To some, the idea of John Waters taking on Christmas is downright confusing, sure to lead to such nightmarish results as when Jack Skellington tried to take over the holiday. What's the "Pope of Trash" got to do with Santa and snowmen and, Heaven forbid, little, innocent baby Jesus? But to many fans, this unholy union is nothing new: In his 1974 film Female Trouble, Dawn Davenport (played by the one and only Divine) yells, "I hate you! Fuck you!" and pushes the family Christmas tree over on her mother before running away from home after her parents don't give her her beloved cha-cha heels for Christmas ("Not on Christmas!"). Waters saves Bart and Homer from ravenous reindeer using a kitschy robot Santa (a.k.a. "Annual Gift Man"–and he lives on the moon!) from Japan in his guest appearance on The Simpsons. Hell, the man even put out a campy Christmas album featuring such yuletide classics as "Santa Claus Is a Black Man."
"I like Christmas, with no irony," Waters explains. "When I was a kid, I always liked Christmas, and it was a good thing. I don't have any traumas, though a Christmas tree did fall on my grandmother one year. But my grandmother thought it was funny–I made that part of my act."
And so Christmas continues to be part of Waters' act. For the better part of a decade, he has donned his gay apparel and entertained audiences who both adore and detest the holiday ("I speak to Grinches, too," he assures me) with his one-man standup show.
"Well, because it's such an emotional one," he says. "People go crazy at Christmas. People love it, they hate it, they can't avoid it–and you can't avoid it. So you should really come to my show, and I'll tell you how to get through it because it's headed toward you like a locomotive off the track."
It's hard to talk about the beloved and reviled director of such cult classics as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray without mentioning his partner in crime, the dearly departed Divine. And if John Waters likes Christmas, then the outrageous actor and drag queen who rose to fame starring in Waters' films loved it.
"Divine was pathological about Christmas," Waters recalls. "He almost went to prison for Christmas because he was obsessed with Christmas decorations." Waters explains the man who gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "shit-eating-grin" would max out his parents' credit cards buying Christmas décor at Watson's Garden Center in their home state of Maryland, then wait for the mailman to come so he could rip up the bills. His parents would have no idea until they tried to use the cards, only to be declined.
"One time, the police even came because he had written bad checks for Christmas decorations," Waters says. "But he passed a lie-detector test. So that's a good actor. Many times, he didn't even have an apartment, so I don't know what he was decorating."
Waters said he and Divine would often spend Christmas together. "I used to give Divine presents every year," he says, "but I can't remember because Divine hasn't been with us for many years." But he does remember an old mink coat, which Waters made him wear in Multiple Maniacs.
Divine, along with the rest of the Dreamlanders (Waters' merry band of misfits who regularly appeared in his films), would attend Waters' annual Christmas party. It's a tradition that continues in Baltimore. "I've had it for a really long time; it's everybody from the neighbors to my siblings to the governor, the mayor, the person I've gotten out of prison, the singing asshole from Pink Flamingos."
Waters concedes in his show that holiday get-togethers can be stressful, and there was a hint of that in his voice when he described the annual shindig. "When you have a party, it's like directing a movie in a way; you gotta go around and talk to everybody. And since I have a thing where I've taken a picture of every person who's ever been in my house for 30 years, I've got to take each person's picture, so that's a pain.
"You think it's cool, but then I look through them, and people are dead and they got fat," he says. "Nobody gets cuter."
Not even with plastic surgery? "Oh, God, you can't be cute with plastic surgery," he says. "I mean, you get to a point . . . Well, Joan Rivers didn't look old–she didn't look human, but she didn't look old. That's a choice you make: look weird or old."
He recalls an old tradition from his parties: "There would be at least 100 people and every person had to buy a present for every person, so there would be [10,000] presents there," Waters says. "Of course, this was when at thrift shops, everything was a nickle, but still. We would give presents we knew the other person would hate on purpose."
Wondering what gift Waters would hate the most? Sporting attire or memorabilia, he says. As for his Christmas list this year, it's "always books." He has asked Santa for the new biography of singer Peggy Lee. "And I think it's mean-spirited," he says, a grin in his voice. "There's this review in the Washington Post that says it spends too much time on the end of her life–that's all the parts I wanna know!"
Waters says he first figured out Santa wasn't real as a young child because he'd go to the mall and all the department stores had their own Santa. "No one ever told me there was a million Santa Clauses–only one!"
And one thing he hasn't quite figured out about Kris Kringle is his sexual orientation. "Is Santa Claus a Bear? Is he a Silver Fox? Are the elves Twinks?" Waters postulates. "Mrs. Claus seems like she's always just home. It doesn't seem like she gets to go anywhere–ever. I think Mrs. Claus really has a bad life. Maybe she's a Fag Hag, and in the Bear community, that's called a Goldilocks. I don't know. She sure seems to put up with a lot and gets no accolades.
"I've never seen a Mrs. Claus sittin' in a department store," he continues. "Women always get humiliated. They have to play the Easter Bunny–that's really humiliating–or elves, but you never get Mrs. Claus. I think we should bring that back."
Before he leaves our conversation, Waters shares one of his favorite memories of Orange County. "Is the Nixon Library there? My uncle was Undersecretary of the Interior during the Nixon years–John Whitaker. Believe me, in the '60s, that was strange."
Now we're intrigued to find out what he thinks of the campy ol' Coach House.
A John Waters Christmas at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; www.thecoachhouse.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $45; with a meet-and-greet, $100.