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A Present From John Waters

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page WE05

DECEMBER IS PRIME time for Christmas albums and Christmas shows, and this year, Baltimore's Auteur of the Odd, filmmaker John Waters, is doing double duty. He's just released his first Christmas compilation, the aptly titled "A John Waters Christmas," and on Dec. 21, he'll be at the 9:30 club (815 V St. NW.; 202-393-0930), talking up the season as only John Waters can.

This shouldn't be a total surprise. In December 1985, Waters penned "Why I Love Christmas" for the National Lampoon; the hilarious essay is reprinted in his "Crackpot" collection. Besides caustic observations (portraying Santa Claus as a boon to the unemployed because "Where else can drunks and fat people get temporary work?") and pithy suggestions ("Forget 'White Christmas,' 'It's a Wonderful Life' and all the other hackneyed trash. Go for the classics: 'Silent Night, Bloody Night,' 'Black Christmas' or the best seasonal film of all time 'Christmas Evil' -- 'He'll sleigh you'), Waters dubs Akim and Teddy Vann's "Santa Claus Is a Black Man" his favorite Christmas carol. But the 1973 single, an urban variation on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," had proved impossible to track down.

"I wanted to get ones people hadn't heard of," says filmmaker John Waters of the songs on his quirky Christmas compilation CD. (Todd Hedgpeth)

"I never had the record," Waters says. "Even Larry Benicewicz, who's worked on all my soundtracks and has the most incredible record collection, didn't have it, so I knew this was a really obscure song." Waters finally tracked down a copy via eBay, and it's the closing track on a wonderfully quirky/kinky collection that includes Roger Christian's pathos-leaden reading of "Little Mary Christmas" (an orphaned girl is passed up for adoption year after year until Santa finally brings her a new set of parents), Rudolph and the Gang's "Here Comes Fatty Claus" (a complaint from Santa's overworked and overloaded workers) and Little Cindy's heartbreaking "Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child's Prayer)."

"I wanted to get ones people hadn't heard of," says Waters, who did include some more familiar seasonal classics like Tiny Tim's ultra-sincere "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Alvin and the Chipmunks' "Sleigh Ride." "Mangy little moppets . . . nasal voices . . . speeded-up voices: any vocal tricks, I'm big on," says Waters, who also "imagined doing the videos for each one of them."

According to Waters, the centerpiece of the collection is Fat Daddy's '60s romp, "Fat Daddy (Is Santa Claus)," a jive-talking underground classic and much sought-after collector's item.

"I've been trying to get Fat Daddy's song back in print for years," Waters explains. "In Baltimore, Fat Daddy was the biggest disc jockey on WSID and hosted [the monthly] 'Negro Day' on 'The Buddy Deane Show' " -- the character that "Hairspray's" Motormouth Maybelle is based on, as "The Corny Collins Show" was based on Deane's popular, but segregated, television show in the late '50s and early '60s. "Fat Daddy's real name was Paul Johnson, and he wore a long cloak and an Imperial margarine crown and talked just like the song."

Johnson, who died in Los Angeles in 1978 at age 40, crowned himself "the 300-pound King of Soul" and was lionized for his rhythmic incantations and nonstop, rapid-fire soul jive; his radio shows were basically an excuse for him to hold court and philosophize about life. "He saved my life in high school, just listening to him every day on WSID," Waters says. "Every person in Baltimore who is of a certain age, white or black, remembers 'Fat Daddy from the North Pole, your Santa Claus with soul,' but the record's been out of print for ages."

Waters's Christmas album -- "something I've wanted to do for a long time" -- is from New Line Records, a subsidiary of New Line Cinema. The label also released the soundtrack to Waters's most recent film, "A Dirty Shame," and will follow with a Valentine's Day collection in February. The album cover, incidentally, is from an old Waters Christmas card. "The fire has been enhanced to make it more dramatic," he says. "I guess I was too subtle." On this particular day, Waters was busy addressing the 1,700 cards he sends out each year (last year's bizarre entry is included in the CD).

As for the Christmas show, Waters did the first one five years ago at San Francisco's Castro Theater, a seasonal variation on the monologue and Q&A show he does about 20 times a year at rock and comedy clubs, where he notes "an alarming new trend in personal appearances: the 'meet and greet,' where people actually pay more money to spend quality time with you [in this case, $75 instead of $25]. At first I was alarmed by it because it felt like a lap dance," Waters says. He's apparently less alarmed since someone recently paid $12,000 to have lunch with him as part of a Museum of Modern Art fundraising auction, proudly noting, "I was the cheapest thing they auctioned that night!"

Having recently been featured as a bad guy in "Seed of Chucky," Waters now awaits the film version of "Hairspray," his 1988 film-turned-Tony-winning-Broadway-musical. Work is progressing on converting 1990's "Cry-Baby" into a Broadway show, a fate that will not likely attach to "Pink Flamingos" or "Female Trouble," the only Waters film with a Christmas scene in which a 300-pound transvestite juvenile delinquent -- Divine, of course -- throws her mother under a Christmas tree when she doesn't get cha-cha heels for Christmas.

"I was ambitious and I always thought anything's possible," Waters says of his cult films' odd transformations. "If anybody had ever asked 'Of all your movies, which could be a Broadway hit?,' I would have picked 'Hairspray.' But certainly I didn't ever imagine that."


The season's not all about Christmas, of course, which leads to "A Chanukah Feast." That's the title of the latest "Holiday Feast" compilation from Hungry for Music, the local grass-roots volunteer-driven organization that looks to bring positive musical and creative experiences into the lives of underprivileged children. After eight Christmas-focused compilations, Hungry for Music director Jeff Campbell found himself being teased by Jewish friends about the absence of Hanukah songs on those CDs, particularly, he notes, "despite a wealth of Jewish musicians in the D.C. area."

Enlisting help from photographer Lloyd Wolf and musician-producer Seth Kibel, Campbell has pulled together a 20-track compilation featuring klezmer, wry protest (Chuck Brodsky's "On Christmas I Got Nothing"), vintage rock (Honky Tonk Confidential's "Honky Tonk Hanukah") and even hip-hop ("If You're a Macabee," by MC Macabee, aka Mark Novak). And, yes, there are some traditional songs such as "O Khanuke, O Khanuke" and "Dreydl."

Like other Hungry for Music projects, "A Chanukah Feast" features a diverse mix of local and national talent. For instance the Hip Hop Hoodios ("Ocho Kandelikas") are from Los Angeles, while Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Mallkine (the double-entendre laden "Hebrew Blues") hail from New York. The biggest name here is George Winston, represented by "Rabbe Elimelech," a harmonic piece learned from his mentor, Sam Hinton. It's traditional, though not specifically a holiday tune, but, notes Campbell, "I'm not going to say no to George Winston!"

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