John Waters’s home in Baltimore is a shell of its former chockablock self. “There are nails in the wall, dirt around where everything usually is. My house looks like it’s been robbed!” the filmmaker says by phone, speaking early this summer when two museums had left him ransacked. A portion of his idiosyncratic art collection is off for a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where a recent major donation has earned Waters, by special request, four bathrooms named in his honor. Meanwhile, his movie-making trove has gone west—like all things in show biz—for a monumental new retrospective at LA’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The prop electric chair from 1974’s Female Trouble is especially missed. “It was right in the hall when you came in, so there were books planted there,” he says. “It’s something that on Christmas we decorate like the tree.” A religious totem as only he could do.
“John Waters: Pope of Trash,” an exhibition that showcases some 400 items alongside accompanying screenings, borrows William S. Burroughs’ epithet for the pencil-mustached director. Embedded in the nickname is a spirit of communion: all the misfits and outsiders that Waters has welcomed into his congregation. “Divine’s birth certificate and Dorothy’s shoes in the same building is something I’d never imagined,” Waters says, referring to his late friend and drag icon’s stuff now mingling with high-cinema touchstones. “To put some of the rudest props from my movies in a museum where the Oscars are also discussed seriously—I have great pride in that,” he beams. “No irony at all. Just great pride.”
The show, organized by exhibitions curator Jenny He and associate curator Dara Jaffe, is four years in the making. By chance, the two are both graduates of the film program at Wesleyan University, where Waters began building an archive in 1986, two years before Hairspray launched his mainstream career. There, a stash of childhood writings, scripts, costumes, and ephemera has accumulated, waiting to be mined for such an all-out occasion. Waters, below, unspools the stories behind some choice items on view—like Polyester’s Odorama cards, which owe a debt to Larry Flynt, and a gimmicky “Pink Phlegm-ingo” vomit bag. More palatable audience reactions from Pink Flamingos, stitched together for the movie’s spoof trailer, play in the gallery’s recreated set piece: a trailer within a derelict trailer.
The two curators each have a long-standing love of Waters’s work. Jaffe’s middle school slumber parties had Cry-Baby on repeat; He remembers seeing Serial Mom in the theater—never mind the R rating—and had a Cecil B. Demented poster on her college dorm wall. Their off-piste investigative methods suited a renegade subject. In digging into Polyester’s lore, they kept hearing about a yard sale held after filming wrapped at the fictional Fishpaw residence, dispersing props into the surrounding Baltimore neighborhood. “We’re in this cul-de-sac and we’re looking at each other, like, ‘Which doorbell should we ring first?’” He recalls. They struck gold at the first house, discovering a longtime local, Scott Rutherford, who lived there with his parents in 1980. “He said, ‘Yeah, I was one of the extras. I took photos of the filming. I can show them to you,’” recounts He. Rutherford’s sister even held onto a bar cart that Divine uses in the opening scene—now on view in the exhibition, alongside one of his photos blown up to mural size. “You don’t always go knocking on people’s doors and find a checklist work, so I have to say, that’s one of the highlights of our research phase,” He says. Waters’s own boxes of magpie ephemera yielded similar gems. “He keeps his own scrapbooks full of serial killers and other crimes of interest, almost exactly like Kathleen Turner does in [Serial Mom],” says Jaffe. A few of his real-life clippings are displayed alongside the movie’s prop scrapbook.
Waters, who finally received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week, is a generous steward of his legacy. During screenings of early short films, he’d spout off live commentary for the curators. “He’d tell us very personal stories like, ‘That was my mom’s wedding dress—she was furious that we used it as a costume!’” He recalls. His correspondence etiquette is unparalleled, adds Jaffe: “We are lucky enough to be on his Christmas card list, which is quite an honor.” Even Waters comes to “Pope of Trash” with fresh eyes, having not seen much of the material in decades. “I forget, is the Talking Virgin Mother from Pecker in the show?” he says during the summer phone call. A voice pipes in, confirming that Mary isn’t on the checklist. “She’s still up in my attic, mad she didn’t get picked,” Waters says with a laugh. “She’s yelling Hail Satan now, instead of Hail Mary!”