Outtakes of Jean-Michel Basquait in “New York Beat”-“Downtown 81”

Jean-Michel Basquait tagging in Alphabet City during a shoot for the movie “New York Beat/Downtown 81”

Stumbled across this video today on one of my favorite websites.  I was on these shoots on a cold, windy December day in Alphabet City in 1981.  The shots look like 3rd generation copies of the 16mm workprint.

No sound, because most of the sound was lost during the 15 year post-production odyssey when the whole film was stolen and recovered several times.

In this video’s last scene, Basquait interacts with the film’s production manager, Steve Sabato, whose most difficult task was to get Basquait to show up on time, in the right place, with the right wardrobe and props.  The scene is the ultimate insider  irony, because Steve was in charge of the money, which Basquait was constantly wasting by not showing up.  That he gives Steve a suitcase full of money, and Steve bolts from the scene with a triumphal grin is hysterical and typical of the wit of the director Edo Bertolio and writer Glenn O’Brien.

It sort of sums up whole Downtown 80s NYC art scene where art, of any sort, was pure and money was corrupt.  This might be why it took 20 years to complete the film.


How Football Trashes American Culture with the Baltimore Ravens as Prime Suspects

As someone who grew up in Baltimore, though I played soccer as a kid, and so escaped the brainwashing that is American football, I thought I should watch at least a few minutes of the Super Bowl last Sunday.

I saw a few plays where the Ravens’ quarterback hit every pass, SF fumbled the ball, and the Ravens appeared to get two touchdowns in about five minutes.  It seemed more like a lop-sided high-school football game.  Every slightly successful play by either team triggered a disco dance among the players, like they had just discovered penicillin.

I already have dark thoughts about football as a thinly veiled exhibition by highly steroided men in extremely tight pants who can’t keep their hands off each other and whose big thrill is forming writhing daisy chains on the grass.  But it’s probably not that.  I mean, this is prime time American TV fueled by Bud Lite.

And should I mention tatoos?  Now I know why so many people these days want big tats.  They want to be football players too!

So after watching a few minutes before returning to Michael Moore’s autobiography, I catch an  article in Salon.com that could spell redemption for the Ravens, and football.

Now that they’re #1, maybe they could part with a few pennies to support the shuttered Edgar Allan Poe house in Baltimore.  That’s right, author of “The Raven,” whose Baltimore home is less than a mile from the stadium– as “The Raven” flies.  The football team only purloined the name of maybe the best known poem in the English language, for all the threatening symbolism, mystery, and supernatural powers it infers on the players.

Come on Ravens, share the wealth.   If you don’t pony up an endowment to save Baltimore’s Poe House and museum, you should change your bird name to Randy Newman’s Dirty Little Seagulls.  But Randy’s still alive and might sue you.

The Ravens won the game by being bold and brave.  Let’s see them be creative, and honor and preserve the legacy of their literary creator.  Or perhaps some dark and dreary night suddenly there may come a tapping as if someone gently rapping, rapping on that stadium door.

Thanks for the inspiration to:



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.”


“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.



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


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.

New Review from Baltimore of “Low Budget Hell”



“There is so much more to this book, than the absorbing incidents relating to Maier’s evolving relationship with Waters.”  –Bill Hughes


Divine’s Lost Underground Baltimore Movie-“Vacancy”

Glenn Milstead, aged 12 years old, before his transformation into “Divine.” Photo from Dreamlandnews.com.

My book, “Low Budget Hell:  Making Underground Movies with John Waters” tells only parts of the story of my movie making adventures in the 1970s and 80s.  This story tells of an attempted underground movie made by two academic Baltimore filmmakers shortly after the release of “Pink Flamingos” in   1972, in which Divine played a supporting role.  Though, tragically, never finished, the filmmakers greatly assisted Waters with “Female Trouble,” which they characterized as a “student film” so he could use facilities and students at the brand new film school at The University of Maryland Baltimore County.

After making real money from Pink Flamingos, John could move to the next movie, Female Trouble.  His previous films had been made with the help of a moonlighting local TV news cameraman who would bring a “single-system” 16mm film camera to John’s shoots and set the exposure while John filmed with the ungainly camera mounted with a brace on his shoulder.  Single system film was designed strictly for news stories that cut from master scene to master scene and allowed only the most primitive editing.

John’s technical guru during those early 16mm films was Pete Gary, who ran Baltimore’s only 16mm film lab in a one-man operation.  He kept his ancient film processing machines running with duct tape and paperclips.   Pete had learned his trade at Baltimore’s Pimlico race track, home of the Preakness.  In the time before video tape, 16mm cameras shot each race, and if it was contested, Pete would quickly process the film in a small basement room at the track, so the judges could view a replay.  This was Baltimore’s “film industry” of the 1960s.  Pete gambled there might be a bigger market in Baltimore with color TV coming in, so he invested in some equipment and opened shop in an old Govans diner, not far from where John had lived at the time.

Pete’s big season was the fall, when dozens of local high schools brought him their 16mm football game films.  A few industrial film producers, the busy new Maryland public TV station, and a handful of film students from local colleges like the University of Baltimore County, the Maryland Institute of Art, and Towson State University kept him afloat.  John’s occasional underground movies were a tiny fraction of the work.

Politically, Pete was an arch conservative libertarian, and his slick Elvis haircut plaid polyester shirts and khaki pants were a huge contrast with John’s shoulder-length tresses and thrift-shop chic.  Pete could have been very abrasive with the arty film students, John, and the public TV progressives, but he got along with everyone, patiently explaining the process of focus, exposure, film stocks, prints, tripods, lenses, lights, and editing, for John and Baltimore’s few other novice filmmakers.  Pete warmly welcomed new customers who were shooting more film and growing his business while he hoped for Baltimore to become a real movie production town.

Sound had always been a problem for John’s films.  Single system film was not meant for duplication and was a pain to edit. It is a miracle that Pink Flamingos survived with any sound.  The single system news camera recorded sound on a thin magnetic strip on the side of the film.  To add music or narration, John had to record directly onto the film.  If he missed a cue, he would record over the original dialogue and it would be lost forever.

Though John vowed that he hated technology, he did want his films to look like the ones in movie theaters.  He realized Pink Flamingos’ bad sound was a problem to be addressed in Female Trouble.  Pete patiently informed him that with “double system equipment” where the sound and picture were recorded and edited separately, John could lick the sound problems, and use the more standard technique of mixing music and effects over dialogue, and cutaways, the tools of real movie.  He could shoot close-ups and cutaways, and structure in his films instead of recording scenes only in long master takes, without the risk of losing sound or picture during the edit.

This new double-system thing was beyond the abilities of the local TV station moonlighters, so having earlier processed the Vacancy footage,Pete recommended John contact UMBC’s film department. They had the equipment John needed, and eager people who knew how to use it and were willing to work cheap.

But first came Vacancy.  UMBC’s equipment was barely out of the box before Lee (originally a painting teacher—turned filmmaker) and his buddy, Jochen, a square-jawed German who made training films at the U of M Nursing School, started their own feature film.  It was funded by a rich suburban dentist who was smitten by the perks of movie making—the potential for easy girls, exotic intoxicants, wild parties, and the chance of becoming famous.  It was the classic independent movie trio:  a techie who could run a camera, a “visionary artist” who talked a good game, and a bored, horny dentist with money to waste.

Waters had already completed Pink Flamingos and in the grand tradition of the movie industry, the trio decided to rip off his ideas and success.  Pink, like most of John’s films had a basic conflict plot, but was mostly a slide show of weird people doing weirder things.  John showed a new generation of filmmakers that with some movie-making gear, daring friends willing to take off their clothes for the camera,  and a few rolls of film stock, you could make a movie that made headlines.  You didn’t need a sophisticated plot, since the visuals would be so shocking, people and the media couldn’t resist.  A professional cast wasn’t needed, because John had shown that bad acting was a bankable element in the brave new world of underground movies.

In Lee’s and Jochen’s pot-infused creative meetings, a can’t-fail idea for an underground movie was hatched.  Called Vacancy, it was the story of daily life at a creepy no-tell motel.  Each room featured a different bizarre activity.  The scenes included an orgy, drug use, youthful angst, transvestitism, suicide, and one arty, meaningful scene where a woman laid out a soldiers’ uniform on a bed and made love to it.  Peep holes in each room let the manager spy on the goings-on, and he gave a running voice-over commentary that provided a thin connection between the acts.  Lee and Jochen hired Divine for one day, to add a “name” actor.  John was bothered that Divine, his big star, would consent to work in such an obvious rip-off of his work.  But at that time, Pink wasn’t making much money, and John couldn’t afford an exclusive contract, much less bus fare for Divine.  When the Vacancy producers offered him a few hundred bucks for a day’s work, Divine jumped at it.

But Vacancy was doomed because the producers were college people.  They couldn’t make a commercial gory, perverse movie.  It couldn’t be just fun shocks and thrills, like John’s films.  It had to be a profound work of art.

Vacancy was shot in a few weekends.  As it was edited, the filmmakers began to realize that a plot and decent acting were important features of a movie—especially one with arty aspirations.  Disappointment surged through their small student crew who had worked their butts off for free.  The disconnected footage wasn’t even long enough to be called a feature film.  Pretty soon the buzz was that Vacancy was in trouble, and virtually abandoned, which was a relief for John.

Lee and his pals worked on the feature for years.  They found new angels to invest more money to shoot additional scenes so that a 90 minute film could be released.  The final blow was when Charles (the editor of the final cut, as well as editor on three of John’s films) tracked down the original film rolls preparing for an actual projection print.  Unfortunately, the last investor had stored the originals in his attic, where summer temperatures exceeded 150 degrees.  Every roll of film had melted into a solid plastic disc, like a gummy bear Frisbee, and there was now and forever, literally, no Vacancy at all.

An historic artifact for all Divine lovers and Waters scholars is gone.


1984 John Waters Interview on P-town Cable Access







This fascinating interview is  from John’s dry period, after “Polyester” floundered.  New Line had told him they were finished with no-profit underground movies that bankrolled John’s growing speaking career but left them out of the Hollywood production mainstream, which was Bob Shaye’s real dream.

John appears in his pre-Hairspray, pre-celebrity, pre-psychiatric re-charge.  He is so laid back in his Lutherville preppie button down shirt and naughty-but-nice- just-over-the-ears haircut.   Now that New Line had shown him the door, he  dressed more mainstream to meet “with thousands of businessmen” to raise money for his “upcoming movie,” Pink Flamingos II.   Of course, his future took a massive u-turn a few years later with his decision to move from yet another Baltimore  gross-out epic to the family-friendly sitcom world of “Hairspray.”

Long-time Waters friends and acquaintances will notice his slurred and hazy speech.  It reminds me  of many conversations with him in Fells Point’s Bertha’s bar, while he worked on his fifth-or-so rum and coke and his second pack of Kools.  A good laugh comes at the end when he says he can’t wait for a break so he could smoke a cigarette, “one of the best reasons for living.”

John doesn’t stray much from familiar territory– sensational trials, teaching cinema to inmates in the Baltimore City Jail, his love for riots, and hate for hippies.  Most fascinating is his enthusiasm for his movies that never saw the light of day.  He is as hopeful and pure as Barack Obama.  What a change of life he went through after “Hairspray,” and how refreshing to see him being so natural on a cheapo public access TV show– his true media roots.  It’s a nostalgic experience, very different from the amped-up clown he plays on late night network TV theses days.


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.