John Waters brings pencil mustache, Christmas cheer to the Birchmere


Director John Waters speaks onstage during the 2010 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
December 7, 2012

Getting into the holiday spirit is a highly personal ritual. Some people cue up Bing Crosby on the record player, while others string white lights around their Douglas-fir. You might put together an elaborate gingerbread house before your annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Or you may crave something a little less wholesome. And you wouldn’t be alone.

That’s one way to explain the persistent popularity of “A John Waters Christmas,” the one-man show that the filmmaker, author and “Pope of Trash” has been peddling each December for the past decade. On Monday, Waters returns to the Birchmere with his pencil-thin mustache and bawdy banter for another look at a holiday he loves so much that he’s willing to travel to 16 cities just to spread the cheer.

“Every Christmas, I’m working,” he said on the phone from Baltimore, his home town and place of residence. “It’s like being a drag queen at Halloween.”

Waters’s solo show is a rapid-fire monologue of stories tangentially related to yuletide traditions. He changes bits each year — “every day I read six newspapers,” he said. “There’s always new stuff” — but some stories have endured. There’s the one about how the Christmas tree fell on his grandmother. Or his optimistic take on Christmastime shoplifting. And don’t get him started on roadside nativity scenes populated with real people.

“They are the most frightening Diane Arbus visions I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “I always think: What family would give their child to be Baby Jesus when there’s straw and camels and mules? I know those people are perverts. It takes a pervert to know one, and I’m telling you, something’s not right.”

These are the types of topics that astound the director of “Mondo Trasho,” “Hairspray” and the infamously scatological “Pink Flamingos,” about which Roger Ebert wrote, “there is a temptation to praise the film, however grudgingly, just to show you have a strong enough stomach to take it. It is a temptation I can resist.” Waters’s cinematic protagonists have been serial killers and fetishists, transvestites and porn aficionados. It might seem incongruous that this lover of all things fringe should be enamored of something so mainstream as Christmas. And yet here he is, discussing his adoration of joyful hymns by everyone from Jackie Wilson to the Chipmunks and wishing he had more holiday favorites to choose from.

“Why aren’t there gangsta rap Christmas albums?” he wondered. “Why do none of the Lils have a Christmas song? I want a gangsta ‘Holy Town of Bethlehem.’ ”

Waters’s rise to fame seems wrapped up in his early tendency to shock filmgoers. “Pink Flamingos” hit theaters 40 years ago, and its scenes are still astonishing, even as more and more films emulate Waters’ gag-inducing gags. Yet between irreverent proclamations, the director insists that surprise is not the ultimate goal.

“Hollywood tries to be shocking all the time now, and I think they kind of do it mostly badly because they’re trying too hard,” Waters said. “Shocking’s easy. I never just try to be shocking. I know that sounds ridiculous. But ‘Pink Flamingos’ was made as a political action against the tyranny of good taste.”

If there’s an underlying point to the outlandish stories in “A John Waters Christmas,” it’s that laughing is a good way to keep from crying.

“Christmas is an emotional time,” he said. “People really go crazy at Christmas. So I try to address that. I try to address every bad thing that can go wrong at Christmas and how you should deal with it.”

One such coping mechanism involves confronting verbally abusive family members. Waters prescribes whistles for everyone in the house so that when someone says something hurtful, he or she gets challenged by a room full of referees.

Aside from performing “A John Waters Christmas,” he has a few other holiday traditions. Along with throwing a massive annual shindig, he sends out Christmas cards every year, and they are, not surprisingly, a bit inappropriate. In the past, images of the yuletide dispatches have been leaked to blogs and the press, which is not surprising given that Waters claims to send out about 2,000. But the general public is not supposed to know what audacious artwork decorates this year’s missive.

“They’re my private thing I do every year,” he said. “And if you sell it on eBay, I’ll find out it’s you and have you killed.”

That’s the Christmas spirit.

A John Waters Christmas

7:30 p.m. Monday. The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-549-7500. www.birchmere.com. $49.50.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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