A John Water’s Christmas
I have to confess, I have never considered myself a big fan of John Waters’ films. I find his earlier movies to have a certain perverse charm to them and I certainly credit him for being willing to do anything for his chosen media but they aren’t the type of movies that hold up well to repeat viewings for me. I have always loved John Waters as a person though and thoroughly enjoyed his 2006 one man show, This Filthy World. When I first heard that he was planning a loose follow up built around his obsession with all things related to the Yule Tide season, I knew I wanted to see it. It came as a very pleasant surprise that he scheduled his inaugural performance in none other than Jacksonville, Florida!
While John Waters’ monologues could technically be considered stand up comedy, they are the delivered in such an off handed way that it really seems more like a lecture than someone trying to make an audience laugh. Waters comes across like the crazy uncle your parents always threatened never to invite over for holidays every year but always relented on at the last minute. The kind of character the kids loved for the same inappropriate and off colors stories that made the adults cringe. They knew they should not be hearing things like this but looked forward to just the same. In some cases these stories were only thing that made holiday gatherings tolerable for the younger generation. With his type of humor, Christmas and its trappings of forced family togetherness, crass consumerism, and tacky decorations that would never be acceptable at any other time of year, just seems like an unavoidable target.
In addition to getting to see a show I was really looking forward too, I also got a mini reunion from the Cult Fiction convention that was held in Jacksonville earlier in the year. My friend Brandon Merkley came up from St. Augustine and Jon Houghton trekked in all the way from Tampa by train in an impressive show of dedication. The only one we were missing from our core Cult Fiction crew was John Miller but my wife Cindy was up for this one and joined us on Wednesday, November 30, as we converged downtown at the Florida Theater for an unforgettable evening of Christmas camp.
As we entered the auditorium, we noticed it was filled with the sounds of obscure Christmas songs faithfully being played on an old phonograph, which looked exactly like the kind we had in grade school, by one of Mr. Waters’ assistants who dutifully swapped out 45RPM records every three to four minutes. The stage was decorated like a 1950’s home with disturbingly two dimensional chandeliers, odd artwork, and of course a large Christmas tree. This back drop was strictly to set the tone and provide a little atmosphere for a Christmas party that one man had invited about 600 of his friends over for and we were about to find out it was really all about him!
John Waters took the stage in his crimson Christmas blazer to a rousing round of applause from the appreciative audience. He wasted little time delving into stories from his life growing up in Baltimore surrounded by one of the most eccentric group of people you could find this side of the Addams Family. Each tale he spun was peppered with just a little more knowledge than the average person would feel comfortable knowing but he shared this information in such a sincere manner that it made the fractured fables all the more hilarious. From watching a Christmas tree fall on his grandmother to stealing presents from the cars of people who were in church and tossing them out the window while speeding down the highway, this was one demented sleigh ride of loony laughs.
In between stories, Waters chatted about what he wanted for Christmas and what he would like to give his friends and humanity in general. He also managed to take a few well aimed jabs at the commercialism that some people become obsessed with and how it has essentially turned the holiday into something it was never intended to be. There were serious moments when he spoke of the close friend like Divine that he has lost over the years and most at far too young an age but he always kept his tongue firmly in his cheek and steered the conversation back to comedy with lightening precision.
At the conclusion of a seventy minute soliloquy of seasonal stories and a standing ovation, Waters had the house lights brought up and spent another thirty minutes or so answer audience questions. He fielded inquiries about everything from his favorite filmmakers to choices of locations for his movies and even a few comments from an audience member who seemed to have had a little too much Christmas cheer before the show. Like his performance, his answers were candid and good natured and sometimes more honest than the audience expected. By the time he bid us a good night, I doubt there was a person in the theater who wasn’t hoping they would be invited back to this party again next year.
When we were entering the theater that night, Jon and I spotted a small table selling copies of John Waters’ latest book, Role Models. There was a small sign behind the theater employee manning the table that indicated the price and that Waters would be signing after the show but that was all the information that was provided. I usually wait until after the performance to purchase things so I don’t have to worry about them getting lost or damaged during the show and this was my initial intention in this case. Shortly after we were seated, Brandon popped up to tell us that there were only thirty copies of the book available so we quickly headed back to the table and purchased 10% of their total inventory between the three of us. After the show, there were a number of very disgruntled patrons who discovered that not only were the books sold out but this was also the only way to meet Waters. Some even refused to vacate the theater, where the signing was being held and, true to their commitment to customer service, the Florida Theater called in both their security staff and police to help these patrons find their way out.
I have to mention at this point that I am joining the ranks of the rapidly rising number of people who are growing tired with the Florida Theater’s regimented policies and seeming disregard for their customers. The Florida Theater has always been stricter about limiting photography and interaction with guests than any other venue I have ever attended an event at. I realize this is sometimes mandated by the performer and this is certainly their prerogative but it appears that the staff of the Florida Theater takes this far more seriously than any of their competition and often this is to the point of taking a lot of the fun out of attending events there. I certainly don’t mind the drive to venues in other nearby cities to see the same shows in a more casual atmosphere if the opportunities present themselves.
Following the performance, Brandon and Jon and I lined up to have our books signed but Cindy was forced to wait in the lobby lest anyone not possessing a book be caught inside the theater. Waters reappeared promptly and was extremely gracious to the small subset of fans that awaited him. We were initially told by security that he would only sign the books and nothing else but Brandon, who was in front of me in line, had the good sense to test this restriction and found that Mr. Waters was only too happy to sign a couple of extras items for him. I quickly followed suite but poor Jon was so overwhelmed at meeting his idol that he forgot to get the memorabilia he brought autographed. After we had our photos taken and spoke briefly with the Pope of Trash, we moved off to the side. The line was dwindling down quickly and we noticed Mr. Waters’ assistant bringing in a small group of fans that had been waiting outside to meet him, including Cindy who had actually been waiting for me. As he approached, one of the security personnel actually stopped him and gave him some grief about his actions before letting this person, who was clearly with the show, bring a few extra die-hard fans in to meet John Waters.
Considering the fact that this was the first performance on a brand new tour, I thought A John Water’s Christmas was an excellent show. In addition to being consistently amusing and absolutely hilarious in spots, it genuinely did put me in a festive mood for the holidays. The mixture of naughty nostalgia, scathing commentary, and genuinely heartfelt, if slightly off kilter, sentiment made for a truly unique evening of entertainment. I sincerely hope that John Waters will consider making this an annual holiday tradition because I would be the first in line to come back for more, but maybe at a different venue next time.