My Glorious Career in John Waters Films
I first met John Waters when his budding film career was just taking shape. We were introduced by a mutual friend, the late John Leisenring, truly one of the sweetest and gentlest of humans. Leisenring, who brought me into contact with some of the most important people in my life, would later go on to play Prince Charming in Waters’ film, Mondo Trasho, in the infamous opening sequence where he meets the gorgeous Mary Vivian Pearce and more than worships at her feet.
When Waters started filming Mondo Trasho, I was living in a basement apartment on York Road, which I shared with Leisenring, Mink Stoll, and the late Cookie Mueller. Originally asked to play the role of the naked hitchhiker in a scene where Divine is driving down a road and fantasizing about the clothes disappearing from some wayside wanderer, I declined. I was self conscious about some adolescent acne on my back, which in my teenage mind, looked more like leper sores than minor skin eruptions. The scene, shot on the Johns Hopkins campus, resulted in the arrest of the principals when an overzealous campus security guard spotted them and called the police. Sensing trouble, the actors and crew piled into the borrowed car and fled the scene. Unfortunately, a red ’59 Eldorado convertible just doesn’t blend well into the scenery along Greenmount Avenue. The car was pulled over, charges were filed, and warrants were issued for those involved.
At the time, Mink was the only one of us who held a steady job, and she was preparing for work the next day when the police arrived. They barged in and started looking around the rooms. One officer opened the bathroom door to find Mink sitting in the tub just as naked as the hitchhiker. She started screaming and throwing soapsuds, which floated in the air. The police, seemingly undisturbed by her hysterics and state of undress, stood and stared. They directed her to get dressed and accompany them to the local lock up. The next day, the headline in the local paper screamed, NAKED ACTOR ARRESTED IN BATHTUB.
It proved to be the best publicity any aspiring filmmaker could dream up. In the ensuing trial, the judge viewed the offending footage, dismissed the charges, and John Waters found himself on the cinematic map.
My big role in the film was to play an inmate in a mental asylum. I participate in what they used to euphemistically term “pulling a train” as the topless tap dancer, played by the hard working Mink, is dragged screaming from the makeshift stage. To give her performance that little something extra, Mink had taken tap lessons. The inmates are released by the divine intervention of a youthful Virgin Mary. She appears in a cloud of fire extinguisher CO2 special effects, and the inmates dash madly into the streets of Baltimore and a little cinema history.
In Pink Flamingos, I was enlisted to be an audience member for the scene politely referred to as the singing rectum. The fellow demonstrating the unusual talent, acquired by years of yoga practice, turned out to be shy about performing in public. His act was filmed separately from our audience reactions of shock and amazement and then edited together. The scene calls for the police to raid the trailer with guns blazing and break up the ring of decadence. Waters called for someone to publicly urinate. My bladder, usually very accommodating, was paralyzed.
My next casting call came for Female Trouble where I was an audience member for Divine’s big trampoline act. We packed into a small theater in Ellicott City and emoted as Divine bounced and twisted before us. The sight of a 300 pound actor performing with such ease and grace alters a person’s perception of reality. Divine was dressed in a tight fitting white pants suit with ruffles and wore about 100 pounds of make up.
When Hairspray started filming, I called and asked Waters if I could bring my teenage daughter to watch some of the filming. He said, “Sure. I’ll just have the casting director put you on as extras.”
For a week, very early each morning, we went through make-up, wardrobe, and continuity checks for a five minute scene. My daughter and I appeared as audience members for the dance contest and crowning of Miss Auto Show 1963. We got to rub shoulders with Deborah Harry and the late Sonny Bono. Mostly, we stood around in the ballroom next door to the set with Sloan Brown and Bob Adams, eating sandwiches as the crew set up for the next shot. That’s me walking up the sidewalk and entering the building with a female companion on my arm. On your television screen, I am about a half inch tall.
When Cecil B. Demented began rolling, I received a call from the casting department inviting me to work down at the Apex theater on Broadway. Apparently, they had seen my previous performances and I was just what they were after. For two days, I sat five rows in front of Melanie Griffith and Alicia Witt. My role consisted of expressing admiration for the on-screen performance of Alicia Witt’s character, Cherish, in an adult film with a gerbil for a leading man. At the end of the grueling marathon, Alicia thanked us for our tireless efforts and for raising her self-esteem to new levels. That would have been reward enough, but the hours of tedium created a reflective state of mind. I experienced a form of mild enlightenment as I found the true answer for the age-old Zen paradox: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Waters’ A Dirty Shame, gave me a chance to stretch my thespian talents. I was enlisted to play a sex addict. As the camera dollied through a neighborhood displaying suburbia gone amok, I groped and necked with a fellow actor on the porch steps of one of the houses. When they needed a drunken man to stumble past Tracey Ullman as she boarded a bus full of unsuspecting passengers, I stepped up to the call.
“Wait,” an assistant director called, “he was in another scene already.”
Waters, no doubt recognizing my chameleon abilities, said, “It’ll be fine.”
That’s my back you see as I stagger past Tracey Ullman. She climbs aboard the bus in a state of crazed lust from a head injury. My youngest son was on board the bus playing one of the shocked passengers.
While critics might fault my work as having little range, I threw myself completely into each role with abandon. I might have been an example of pure typecasting, but where would any decent film be without dedicated background artists? Others may have grabbed the limelight along the way, but I stand by my body of work. Mr. Waters, when duty calls, I am ready for my long shot.
© Alan C. Reese
Alan C. Reese teaches creative writing at Towson University. He is the former co-editor and founder of Dancing Shadow Review, and the author of the chapbook, Reports from Shadowland, (Dancing Shadow Press, 1994). His writing has appeared in Smartish Pace, Gargoyle, Free State Review, Delaware Poetry Review, The Baltimore Sun, Maryland Poetry Review, Loch Raven Review, Potomac Review, Passager and other publications.