Cult cinema icon John Waters clears up a few long-standing...

Cult cinema icon John Waters clears up a few long-standing reports about his legal status on Long Island in a new Newsday interview. Credit: Getty Images / Amy Sussman

The good news for iconic filmmaker John Waters: He's free to visit Hicksville without fear of going to prison.

Not that the 76-year-old elder statesman of cult cinema had taken that threat seriously, anyway — despite telling Entertainment Weekly last month that "Pink Flamingos" (1972), his now much-honored satiric opus to bad taste, is banned in that municipality. Other outlets picking up on that interview have subsequently published such headlines as "Still Banned in Long Island Town 50 Years Later" and " 'Pink Flamingos' Gets Respectable — Except in Hicksville, New York."

"[I]n Hicksville, New York, on Long Island," Waters had told Entertainment Weekly, "technically, if they ever show 'Pink Flamingos,' Bob Shaye, the head of [film distributor] New Line, and I can go to prison, because we signed a thing saying, if it ever played there we would go to prison. … I don't know if I'm wanted by the police, but I never drive by that town in case." 

It's not banned in Hicksville. It never was. 

"Well, I know that!" Waters tells Newsday jocularly over the phone. "I was kidding when I said we were afraid to ever go back." And it turns out, as he realizes during the conversation, that "Pink Flamingos" in the mid-1970s had never even screened in Hicksville but rather at the fondly remembered retro and art-film house Uniondale Mini Cinema.

That geographic detail aside, "I didn't make it up, I promise you — we had to sign some paper saying if it ever played there again we would be arrested. We always joked about it." Indeed, the now 83-year-old Shaye confirmed to Newsday through an intermediary unconnected to Waters, "What John said, as I recall, is correct. [But] I have no paper work." 

And as the conversation jogs Waters' memory further, the filmmaker reconsiders that, "I don't know that I ever physically signed anything" and that he had agreed to the request verbally "over the phone with whoever was handling it with New Line. Some lawyer."

No related document appeared in a search of Waters' archive at Wesleyan University. The Nassau County Police Department could find no record of it and was unaware of the anecdote, said a spokesperson. Nassau County District Attorney communications director Brendan Brosh likewise was unaware of it, and could not immediately locate such a document. In any case, "We don't arrest people on things like this."

Which doesn't mean it never existed: In times past, local judges did sometimes issue what Manhattan attorney Adam Leitman Bailey calls "illegal banishment orders: 'Stay out of Yonkers or you'll be arrested.' Totally unenforceable." Even if someone were to agree to it as part of a plea deal, "They would need to have been arrested, indicted and found guilty." Waters — who has said colloquially that he and Shaye "pleaded guilty" and paid a fine — confirms, "Never was I physically in court" on Long Island.

The determinedly bad-taste "Pink Flamingos" — which last year was inducted into the National Film Registry of movies deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant — has certainly faced heat over the years. An Orlando, Florida, video store owner, for example, pleaded no contest to a felony and paid a $1,000 fine in 1991 for renting the then-unrated movie to a 14-year-old. "We never were found not guilty!" Waters announces with a chuckle. "Even after the Museum of Modern Art had bought a print!"

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