“We’ll see who’s the filthiest person alive! We’ll just see!”
– Connie Marble (Pink Flamingos)
I’m going to (rightly) assume that anyone picking up an issue of MOVEMENT Magazine would have a more than passing familiarity with the life and work of actress and cultural provocateur Mink Stole. Be that as it may, it’s always worth restating that Mink Stole was one of the earliest members of John Water’s “Dreamland” repertory group, and has gone on to have a role in every single one of his films since. Even in a group packed full of larger-than-life characters like Divine, Edith Massey, and David Lochary, Stole early on became a riotous force of nature in those early films, playing the nefarious likes of Connie Marble (Pink Flamingos) and Taffy Davenport (Female Trouble). Even Stole’s appearance was totally ahead of the times, she raided thrift stores for a fractured glamour and dyed her hair colors like fire engine red in the early Seventies, which was more likely to get you chased down the street than lauded as a tastemaker. Stole expanded her creative output beyond the Dreamland group as the years passed, with roles in Eating Out and Stuck!, among others. And now she’s poised to enter a third act of her creative life, this time as a musician, as frontwoman of the Wonderful Band. Her debut album may even be completed by the time you read this! MOVEMENT spoke with Mink Stole, proud Baltimorean and creative chameleon, about a life spent proudly on the fringes of the mainstream.
Tell me about the new music you’re releasing now with the Wonderful Band. Who is in the Wonderful Band?
My drummer, Skizz Cyzyk, likes to call it “cabaret jazz” but it’s really more eclectic than that. I’m calling the music on the CD a memoir of my life in songs written by other people. We’re including “No Nose Nanook,” which I performed on stage with the amazing Cockettes in San Francisco in 1972, and a dynamic reworking of “Female Trouble.” There’s also the saddest song I ever heard, “If You Were to Wake Up,” by Lyle Lovett. It may seem like we’re all over the place, but they work together. My Wonderful Band is Skizz Cyzyk on drums and Walker Teret on the upright bass. We had a sweet keyboard player, Scott Wallace Brown, but, sadly, we have to replace him and are currently on the hunt for a new pianist. Luckily we’ve got a lot of Scott’s keyboard tracks already recorded, so we get to keep him on the album.
Is playing music something that you’ve always wanted to do and you got sidetracked by the Waters’ movies? Or is this a more recent creative itch?
I’ve always enjoyed singing. I was in glee club in junior high school, but they let everybody in and I wasn’t particularly distinguished. And I did some backup vocals with a rock band in Provincetown in the winter of 1970 or so, but, oddly enough, I was really too shy to pursue it on my own. I took voice lessons for a while when I lived in New York back in the ’80s, but, while I did learn a lot, the teacher kept trying to push me towards a “legit” or “Broadway” sound, which is not where I’m comfortable. I’m after a much more “mellow” sound. It was when I did a production of The Winter’s Tale with the L.A. Women’s Shakespeare Company about 10 years ago and sang in my role of Autolycus, that my friend Brian Grillo saw me and asked me to perform a song he had written at his once-monthly Sunday afternoon beer bust at the Gauntlet in Silver Lake, that I got hooked on music for good. Now, living without it is unthinkable.
Who are some of the singers that made you want to make the jump from just listening to actively performing music?
Well, of course there’s the holy trinity of Ella, Diana and Sarah (Fitzgerald, Washington and Vaughn), and I also love Julie London and Peggy Lee. But I get crushes on singers: for a long time I listened to k.d. lang’s Drag album incessantly; right now, I’m totally addicted to Sade: her new album Soldier of Love is amazing, especially the track “Bring Me Home,” which actually brought me to tears the first time I heard it, it’s so gorgeous. And I love Adele. What these women have in common is the ability to make singing beautifully sound easy. It’s not.
What is your first memory of music?
That’s a good question. I remember when I was really small seeing Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, because my big sister was a fan. We had great radio in Baltimore, good R&B stations, so I was just as familiar with Fats Domino and James Brown as I was with Pat Boone, although I did get a teeny crush on Pat Boone when he sang “Bernadine.” I have a lot of sisters, and my mom used to enjoy arranging us in a line to sing “Lollipop.” We used a plunger to make the “pop” sound. The very first album I ever bought (from a store that had “listening booths”) was Billy Stewart’s Summertime.
What’s this about you doing some Christmas-themed shows?
Our Christmas show is great! I call it “Christmas Music You’re Not Sick Of Yet.” We do some standards, like the Charlie Brown Christmas theme. We also do a terrific “Petit Enfant au Tambour” which is “The Little Drummer Boy” in French. It’s not just a translation, it’s a completely different song about a little boy wanting to bring his father home from the war. I also tell a lot of stories, including why I like the really depressing Hans Christian Anderson Christmas tales. I call him the Danish Steven King for the kiddies. We do a swing version of “O Christmas Tree,” an Anita O’Day number called “Once a Year Miracle,” and last year for the first time we did a sing-along of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It made me laugh out loud when I thought of it, but the audience loved it.
Tell me about the importance of Baltimore in your life and work. Do you see yourself leaving?
I did leave. I was gone for thirty years; twelve in New York and eighteen in Los Angeles. I came back about three years ago. It was time. I love being back! I live directly across the street from the house I grew up in. My neighborhood is like a time warp except for the occasional added deck or repainted front door, and taller trees; nothing visual has changed here since I was a child. Thomas Wolfe was wrong: you can go home again. I’ll probably stay here now. I even bought a cemetery plot, just a few yards away from where Divine is buried. John Waters and a few other good friends also have plots there. There’s talk of renaming it “Dreamland Acres.” (Not.)
Do you get recognized a lot out and about in Baltimore and other cities? Was there a point you remember where the general reaction shifted from scandalized shock to a kind of affirmation?
I love being just the amount of famous that I am; I get recognized often enough to keep from feeling forgotten, but hardly so much that I can’t run my own errands. As for shocking people, obviously, when I was younger I did that deliberately — I was the only girl in the world with dyed crayon-red hair in the early ’70s — but aside from the occasional dirty look no one ever bothered me. People who approach me now are fans; they say nice things.
Are people surprised that you’re a very sweet and approachable person in “real life”?
Sometimes, yes. I have seen people shake and cry because they were so nervous meeting me, and I’ve had to work at calming them down. I’d laugh if wouldn’t make them even more uncomfortable, because I know the reality of my life: I do my own housework, I do my own laundry. It’s hard to feel overly important when you’re sorting your underwear and socks.
What was your first meeting with John Waters? Were you both into a lot of the same things as far as music and film?
My sister Sique introduced us in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, in the summer of 1966. He was unlike anyone I’d ever known– smart, funny, and very self confident. I loved the way he looked, with his huge brown eyes and his stringy long hair. He hadn’t acquired a mustache yet; that came a few months later, but he had an amazing charisma. He was one of the first people who made me understand that my not fitting in with the world I lived in was a good thing. We both liked R&B better than the Beatles, but I wasn’t really into movies so much before I met him. One of the major things we had in common was a total rejection of the Catholicism we’d grown up with.
The original group of Dreamlanders still seem so out there and ahead of the times, even today. You guys were beyond punk on the one hand, but I always got this sort of vibe of innocence to what you were doing at the same time. Am I on the right track?
I was clueless. I knew I was doing something more fun and interesting than anything I’d ever done, with people who were far more interesting than anyone I’d ever known, but the idea that 40 years later people would be tattooing my image on their bodies was inconceivable. I’m still amazed by it. And I’m very thankful for that; the pressure of that awareness would have been too much. I would either have frozen in fear, or become unbearably pompous. John is the only one of us, and perhaps Divine to some extent, who really had his eyes on the future.
Listening to commentaries and interviews about the early Waters films, it’s clear there was a strong element of DIY improvisation in designing sets, filming scenes, recruiting extras, etc. Does a good story come to mind about making do? (I always like the one about you all driving a bunch of extras out to the cardboard village in Desperate Living and refusing to drive them back or feed them until the shooting was over.) And with that, do you have a strong belief in do-it-yourself values as far as art goes?
All film design is essentially the same, it’s faking a reality. The difference between a Harry Potter movie and a Dreamland film is budget. Mortville wasn’t actually cardboard, by the way, it was mostly plywood. I loved the furniture that rejected Raymond and Connie (David Lochary and me) in Pink Flamingos. Our production designer Vincent Peranio took the springs out of the couch and hid himself inside (I think his brother Eddie was in the chair) and pushed us off manually. It must have been really uncomfortable for them, but it worked. What we never did was improvise dialogue.
I’ve put together my own “sets” for my one-woman shows either from items from the local dollar stores or with stuff I already had. Nothing fancy, but I hate the look of a bare black back wall. My Christmas show sets look like they were done by a third grade class.
When you were making Pink Flamingoes did you know you were on to a completely different trip than most anything else in American cinema?
No. I was very unsophisticated, and didn’t really know much about film at all. I just knew I hadn’t seen anything like it.
You mentioned that Female Trouble was your favorite of the early films. Why?
I love Taffy. I always felt a deep connection between her as a character and my own childhood self. Of course, I didn’t dress like that or play car accident, and I’m the fifth of ten kids instead of an only child, but I felt a similar sense of isolation, and the unhappiness of feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. But, aside from my fondness for Taffy, Dawn Davenport’s whole story line is compelling and well told. From meeting her in high school through the last shot of her in the electric chair, Divine’s performance is riveting. One of my favorite scenes is where Dawn’s prison girlfriend is saying her tearful goodbye. It made me want to cry myself.
The production values are amazing. Van Smith deserved an Oscar for his wardrobe designs, and Vincent Peranio’s sets are hilarious, yet totally appropriate. The supporting cast is uniformly strong. I think it would be harder for me to find anything I don’t like about Female Trouble.
Was working with the Stuck! ensemble cast a good experience?
Absolutely. Steve Balderson has a cut-to-the-chase way of filming that is incredibly efficient. One of the things I loved about working on Stuck! was that when we got to Macon, the first thing we did was decorate our individual prison cells. I’ve never done that on a film before, and it gave me a heightened sense of confinement and territoriality that I imagine one would feel in a real prison environment. It was fun working with Jane Wiedlin again; back in 2001 we both had recurring roles on an MTV soap called Spyder Games.
What film projects are you working on currently?
I just worked on installments 4 and 5 of the Eating Out features, and have a couple of things coming up that are in a kind of holding pattern, so I don’t want to say anything about them yet. I’ll be performing in Now The Cats With Jewelled Claws, as part of the Tennessee Williams festival in Provincetown this fall, which will the first play I’ve done in a few years, so I’m looking very forward to it. And I’m looking at some scripts.
Are you going to be involved in the forthcoming I Am Divine documentary?
Yes, I’ve already been interviewed on-camera for it. I’m really excited about it; the filmmakers are approaching the project with a lot of love and respect.
Any advice for people trying to make their own way in film or music in 2011? I imagine you’ve pretty much seen it all as far as independent production goes.
The advice I’ve always given: get on a movie any way you can. Be a production assistant and take any job they give you and ask for more. Work for free if you have to; it’s still cheaper than film school and you’re going to learn a lot from other peoples’ mistakes as well as the stuff that goes well.