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Art, Faith & Spirit: William Bray pt. 1 – The Untold Story of How William Bray Saved John Waters’ Ass

Sometimes you need to stretch out, and this is what AU is doing for our ongoing conversations with long-time Athen’s resident, William Bray, 80, a 5th Generation Georgian and founder of the Georgia Fine Arts Academy in 1980, to “encourage and stimulate the development of the arts and humanities in Georgia.” Since then more than 1,000 students have participated in GFAA programs. Bray is the producer of the semi-annual Café Apollinaire at Cine Athens, a free, live event featuring art, film, music and theatre which takes its name from the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a champion of the arts and a leader of the avant-garde in Paris before and during World War I, who coined the phrase “surrealism.” Apollinaire encouraged and promoted artists like Picasso, Dali, Max Ernst, Modigliani, Marcel Duchamp and others, as has Bray, who remains tireless in his encouragement to artists, John Waters being one of them. He’s the author of Defining Art: Messages from GodYour Spiritual Lineage: Researching the Genealogy of Your Soul, and The Emasculation of Men in America.

Bray has a Master of Education degree from Johns Hopkins University, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale, and a Bachelor of Arts in history and philosophy from the University of Georgia. At Yale Bray led seminars in Religion in Contemporary Culture, working under Chaplain William Sloane Coffin. After studying psychology at Oxford University under Ian Ramsey, for whom Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Religion and Science is named, Bray served as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Baltimore and at Endicott College, and as an instructor in psychology and the humanities at Georgia Highlands College.

In this first installment Bray talks about his relationship with John Waters at a critical time in his development as a filmmaker in Baltimore. In fact, there may have never been a John Waters if it weren’t for William Bray. – Mark Katzman

I came back to Baltimore in 1966 and was made Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Baltimore. Basically, I was teaching several different psychology courses. One was the Introduction to Psychology course. Sometimes I was teaching five courses at the same time. As a minister I was affecting a few people with sermons but now I was affecting one-hundred and fifty students a day, teaching thirty students in five different psychology classes. I realized that the University of Baltimore was young and growing. They did not have a single course where an art student could be creative.

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John Waters

I had a long-standing interest in film and had studied film at Cambridge, so I proposed to the Dean that I establish – since there were no creative courses – some film courses. And I remember he said, “If you can get 8 students you can do it.” So I recruited eight students from my psychology classes. (laughs)

At some point I realized that my students were also making experimental films just to make a grade, so I created the Baltimore Experimental Film Society as a non-profit organization. We had midnight showings on Friday and Saturday nights at the facility called the Experimental Theatre Club in Baltimore. I’d set up a motion picture projector and we would start at midnight showing our experimental films. This became a chance for my students to be making a movie, not just doing it for a grade. They were making it to show a live audience, make a little money and get recognition.

One day after class one of my students came up and said his girlfriend was pregnant and they were going to get an abortion. And I said, “Don’t get an abortion,” because in that point in history there were illegal abortions and girls were dying. I said, “Don’t do that. I’ve heard about this minister at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Fred Hanna, and that he works with runaways. Fred Hanna was pictured several times in Divine Trash, the documentary about John Waters made by my film student Steve Yeager that won the prize at Sundance as the best documentary in 1988.

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Anyway, this his was the 60s, people were running away. I later discovered the reasons the kids were running away was because they and their parents had such vehement disagreements about the Vietnam War. I said, “Let me go down and talk to Fred Hanna and make an appointment for you and your girlfriend.” He was totally aware of the danger of getting illegal abortions. I went down to meet Fred, one of the best friends of my life, and he gave me a tour of the church. They had a Great Hall which is a half floor up on one side, and it looked like an English chapel. I thought this would be a great place to show a movie. It was a block around the corner from Mt. Vernon place, which was the center of Baltimore and had the first monument to George Washington and parks going in four directions. What a great place to show a movie! There was a Spring festival called the Flower Mart where ladies from the suburbs came in and sold their flowers. I thought, gosh, we could have a film showing here in the Spring and have a natural audience. People were looking for something to do so we just said come up and see our movies.

One morning I opened The Baltimore Sun and here was an article on “Baltimore film maker John Waters,” a student at NYU at the time, who had made a film called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.

[Hag in a Black Leather Jacket]…is barely a real movie that was very much influenced by Theater Of The Absurd. It was filmed on 8mm black-and-white and the sound was on tape, like a reel-to-reel tape recorder. There as no lip-sync. I didn’t even know there was editing! I guess I put a few cuts in it? I had no idea what I was doing. Absolutely none. It was only shown once in a beatnik coffee house. – John Waters.

I said to Fred, “This is fantastic, I would like to show a film named Hag in a Black Leather Jacket at the Flower Mart at Emmanuel.” I didn’t know who John Waters was, so I just said, “I only know the title, that’s what got me—Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, and I’d like to show in the church during the spring arts festival in downtown Baltimore.” I said to Fred, “Who is this kid?” He said, “He’s the son of Dr. Waters out at Lutherville.” Lutherville is sort of a posh suburb in Baltimore. So I said, “Great, I’ll contact John and see if he would be willing to show his film on the day of the Flower Mart.” I looked up Dr. Waters in the phone book and called him and said, “Is your son John home?” and he said, “Well, in fact he is. I’ll get him.”

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John Waters, Divine and Friends

John came on the phone. It turns out that he had been kicked out of NYU (for smoking pot on the grounds). I said, “John, I would like to come out and talk to you.” I went out to make a point, and I said I have this perfect set up to show a movie the day of the Flower Mart, and it is at this church, and I want to show Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. He says, “Well, you can come out if you like, but I’m not going to make movies anymore—I’ve decided to do something else. I have an appointment on Thursday and besides, at NYU they told me I had no talent. And I have destroyed my only film. I was so demoralized and depressed because I had no talent.” He finally said, “I don’t have it, but you can come out.” I said, “Well, that was what I was calling about. If you don’t mind, let me just come on out anyway, since I had already made plans.” I had to convince John to keep making films, while he kept telling me he had decided never to make another film because he was going into something else.

I go out and sit down in his living room. I said the same thing, “John, I’ve got this perfect set up. I’d like to show this film.” He went over the same thing, “I’m not going to make another film, people told me I had no talent at NYU and I was really upset…how could a teacher tell any student that they have no talent?” And I said, “Listen, John, you could be doing something completely new. They aren’t even up to date enough to know what they’re talking about.” That turned out to be the case. (laughing) You have seen what he looked like at that time. I said, “Look, do you have anything else you can show me?” And he said,” Well, I have some home movies.” And I said, “Well, could I see those?” He said, “Okay.” So we go upstairs to his bedroom and he opens a closet door and his entire closet is filled with 8mm films. He gets out the projector and sets it up and starts showing me these home movies. (laughs) I can remember it like yesterday – my heart sank. I had never seen bad home movies in my whole life — how could you make bad home movies? And my thought was, I’m wasting my time and I’m wasting this kid’s time – what am I doing here? 

And then I said, “Look, John, I’ve got the perfect situation and I really want to do this. If you could edit these home movies, give me the sound track with a title, we’ll show it. He says, “I’ve told you, I’m never going to make another movie. I‘ve got plans to do something else and already got appointments lined up. I’m not going to do it.” And I said, “John, listen, this is the perfect situation. You think about it for 3 days. Here’s my name and phone number. You think about it. I’ll call you back to see if you change your mind. He phoned me after 2 days. He changed his mnd. He did what I said and spliced his home movies together, gave it a sound track and a title, and named it Roman CandlesAnd we showed it for three days during the Flower Mart – the first public showing of a John Waters film.9af5df10e660e1c3e265e2416fb551a4

It was just wonderful because all of his friends who were in his home movies sat on the back row and then he set it up. There were 3 cameras going at the same time. He had edited the home movies and it was wonderful, and all the friends watching and people coming in. We had almost a full house. All his friends sat around a big round table in the back where they recounted people’s reactions as they came in after the film. We did that for 3 nights and when it was over, I said, “John, this is good. I am very pleased. Would you like to do it again?” And he said, “Yep, let’s do it again.

The next thing he made was Eat Your Makeup. It was a story of a deranged governess who had her chauffeur drive her around Baltimore kidnapping models and forcing them to eat their make-up until they died. We showed that and it’s the same story, everyone sat in the back and had a great time. After that I said, “John, would you like to do it again?” And he said, “Yeah.”

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He came back in the fall with a new script, but he was devastated. I said, “John, what in the world is wrong?”  “Maelcum Soul died,” he said. “What am I going to do?” He wrote the entire script with Maelcum (Governess in Eat Your Makeup) as the star. And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” We would always meet at a drug store at St. Paul St. and 33rd St. for breakfast or just run into each other. We wouldn’t necessarily plan to meet there, we just ate at the same place. I said, “What are you going to do?” And he said, “I don’t know.”

I saw him a little later and he was happy. He said he was going to take Glenn Milstead, a high school classmate who was in some of these movies, and have him dress up and play the role he had written for Maelcum Soul. And so, that is the way Divine was born.

And nobody has written that down. Nobody knows that story. If you watch Mondo Trasho, Glenn was beside himself having fun with that role. He hammed it up. I don’t think he’d ever been better, like a coming out. He would occasionally dress up for a party or something. He really did a great job in Mondo Trasho. If you watch Mondo Trasho you see the serious intent of John – the people are so shocked by the shock value – which he knew he was doing which was shocking people with his assertions, prejudice, bigotry.

images-14We had a showing of Mondo Trasho like the others. I had an apartment in Mt. Vernon Place at the Berry Carriage house. You went through a gate back to my apartment on the first floor. We had a garden, sunken Living room, all Williamsburg colors, a fireplace, French doors, it was beautiful. I hosted a party for John and the full cast of Mondo Trasho and we did the showing at my apartment and I remember he said, “Be sure Glen has a Whiskey sour because he’ll entertain everybody all evening.” And so he did. He was hilarious. That was his debut as Divine. He was in every film John made after that.