Tag Archives: Divine

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.


Liz Renay: The Star Who Would Replace Divine

John Waters’ 1977 movie, Desperate Living, was the follow-up of his most successful films to date, “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.”  It’s $65,000 budget provided a larger and more professional crew than the earlier films, and a “marquee star” budget line that was ten times more than the last.

Divine would have been the logical star choice.  He had been his star on at least three of his earliest black and white movies,  but the history of his not doing Desperate Living is murky.   Some say Divine was busy performing live on tour.  Others say that he and Waters were on the outs over money, and Waters wanted to prove  he could do a successful movie without Divine.

In either case, Waters went on a star search to replace Divine.   He found Liz Renay, who was a minor celebrity in the 1940s and 50s, and a counter-intuitive choice for a late 1970s cutting-edge underground movie.

Liz was a real trooper in John Waters’ Desperate Living.  As a 51 year-old seeming has-been from the 1950s, in many ways, she was about as disconnected from the average Baltimore-bred Dreamlander as you could imagine.  In others, she was spookily appropriate and progressive.  Liz was a classic high-class broad who hung out with gangsters and gamblers who blew big money on champagne cocktails, mink coats, diamond necklaces, and only rode in limos.

When she was just twenty her stunningly beautiful face, big blonde hair and voluptuous figure, brought her immediate success as a model and stripper in  New York City’s WWII era.  She found it easy to earn money, especially after winning a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest in Hollywood, and began to attract wealthy men who were happy to spend big on big-busted blonde trophy girlfriends.

A typical Liz Renay painting-- two dimensions, eye-popping colors, and sexual innuendo, they sold for a very respectable $5,000 in the 1950s-60s.

Liz was no dumb blonde though.  She knew the skin game and used it, but also authored several popular books (the irresistible “My First 2000 Men” was her first).  She was a prolific painter whose work sold well, though they were unremarkable in their flatness that recalls Elvis-on-black velvet paintings sold in abandoned corner gas stations throughout the South.  That most of her work featured nude, nubile blondes stretched out on silk sheets certainly were part of the appeal.

Liz’s most notorious bo was Mickey Cohen, a flamboyant gangster and ex-boxer who helped create the post-war Las Vegas gambling boom.  Cohen’s penchant for violence (he once unloaded .45 caliber pistols into a hotel lobby ceiling) and sleazy associations with movie stars, liquor scams, and sexual extortion rings made him a popular subject of the press.

To the 1970s generation, Liz was most famous for her "streak" down Hollywood Boulevard.

Liz’s closeness to such genuine and notorious sleaze attracted Waters to Liz.  But wait, that’s not all.  Lying in court to protect Cohen in one of his numerous trials, Liz actually spent three months in Terminal Island Prison near Los Angeles.  This was the home of 1960s icons, Charlie Manson, his acolyte and attempted Gerald Ford assassin Squeaky Fromme, and Timothy Leary.  To John, that was real cred.

Desperate Living’s extreme low-budget shooting conditions were the exact opposite of Liz’s earlier diamond-studded life, in some ways even worse than prison—cold, muddy, rainy, hideously long hours, terrible food, etc.  It was quite different from what she expected a movie would be, especially with her experience in Hollywood.

John always dressed her in the skimpiest outfits to show off her curvy 1950s body, and extreme boob job.  But in the forty-degree weather, she shivered like a young puppy, and was always wrapped in blankets, between scenes, even on the indoor sets.  She lost a lot of her glamour there.

Liz confided to me that she had never worked on such a shockingly low-budget movie, and didn’t know it was possible to make a movie in such dingy and lousy shooting conditions—no heat, no green room, no dressing room, no caterer or crafts services, and she thought of walking out in the beginning.  But she would have felt like such a heel by stiffing this earnest, bedraggled, hopeful crew, and its pathetic movie sets made of junk from the streets– so she stayed.  One very cold and rainy day on the exterior Mortville set, she told me she couldn’t remember ever seeing her breath before, and was quite amazed by it.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or be mortified.

The money was good– for her, about $10,000 for two weeks, plus John saw that she had a nice hotel.  She was very kind, and never wanted to tie up a PA to take her to the set.  When I tried to reimburse her for the cab fare she paid to get to the Fells Point “studio, “she refused.  No one on the young movie crew had heard of her, and couldn’t understand how this hopelessly out-of-fashion 50’s sex bomb could replace Divine as John’s major draw.

That is, except John, for whom Liz was the ideal star—huge bust, plastic surgery-young, a real, published writer, and fine arts painter, with strong ties to the underworld, and even an honest-to-god jailbird.  Couldn’t do better than that.

The official cast and crew portrait for Desperate Living. John and Liz are in the center.

Liz got into the Low Budget Hell swing of things pretty quickly.  A bitchy, complaining celebrity she was not.  Her sweetness won everyone over quickly, and they treated this blonde bombshell granny with kindness and respect.  At the end of the day, we got to know that in her heart she was a rebel and progressive who was a tough cookie and leveraged her sex appeal into one of the earliest examples of women’s liberation.  Liz Renay did not join a movement; she was a movement.

Liz was born in 1926 and died in 2007, at the age of 80.

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.

A Rare Envelope from Divine to John Waters- 1980

Here’s an artifact.  Too bad it’s not a letter.   The envelope contained a handful of cash receipts from Divvy for reimbursement from “Polyester,”  which had just wrapped.   Since I was the line producer and had to approve all expenses, John handed them to me.  A brief note from Divine’s agent/manager, Bernard Jay, requested a check at “my earliest convenience.”

The stationary design was so hip and cool.  It’s not clear, but Divine holds a straight razor in his right hand as an icon of his “dangerousness.”  I don’t remember, but the absent-minded doodles on the stamp and around John’s address,  probably means I was on the phone with Bernard Jay questioning some of the receipts, and was constantly being put on hold.   I eventually delivered the approved receipts to New Line Cinema”s Chelsea office.  They no doubt groaned at having to reimburse Divvy for cab fare, long distance phone charges, and probably flowers to decorate the apartment where he stayed while shooting “Polyester.”

Of all the hundreds of letters I received, this one deserved to go in the permanent file.

 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.

Divine Mauled by Press in Violent Scene Cut from Polyester

Many scenes from John Waters’ early films were left on the cutting room floor.  They were great scenes, but Waters was fanatical that his films not exceed 90 minutes.   He thought that comedy could not hold an audience longer than that.  So  many of his scenes are lost to movie-goers of today, but maybe a film professor of the future will  resurrect these lost gems.

This  cut scene from Polyester (1981) occurred  during the riot on  Francine Fishpaw’s (Divine) front lawn.  Divine, already close to mental collapse from a severe drinking problem and mental cruelty inflicted by her husband and his mistress (Mink Stole), tries to escape the chaos by fleeing out the back door.

Two Reporters, hungry for juicy photos chase her, then pin her arms behind her back while colleagues get their close-ups.  It’s an unflattering portrait of the media, which would be quite out-of-character for Waters today.  Hopefully Craig Ferguson will miss these shots.

George Stover, who played one of the reporters (seen on left above;  the other was  Steve Yeager, filmmaker of the Waters bio-doc Divine Trash),  was devastated that the scene was ultimately cut.  It was a good follow-up to his part as Bosley Gravel in Desperate Living.  John told him that New Line made him cut the scene because it was “too noisy and the sound was bad.”  According to Charles Roggero, the editor of Polyester, as well as Female Trouble and Desperate Living, John cut the scene only because he had to reduce the film’s run time to the magical 90 minute limit, and losing this funny scene would not hurt the storyline.

Both are good possibilities.  John’s crowd and fight scenes usually verged on dangerous chaos. Most of the actors were untrained, and the line between reality and acting disintegrated quickly.  They were mostly one-take, so we could move on and calm things down before someone was hurt.

In this scene, which featured our big star, we did not want to risk an injury.  In Hairspray‘s media riot scene (Tilted Acres– cut in the Broadway Show and Travolta movie re-make– because of the negative press portrayal?) an actor was  taken to the hospital when a  an over-zealous reporter smashed a camera into his face.  So John’s instincts about riot scenes, though he loves them dearly,  proved to be accurate.

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 from Amazon.com and booksellers around the world.

Divine- The First Rapper c.1974 (Accidentally)

In his early movies, John Waters just lifted music for his sound tracks from a friend’s record collection ignoring copyright or licensing permissions.  There wasn’t money for such things in underground movies, so he just put it off until later.  Female Trouble’s title song (called Female Trouble) was its only piece of legal music.  With Divine’s growing performing career, John thought an original song would help the movie, and maybe one day become an income stream.  At least it would be one less music right to buy when that day of reckoning arrived.

Charles Roggero (the film’s editor) offered one of the many songs he had produced when he was in Los Angeles, trying to break into the record business.  He still had reels of high-budget, professionally written, arranged, and recorded music tracks stored in an LA studio, and agreed to give John a song for free, if John wrote the lyrics, and they would equally share any royalties.  Divine was in LA at the time, and took a taxi one afternoon to the studio to overdub the vocals.

He gave the driver the address that John had given him saying he was going to a recording session. The driver freaked because the address was in the heart of Watts, the infamous neighborhood that just a few years earlier was the site of some of the worst riots in U.S. history.  Why was this bizarre looking guy going down there?  A drug run?

They eventually pulled up to an old, unmarked warehouse surrounded by burned-out shells.   Even Divine was spooked now, and begged the driver to wait by the door until someone answered his knocks.  The door was opened by a black man.  It was Don Cook, one of LA’s most respected record producers, who had worked with Dianna Ross among many others.  His very nice studio was located purposely in a non-nondescript building to save on the high LA rents.

John and Charles listened to the session live on the telephone from their editing room; a technological breakthrough for John, which enabled John to direct.
Unfortunately, Divine only occasionally hit the right notes.  The problem was he was basically tone deaf.  For John’s camp audience it was great, but Don and his engineer were mainstream Hollywood award-winners.  Seeing the 350 lb. Divine with his shaved head, in his usual flouncy pants and oversized shirt, and listening to John’s psycho lyrics like “I’m berserk, I like it fine, as long as I’m making headlines,”  they thought Charles had lost his mind and was working with a Manson-like cult in Baltimore.

The producers worked hard to make Divine sound professional, using thick reverb and echo and doubling his tracks, but they couldn’t change the many flat notes (this was well before Autotune).  To finish with some semblance of professionalism, they resorted to Divine reciting the lines, not singing them, making Female Trouble one of the first rap songs ever—accidentally.

Since this first step away from just producing movies, John has spread his talent into assembling successful compilation CDs, not to mention books, articles, artwork, and comedy tours.  Maybe one day he will lend his name to a perfume line.  John Waters’ #2 anyone?

The Female Trouble CD can be purchase from CD Baby or downloaded from iTunes.

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.