The American city Baltimore has never exactly been a topper of gay tourism. The city is, however, the birthplace and longtime residence of cult director and author John Waters (born 1946). The last few years friends and longtime Baltimoreans Michal Makarovich and Alex Fox heard the enthusiasm of lots of city residents and visitors who were curious about John Water’s 1972 cult film “Pink Flamingos.”
Specifically, fans wanted to visit the exact location of the (in)famous final scene where Divine, a 300-pound transvestite playing “The Filthiest Person Alive,” eats dog shit off a Baltimore sidewalk. From these humble beginnings sprung an idea: why not create a piece of public art to mark the spot? Besides providing a way for the curious to find the location (and possibly take selfies), it could serve a greater purpose of honoring a performer, director, and film that have all become an essential part of Baltimore’s cultural history.
Tyson Street, the location of the proposed monument, is located in the “Read Street” area of Baltimore. This neighborhood has an intriguing history and stood out as one of Baltimore’s most iconoclastic areas during the 1960s and 1970s. It was known as Baltimore’s Beat Street, and was home to coffeeshops and stores that catered to a beatnik and hippie crowd.
And it was just a short stroll down the block to Baltimore’s best known and oldest gay bar, Leon’s. The Read Street neighborhood declined somewhat in the ensuing decades. The last ten years have seen the beginnings of a renaissance for the neighborhood. Students and young professionals began to move back in. The Divine Monument is intended to honor the quirky, pioneering spirit of the neighborhood.
John Waters made “Pink Flamingos” on what was, even for the time, a shoestring budget of around 10,000 dollars. The film was shot mostly on weekends in and around Baltimore in 1972. No synopsis can really do justice to “Pink Flamingos,” but the film follows the exploits of the legendary drag queen Divine (played by John Waters’ high school friend Harris Glenn Milstead; 1945-1988) who lives in a pink trailer with her egg-loving, mentally-challenged mother Edie, chicken-fetishist son Crackers, and “traveling companion,” Cotton.
The conflict that drives the increasingly unhinged plot is the rivalry between Divine and a couple named Connie and Raymond Marble over who deserves the title of “the filthiest person alive,” which Divine cinches in the film’s infamous final scene.
The film premiered in 1972 at the third annual Maryland Film Festival. From there it slowly began to take on a life of its own as an object of cult cinema. The film was met with outrage by critics and censors alike. “Variety” famously panned it as, “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made,” and it was banned in Switzerland, some Canadian provinces, Australia, and many US cities. Waters was nonplused by all the outrage and welcomed the notoriety. He took the negative reviews as a compliment, suggesting that certainly “Pink Flamingos” was vile, but “joyously vile.”
“You just get it or you don’t,” he suggested, “there’s not much in the middle.” And indeed, for every outraged critic there were plenty of fans. Fran Lebowitz reviewed it as “one of the sickest movies ever made and one of the funniest,” and William Burroughs dubbed Waters “The Pope of Trash.”
Over forty years later, the film is as famous - or infamous - as ever and has become an iconic part of Baltimore history. And nowhere more so than in the film’s legendary ending. In order to cement her title as “the filthiest person in the world,” Divine follows a dog down a Baltimore City Street and into an alley. She watches hungrily as it defecates and takes some of the shit into her hand and eats it, proving herself “not only the filthiest person in the world, but also the world’s filthiest actress.”
“There was never much discussion,” John Waters would later recall. Divine, “just said he’d do it, and that would be that. It didn’t seem like an issue. It was late and we were losing light. [...] We just pulled over by the side of the road in Baltimore.” That road was Read Street, where the scene follows the dog around the corner into a small Baltimore City alley called Tyson Street. It was there movie history was made, and the right spot to commemorate a film, a groundbreaking director, and an extravagant drag queen who put Baltimore definitely on the (queer) map...