In his 1981 book, “Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste,” Baltimore filmmaker John Waters writes, “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”
Waters is the creative mind behind such movies as the 1972 cult classic “Pink Flamingos” and the more mainstream, “Hairspray.” His quirky characters and penchant for scenes that test the strongest of gag reflexes have earned him the nicknames “Pope of Trash” and “Prince of Puke.”
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 22 — which also is his 63rd birthday — Waters will bring his one-man show, “This Filthy World,” to Sweet Briar College’s Murchison Lane Auditorium. Tickets are free but must be reserved and will be available starting Wednesday, April 1.
It’s not the first time Waters, whose mother, two sisters and cousin are Sweet Briar alumnae, has appeared at the College. The last time he spoke on campus was in the fall of 1991, and Sweet Briar community members have fond memories of his visit.
Lisa Johnston, associate director of Cochran Library, was part of the group that organized Waters’ last visit and hosted a pre-lecture dinner in his honor. The dinner was held in Pannell Gallery, she recalled, and the tables were decorated with pink flamingos and “all kinds of tacky artifacts.”
At the dinner, Johnston — an avid Waters fan since her undergraduate days at the University of Tennessee — asked Waters if he’d mind signing her copies of his books. “He said something like, ‘Honey, if I minded I would have become a plumber instead,’” Johnston said. “I found him to be among the most charming of men.”
That night, Waters talked to a near-capacity crowd at Murchison Lane Auditorium about his life and how he got into the film business. “It was fascinating, hilarious,” Johnston said. “He made a remark that I’ll never forget. … He said something like he couldn’t believe that he was invited to speak at one of the bastions of good taste.”
Anthropology professor Claudia Chang, also a member of the 1991 organizing committee, found the stories Waters told about his family, particularly his mother, both touching and telling. Waters’ mother, who Chang imagines as “very Sweet Briar [with] pearls and white gloves,” would plant black tulips for her eccentric son.
“She seemed to have a good understanding of who her son was, and while he was very different from her she was very appreciative of the person he had become,” Chang said. “It was a great Sweet Briar moment.
“[His talk] wasn’t just about his wonderful career. It was about tidbits about their family slipped in. I can’t help but think sometimes when I watch his films like ‘Serial Mom’ that they must be his sort of warped versions of his family.”
For about 10 years after his visit, Chang said she received Christmas cards from Waters. The cards were always “fairly outrageous,” decorated with things like photos of Waters’ cross-dressing friend and star of “Pink Flamingos,” Divine, or a copy of the Sears bill from serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s now-infamous freezer.
Waters’ dark humor seemed to have a soft underbelly, though, as Chang learned while talking with the filmmaker during his 1991 visit. “I had a very young daughter, seven or eight at the time,” she said, “and I remember telling him at some point that she was very amused by dead rats.
“He said, ‘You have to be very careful around young children and not let them get involved in these strange fetishes. … He was not advocating censorship, but said one had to be careful about the sensibilities of little children.”
For tickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, starting April 1. For more information, call the box office at (434) 381-6120.
— Suzanne Ramsey