To most people, the director of Pink Flamingos and Hairspray is John Waters, the esteemed writer and filmmaker who’s based in Baltimore, spends his summers in Provincetown and jets off to Paris for a fashion shoot or Rome for a film festival, even in a pandemic.
But to his classmates at Calvert School in the 1950s, he was Johnny, the kid who liked Rock-n-Roll more than sports, won a Jitterbug dance contest, took his friends to the record store and put on puppet shows.
Last week, those classmates and others got a chance to catch up with Johnny during an hour-long Q&A session on Zoom.
Billed as “A Night with John Waters ’58,” the virtual event was a substitute for the “Night on the Town” fundraiser that the private school usually holds in-person, and attracted 160 attendees and garnered more than $30,000 for its faculty program.
The event took place one week after Waters, 74, appeared on Finding Your Roots, the PBS program that gives celebrities a chance to learn about their ancestors, good or bad. Waters quipped that hearing from his classmates at Calvert, where he attended grades one to six, was like being in a sequel to that show.
“I feel like I’ve been sent to the principal’s office,” he said.
The interview was conducted by Sarah Crowley, Calvert’s director of academic affairs. They met in person for the Q&A, maskless but seated more than six feet apart and separated by a classroom divider. Waters told Crowley he has good memories of his days at Calvert.
“It was the only school I ever liked, that I went to,” he said. “I should have quit school at sixth grade. I know the same things I know today, except how to deal with trashy girls…In grade school, I got the knowledge that I needed to do almost everything I do today.”
Crowley and Waters touched on a few current events, including:
The timetable for Waters’ next book: Waters said the novel he’s working on, his first, is about a year and a half away from publication, putting its release in the late spring of 2022. The title is Liarmouth, “all one word,” and it’s about a woman who steals suitcases at the airport. Waters writes in longhand and just started his third draft.
“I wish there was a shortcut to writing a book,” he said. “There just isn’t. It takes a couple of years. Or three, for me.”
Loss of work from the pandemic: Waters said he’s lost 40 speaking engagements and other events as a result of the pandemic, including his spoken-word tour before the holidays. He said there’s a pent-up demand for all kinds of live shows once the COVID pandemic is under control, and that poses “a real problem” for the entertainment industry.
“Everything is backed up,” he said. “Every rock act is waiting to tour again, so that’s’ going to be a real nightmare. Half the theaters aren’t even going to reopen.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on him, too, he said.
“I miss pressing the flesh, meeting the fans, signing new books. You have to keep doing it. Even Elton John told me, the day you don’t keep on the road, it’s over. You have to keep going out there. Meeting the new young people. Seeing what’s going on. You need that contact.”
Learning that an ancestor of his owned slaves: Waters said he had a feeling that the researchers on Finding Your Roots were going to discover that one of his ancestors was a slaveowner, just as they did with the other celebrity in the episode on which he appeared, actress Glenn Close.
“On that show, they find that very, very often, you know, when they go back and you lived in the South,” he said. “I was just relieved they found Glenn Close’s first.”
Waters said he handled the disclosure as well as he could.
“When it got to me, I said, ‘You’re probably going to find a slave.’ It’s what you dread. And I think I responded to it pretty well: ‘I’d spit on that man’s grave.’ “They should have taken a hatchet to him’ ”
Unlike many of the virtual talks Waters has given during the pandemic for book shops and radio shows, this one was tailored for a narrower audience of students, alumni, faculty and parents who paid $50 to $150 for tickets, knowing the money would benefit Calvert. They may have seen his recent retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and some knew him as a classmate. But they weren’t all diehard fans who know every line of dialogue from his movies.
Founded in 1897, Calvert School is an independent institution that had students in grades one to six when Waters went there. Today it’s co-ed and goes from Kindergarten to 8th grade. It also has a child care program called Kiddie Calvert, for children aged 10 weeks to four years.
The session was more G-rated than some of Waters’ talks, where he’s been known to reminisce about the time he saw Angela Lansbury at the Hellfire Club in New York or lament the closing of Blow Buddies bathhouse in San Francisco.
But what his comments lacked in raunchiness, they made up for in Calvert-centric tidbits that he might not have shared with a national audience. The session was filled with “flashbacks” about his time growing up in Lutherville; sleepovers; fingerpainting; Betsy the chimpanzee; his obsession with Rock-N-Roll music and, of course, how he met Divine.
Raised in an upper-middle-class family, Waters started by crediting Calvert School with instilling values that have stayed with him throughout his life, such as having discipline, working hard and writing thank you notes by hand.
“To this day, I still write hand thank you notes and sympathy notes,” he said. “So I guess that Calvert stuff stuck with me in some way, no matter how much I tried to rebel. Those basic things learned there are still there.”
In the 1950s, a high percentage of Calvert’s male students went on to Gilman for upper school, but not Waters. “I was the only person in my class that didn’t go to Gilman,” he said.
Many of the questions were along the lines of, How did someone who began with such a “traditional,” education wind up creating such offbeat movie characters?
Waters said that’s one of the secrets to his success: “I’ve always said you have to learn the rules of good taste to make fun of bad taste.”
He said he’s made a career of taking people on trips to worlds they might not otherwise want to visit because they feel comfortable with him as a guide.
“I never… turned against the kind of upbringing I had at Calvert,” he said. “I wanted to experience worlds that I had no idea about and that scared me a little, and try to understand them. And then I would use that with humor to ask people to come with me and I would be their guide and take them into a world they might not be comfortable with if I wasn’t there.”
He recalls that teachers at Calvert sometimes surprised students in the classroom.
“We had teachers that played us weird things, weird comedy records. The teachers were open to showing us new things.”
But it definitely wasn’t all fun and games.
“You really had to work there,” he said. “I think I do have the discipline I have in my life now probably from being there.”
As for learning about the world beyond Calvert School, he said, “I think the thing that informed me most was reading Life Magazine and reading about beatniks and reading about Bohemia. That’s when I realized there is another world. I didn’t see Bohemia at Calvert School or Lutherville or anything, you know? I went downtown and hung out at Martick’s and met beatniks, and that’s when I realized there is another life.”
He said he still uses the “Calvert script,” although his handwriting has deteriorated over the years.
“My handwriting today looks like Cy Twombly. Basically, Trish my assistant can read it.”
Does it look like the Calvert writing?
“Well maybe with St. Vitus’ dance. There might be some traces of it in there.”
Waters said the other students called him Johnny, a name hardly anyone uses for him now.
“The only people that call me that is my family, still, [and] a person I know that’s in prison for life that I’m trying to get out. She calls me Johnny. That’s the only person that does.”
Known for the memorable soundtracks in his movies, Waters admitted to being a “Rock-N-Roll freak” in grade school.
“I never had any musical talent in any way,” he said. “But I had a Top 10 board over top of my bed and I would call the record stores and ask them [what was] number one, and dance like a crazy person. I was always kind of obsessed with whatever interests I had.”
He said his reputation as a Rock-N-Roll fanatic embarrassed his parents.
“I remember we had that jingle at the end that they read at graduation and mine said, “John Waters, Rock-N-Roll King,” he said. “My parents were mortified because everybody else’s was about lacrosse and sports and everything. So I definitely was a Rock-N-Roll freak in sixth grade.”
Although he later became a model for Nike sportswear, Waters absolutely didn’t like sports at Calvert and had little to do with the gym teacher, Mr. Perry.
“I hated sports there,” he said. “I remember Mr. Perry. He wasn’t mean. He wasn’t a horrible man. But we had no relationship. I hated playing. I don’t feel like picking up that ball. It was never my thing.”
Waters also admits his foreign language classes at Calvert never did him much good.
“Another thing I regret about Calvert, we had French lessons,” he said. “I can’t speak a word of French still. And I love France. They like me there. I go there a lot. I wish I had learned it, but I had no ear.”
This from a man who was named an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 2018.
Though he wasn’t fluent in French, Waters made good money with his puppet shows, for kids’ birthday parties and other occasions.
“I would go through my parents’ address book and put ads out,” he recalled. “I had a good career as a puppeteer… Sometimes I did like two or three shows a week, and I remember I got paid for my puppet shows. I got $25 a show. That was really a lot for a 12-year-old then. So that’s when I knew I was going to be in show business.”
Besides jogging his memory about facts and anecdotes, the questions from Crowley and the Zoom audience triggered opinions and observations about a wide range of subjects. Here are a few:
He appreciates everything his parents did for him. He said his parents always supported him, even if what he wanted to do wasn’t what they might have wanted.
“There was no Dr. Spock book that told them what to do when you had a child that played car accidents and wanted to be taken to the junkyard, that kept lists of condemned movies by the Catholic church,” he said. “All my interests were unhealthy, as far as they were concerned. But they tried to understand them. I’m not saying everything was perfect. But they were, in a way, they did a great job.”
He knows he was a troublemaker from the start. “I was born six weeks too early, so basically I was already causing trouble. And at Calvert, [his parents] were embarrassed that I didn’t love sports. “They wanted me to be like a normal all-American” boy.
The fifties weren’t such a great time to grow up, no matter what they sang on Happy Days. “The 50s…was the worst time,” he said. “People think the 50s was a great time. It was the most conservative, conventional time, where everybody had to be like everybody else.”
He met Divine, the actor whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead, through a mutual friend. “Divine went to Towson High. Divine’s family owned a nursery school and they moved up the street from my parents. I was friends with this girl — she’s no longer with us — a great friend named Carol Wernig, who looked exactly like Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble. She was kind of a bad girl in high school and she hung around with Divine and they gambled her pimple medicine that they both wore as lipstick. That’s how I met Divine.”
Looking back, Waters said, he knows life could have been worse, and he’s grateful that it wasn’t.
“My parents didn’t keep me locked in a box under the bed. If they had, I probably would be a lot more screwed up.”
Did you feel connected to the community in a big way at Calvert? Crowley asked him.
“It wasn’t traumatic for me to go to school in any way, ever,” he said. “But I knew I wasn’t like everybody else. I’m not saying that in a ‘better’ way. I knew that I was different and I didn’t want to do the stuff that everybody else did. Was I completely at ease with that then? No, probably. I don’t think anybody is when you’re that age. But I don’t have bad memories of it at all. I do have bad memories of every other school I ever went to. As I said, I should have quit school at sixth grade.”