Holiday cheer with a twist

CLAUDE PECK | Updated 12/13/2012

John Waters likes a traditional Christmas, complete with a decorated electric chair.


Kathy Willens, AP

For a one-fell-swoop satire on the notion of a perfect family Christmas, nothing beats the opening of John Waters' 1974 movie "Female Trouble." Dawn Davenport (played by Divine) clomps downstairs on Christmas morning wearing a short nightie, big furry slippers and a perfectly teased frosted bouffant hairdo.

She is in the Christmas spirit until she opens a gift from her parents -- a pair of sensible flats. "Those aren't the right kind," Divine shouts. "I told you cha-cha heels -- black ones!" The ensuing rampage leaves Divine's mom trapped beneath the knocked-over Christmas tree, muttering the words, "Not on Christmas," as Divine storms out of the house to pursue a life of crime, fashion and capital punishment.

For Waters, who presents his "John Waters Christmas" on Friday night at Mill City Nights, the holiday brings happy memories.

"I loved Christmas," he said by phone from his hometown of Baltimore this week. "I had a very functional family. A Christmas tree did fall on my grandma when I was a kid, so that scene comes from real life. But no one pushed it over on her. Later, she thought it was funny. I was a selfish kid, wondering, 'Are my presents ruined?'"

Dawn Davenport's look and her juvenile delinquency in "Female Trouble" also are from Waters' own experience.

"There were plenty of bad girls in my eighth grade," he said. "One girl had her hair teased to a giant perfect bubble in the front, but it looked like a rat's nest in the back. She used to say, 'I want to look good coming in. Who cares what they think when you are leaving the room?'"

Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), who starred in such other Waters movies as "Pink Flamingos," "Multiple Maniacs" and "Hairspray," died in 1988. Divine "was obsessed by Christmas," Waters said. "He nearly went to jail because of it. He would charge thousands of dollars of decorations when he didn't even have an apartment. He loved Christmas. He loved it too much."

Waters loves the holiday, too. In 2004 he issued a CD that compiles a dozen kitschy holiday songs, from "Here Comes Fatty Claus" to "Santa Claus Was a Black Man."

He's toured his one-man Christmas show for 10 years, a flurry of air travel to as many as 15 cities in the weeks before Dec. 25. The show is "just John," but as anyone who saw Waters entertain a sold-out audience at Walker Art Center last year knows, Waters is a manic and captivating speaker with no shortage of insights backed by outrageously funny tales from the underground.

Waters has become a collector and something of an expert on contemporary art. The Walker handed him the keys to several of its galleries last year for a show he curated called "Absentee Landlord."

"I got to bring attention to a lot of artists that I like, as well as some from the Walker's amazing collection," he said. "I had great freedom there, and they were very supportive of the things I picked. You can never have too many careers. I take them all very seriously. I am very much for the elitism of the art world, which is delightfully like joining a biker club, with all its specialized vocabulary and ritual."

Waters, who helped lobby for gay marriage in his home state of Maryland this year ("I'm the last person who wants to get married, but I'm for it"), also has found success as an author. His 2010 book, "Role Models," with chapters devoted to people who've inspired him, was a bestseller. To collect material for a new book, Waters hitchhiked alone across the United States. Titled "Carsick," it's due out next year.