Midnight Specialists: Midnight Mass

Pub date July 3, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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The funniest line in movie history didn’t pass from the lips of Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950), Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934), or Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (1977). That honor belongs to Taffy Davenport (Mink Stole) of Female Trouble (1974), who responds to the advances of her dentally challenged stepfather thusly: "I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!" Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, who will die for your sin of omission?

The savior of midnight movies in San Francisco, Peaches Christ, that’s who. If she can fit it into her busy schedule, of course.

Joshua Grannell, the surprisingly subdued and clean-cut gentleman behind the character of Midnight Mass’s holy hostess, says so during coffee talk about the author of that historical piece of dialogue, John Waters, and the massive undertaking that is the Mass’s special 10th-anniversary season at the Bridge Theatre. Mink Stole and Tura Satana will kick off the summer program on Friday, July 13, with Waters’s equally quotable Desperate Living (1977; "Tell your mother I hate her! Tell your mother I hate you!"), while Waters will introduce Female Trouble the following evening. Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira, will be on stage for both nights of Midnight Mass’s closing weekend.

Grannell was particularly keen on landing Waters, the only one of the four cult deities appearing this summer who has never done Midnight Mass before, because the director unknowingly played a role in the genesis of the show.

Back when Grannell and his friend Michael Brenchley were film students at Penn State, they brought Waters to campus to do a monologue performance. "John told us about the Cockettes," Grannell remembers. "He encouraged us to move to San Francisco and told us how much fun Divine and Mink had here."

The pair took his advice, arriving in 1996 in the city, where they would eventually become infamous as Peaches Christ and her silent sidekick, Martiny. One decade later, when Amoeba Records asked Peaches to introduce Waters at a promotional appearance for his CD A Date with John Waters (New Line Records), Grannell seized the opportunity to remind the trash auteur who he had been in college and who he’d become. Waters was aware of Peaches through Stole, who has appeared at Midnight Mass four times. "He kind of screamed and went, ‘Oh, I know Peaches!’" Grannell says. The rest is scheduling history.

When Grannell moved to San Francisco, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) had just left the Kabuki, and there was no midnight show in town. Peaches Christ, a character originally known as Peaches Nevada in Grannell’s senior-thesis film project, Jizzmopper: A Love Story, had already been appearing at the Stud’s Trannyshack for a year when Grannell pitched the Midnight Mass idea to Landmark Theatres, owners of the Bridge. (Grannell used to be general manager of the Bridge and is now paid by Landmark just to be Peaches.) At the time, he was told that midnight movies didn’t work in San Francisco.

Though Midnight Mass’s focus has always been on movies, it serves up a unique form of live spectacle. "Peaches is literally 20 people," Grannell says to me more than once, as much to emphasize the scale of the productions as to give due credit to people such as the show’s amazing costume designer, Tria Connell. During the summer of 1998, the debut season of Midnight Mass offered such entertainment as audience makeovers (for the first of many Female Trouble screenings), a Sal Mineo–inspired wet Speedo contest (in conjunction with the incredible Who Killed Teddy Bear? [1965]), and a ladies-in-prison parody sketch (for Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House [1971]).

"Landmark said, ‘We’ll give you one season, one summer, and we’ll reevaluate,’" Grannell says. It didn’t take an abacus to see that the church of Christ was turning away as many people as were filling the seats. The first Midnight Mass humbly featured a Satana look-alike contest in celebration of the buxom spine snapper of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Ten years later, Satana herself regularly appears at Midnight Mass. The still-star-struck Grannell recently attended her birthday barbecue in Los Angeles, where he was surrounded by enough Meyer actresses to leave the ground of a decent-size backyard completely untouched by the sun. On his way back to SF, he was invited to stop by Peterson’s house, where she cooked him a spooky vegetarian dinner. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would know these women," he says. "It’s just so surreal for me."

Peterson and Satana seem pretty jazzed about their relationship with Grannell and Peaches too. Both icons make a point of noting the intense — sometimes alarming — devotion of Midnight Mass audiences. "There was one little guy who just cried the whole time," Peterson says, recalling a meet and greet after her appearance last year. "He stood there in front of me and just cried and cried and cried. I don’t know if he was crying because he loved me or [because] I was making him miserable."

Peterson spins some funny tales, including one about almost running over a bicycling Waters in Provincetown, Mass. But when it comes to Midnight Mass, Satana might earn bragging rights. Between pleasantly digressive reminiscences about her days as "the numero uno tassel twirler" in gentlemen’s clubs around the country (including a four-month stint at North Beach’s Condor Club, where she worked with exotic-dancing foremother Carol Doda before "the problem with the guy caught in the piano"), she told me about a fan at her first Mass who refused to be inconvenienced by a heart attack. "He wouldn’t let the paramedics take him away until he got my autograph," she insists.

Grannell has his own ER anecdote, of course. It was the summer of 2004. Peaches was showing Mommie Dearest (1981) and offering mother-versus-daughter mud wrestling as an aperitif. "Martiny and I were Chastity versus Cher," Grannell remembers. "We did this whole ridiculous buildup where I was singing Cher songs and she was out there with an acoustic guitar doing, like, Tracy Chapman and 4 Non Blondes." While fighting in the mud — an improvised cocktail of soft drink syrup, water, and popcorn — Brenchley dislocated his shoulder. He left the stage and was taken to the closest hospital. After declaring himself the winner and quickly introducing the movie to a crowd that wasn’t any the wiser, Grannell went to visit his injured sidekick, looking like a streetwalker who’d just taken part in a hog-chasing contest. He braced himself for the treatment he would get at the admitting window. "I walked in, and two male nurses came up to me and said, ‘Ms. Christ, she’s going to be fine,’<\!s>" Grannell says. "They knew exactly who Peaches Christ was and even how she might come to be covered in slop. They treated me like royalty."

That type of reception is indicative of Peaches’s breakout popularity. Midnight Mass has traveled to Seattle three times since 2005 and went to New York in 2006. (Grannell says there’s even a nightclub in Ireland that bears Peaches’s name.) The de Young Museum is hosting "A Decade of Peaches Christ" in September. And a new television show, Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass, produced by Landmark-owning Internet billionaire Mark Cuban, is also set to air in August on the HDNet Movie Channel. Peaches will introduce her favorite movies, which will be shown uninterrupted in high definition, with footage from the live shows.

As for Midnight Mass, the upcoming season includes a screening of Xanadu (1980) that will feature drag queen Roller Derby and a sing-along (as if that wouldn’t happen anyway), a 10th-anniversary presentation of Showgirls (the 1995 movie Peterson admits to loathing and walking out of with friend Ann Magnuson), and Coffy (1973, a soon-to-be personal favorite of anyone who sees it).

The last thing I ask Grannell is the despised but inevitable question put to all movie mavens. I actually wait until a couple of weeks after our initial interview before finally deciding to e-mail him about it. "Oh god! I really don’t think I have just one favorite movie," he responds. "But my favorite John Waters movie is Female Trouble. My favorite slasher is Freddy Krueger. My favorite ’80s comedy is Pee Wee’s Big Adventure [1985]. My favorite actress is Joan Crawford and my favorite movie of hers is Strait-Jacket [1964]. I could go on and on…. Do you want me to?"<\!s>*


Desperate Living (1977), with Mink Stole and Tura Satana in person

July 13, midnight, $12

Female Trouble (1974), with John Waters in person

July 14, midnight, sold out