When Carol Wernig and her family moved to Francke Avenue in 1962, the Milsteads lived across the street. Carol's father worked with Frances Milstead at Black & Decker, and Carol attended Towson Senior High School with the Milsteads' son, Glenn, so she got to know the family pretty well. Carol also met a boy in the neighborhood named John who went to Calvert Hall and lived around the corner on Morris Avenue.
At the time, all three teens were, as Carol recalls, "a little bizarre." She had green hair, when Jackie Kennedy bobs were all the rage; Glenn liked to dress up in women's clothes; and John, a film buff, wanted to make movies with the 8mm Brownie camera his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday.
When Carol introduced Glenn Milstead to John Waters in 1963, cinema history was made—in Lutherville of all places. Waters would give Glenn the name "Divine," go on to shoot 16 films in Baltimore (nine of them featuring Divine), and put the region on the map as a legitimate site for film and TV production.
"I used to see Divine waiting for the bus when my father took me to school," Waters says. "He tried to dress preppy-ish and tried to fit in, but you could see that would be completely impossible for him. I always joked that he was the girl next door, but he actually lived about six houses away."
Waters figures he most likely met Divine while talking to Carol on her front lawn, and she doesn't recall the exact circumstances, either. "But I do remember being surprised by him," says Waters. "He was feminine, but he wasn't Nellie. He was very, very unlike what he was in the movies." (That's probably a good thing, considering some of Divine's exploits in Waters's films—including, most famously, eating dog excrement in Pink Flamingos.)
Waters says he and Divine "hung out, but not every day." After graduating high school and getting kicked out of NYU (they told him he needed "extensive psychiatric treatment"), Waters got an apartment on 25th Street and worked at the Doubleday bookshop—his only "real" job in Baltimore—on York Road. Divine had a house on Druid Hill Lake Drive, where he threw lavish parties that sometimes lasted for days. "He was always having costume parties so he could dress in drag," says Carol.
Divine debuted in Waters' second movie, Roman Candles, a bizarre mix of sex, drugs, and religious imagery that was shot mostly at Waters's parents' house. It premiered at Emmanuel Church in Mount Vernon and Waters scheduled the screenings to coincide with the Flower Mart, where his outlandlishly dressed cast passed out flyers touting the movie as "a trash epic." The shows sold out, and even though Divine only had a supporting role, Waters says, "You could see that the audiences really liked him."
So he had Divine play Jackie Kennedy in Eat Your Makeup, his first 16mm movie. "That was, in my mind, when he became the real star of my early movies," says Waters. Eat Your Makeup included a reenact-ment of the Kennedy assassination filmed on the street in front of Waters's parents' house. On another shoot, one of Waters's actors was spotted hitchhiking nude and subsequently arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit indecent exposure. "Our parents suffered through those years," says Waters. "They didn't know what was going on, they didn't understand it, and they were frightened. They should have been. . . . Divine's father used to say, 'What are you thinkin' about?' which became something we always joked about. But it's a fair question."
When asked for photos of himself and Divine from that early period, Waters says none exist: "Nobody in our group carried around a camera at that time, and our parents didn't take any pictures because they weren't exactly proud of what we were doing. In fact, nobody was saying we were good. Ever. For ten years."
But Waters and his stable of home-grown stars—which included Divine, Fells Point thrift shop owner Edith Massey, Parkville-raised hair-dresser David Lochary, and another friend from the Lutherville area, Mary Vivian Pearce—certainly got noticed with Pink Flamingos. (Childhood friend Carol never appeared in any of Waters's films—she currently lives in Baltimore County and runs a drug treatment facility.) The film was distributed by New Line, lambasted by the mainstream press, and embraced by audiences at midnight screenings. The outrageous plot, as summarized at Amazon.com, goes like this: "Divine lives in a caravan with her mad hippie son Crackers and her 250-pound mother Mama Edie, trying to rest quietly on their laurels as 'the filthiest people alive.' But competition is brewing in the form of Connie and Raymond Marble, who sell heroin to school children and kidnap and impregnate female hitchhikers, selling the babies to lesbian couples. Finally, they challenge Divine directly, and battle commences."
Variety called the film "monstrous," and The New York Times panned it, twice. But the alternative press buzzed: the Village Voice claimed it was "ten times more interesting than Last Tango in Paris" (which was nominated for two Oscars in 1974), writer Fran Lebowitz said it was "one of the sickest movies ever made. And one of the funniest," Andy Warhol recommended it to Federico Fellini in Interview magazine, and William S. Burroughs dubbed Waters "the Pope of trash." In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art included Pink Flamingos in its Bicentennial Salute to American Film Comedy.
Similarly uncompromising films such as Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester further established Waters and Divine as underground stars on the brink of mainstream success. In fact, they appeared on the David Letterman show while promoting Polyester and Waters's book Shock Value in 1981. Watching that clip, which is archived at YouTube, one senses Waters's budding significance on the American cultural landscape. He and his accomplice come off as peculiar, exotic, eccentric, worldly, and oddly refined in comparison to the host's Midwestern sensibility. Letterman is dressed in a powder blue sweater and white button-down shirt and his hair is swept to one side, while Divine sports a boldly striped, sleeveless mini-dress and hair that looks like it's just done battle with a leaf blower—and lost. Waters is stylishly dressed in a suit and tie.
At one point, Letterman admits to being "a little flustered" and feeling "like Wally Cleaver" in their company. He asks, somewhat sheepishly, if Waters's previous films were "generally X-rated" and Waters responds, "There was no rating that could really apply to our films."
It is the moment when Waters's unique vision—what Academy Award-nominated director/Waters fan Gus Van Sant has called "the Baltimore aesthetic"—comes into direct contact, and contrast, with mainstream America. And Baltimore, on its own terms, comes out on top, having produced this unlikely duo, this pair of utterly strange, but ultimately well-spoken and engaging, personalities and their films that exist beyond even the scope of the ratings system.
A string of higher profile films followed for Waters: including Hairspray (which was to be Divine's most critically lauded performance), Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and A Dirty Shame—starring the likes of Ricki Lake, Johnny Depp, Kathleen Turner, and Johnny Knoxville—crossover success to Broadway, and guest appearances on hit TV shows The Simpsons and My Name Is Earl. (Divine died in his sleep in 1988, soon after landing a role on Married... With Children.)
As Waters evolved into an American icon, he helped legitimize the local film/TV industry, which has experienced enormous growth over the past decades. In 2006, the industry generated $158 million in economic impact for the region and lured stars like Nicole Kidman and Bruce Willis to the area. "It all began with John and his vision of Baltimore," says Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office.
"We have a national reputation because of John," adds Hannah Byron, head of Baltimore City's Division of Film, Video, and Television. "He's brought in talent and helped mold and create a lot of our crew base. He's also been our biggest cheerleader."
When asked how making films in Baltimore has changed for him, Waters chuckles: "Now, I don't have to run from the police."
And as Waters evolved into an American icon, two other Baltimoreans, Barry Levinson and David Simon, also shared their visions of the city with the world. Levinson soft-focused on the late-1950's/early 1960's, while Simon took a hard look at the present. Levinson's Baltimore-made films (especially Diner and Tin Men) are considered among his finest work, and Simon's police dramas Homicideand The Wire (co-produced with Ed Burns) have been widely hailed as gritty, visionary television shows. A number of media outlets have even claimed that The Wire is the best show to ever air on TV.
On the indie scene, filmmaker Matthew Porterfield made a splash last year with Hamilton, a film The New Yorker called "a minor miracle." Porterfield lingers among his working class subjects and offers a poetic, meditative, and sensuous alternative to Waters's edgy kitsch, Levinson's wistful nostalgia, and Simon's gritty realism.
As the industry continues to evolve, Byron says that accommodating the likes of Waters and Simon and nurturing new talent like Porterfield is increasingly important. Competition for feature films and TV shows has become fierce. These days, every state has a film commission trying to lure productions its way, and foreign countries are in the picture, too. The film version of Hairspray the musical (which isn't directed by Waters) is being made in Toronto, because it's cheaper to make it there than it is to shoot on location in Baltimore.
As a result, Byron says, "We want to work hard [for established directors] and also help students and indie filmmakers to develop. Because you never know who might be the next John Waters."