the boys were given an academic test.  Those who did well went on to high school.  Those who did not were apprenticed out to local tradesmen, leaving the orphanage to work in family businesses.  Those who went to high school stayed at the orphanage, but were turned out at graduation, to find a job and fend for themselves.

Every girl’s education ceased after eighth grade.  There was no academic exam for girls to go to high school. Their path was to be discharged from the orphanage and placed as housekeepers in local homes, to cook, clean, and sew as they had been taught at the orphanage.  They’d work a few years for free, and then marry a local tradesman, stay home and raise the children, and so complete a healthy heterosexual life cycle.

Still from "Love Letter to Edie" of Edith acting out her dream of being a glamorous movie queen.

Still from “Love Letter to Edie” of Edith acting out her dream of being a glamorous movie queen.

It didn’t always work out that way.  There were girls like Edith who were dreamers and achievers and wanted more than a life of cooking and cleaning.  Being a housekeeper in a family was rarely idyllic.  The girls were frequently mistreated, over-worked, and, probably worse.  Many fled their assigned “homes” for freedom and all they had been denied in the orphanage.

This was Edith’s story.  She ran away several times from several families.  Each time she was picked up by the police, usually hitch-hiking at the edge of town, and returned, until she turned sixteen, and could legally be on her own.  At sixteen, Edith ran away again and headed straight to California.

Edith's thrift shop in Baltimore's Fells Point where she sold whatever anyone dropped off, happily signed autographs, and hoped she will still be discovered for big movie roles.

Edith’s thrift shop in Baltimore’s Fells Point where she sold whatever anyone dropped off, happily signed autographs, and hoped she will still be discovered for big movie roles.

This is where “Love Letter to Edie” picks up.  There is much more to her life than what appears in the short movie; her marriages, her relationship with her brothers and sisters and their families, her music and modeling careers.

Edith died on October 24, 1984, in Hollywood, the land of her dreams, after suffering from cancer for many years.  She was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the lovely “Garden of Roses” at the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to record more of her story when I made “Love Letter,” but I was 23 years old, and thought I had forever to pick up the trail again.  Maybe one day.  You can find “Love Letter to Edie on e-Bay.”

This glamor shot of Edith was taken late in life, and was closer to her dreams than her roles in the Waters films.

This glamor shot of Edith was taken late in life, and was closer to her dreams than her roles in the Waters films.

“Hairspray” 25th Anniversary Slide Show

Divine and Ricki Lake in John Waters’ “Hairspray” released Feb 25, 1988

Marking the 25th anniversary of John Waters’ original “Hairspray,”  Moviefone’s Gary Susman put together this interesting “where are they now” slide show of the films cast and director.

Sussman:  “The story of a plus-sized teenage girl in early 1960s Baltimore who earns a spot on a local dance TV show, “Hairspray” was only a modest hit at the box office, earning just $8.3 million upon its release 25 years ago this week (on February 26, 1988). However, it has had a tremendous afterlife.”

 Not to mention launching a struggling underground filmmaker into a multi-millionaire celebrity artist/performer/author.  Hairspray’s budget was about $1.5 million, including music, stars, choreography, hefty director, production company, and related above-the-line costs.  According to Waters, he received his first royalty check from the original production just three years ago.  Ah showbiz!  –R. Maier

http://news.moviefone.com/2013/02/25/hairspray-cast-where-are-they-now-john-waters_n_2764916.html?just_reloaded=1#slide=2157830

“Love Letter to Edie” video gets own facebook page

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Love-Letter-to-Edie/414264625333057

 

John Waters American Catholic Crackpot vs. John Waters Irish Catholic Crackpot

John Waters Irish Crackpot Celebrity

John Waters American Crackpot Celebrity

One of my favorite ironies is that there exists a writer/speaker celebrity in Ireland named– John Waters– who frequently pops up in my Internet searches.  The comparison with our American John Waters brings frequent laughs, like they are from similar, but warped universes.

The Irish Waters is known for his own fringe ideas that include things like refusing to use email, the dangers of the Internet (because it’s 70% porn), and the under-appreciated problem of physical abuse of men  by women.

Here’s a notice from Ireland’s Kerry Times for an upcoming appearance. :

“Author and columnist John Waters is to give a public  talk in Kerry tomorrow night (Monday) on the subject of faith.  This is the Catholic Year of Faith and the talk has been organised by the Diocese of Kerry.  It will take place in the Gleneagle Hotel, Killarney at 8pm, free of charge. John Waters has been giving public talks on spirituality for the past two years.  He finds that people are often relieved when they are offered a different way of looking at things.”

http://www.radiokerry.ie/news/john-waters-addresses-matters-of-faith-in-kerry/

“Waters (Irish) voiced his opposition to gay marriage stating that it was “potentially destructive of the very fabric of Irish society.”  He was also a fervent supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq because there was so much proof of Saddam Hussain’s possession of  WMDs.

Two areas in which the Irish John Waters and the American John Waters differ greatly are that the Irishman speaks for free in Catholic churches, and had a daughter with Sinead O’connor.  These are things the American Waters would never do in your wildest dreams.

I wonder if they’ve ever met.  Oh, to be able to see them on stage together!


Edith Massey in Elinor Cahn’s East Baltimore ’70s documentary photo

Edith Massey’s shop c. 1974 photo by Elinor Cahn

Elinor Cahn made a series of similar photos in the late ’60s early ’70s Baltimore Renaissance period.  This time was marked by John Waters first film successes, downtown $1 homes, and a hipster migration to Fells Point that began its re-birth.

Sensing a monumental change, Cahn prowled the remaining ethnic enclaves of East Baltimore, Fells Point and Highlandtown and documented the people and their lives that were joined by bohemian artists who would eventually be displaced themselves by gentrification, gelato bars, and $1 million homes.  I lived there at the time and these photos bring back vivid memories.  So glad I stumbled on them.

See more, including a young and wonderfully fetching artist Sue Lowe in her Dallas Street home, which was just around the corner from mine.

http://www.mericansuburbx.com/series-2/e/elinor-cahn-east-baltimore-documentary-survey-project-1970s

 

John Waters’ advice to young filmmakers today

Low-low budget filmmaking c. 1975 with John Waters on “Desperate Living”  l-r Tom L’oizeaux, John Waters, Robert Maier

“Now the studios are looking for the John Waters that made Female Trouble,” he said. “They want a film that you made for $50,000 that’s at Sundance.

They buy it for $200,000, they add $300,000 of bad pop music, $500,000 to make it look worse technically than you had it before, then release it as a found-footage movie and make $70 million.

They’re looking for it. It’s the best time ever to be a young person making movies.”

from: Boise Weekly interview by Josh Gross

http://www.boiseweekly.com/boise/john-waters-sincerely-loves-christmas/Content?oid=2775910

John Waters’ Roach Christmas Tree Ornament

 

I was X-ed off John’s Christmas Card mailing list for being too naughty by publishing Low Budget Hell, but I still treasure his old cards.

This is not exactly a card, but an actual, full-size blown-glass working Christmas tree ornament, with a rubber roach inside.  It’s the only non-paper card  greeting he ever sent.

Now that his mailing list tops 2,000 names, of course it would be too expensive to send such a wonderful trinket.

I haven’t seen photos of it published , but it should be admired by the world, so here is a Christmas gift to all the fans.

Photo by Robert Maier

The Return of Ricki Lake: A Long Road Back

Ricki hosts a TV pajama party on the New Ricki Lake Show

Ricki Lake became a name in 1985, when she was just 18, after snagging the leading role in John Waters’ “Hairspray.”  She’s back in the entertainment headlines with a new autobiography and  daily TV show.

Ricki left TV in 2004 after 11 years hosting a daily talk show, and returned this past September with a new syndicated talk show after escaping the limelight for eight years.  To fill-in the timeline, after “Hairspray,” Ricki did one-season  as a regular on the short-lived, but critically acclaimed series, “China Beach.”

Her career then really stumbled for several years. She was a broke, depressed and disillusioned resident of Low Budget Hell.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she was invited in September 1993 to host the first “Ricki Lake.” This was supposed to be a simple “me-too” knock-off of the popular gossipy daytime talk show genre of the time that featured mainly topics on infidelity, over-sexed teens, and men who were cads—but with a twist—a host who was an outspoken young, single woman who was kind of a celebrity, but also an outcast because of her large figure.

Ricki joined the ranks of the older generation that included Jerry Springer, Montel Williams, Geraldo, Jenny,  Maury Povich (still on today and specializing in cheating men), and Sally Jesse Raphael who leeringly exploited the assumed foibles, mores, weaknesses, and frequent live combat of their “trailer trash” guests/victims.  Instead of the 25+ target age range of the older generation, Ricki’s producers felt high-schoolers and college-age kids wanted new, edgier topics that focused on birth control, pre-marital sex, prejudice and racism,  LGBT issues, and even amateur talent shows.  It aimed to be positive, supportive, and understanding, not combative.

Ricki didn’t have many professional qualifications for the role.  She wasn’t a journalist or psychologist, but did have the real-life chops of a nobody-weight-challenged-teen who overcame extreme prejudice to become a movie star and therefore a heroine of  her generation.  She was the classic chub, compensating for her low self-esteem by trying to be everyone’s “fat and jolly” friend– and it worked.  The Gen-Xers, flooded by the cultural tsunami of baby boomers had found a long-lost teddie bear that had floated to the top, and they hugged her tightly.

After leaving “Ricki Lake” in 2004, to “spend more time with her family,” Ricki became more respectable, a steady mother to her two children, wrestled with a difficult divorce, slept around (courtesy of her fame), and finally found the love of her life.  Seeking legitimacy after her talk show had descended into the most tawdry topics at the end of its run, she partnered with a respected documentary filmmaker to make a serious political documentary about modern childbirth, and wrote her revealing auto-biography, “Never Say Never.”

I remembered Ricki very well from her role in “Hairspray,” and inspired by a barrage of news clips about her new show, I bought the book, with a foreword by John Waters.  Though published in 2012 by a division of Simon and Schuster, I found a brand new hardback copy on-line for just $.99.

About “Never Say Never,” Waters gushed to anyone who would listen that Ricki immediately and forever became one of his best friends in the world, after he “discovered” her as the perfect 18-year old ingénue for “Hairspray.”  Waters proclaimed he especially loved Ricki because she was the most honest celebrity he’d ever worked with.   They told each other every secret.  He knew everything about her, her ex-husband, children, current husband and past lovers.  It sounded a little off, so I decided to find out more myself.

Although the book lavishes endless praise and respect for Waters, and her undying gratitude to him for giving her a first break, my memory of Ricki’s involvement in “Hairspray” and her experience during the filming differed somewhat.

As line producer of “Hairspray,” I was closely involved in the trials and tribulations of casting the role of Tracy, a fat, naïve, and racially progressive teenager from West Baltimore who just happened to be a superb dancer.

Ricki was not a shoe-in for the role.  Given the esthetics of the time, when the only movie ingénues were thin as rails, very few hefty young women had the nerve to presume they could be popular actresses.

John’s cultural contrarianism, and twisted irony made a fat ingénue heroine a logical choice that synced with his themes like gay is good, straight is bad, crime is beauty, ugliness is gorgeous, dying for art is a good career move, and tacky is truth.  The rotund Ricki would fit right into that list.

The real irony was that, at age 18, Ricki took herself extremely seriously and saw herself as a talented performer.  She did not take the role so she could be mocked like Edith Massey and many of John’s other psychotic performers.  She had gifts to give the world, if it could just see beyond the different shape of her body.  However, Ricki was desperate to be a successful performer.  And though “Hairspray” appeared to mock her through the impossibility of the situation, she had the drive needed to make Tracy on her own terms.

Like Divine, Ricki wanted to be taken as a serious person and actress, but was willing to be used by Waters as an object of scorn and derision to get there.  The months it took to unite her with the role showed that very few overweight Gen-Xers were willing to take it on the Waters role.

In her book, she tells of being torn between this drive to be loved by an audience, but shackled by her dreadful experience of being sexually assaulted when a pre-teen by the family handy man.  Her reaction to the abuse caused her to hate her body and gain so much weight that she would be unappealing and never have to suffer unwanted sexual attention again.  As she continually reveals in her book, she had to stifle a considerable sexual drive, which compounded her misery and confusion.

From a very young age, Ricki wanted to sing and dance and act– to be the center of attention, but failed due to the discouragement she received about her weight.  In the seventh grade, she was cast in a low-rent children’s cabaret that performed weekends in Manhattan.  It gave her a sense of stage presence and rudimentary dancing and singing, and boosted her hopes for a showbiz career until another sexual predator producer came on to her during a “casting session.”

Ricki attended a noted private school for young performers in New York City, not so much because she showed great talent, but because she could escape from the suburban school where she faced constant insults due to her weight.  The performing arts school was an undemanding “diploma mill,” and rarely took attendance, which Ricki loved.  Its main admission requirement was affording the $6,000 per year tuition fee, which her parents grudgingly paid.  But it was populated by off-the-wall talented youth who didn’t subscribe to the closed-minded suburban archetype, and Ricki felt comfortable among them.

After high school graduation, her parents sent her to Ithaca College in upstate New York, because it had a reputation for performing arts.  She found it depressing and discouraging when the closed-minded head of the drama department typecast her as a fat and therefore hopeless candidate for the glamorous, sexy entertainment industries, where thin was a non-negotiable ticket to entry.  It was back to the suburbs again for Rickie.  She was miserable, and was on the verge of dropping out.

This is where I became acquainted with Ricki.  Having worked with Waters since “Female Trouble” in 1973, I got involved in “Hairspray” when he called to say he had potential investors from Wall Street, but needed a budget that came in for less than $1 million dollars (about three times the amount of John’s previous film “Polyester”).

Would I do it for him?  It had been nearly five long years since we produced “Polyester,” and John had made no progress toward making another film.  I was busy making good money shooting TV commercials in Baltimore with David Insley, who had also been with John since “Female Trouble.”

Ricki in “Hairspray”

“Hairspray” was a period musical film, not a cheapo underground movie.  Given the cost of original music rights, choreography, the early 1960s props and sets, period wardrobe/makeup/hair requirements, and big name cast reserve, it was a difficult, maybe impossible task, I warned.  John had been shut down for years, and was desperate to make another movie or possibly face the end of his movie-making career.

New Line, had become a big Hollywood studio, and had rejected “Pink Flamangos II” as well as “Hairspray” for being weird Waters money losers.  In a way, this was his last chance, and he pleaded with me to make the numbers work, even if they included a bit of fantasy.  Being sympathetic, and not  optimistic that it would ever get made, I went along.

Flash forward six months, and there I was in “Hairspray’s” production office in Baltimore’s Fells Point, with the title of Line Producer and on the phone with New Line’s Production office in LA and the casting director in New York.  Suddenly, New Line had had a change of heart, and funded the production, funneling in a bit more cash than my whistling-in-the dark budget, but nowhere near what it deserved—or needed.

We were just weeks away from the first day of shooting, and the role of Tracy had not been filled.   Even the top agents on both coasts came up empty-handed, because there simply were no young, fat dancers with the nerve or charisma to do the role.   The executive producers were pressuring John to re-write the role for a svelte blonde with contemporary sex appeal, and had given him a deadline to do that, or they’d pull the plug.

The big names were set, a shooting schedule was written in stone, hundreds of thousands of dollars had already been spent, and John was sweating bullets.  He hated, above anything else, anyone messing with his scripts—and with incredible insight, stuck to his guns, implying that the big name casting directors weren’t taking their job seriously enough.   Tension and insecurity flowed through the management in what was becoming a poker game.

In the midst of this came the incredible fluke.  An assistant from a Manhattan talent agency had been visiting Ithaca College, just to watch a friend’s daughter appear in a student production.  It was a totally non-working visit.  After the curtain, they visited backstage to congratulate the daughter.  Hanging out along the edges talking to some of the performers, was Ricki Lake.  She was not in the play, but at 250 pounds, she was hard to miss.  The casting assistant recalled the deluge of urgent faxes swirling through every Manhattan agent’s office about the need for a fat dancer and approached Ricki.

Was she an actress?  Why yes, as a matter of fact.  Could she dance?  Of course, she’d been on the stage since 7th grade.  The assistant gave her a card and told her that a movie about to go into production needed someone like her for a lead role, and she should give a call if she was interested.

Interested?  Ricki didn’t bother to call, but drove the next morning straight to Manhattan and appeared at the agent’s office.  She had no credits since the kid’s music review in 7th grade, or formal training as an actress.  She wasn’t in the Screen Actors Guild, but she had the right shape, spoke well, and said she could dance.  She even had a pretty, balanced face, sparkling eyes and great smile—someone the camera could love—and she was available right that minute.

Urgent calls went down to the Baltimore production office saying a good possibility for Tracy might have been found, and the next day John and his Baltimore Casting Director, Pat Moran, were on a train to Manhattan.

John and Pat needed just one look, then a quick call back to confirm their first impression.  Ricki was rough around the edges, and certainly untested.  She could move well for a 250 pounder, though without the grace and speed of a trained, athletic dancer.  Above all, she was comfortable with the role— it had been her life for the past ten years.

Ricki was whisked down to Baltimore to join the dancing boot camp run by choreographer Ed Love out a mobile office trailer parked in the production office lot.  The make-up and wardrobe people did their tricks, and Rickie floated confidently into Dreamland.

Not having a famous name in the lead role was a stress for the film’s executives.  Ricki would be fighting for attention with celebs like Ric Ocasek, Debbie Harry, Jerry Stiller, Pia Zadora, Sonny Bono, Ruth Brown, and of course the larger than life Divine.  Couldn’t they have gotten a name with a good movie resume who could really dance and be a sexy box office draw?  Wouldn’t  they be better off with a script re-write where  Tracy was an ugly duckling with buck teeth, bad hair, flat chest, and pimply skin that could be easily fabricated and then shed by the make-up crew?  Would Ricki’s attempt at great dancing and sex appeal really work?  The cameras soon rolled, and it was too late to change direction. Besides, Ricki was doing a fine job of working hard, learning the dances, delivering the lines, and endearing everyone to her.  And John was happy.

Ricki’s obvious crush on one of the camera crew was unrequited, at least as far as I knew—and I knew quite a bit.  He took a lot of ribbing from other crew who weren’t so convinced that big was beautiful.

As an unknown with a very short resume, Ricki seemed to be a risky last minute choice who didn’t command much respect from the other cast or crew.    It was felt that the real stars were the cameo names, Divine, and some of the hunky young males.  Colleen Fitzpatrick, the tall, thin, good-looking blonde who played Tracy’s nemesis, Amber Van Tussle, was a well-trained actress and dancer, seemed to be the star who would make a splash with her standard issue sex appeal.

Ricki occasionally came up to the production office for short visits.  She was so young and naïve.  She’d ask for things like a refrigerator in her hotel room, or to make long-distance calls on the office phone, or get a ride somewhere, or ask if she could get a blow dryer for her room– real teenager stuff.  New things swirled around her so much that I think she came up to chat just for a different perspective and not have to worry about how well she was doing in comparison with the other tall and beautiful young boys and girls.  I remember thinking that she could end up as a hoot, a laughable freak, and object of derision, no matter how hard John and the choreographers worked to make her inner beauty shine through.  Nevertheless I was always friendly, sympathetic, and encouraging.  And I don’t recall any other cast member coming to the production office unless they were really cheesed off about something.

About ten years later, when Ricki was a big TV star, I saw her at a distance in her grand booth at a TV programming convention in New Orleans, where she was one of the hottest names.   She was posing for photos.  Bucking up some courage, I walked up, and said, “Hi Ricki, remember me?”  sure that she wouldn’t .  But she ran up, gave me a big hug and said “Of course I do.  Bob!”  She dragged me into the middle of the photo shoot, to the great surprise of my partner who was pushing her own talk show ideas.  We spoke for a very few minutes, and posed cheek to cheek for a Polaroid before the Columbia publicity people whisked her away.

Photo of Ricki and me meeting by accident at a TV Programming Convention around 1998 when she was a huge TV talk show star; she signed the publicity photo wallet on the left.

I kept the photo on my desk for years, and people marveled that I really knew Ricki Lake who was one of the biggest TV stars of the time.  Most didn’t know John Waters from Muddy Waters and no memory of “Hairspray,” but Ricki Lake was huge.

Eleven years later, she’s back with a respectable, popular show and a huge following.  It’s amazing to see her face every day on billboards along Interstate highways and city buses.  Maybe she’ll even read this article and invite me to her new show.  Ah, showbiz!

Oh, and don’t forget her book, “Never Say Never.”  It’s a great read.