“You can’t smoke in a movie theater John!” I whispered. “Oh sure you can,” he said with great conspiratorial glee. “Watch this…”
I first met John Waters as a crew member on "Female Trouble," his follow-up to his ground-breaking film, "Pink Flamingos." We hit it off well as young movie-crazy counter-culturists from the Baltimore suburb of Towson. Working together nearly every day until "Female Trouble" was released, we also became Friday night drinking buddies in the “art crowd” that prowled Baltimore’s Fells Point bar scene in the 1970s.
When "Female Trouble" went into distribution, John wasn’t so busy during the week. One night he called to see if I’d go to the movies with him. He loved going to the movies, but hated to go alone.
Most people he knew were tied down in a relationship, or didn’t have the money or desire to see two or three movies a week, like John did — or they weren’t the type John wanted to be seen with.
Plus, it was hard to find people who wanted to see what John liked. That would be films like "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS; Scream Blackula Scream" or Russ Meyer quadruple feature nights with titles like "Mud Honey," "Common Law Cabin" and "Mondo Topless."
I had the time and the money, was happy to see the B-movies John obsessed about, and was happy to get to know him better. John told me he had a usual date, Roger, Chuck Yeaton’s brother, who was single, straight and easy-going, but he didn’t really like the movies. He also looked old enough to be John’s father. As a hetero 23-year-old movie lover, I was a much better escort.
In the mid-1970s, Baltimore still had a handful of 1930s deco-style theaters scraping a living from dwindling audiences. They played B-movies that were slightly violent and sexually suggestive (though revealing nothing more than the occasional topless woman). Admission was a buck; the refreshment counter was sparsely stocked, and the popcorn machine was usually broken.
An usher in a stained maroon uniform took tickets and sold boxes of stale Goobers, Raisinettes, Hot Tamales, and cups of flat soda that tasted like dishwashing liquid. The aisles were so sticky with countless spilled sodas they nearly tore the soles off our shoes. Some of the velveteen seats were so encrusted with squashed candy they gleamed.
John poured over the Baltimore Sun’s movie listings every day, and called to let me know what movie he had picked. These were the days before VHS, DVD, cable, satellite, or Internet. To see a skin flick, or any weird, obsessive film you had to go to a movie theater. They generally only played a day or two, so catching them required a sharp eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies.
John subscribed to Daily Variety and the Daily Hollywood Reporter, so he knew what was what. If a Russ Meyer film like "Vixen" or "UP!" was in town, we had to see it. He dragged me all over the city, and I discovered theaters I never knew existed. Many were in Baltimore’s blue-collar northeast corridor, along Harford and Belair Roads. While the theaters have all closed, John still visits the local biker bars in that area to be with the people for whom these movies were made.
John usually picked me up and drove because he knew the obscure movie theater locations so well. He was always 10 minutes early and sat in his big old American car of the moment listening to a black radio station, puffing on a Kool and tapping the steering wheel with his nervous energy. In the laid back 1960s hippie culture, arriving early was not a common trait, and I knew if I was to stay on his good side, I would have to be early too. It was a good life lesson.
We only went out weeknights, and were usually the only people in the theater. One couple might be in the very back row doing who knows what. On our first date, I was shocked at his behavior. We walked down the aisle and plopped in the center seats about ten rows back from the screen. John ripped open a box of candy and had poured the last bit straight into his mouth before the previews ended.
“Dinner,” he grinned.
I had been taught to eat one Raisinette at a time to make them last for the whole movie, and marveled at John’s flouting of this rule. But that was only the beginning. Next, he put his long legs up on the seats in front. This was a shameful act. I had been taught to never put my feet up on the back of a theater seat.
I’m sure John had been, too, but he was always thrilled to break any parental rule. About five minutes into the film, since it had been about 15 minutes since his last cigarette, he pulled a Kool from the pack in his shirt pocket, and fished his lighter from another.
“You can’t smoke in a movie theater John!” I whispered.
“Oh sure you can,” he said with great conspiratorial glee. “ Watch this. Duck down to light it, and make it fast.”
He put his head down between his legs, and with a quick flick of his Bic, lit the cig in a brief unnoticeable flash.
“Now you have to shake it while you hold it so the smoke doesn’t go straight up, and they can’t tell where it’s coming from.”
I thought, like, we’re the only people in the theater, who the fuck do you think they’ll think is smoking? Then he said,
“Cup it when you take a drag, to hide the glow.” Which he did, “and blow the smoke down into your lap to spread it out.” I watched his well-practiced ritual a few times and sure enough, it worked — kind of.
“Go ahead, have one too, they won’t catch us,” he whispered.
Game for anything, I lit up, and there we were smoking cigarettes in a movie theater, wiggling our hands like palsy patients to disperse the smoke. John looked at me with a triumphant smile — he had once again corrupted his innocent little hetero date. Smoking in a movie theater with John Waters — what was next?
Sometimes we got caught smoking. An usher would appear at the end of the aisle and flash his light at us.
“Are you smoking?!”
John would shout “No!” hiding the still-lit butt under his seat.
“If I catch you, I’m gonna throw you out,” the usher shouted back. And get your feet off the seats!”
John would lazily move his feet and sneer back. After checking over his shoulder to see if the coast was clear, he’d take a fresh puff, and put his feet back up. Usually the usher never came back. Sometime later, when John had returned from his first trip to London, he told me how wonderful it was because smoking was allowed in the movie theaters. “The have ashtrays built into the seats,” he said with the great reverence usually reserved for Buckingham Palace.
Besides the white rough-neck titty-films, John also loved the blaxploitation movies that were hitting in the mid-1970s. Blaxploitation movies were action movies featuring violence and soft-core sex scenes that were a big hit for the urban audience, usually made and distributed by black companies. They played only in the big old downtown Baltimore shopping district theaters like the New, the Town and the Hippodrome.
These theaters once played mega hits like "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz" and "It’s a Wonderful Life." Now, the shopping district had fallen victim to suburban white flight, and the magnificent rococo theaters limped along with blaxploitation titles like "Monkey Hustle," "Hell Up in Harlem" and John’s all-time favorite, "Mandingo," which we saw three times, and actually broke through to the white suburban theaters.
The blaxploitation theaters were pretty scary. We were always the only white people in the audience, which was made up of a combination of 1970s pimped out "Shaft" wannabes and ghetto punks in big afros with afro “pick” combs stuck in them. Even as a pre-teen, John idolized black culture, and he fearlessly spent as much time as he could at black music clubs, record stores, clothing stores, etc.
Baltimore’s edgy black AM radio stations like WSID with rule-bending unashamedly honest black DJs like Fat Daddy drew John out of his comfortable white suburban cocoon, like millions of emerging teen baby boomers nationwide.
They offered a 24×7 siren song of a sexy, dangerous lifestyle that satisfied the white kids’ itch to escape their parents' 1950s conformity.
Robert Maier's memoir, "Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies," was just published and is available from Amazon and other booksellers world-wide.