"Pope of Trash" signs hang in Hollywood to celebrate John Waters. Photo courtesy of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
"Pope of Trash" signs hang in Hollywood to celebrate John Waters. Photo courtesy of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

“Pope of Trash” banners and billboards around the city. A restaurant offering a “Serial Mom-inspired” dinner special (meatloaf, sesame broccoli and classic cherry pie). Local screenings of “Pecker,” “Polyester,” and “Pink Flamingos.” Glowing articles in Los Angeles Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter.

Writer and director John Waters is usually associated with the East Coast, where he was born and made all of his movies. But for the next few days the center of Waters’ fandom will shift to the West Coast, where the Baltimore filmmaker will be the focus of attention for two big events: the opening on Sunday of a nearly year-long career retrospective at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, entitled “John Waters: Pope of Trash,” and the unveiling on Monday of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the region’s major tourist attractions.

The two events honor Waters for his six decades as a filmmaker and the impact he has had with movies ranging from early “celluloid atrocities” such as “Multiple Maniacs,” “Female Trouble,” and “Desperate Living,” to more mainstream but still subversive fare such as “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” and “Cecil B. Demented.”

And Hollywood is rolling out the proverbial red carpet for him, with everything from “A Dirty Shame” banners atop the light poles along Cahuenga Boulevard to signed John Waters books on display at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, the business in front of which construction workers set the terrazzo and brass star on Wednesday (between ones honoring Gene Autry and Ray Bradbury.)

For the past few days, friends, fans and industry colleagues have been flying into town for a series of previews and parties that are shaping up to be what The Hollywood Reporter called “this amazing season of John Waters appreciation.” Los Angeles Magazine calls the exhibit Waters’ “lifetime achievement award.”

A "Pope of Trash" billboard at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, just outside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by Ed Gunts.
A “Pope of Trash” billboard at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, just outside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by Ed Gunts.

On Thursday, Waters, 77, was in working mode, attending a press preview for the opening of the “Pope of Trash” exhibit along with fellow Baltimore native Bill Kramer, now CEO of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and museum curators. After a panel discussion before about 150 members of the media, he met with smaller groups into the afternoon.

The exhibit is “the trashcan of my memories,” he told the audience. “It feels great to be here, with no irony at all…People came from all over the world, my friends, for this event. It’s definitely a Dreamland reunion.”

Over the next few days, Waters will lead private tours of the exhibit; sign copies of the lavish new book that accompanies it during a Meet and Greet event; attend dinners and parties, and provide commentary during sold-out showings of two of his movies, “Eat Your Makeup” and “Serial Mom.” (The “Serial Mom”-inspired dinner is being served at the museum’s restaurant, Fanny’s, in conjunction with the “Serial Mom” presentation.)

On Monday, the attention will shift to 6644 Hollywood Blvd., where the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will unveil Waters’ star on the Walk of Fame. The ceremony starts at 11:30 a.m. local time, and will be live-streamed for free in Baltimore (2:30 East Coast Time) at two theaters, The Senator at 5904 York Road and The Charles at 1711 N. Charles St. In addition to Waters, speakers will include actresses Mink Stole and Ricki Lake and photographer Greg Gorman.

Waters arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday, after wrapping up his sixth annual Camp John Waters “adult sleepaway” gathering for superfans the weekend before, with Mink Stole, Johnny Knoxville and Elizabeth Coffey as this year’s guest counselors.

On Sunday, before heading to the West Coast, Waters took some time out from camp to answer a few questions about the events in Hollywood and his reaction to it all. He said he hadn’t seen the museum exhibit at that point, although museum curators have sent him photographs showing the installation in progress. This interview has been lightly edited.

Baltimore Fishbowl: What does it mean to you to be honored this way?

John Waters: I am so happy that I am alive to see it. It’s a thrill. I’m so happy that some of the people are still alive that have been involved with me from the very beginning [and] are going to be there. It’s an honor. It is amazing to think, from Lutherville, Maryland, where I made my first movie in the bedroom of my parent’s house and called it Dreamland Studios, to the Academy Award Museum, is an action-packed 60 years, I promise you. That’s why I’m going to bring a picture of my parents to the Hollywood star ceremony because I guess without realizing it, they put in me the feeling that you could do anything you wanted to do, even though they were horrified by what I was doing.

John Waters participates in a panel discussion at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by Ed Gunts.
John Waters participates in a panel discussion at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Q: What message do you hope all this recognition you’re getting provides for others?

A: Well, that in the beginning, if you’re going to do anything that changes taste or art in any way, you don’t plan it. You just do it intrinsically. You have to do it. And you will get bad reviews. Everything that changes everything is originally not accepted, and scorned, and put down and everything. But you can embrace that. You can build a career on that. Don’t let that stop you. You’ve got to get through that.

Q: You had some early signs of acceptance, as you used humor to battle the powers-that-be.

A: The Museum of Modern Art bought a print of “Pink Flamingos” when it first came out, for their collection. We were never scorned by all, and we always had an audience. Even in those churches [where the early movies were shown], they were sold out. People came. So I guess I just never knew you couldn’t do it. I just kept doing it. I was like, driven. God knows I’m still driven. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

Q: I like what you’ve said about former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the ultimate civic booster, who encouraged you to keep making films in and about Baltimore even though he didn’t understand them.

A: Imitating Schaefer: “I don’t know what you do here, but just keep doing it. I don’t care what they are.” And this was before I made Hairspray or anything. He just knew them from being banned and the censor board and all that: “I don’t care. Just keep doing it. Who cares?” 

John Waters and Academy Museum of Motion Pictures representatives face the media at a Thursday press preview. Photo by Ed Gunts.
John Waters and Academy Museum of Motion Pictures representatives face the media at a Thursday press preview. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Q: You’ve also spoken about other people who come to Hollywood aiming to make it big, even the least talented and the ugliest, that they may see your star on the sidewalk and have some hope.

A: You never know what can happen in Hollywood. The very first time I ever went to Hollywood, I drove across the country with David Lochary to go to “Multiple Maniacs” when it premiered there at midnight, and we got out at Sunset and Vine and I got a jaywalking ticket, not far from where my star is.

Q: What do you think about the location of the star, 6644 Hollywood Boulevard?

A: My star is in front of the Larry Edmunds Bookshop. You know, you cannot ever say where you want to get the star. They don’t tell you and everything. But I think the guy that runs it, named Jeff Mantor, he knows me, he knows I love that bookshop, and it’s an amazing bookshop. It’s the only thing left on Hollywood Boulevard that was still there that’s devoted to movies, and it’s an amazing place. I always said I hoped it would be there. It was also where Frederick’s of Hollywood was very nearby. Maybe he lobbied [for the location], I don’t know. But that’s where it’s going to be, so I’m really excited about that. He will watch over it.

Q: Is Hollywood Boulevard seedy, would you say?

A: Hollywood Boulevard, in the beginning, was the showplace of Los Angeles, you know what I mean? Is Hollywood Boulevard seedy now? Yes, parts of it are.All the used book shops are gone, that I always used to go to. All the great newsstands I used to go to. Even the church steps that John Rechy wrote about in City of Night, where all the hustlers [were[. It’s all gone. That’s a world that’s gone. But at the same time, it’s still Hollywood Boulevard. It’s where I met Liz Renay at The Brown Derby to sign her up – the original Brown Derby, the one that was off Hollywood Boulevard. She had recently run nude up Hollywood Boulevard to promote her strip act. I think she was 50 or something. She ran a couple blocks completely nude in the middle of the day, which I still think of every time I’m walking there.  So I still go to Hollywood Boulevard, always. I think it’s a perfect place. Is it seedy? It always was a little, yeah, definitely.

John Waters and Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart. Photo by Ed Gunts.
John Waters and Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Q: What do you think about having your star near the stars of Gene Autry and Ray Bradbury?

A: I met Roy Rogers once, but not Gene Autry. I met Roy Rogers at [a dinner party given by Roddy McDowall.] He was there with Dale Evans in full cowboy outfit. I never met Gene Autry but I’m thrilled. It must be a good location. Gene Autry and Ray Bradbury. Great neighbors, great neighbors. I’m happy with both of them.

Q: It sounds prestigious. Gene Autry holds the record for having the most stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, five, separately honoring him in the fields of film, TV, radio, live performance and music.

A: Gene Autry, to me, I just remember from TV and being a cowboy star. And Ray Bradbury, a very different field than myself, but seems prestigious to me. Certainly they’re household names.

Q: Do you see the star as a sort of West Coast touchstone the way Divine’s gravestone is on the East Coast, a place where people could make a pilgrimage and leave things behind the way they do at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Towson?

A: I don’t know if that happens. It’s definitely more public. It’s right in the middle of the street that people walk up and down every day. It’s not like in a gated graveyard. But I think certainly people will get their picture taken there and that kind of stuff. I hope so.

Q. So people shouldn’t leave anything at the star like they do at Divine’s grave in Towson?

A: I don’t think you’re supposed to leave stuff there. I’m not encouraging littering on Hollywood Boulevard. I want them to leave with a new happiness and belief that they can do anything they want to do and get away with it as long as it’s joyous and not judging other people.

Q: After this big week coming up, how do you top this?

A: I’m never trying to top anything. This is all beyond anything that I ever thought would happen. I’m not trying to top anything. I’m more busy than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m booked for the whole next year. I have 40 shows to do. I have many things I can’t talk about because of the Writers’ Guild strike. I can’t talk about things from Screen Actors’ Guild, lots of projects that I’m striking about right now. So I don’t try to top it. I’ve never tried to top it. Even “Pink Flamingos” after I made that, I never tried to top that in shock value or anything.

You don’t try to top yourself. You just do the next thing that makes me laugh. That’s what I’ve always done. I did my brand new [spoken-word] show last night for the first time, called Devil’s Advocate. I do it every year at the camp, the show that I’m going to live off for the next year, and it went over very well. I was relieved because I always push it and we’ll see what I can get away with, and it seemed to go very well, so I’m always just coming up with the next thing. I have to do that. I have to remain current.

“John Waters: Pope of Trash,” opens Sunday at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, 6067 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and continues until August 4, 2024. In addition to the live event on Monday and the two watch parties in Baltimore, the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony for John Waters will be live-streamed on the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce website at walkoffame.com.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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