If you watched Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — or anything else on NBC this season — news of the network’s December 7 television event Hairspray Live was unavoidable. This all-star production of the hit Broadway musical has the hottest talent (Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Harvey Fierstein) and looks to be the highest-profile broadcast television show of the holiday season. Hairspray Live is the latest version of the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, a charming story of social tolerance among dance-crazy teens in early 1960s Baltimore, and this raises a question: Could enjoying Hairspray Live with the family in the comfort of your home get any better?
Yes, it already has. Just leave the kids at home on Tuesday, December 6 — the night before the Hairspray Live broadcast — and head to the Lobero Theatre, where Hairspray creator Waters will be performing A John Waters Christmas, his one-man show about how much he loves the holidays. At the very least, it ought to give you plenty of material for your next night’s running commentary on the TV show.
Anyone who has followed Waters through the many phases of his highly idiosyncratic career will have already surmised that A John Waters Christmas is going to be quite different from the kind of family-friendly entertainment NBC typically offers in prime time. For decades now, an uncanny range of appeal has been part of the Waters mystique; from Pink Flamingos at midnight to Hairspray at noon in Herald Square on Thanksgiving, the man covers a lot of territory. And it’s not just that he crosses over so easily from the hopelessly NC-17 A Dirty Shame to the adorably tween-friendly Hairspray franchise. After decades working primarily as a filmmaker, Waters has focused in recent years on writing books and performing live, a strategy that’s paid off well on both fronts. His most recent book, Carsick, about hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco, became a New York Times best seller in 2014, and appearances such as the one he’ll be making on Tuesday at the Lobero keep fans coming back for more.
When I spoke with Waters by phone from his office in Baltimore, it was the first Friday in November, just a few days before the election, and he began by talking about his experiences in Santa Barbara. “They burned the Bank of America, and now I bank at the Bank of America. Isn’t that weird how things change?” he asked, adding that when he lived in Santa Barbara for a few months in 1970, he “stayed with Sique, Mink Stole’s sister, and her husband, Ron Cuchta, and showed my film Multiple Maniacs in Isla Vista. I rented the space, and I remember that the seating was inner tubes on the floor. It was great.”
Santa Barbara turns out to have played a significant role in the development of Waters’s defining style statement, as well. “It was in Santa Barbara that I first started doing my moustache with the eye pencil. It wasn’t coming in well, and I was frustrated with it, and Sique said, ‘Here, try this pencil,’ and what do you know? It worked perfectly, and I’ve used it ever since,” said Waters.
Santa Barbara figured in another first for Waters on that early journey west. “I went to my first ever gay liberation meeting in Isla Vista,” he said. “It was mostly lesbians, and it was great to see that it was happening, but I was sort of beyond that. I’d already made a movie called Multiple Maniacs, and I think I more wanted to be a weatherman or something at that point.” The notion was prophetic, as his next film, Pink Flamingos, would present the world with the spectacle of Divine, a deliberate cross between a drag queen and Godzilla and a fierce defender of the title “filthiest person alive.” If, like so many people, you thrive on the sick humor and skewed frame of reference that only John Waters can provide, then I’ll see you at A John Waters Christmas. Don’t forget the hairspray!
A John Waters Christmas plays Tuesday, December 6, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, see lobero.com or call (805) 963-0761.