He is known by many names, the Pope of Trash, the Duke of Hurl, the Mikado of Smut, but last Saturday night at the Roxie, John Waters was arguably just what host Chris Statton introduced him as: “The classiest guy I know.”
This was less a reflection on the company normally kept by Mr. Statton—who with wife Kate assumed management of the Mission District’s often embattled yet unflagging independent movie house earlier this year—than a testament to the graciousness and style with which the cult filmmaker offered his support to the Roxie’s holiday fundraiser, a party whose centerpiece was Waters’ own dishy, gleefully ribald one-man show.
Before the esteemed creator of Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, and many other gems took the stage, however, the evening afforded some mingling. And if the price of a ticket ($250 and up) was steep, the crowd was reassuringly mixed. You could spot new and longtime Roxie supporters, Mission denizens, arts patrons, outsider filmmakers (the Kuchar brothers among them), and miscellaneous filth-philiacs.
Max Finneran’s holiday movie mash-up graced the screen at the front of the house, juxtaposing the likes of cartoon chipmunks and noir-inflected yuletide horror as classes mixed in the narrow aisles and rows and two makeshift bars set to either side of the stage drew jovial queues.
The stage itself was decked in cheery seasonal trim, and topped by a small animatronic Santa who leered and thrust in vaguely lewd mechanical exuberance. Intrepid Roxie staff and volunteers (visible by their elf costumes) passed through the crowd, meanwhile, offering bites from sponsoring Mission eateries or else hawking raffle tickets toward a Hawaiian getaway.
A glorious, seamy 101-year history
It was an apt time to reflect, at least a little, on the cinema’s glorious, erratic and slightly seamy past. Originally opened in 1909, this is a theater that has had its share of ups and downs—and that’s just since 1976, when Robert Evans, Dick Gaikowski, Peter Moore and Tom Mayer converted it from a porn theater into an art house. The Roxie’s ability to navigate the advent of home video and multiplexes with its fiercely independent programming (under then owner Bill Banning) is rightly the stuff of legend at this point, but it hasn’t been what you’d call easy. It wasn’t long ago that the New School swooped in to save the beloved cinema from financial implosion, only to see the Roxie cast adrift again as that institution itself went under. Then Alan Holt, with father Rodney Holt, took over, beginning a heroic process of dealing with its considerable debt and setting the Roxie on a course toward nonprofit status (which it now enjoys).
In January of this year, the Roxie’s fortunes rose further under its latest executive directors, the married team of Chris and Kate Statton, whose love for the theater’s history combines with a savvy and energetic vision for its future. This much was clear from the remarks the couple made when, after about an hour, they got up on stage to formally welcome the crowd. With them were the Roxie’s Film Coordinator Rick Norris, Operations Director Rachel Hart and its Director of Reportory Programming, Elliot Lavine.
Drawing inspiration from its century-old roots, for instance, the Roxie plans to bring back live performances as curtain raisers before select films, announced Kate Sutton (who has a strong theatrical background by birth as daughter of Bean and Alan Finneran, founders of legendary San Francisco experimental theater company Soon 3).
Norris, longtime Roxie stalwart, averred that the “new Roxie” will be every bit as bold as the old one. “Do not avert your gaze,” he urged the crowd. Norris went on to relate a bit of the theater’s history, with a grateful nod to former owner Banning, who still runs Roxie Releasing, the theater’s long successful distribution arm.
Waters: 'Christmas is...for criminals'
Then, at precisely three complimentary Hendricks Gin martinis into the evening by my watch, John Waters took the stage. His zeal was contagious. “I love Christmas so fucking much I could shit,” he declared.
“Christmas is really good for criminals,” he observed a moment later, “because they know when they’re breaking into your house and your car: there are presents there!”
Other declarations, observations and questions followed—both from the audience and, at least as often, Waters himself (“What happened to the LaVey family?”). And fashion tips: “If you notice the belt buckle on an outfit first, it’s a terrible outfit.”
Waters also urged people to support the Roxie by buying tickets to films even if they weren’t going inside. “Just hand them out to passersby,” he counseled.
Waters, who joined the Roxie board this year, adds quite the louche feather to its cap, but the match makes perfect sense. Finding and exhibiting great narrative and documentary films outside the mainstream—as well as hosting an impressive variety of small and burgeoning film festivals—have been Roxie specialties. The filmmaker, writer and actor, who these days spends part of his year as a San Francisco resident and avid Muni rider, reiterated Saturday how appreciative he is of local cinemas like the Roxie and of San Francisco in general, where his films first caught on outside of hometown Baltimore. “Way, way before New York,” he stressed.
“That’s one of the main reasons I come back,” he enthused, “the amazing movie theaters,” singling out the Roxie in particular, before going on to muse some more.
“If I had a movie theater, I think I’d have gay and straight water fountains, just to piss people off.”
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