Oct 18, 2014

The West Hollywood Halloween Carnival

Life in West Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s was cyclical.  There were no seasons -- it was warm and sunny every day -- but you were always planning on the next event.

The social calendar began in June, with Gay Pride.  Then:
Outfest (July)
Sunset Junction (August)
AIDS Walk (September)
Hollywood Film Festival, Halloween Parade (October)
Hollywood Christmas Parade, Thanksgiving (November)
The L.A. Gay Men's Chorus Christmas Concert (December)
The Tournament of Roses (January)
Valentine's Day (February)
Cinco De Mayo (May)





When I first moved to West Hollywood, Halloween was an informal affair.  All of the bars offered costume contests, and patrons would walk from the Gold Coast to the Cafe Etoille to Mickey's to the Revolver in costume, adulating in the attention from passersby.  In 1987 it became an official parade modeled on Mardi Gras in New Orleans: the West Hollywood Halloween "Carnaval."











Every year it became bigger, noisier, more crowded, and oddly, more homophobic, as heterosexual tourists came into town to stare, point, and make jokes.  Eventually everyone in West Hollywood avoided Santa Monica Boulevard that night, making do with private parties or the bars of Silverlake, on the other side of town, and letting newcomers take over.







And they did.  Today the West Hollywood Carnaval draws 500,000 people, more than any other event in Los Angeles except for the New Year's Parade.













If you can manage the crowds and the gawkers, there's beefcake to be had.  Costumes tend toward the whimsical and drag, but once and a while there's a muscleman or two.

The Sea Monster in the Club House


The Krofft animatronic Saturday morning shows like Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost usually involved boys trapped far from home, but the 1973-1975 entry, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, used the "I've got a secret" theme instead. Sigmund (Billy Barty), a three-foot tall blob of green tentacles, is expelled from his abusive family for being “a rotten sea monster.” He wanders up onto the beach and befriends two human boys, Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Scott (Scott Kolden). Most episodes involve Sigmund being befuddled by human society while hiding from his bullying brothers (who need him back for some mercenary reason), and the boys being likewise befuddled by sea monster society while trying to hide Sigmund from human authority figures.


Johnny Whitaker had previously starred as the saccharine Jody on Family Affair (1966-71), and as a shepherd boy who jumps off a cliff and becomes The Littlest Angel (1969).  He was only fourteen at the start of Sigmund, but still, he was on display far more than other Krofft boys.  His opening shots at the beach, in a swimming suit and then a muscle shirt, showed a toned body with surprisingly firm biceps, and later he sauntered around the set in impossibly tight jeans that almost allowed gay kids to overlook his hair, fluffy, carrot-red, with the texture of cotton candy.

He would show off his muscles that same year in Tom Sawyer (1973), with Boomer East as Huckleberry Finn.

Sigmund critiques the myth of the heterosexual nuclear family both overtly through the bickering sea monsters, and more subtly through the human family: parents absent and never mentioned, the adult guardian a no-nonsense, grumpily affectionate, arguably lesbian housekeeper (played with gusto by character actress Mary Wickes).

 It is difficult to categorize the relationship between Johnny and Scott (especially since the actors use their real names): they are often shown sleeping in bunk beds, and they both acknowledge Zelda’s authority, so they most likely live together, but they are never identified as brothers, and they played best buddies in The Mystery of Dracula’s Castle. If they are brothers, then they exhibit an extraordinary physical intimacy, always touching arms and shoulders or chummily reclining against each other’s bodies. 

In “The Nasty Nephew” (October 1973), as they are prevaricating about the noises coming from their club house (where Sigmund is sequestered), Johnny reaches behind Scott’s back and takes his hand. They hold hands for a long moment, and then Scott shrugs him off. This is an odd gesture, with no rationale in the plot: they are not exchanging any sort of signal, and teenage boys have few other legitimate reasons for holding hands. But perhaps the behind-the-back intimacy mirrors the sea monster in the club house, both truths about their “friendship” that must be kept secret from the outside world.

Johnny announces in the theme song that the program is about “friends, friends, friends,” presumably Sigmund, but many of the lines seem to discuss a more intimate relationship: “a special someone” who will “change your life.” The unaired final verse makes it explicit:

I can't change the way I feel, and wouldn't if I could.
I never had someone before, who made me feel so good.

The inevitability, the loss of control, and the “feel so good” in the sex-happy 1970’s all point to romance instead of friendship. 

 Similarly, Johnny’s 1973 solo album, though entitled Friends, overbrims with tracks like “It’s Up to You,” “Lovin’ Ain’t Easy,” and “Keep It a Secret,” about romance that must be hidden, submerged behind the façade of friendship. But surely Johnny does not mean that he is secretly in love with a 3-foot tall sack of green tentacles. Instead, the mandate to care for Sigmund and keep him safe from the prying eyes of adults gives Johnny and Scott a reason to spend every moment together, to concoct wild schemes and harrowing rescue attempts, to share the joys and terrors of a secret life.

Perhaps the Krofft Brothers became aware, on some level, of the same-sex desire implicit in the relationship between Johnny and Scott. Though none of the other Krofft boys ever exhibited heterosexual interest, several episodes of Sigmund introduce a girl during the last two or three minutes: anonymous, with no lines, alien to the plot, present just so Johnny can gaze at her and sing love songs. This strategy backfires, as the girl, straw-haired, tanned, and freckled, looks exactly like Scott Kolden.

In the second year, therefore, the Krofft Brothers introduced a new theme song. To avoid conjecture about what sins a sea monster might commit, they made the reason for Sigmund’s expulsion from sea monster society explicit: like Casper the Friendly Ghost, he refuses to scare humans. He encounters Johnny and Scott on the beach, and now all three are “the finest of friends that ever can be.” The suggestion that Johnny has found a “special someone” has vanished in favor of a triad of buddies.

We need not assume that Johnny Whitaker, a devout Mormon who would serve as a missionary in Portugal and graduate from Brigham Young University, was consciously adding a romance to his character’s on-screen friendship with Scott. The intent of a performer does not diminish the possibility that a teenager might find hope in his image flickering on a television screen, months or years later and thousands of miles away. But it is inspiring to discover that, though Johnny Whitaker and Scott Kolden both married women and raised heterosexual nuclear families, they have remained close friends. Their relationship is intimate, loving, and permanent. Who cares if they ever kiss?

Oct 17, 2014

Big River: Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey

The homoerotic import of Huckleberry Finn and Jim the escaped slave rafting down the Mississippi has been well-known for many years.  Even homophobes notice.

 In 1961, Leslie Fiedler wrote "Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey," bemoaning that Huck and Jim, like many men and boys in classic American literature, are afraid to grow up and establish "mature" heterosexual relationships, so they fall in love with men.



When both you and your intended audience are fully aware of the gay subtext, how will you build a stage musical out of Huckleberry Finn that adequately avoids it?

Especially when you know that the actors will be much closer in age than the 14-year old Huck and adult Jim of the novel?




That was the problem that Roger Miller and William Hauptman faced when they wrote Big River, which premiered on Broadway in 1985, at the height of the 1980s homophobic backlash.  In that political climate, no way could they allow the slightest hint of Jim and Huck liking each other!

So they had Huck and Jim explicitly reject the idea that they could have any kind of romantic bond:

I see the friendship in you eyes that you see in mine
But we're worlds apart, worlds apart
Together, but worlds apart


Then they gave Jim s a quest: to go to the North, make some money, and buy his family out of slavery.

And the newly heterosexual Huck gets a girlfriend, Mary Jane Wilkes, who asks him to stay in Arkansas with her:

Did the morning come too early
Was the night not long enough
Does a tear of hesitation
Fall on everything you touch

He decides to move on, not because he isn't interested, but because he made a vow to help Jim escape to the North.

Finally,  they defer the homoeroticism onto the Duke and the King, two gay-vague villains of the old, simpering school.  The "Royal Nonesuch" show, which they advertise to grift the townsfolk,  purports to be a horror of gender indeterminancy:




Well, it ain't no woman and it ain't no man
And it don't wear very many clothes
So says I, if you look her in the eye
You're better off looking up her nose

It's actually the Duke and the King mooning the audience.

Does it work?  Does Big River adequately erase the gay potential?




Not really.  This scene could just as easily be from Romeo and Juliet.

It takes a lot more than that to keep gay subtexts away.

See also: Huck and Jim on the Raft


Oct 16, 2014

Beefcake and Bonding in Movies about Slavery

Movies about slavery in the antebellum South are very popular, and not entirely because people want to know more about that shameful period in American history.  Because of the opportunity to gawk at muscular African-American actors wearing next-to-nothing.  Unfortunately, these movies tend to overplay the heteronormativity, with the muscular men being torn from their wives and kids and struggling against all odds to return.

Here are the best and the worst of the gay-subtext slavery movies:
1. Tamango (1958) stars Alex Cresson as a newly captured slave who starts a revolt on the ship from Africa to Cuba, and incidentally falls in love with a woman.





2. The Legend of N* Charley (1972), now usually released as Black Charley, is about three escaped slaves facing prejudice in the "contemporary" U.S..  Charley (Fred Williamson) and his buddy Toby (D'Urville Martin) have a gay-subtext bond, and actually ride off into the sunset together.

3. One would expect the multigenerational Roots saga (1975) to be chock-full of beefcake and bonding, but except for the degradation and torture of a youthful Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton), everyone is chastely clad, and every relationship that matters is male-female.



3. Mandingo (1976), the most sleazy of the blacksploitation vehicles of the 1970s, with Perry King as a sleazy slave owner and Ken Norton as the slave he forces to become a boxer.  In between sparring with each other and taking off their clothes, they have "forbidden" romances with women.

4. Drum (1976) was a sequel with Warren Oates substituting for Perry King.











5. The Odyssey of Solomon Northup (1984): Northup (Avery Brooks) is a freeman who is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and struggles to return to his family.

More after the break.















"La Belle Vie": Boy Meets Girl, Yet Again

Jean Denizot's La Belle Vie (The Good Life) is the winner in the Venice Film Festival's Europa Cinemas Label and is getting reviews like: "a masterpiece!"

Sigh.  Here we go again.

Brothers Sylvain and Pierre (Zacharie Chasseriaud, Jules Pelissier) have on the run with their father Yves (Nicolas Bouchaud) for 11 years, ever since he lost them in a custody battle with their mother.   They spend their time splashing around naked under a waterfall, paddling down the Loire River, and reading Huckleberry Finn.  


But the homoromantic idyll vanishes when 18-year old Pierre disappears after stealing a horse, leaving 16-year old Sylvain alone with his father.

Without his older brother, Sylvain is horribly lonely.  Until he meets Gilda -- "his first girl, his first crush, and the first stop on his way to the good life."



I guess there's no way on Earth that Sylvain could ever have met a boy.

Nope.  According to Hollywood, or in this case, cinema francais, male relationships are irrelevant or destructive.  They may be ok for children, but eventually all men grow up, and gaze longingly at the girls walking in slow motion into their lives.  Hetero-romantic desire is the only road to happiness -- as James Brown tells us,  a man is nothing, nothing at all, without a woman.

I've seen it all before, from The Summer of '42 on down, over and over and over and over.


Oct 14, 2014

Fall 1982: A Porn Film for Halloween

I've seen a heterosexual porn film.

Just before Halloween in 1982, when I was a 21-year old grad student in English at Indiana University, Deep Throat (1972) was shown in the Student Union.  I don't know how the Student Activities Council managed to get such a thing shown without howls of outrage, but there it was.

Why did I go?




1. I wasn't out to anyone except my brother, and I was trying hard to maintain a heterosexual facade. I even bought Playboy magazines to leave lying around.

2. I wanted to fit in.  So when the other guys in Eigenmann Hall invited me with statements like "Awright!  We're gonna see some breasts!", I could hardly refuse.

3. College Avenue Adult Books sold In Touch and Mandate magazines, with pictures of naked men, but I had never heard of any gay porn films, so this was the only way I could ever see a film with penises.

Turns out that Deep Throat wasn't that bad.

It's a comedy, with humorous dialogue and parodies of self-help fads, and the sex is not much more explicit than the mainstream movies of the 1970s.  Linda Lovelace finds that she cannot have an orgasm through conventional heterosexual intercourse.   She sees a doctor (porn star Harry Reems), who recommends the alternative "deep throat."  It works, so she practices again and again and again.

With a series of enormously endowed men.

Eventually she marries the most super-endowed.

So: not much heterosexual intercourse, few naked ladies, and lots of penises.  What more could you ask for?

I'm not recommending that you rush out and see Deep Throat; we have other options now, thousands of all-male porn films, countless pictures of nude men on the internet.

But when you grow up in utter silence, where same-sex desire is beyond the boundaries of what can be conceived, even heterosexual porn can provide a glimpse of freedom.

See also: Peter Berlin; Do You Have Anything Gay?

Oct 13, 2014

My Grandmother's Surprising Gay Connection

My Grandma Davis was an ultra-devout fundamentalist Christian who always carried her worn study Bible, corresponded with a dozen missionaries, and got angry at the "hippies and radicals" she saw on tv.  Yet she seemed remarkably nonchalant about my junior high boyfriend Dan, and when we broke up, she found a new boy for me to "go around with."

When she died, during my sophomore year in high school, we had to sort through her  possessions.  I found an old trunk in the attic with surprising evidence that she had encountered gay people before.  It contained:

1. Jazz records: Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke.

2. Some paintings: a young woman with long red hair, wearing a blue evening gown and pearls; a still life; an old-fashioned cottage with a huge back yard covered with flowers, labeled "Devon."  When was Grandma Davis in Devon?



3. Some photographs of men, hugging, holding each other. One in a swimsuit, with a smooth, hard chest, standing on a beach, his arm around a taller, blond guy in a U.S. navy uniform (top photo).

Another of two very muscular, shirtless guys, one in white chinos, the other in overalls, apparently holding hands. (I asked for and got to keep them both.)

Dad could explain the music: "When your Grandma was younger, she was big into jazz.  Always going to concerts."

And the paintings:  "Right after high school, must have been in 1921, she went down to Indianapolis to art school.  Then, for some reason, she suddenly dropped out and went back home to Rome City.  That summer, 1923, she got saved at a Nazarene camp meeting, and married your Grandpa. "




John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis
I wondered what compelled a young woman to abandon her studies, her art, and her friends, shut them all away in a trunk in the attic for 52 years?

Did it have something to do with the hugging men?

Dad didn't know who they were.

A couple of years later, when I was in college, her younger brother Harry came to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Nora's house.  He was only ten when Grandma went to Indianapolis, but he remembered that their parents disapproved:



Indiana Dunes
"This was during Prohibition, and Gracie and her friends went wild, with hooch and jitterbugging -- two things Nazarenes hate most.  It makes sense that she would want to hide away memories of her old, sinful life after she converted."

"But...who were the hugging men?"  I showed him the pictures.

"This one looks like a fellow she knew from art school, Carl something or other.  She brought him up to Rome City a couple of times. The others are probably his friends.  Oscar, maybe. I remember one time they all went skinnydipping up at Indiana Dunes, and got arrested, and Pop told her not to associate with such 'vulgarians' again, but of course she didn't listen."

Vulgarians?  Code for "gay"?  I looked in a directory of Indiana artists, but didn't find any Carl or Oscar from Indianapolis who was the right age.




Wood Woolsey
Then in 2004, I was visiting friends in New Mexico, and I stumbled upon the name of regional artist Wood Woolsey (1899-1970).  He lived in Indianapolis from 1921 to 1927, and he studied at the John Herron Art Institute at the same time as Gracie.

He had a younger brother, Carl, also an artist, who lived with him.  My grand-uncle must have mixed the names up.

Wood Woolsey never married.  Could he have been gay?

Grandma Davis at the start of her life, skinnydipping with some gay guys!

Did finding out cause her skittish retreat into fundamentalist Christianity?

Or did she have only warm memories of her gay friends?  There's also evidence that she may have married a gay man.  And that fifty years later, when her 13-year old grandson began talking about boys he liked, she understood, on some level, and advised "You should find a nice Christian boy."  And when he broke up, she found him another boy to "go around with."

See also: Was My Grandfather Gay? and My Gay Family Tree.

Oct 12, 2014

10 Stage Plays with Unexpected Beefcake

You should go to the theater as often as possible, even to productions that don't seem to have any gay content.  If you can't get to the great theater capitals of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, try your local community theater or high school drama club.

Why the productions that don't have any obvious gay content?   Because you never know when a director or is going to call for a theater hunk to take his shirt off, and the beefcake is more intense and immediate when it's live.

Of course, you might have to deal with actors gushing at each other that everyone on Earth longs for hetero-romance, that the Meaning of Life lies in men and women kissing, but you hear that a thousand times a day anyway.

Here is a random assortment of 10 stage plays that yielded unexpected beefcake.


1. Gabriel, by Moira Buffini, about a naked man who is washed up onto the beach in the Channel Islands during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  He has amnesia, so he is christened "Gabriel."  Hetero-romance ensues.  Lane Aaron Rosen (top) stars off-Broadway.

2. Unity(1918), by Kevin Kerr, is a favorite of university theater departments in Canada.  It's set in a small town in Saskatchewan during a flu epidemic, with a soldier returning from World War I involved in hetero-romance.









3. The Play about the Baby, not one of gay playwright Edward Albee's more popular dramas, was performed off-Broadway in 2001.  It's a sort of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf redux, set in a timeless world where an older couple, The Man and the Woman, try to explain the hopelessness of hetero-romance to a younger couple, The Boy and the Girl.

The Boy was played by a nude David Burtka (now married to Neil Patrick Harris).








4. Shakespeare is always good for some beefcake scenes.  How about Jon Michael Hill (now starring in Elementary) as a rather buffed Ariel in The Tempest at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago?















5. King Lear actually has nudity in the stage directions.  Only the elderly king is required to be nude, but in this Orange County production, his buddy Edwin (Shaun Anthony) strips down, too.

More after the break.










6. Farragut North is a very boring drama about politics, here featuring soap hunk Eric Sheffer Stevens as the shirtless politico,  with his doting wife in the background.
















7. Speaking of politics, Obama Spy Drama, currently playing in Los Angeles, pairs off President Obama (Travis Snyder-Eaton) and Vladimir Putin (Christopher Robert Smith) as competitors for the mind and soul of Edward Snowden. Don't get too excited -- there's lots of hetero-romance in addition to the shirtless presidential machismo.



8. I'm not a big fan of Sam Shepherd, but at least soapster Jake Silbermann unbuttons his shirt for True West, about two brothers, one a politician and the other a thief.
















9. A musical about finding a place to urinate?  That's the premise of Urinetown, which sets its hetero-romance in a future dystopia, where those who can't pay for public urinals are forced into a prison colony (there are no bushes around?).  At the London premiere, Richard Fleeshman played Bobby Strong, who died fighting for urinary freedom.











10. A musical about spree murder?  That's the premise of Bonnie and Clyde, which sets its hetero-romance among sociopathic thugs in Depression-era Kansas.  The Broadway production closed after four weeks, but at least it featured Clyde (former teen idol Jeremy Jordan) playing the guitar in the bathtub.

See also: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; and Tarzan: The Stage Musical.