“Reflections in a Golden Eye”

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I was a movie-crazy teenager, eagerly anticipating each newly-released star-studded movie. The books from which they were adapted were often re-issued in a movie tie-in edition, promising “soon to be a major motion picture” and “including 16 pages of photographs from the forthcoming film.” In 1967, at the age of fifteen, in anticipation of Reflections in a Golden Eye, I bought a paperback of Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel, and read it surreptitiously in my bedroom so it wouldn’t be confiscated by my parents.th (1)

I didn’t realize I had never actually seen the movie. I do remember being fascinated by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the 1968 film adaptation of McCuller’s 1940 novel and but I didn’t know much about McCullers’ complicated life.

I learned that Lula Carson Smith was born February 19, 1917 and suffered from several illnesses throughout her life, including alcoholism. She had rheumatic fever at the age of 15 and suffered from strokes that began in her youth. By the age of 31 her left side was entirely paralyzed.
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In 1937, at the age of 20, she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. Carson and Reeves McCullers divorced in 1941, then remarried in 1945. During this period of separation, Reeves had a love relationship with the composer David Diamond. McCullers fell in love with a number of women and pursued them sexually with great aggression, but seems not to have succeeded in having sex with any of them. Her romantic obsessions included Gypsy Rose Lee, Katherine Anne Porter, and the Swiss journalist, travel writer and novelist Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) to whom she dedicated RGE. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life.” Queer cultural critic Sarah Schulman has suggested that “had McCullers been alive today, not only would she have probably been in A.A. and on antidepressants, she might have been living as a transgender man.”

Reflections in a Golden Eye first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1940, serialized in the October–November issues. McCullers wrote the piece in 1939, originally using the title “Army Post”. She said the story had germinated when, as an adolescent, she had first stepped into the alien territory of Fort Benning, Georgia. A more direct inspiration came from a chance remark from her husband about a voyeur who had been arrested at Fort Bragg — a young soldier who had been caught peeping inside the married officers’ quarters.

She later said : “I am so immersed in my characters that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man. I become the characters I write about and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me.'”

The book was published by Houghton Mifflin on February 14, 1941, to mostly poor reviews. In 1948, severely depressed, she attempted suicide. She lived the last twenty years of her life in Nyack, New York, where she died on September 29, 1967, after a brain hemorrhage, at the age of 50. Only two weeks before the film adaptation of her novel was released.

In 1956 producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster planned to adapt the book with a script by Tennessee Williams, with Michael Anderson directing. Tony Richardson hoped to direct this film with Marlon Brando and Jeanne Moreau in the lead roles. In 1964 Ava Gardner was announced for the role of Leonora Penderton.

John Huston enlisted Chapman Mortimer, “a fine Scottish novelist, not well known,” to write the screenplay, then reviewed it with Carson McCullers. In Huston’s 1980 memoir, An Open Book, he writes “The strokes had slowed her speech, and some words were slurred, but her observations were acute and pointed. She approved of the script.” Huston and Gladys Hill then incorporated McCuller’s suggestions and sharpened some of the dialogue. At some point Francis Ford Coppola is reported to have contributed some uncredited writing on the screenplay.

The role of Major Penderton was extremely physically demanding and the insurance company underwriting the production required proof that Montgomery Clift –the original choice for the Pemberton role–was fit enough for the role after his years of illness. Clift’s long-time friend Elizabeth Taylor committed her large salary as insurance in order to secure Clift for the role. However, Clift subsequently died of a heart attack before filming began. The role was reputedly turned by Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, William Holden, and Lee Marvin, before Marlon Brando was cast. When Huston asked if Brandon could ride a horse, “he assured me that he had been raised on a horse ranch. Later, during the filming of the movie, I noticed that he exhibited such a fear of horses that presently Elizabeth Taylor, who is a good horsewoman, began to be afraid also. I wondered then, as now, if Marlon got this fear because he had so immersed himself in his role. The character he played had a fear of horses. It could well be.” (Still photographs of Brando as Major Penderton were used later by the producers of Apocalypse Now, displayed in the service record of his character Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.)

The completed film stars Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, with Julie Harris, Brian Keith and Robert Forster. Julie Harris also played Frankie Addams, 12-year-old tomboy in The Member of the Wedding, the 1950 play McCullers adapted from her 1946 novel, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1952 film version. Private Williams was Robert Forster’s first role. He went on to appear in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), The Delta Force (1986), and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), for which Forster was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This marks the only film performance of Zorro David (Anacleto).
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Some of the film was shot in New York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use the former Mitchel Field, then in use by Nassau Community College. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy. It is interesting to note that the story which takes place on an army post, was published during WWII and released as a film in the middle of the Viet Nam war.

Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores between  1951 and 1984. The best-known is probably John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

Huston recounts the story of the different versions of the film:

“Reflections is a psychological story. Vivid Technicolor would, I felt, get between the audience and the story — a story of minds, thoughts, emotions. So I was looking for a particular kind of color. Weeks and months [of experimentation by the Italian Technicolor lab] were involved, starting well before the commencement of the picture and continuing after the final shots. What we achieved was a golden effect — a diffuse amber color — that was quite beautiful and matched the mood of the picture.

When I sent the final print to the United States, I thought it was something of a triumph. Warner Brothers thought differently; they didn’t like the color. I fought this, and finally, using every threat, contact and influence I could muster, I got the studio to agree to make fifty prints in the amber color and to release these first to theaters in major American cities. The remainder would be make in standard Technicolor.

Every now and then someone comes up to me and says I’ve seen Reflections in the original color, and it is magnificent! Why did they ever release it in straight Technicolor?” So far as I’m concerned, the reason is that the sales department of Warners was headed by a man whose taste in color was shaped by early B pirate films: “The more color per square foot of screen the better the picture.

I like RGE. I think it is one of my best pictures. The entire cast turned in beautiful performances, even better than I had hoped for. And Reflections is a well-constructed picture. Scene by scene — in my humble opinion– it is pretty hard to fault.”

The film was released October 13, 1967 to mixed reviews and was unsuccessful at the box office: Variety called it a “pretentious melodrama” but praised Keith’s “superb” performance as the “rationalizing and insensitive middle-class hypocrite.” Time magazine described it as a “gallery of grotesques,” with the poetry of the novel missing from the film.  “All that remains praiseworthy is the film’s extraordinary photographic technique.” And Roger Ebert observed that the film was released without the usual publicity, despite its stellar cast and director. “Was the movie so wretchedly bad that Warner Bros. decided to keep it a secret? Or could it be, perhaps, that it was too good?” Ebert concludes the latter, praising all aspects of the production, but notes that the audience he saw it with greeted the film’s emotional moments with guffaws and nervous laughter.

Note the film’s advertising tagline: “In the loosest sense he is her husband. . .and in the loosest way she is his wife!”

In The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo writes that Reflections in a Golden Eye was released with a seal of approval despite John Huston’s refusal to make a series of cuts requested by the Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and the Motion Picture Association of America. In spite of a “C” (Condemned) rating the film gained wide distribution, something that could not have happened a decade earlier. One year later, in 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code was abolished altogether in favor of today’s “alphabet soup” rating system.

And the trailer ends: “Suggested for mature audiences. Leave the children home.”

IMG_9637A version of this essay was originally presented on August 15, 2019 to introduce a (35-mm Technicolor) screening of Reflections in a Golden Eye as part of SFMOMA’s Modern Cinema series, “Haunted: Gothic Tales by Women”.
The DVD announces “The restoration you are about to see replicates the Director John Huston’s original, stylized color design which uses muted color and warm golden tone to reflect the atmosphere and drama of this story. The feature appeared in theatres for just one week with this original color design before the studio imposed a full color treatment for general release, which did not reflect Huston’s original vision.”
I’d be curious which version readers prefer.

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Name Dropping

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Everywhere one turns this month the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot is being commemorated and celebrated. The series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by disenfranchised queer people against a police raid in Greenwich Village, New York, in June 1969, is now considered the incident that sparked the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement.

I was 16 in June 1969. A clueless kid who knew he was different, with no idea what that really meant. I never heard about them, not on television, not in history books, nothing. I don’t even remember when this event crept into my consciousness. And I certainly never dreamed that I would have crossed paths with so many activists over the intervening fifty years.

Chatting recently with a young woman working on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, I mentioned that I’d met a few of the people she was historicizing.  When she was obviously impressed, I realized that in my role as librarian, researcher, writer, and archivist, I was a bridge between these important pioneers, many of them now gone, and her generation.

I met most of these activists in my role as the founding Program Manager of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian (now LGBTQIA) Center at the San Francisco Public Library. To celebrate the Center’s opening, renowned transgender scholar and activist Susan Stryker and I co-authored Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. We included information Susan had recently uncovered about a riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966, documented in her award-winning film Screaming Queens, which brought attention to similar pre-Stonewall actions around the country. It had fallen to me to ask Armistead Maupin to contribute an introduction to Gay by the Bay, but my nervousness was unnecessary as the always-in-demand author charmingly obliged. Our paths crossed occasionally in the intervening years, before he and his handsome husband, Christopher, recently decamped to London.

Jim Hormel made history when, against considerable right wing opposition, he was named the first openly LGBTQ American ambassador, to Luxembourg. Jim was always supportive of me personally and professionally, and I was thrilled when a profile in the local paper depicted him peeking over the cover of Gay by the Bay. I learned a lot about the rest of his life by reading his fascinating memoir Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.

In 2006 I attended the very first LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) conference cohosted by the Quatrefoil Library and the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota. Among the many activities the international attendees were treated to, we were squired through the massive archives by the inveterate collector Jean Tretter himself. Minneapolis native Phil Willkie, founder of the James White Review, hosted a party where I met Frank Kameny and somehow ended up giving him a ride to the airport. At the time Frank was trying to find an archival repository for the protest picket signs reading “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” that he had hand-lettered and carried in 1965. I don’t think I fully understood how important he was to the movement, and how disappointed he was that no one seemed to understand the historical significance of his material. Through hard work and negotiations, he was able to see them persevered for posterity at the Smithsonian Institution. Years earlier I had become friends with Dick Hewetson, co-founder of Minneapolis’ pioneering Quatrefoil Library. The former minister moved to San Francisco where he encouraged the San Francisco Public Library to enhance its collections on atheism. During the ALMS Conference, Dick generously arranged for a friend to drive us all around Minneapolis and Saint Paul so that I could see the sights.

Over the years I spent a considerable amount of time with library activist Barbara Gittings and her partner, photographer Kay (Tobin) Lahusen, mostly at events related to the American Library Association. I was impressed with their commitment to the cause. They flew separately, they once told me: in case of a plane crash, the survivor would continue their important work. The last time I saw Barbara, we were on a panel together in Los Angeles, and she was not well. That didn’t stop her from doing her utmost to impart her considered perspective on the proceedings.  Influential MCC minister Jim Mitulski and I once arranged for a historic reunion of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, with Barbara and Kay. There had been some bad blood back in the day, but this time these fierce little old ladies seemed glad to reunite.

I encountered the handsome and irascible Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, and his winsome partner, John Burnside, many times while working with the cadre of volunteers dedicated to ensuring his papers were preserved and made accessible at the Library. These included his biographer Stuart Timmons and radical faerie Joey Cain, among others. I also became good friends with John Gruber, the last surviving founding member of the Mattachine Society, the person who had covertly snapped the sole, now-famous, photograph of the group.

I never met Harvey Milk, but I visited the home he once shared with Scott Smith, and worked with his friends, including photographer Dan Nicoletta, to secure the Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection for the Hormel Center. After we included Danny’s work in Gay by the Bay, he and I became friends. As I did with Cathy Cade, Rich Gerharter and Chloe Atkins.

I have stories about Barbara Grier & Donna McBride, starting with a visit to the Naiad Press compound in Tallahassee, FL. Suffice it to say that Barbara was an important figure in promoting lesbian literature albeit quite cantankerous. I remember once  sifting through one of the many boxes Barbara had sent, and almost tossed a lone salt shaker, until I realized it was the salt shaker used on the cover of Naiad’s reissue of Patricia Highsmith’s classic lesbian novel (using the pseudonym Clare Morgan) The Price of Salt. Tee Corinne, who designed many of Naiad’s covers, also became a friend while we were both involved with instigating a Queer Caucus at the College Art Association.

Other literary figures include Ann Bannon, the charming author of the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, who has over the years become a dear friend. She embraces her moniker of “Queen of the Pulps” as she reminisces in documentaries and on panels about her experiences in the early 1960s. Many women tell her that her books saved their lives by providing a road map to their sexual identity.  I also befriended one of her male counterparts, the late Victor Banis, the prolific pioneering pulp writer who used many pseudonyms. When Katherine V. Forrest, beloved mystery and science fiction author, and I co-edited Love, Castro Street, we included a lovely reminiscence by Victor. I also became friends with Katherine’s pal, Michael Nava, author of the award-winning Henry Rios mysteries, who also contributed to the anthology.

In the 1990s on a visit to the ONE Institute I was introduced to W. Dorr Legg and Jim Kepner. I indirectly interacted with Morris Kight, when my partner-at-the-time’s artwork was accepted into a group exhibit, only to be nixed by Kight. Speaking of Southern California, I became friends with activist, author and therapist Betty Berzon and her partner Terry DeCrescenzo, ultimately contributing an essay about this power couple to an anthology about gay men and their divas.  And I always enjoyed chatting with their good friends author and minister Malcolm Boyd and his life-partner, journalist, photographer, and therapist Mark Thompson.

Other names to drop: Allan Bérubé, the historian, activist, author of Coming Out Under Fire : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. We would sometimes meet for coffee while he was at the SFPL doing extensive research for his next project. I admire FTM activist Jamison Green and remember fondly our time together on the Frameline screening committee, sometimes rolling our eyes as the elders in the group. I’d never heard of Peter Berlin when two friend separately said someone should make a documentary about the pioneering porn star. So I introduced Jim Tushinski and Lawrence Helman, who went on to co-produce That Man: Peter Berlin. There have been many others important figures, some of them still with us.

I’ve just read We are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown. Unfamiliar with the relatively young authors’ @lgbt_history Instagram account, I was expecting a standard-issue coffee table book and was therefore surprised and delighted to discover that I’d never seen many of the photographs and the nuanced stories enhanced my understanding of the queer civil rights movement’s complicated path over the past five decades. This new book reminded me of the many losses and gains, fits and starts, how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go, in the struggle for our basic human rights.

It also reminded me of how many of these pioneers have enriched my own life.

“I could have danced all night…”

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“Last dance, it’s my last chance for love…” The disco diva’s voice soars. I smile with memories of moving to the relentless beat. Suddenly I realize my eyes have filled with tears and I am weeping. What? Why?

I am remembering all my dance partners, seeing them raise their arms, swing their legs, shake their booties. Full of life, desiring love. We are filled with the bone-marrow loud music, and likely some drugs. The lights flash, a glitter ball twirls, colors shoot in every direction. I am here and I am there, but they — most of them — are no longer here: Randy, John, Joseph, Frank, Matt, Tom… My heart can’t hold the names of all the friends cut down in their prime.

But it can, and it does. They are here now with me in the music, their souls in the sound waves, their smiles in mine, their dance floor moves never sharper, more focused. I smell their sweat, the poppers, patchouli, stale beer. And I dance with them, without them.

“I need you by me, beside me to guide me, to hold me…”

Transported across the decades, I am laughing and crying and knowing I’ll be joining them someday soon. We’re all moving in the same direction, different timing, different steps, but the beat is the same. It’s a heart beat, the rhythm of our breath, partly from one too many high energy songs back-to-back, the unseen DJ unwilling to give us a chance to catch our breath.

I miss these men. They were my brothers We were in this together. Until one by one they were taken away like some macabre version of musical chairs.

“Disco is dead” proclaimed those who didn’t understand. They were wrong. As long as disco was alive so were we. So were the flamboyant queens with huge shiny fans preening, cavorting, presenting themselves to the world, night after night.  And though they’re gone, they’re not really. I am grateful for the grief. Grateful for their return on Donna Summer’s vibrato. They show their ID, order a drink, and sashay on to the dance floor of my heart, one more time. “Last dance…”

It’s happening again, right now, as I write this. I am laughing and sobbing simultaneously, making an imaginary rainbow. And that too makes me smile, at the corny cliché that’s perfect, as I remember my departed dear friends dancing.

And now I realize it’s not only them I’m remembering but myself. The cute clueless guy looking for love, not just sex like everyone else, and never quite finding it. And now I know I have, thanks to Donna Summer. “It’s my last chance for love…”

Bye-Bye Beach Blanket Babylon

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Beach Blanket Babylon and Me

I felt awkward seeing so many handsome men. They all seemed so sure of themselves, so comfortable in their gay identities. I was trying to make my way through the crush when suddenly the front door flew open and in burst Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, a poodle playing the piano, and “Carmen Miranda.” With her bugged-out eyes, her over-the-top Brazilian accent and outrageous headdress, Carmen Miranda and her campy troupe performed “Brazil” and other old songs. The crowd loved it, and so did I. Was this what being gay in San Francisco was? I silently sang a chorus of “if they could see me now.” I was Gwen Verdon playing Sweet Charity.

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I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. How had little Jimmy Van Buskirk from Buena park ended up in the big city?

I had dropped out of classes at the University of Washing given notice on my room in the apartment shared with two games from the bookstore where we worked, and loaded my Toyota w all the belongings I could fit. I hadn’t given much thought where I was heading. I just needed to move away from my family friends, and go somewhere new, become someone new. I drove to San Francisco and got a hotel room. Within a week I moved the southern suburbs of Belmont to a job and a free apartment Every weekend I drove up the peninsula into the city and wandered around, looking at male couples.

I told myself I liked the cappuccino and the foreign films. I had no idea that I was one of a large wave of men immigrating to what was becoming the “gay mecca.”
It was 1972 when I finally moved to San Francisco with a boyfriend, who soon returned to his former partner, leaving me adrift in the city, as it was self-satisfyingly referred to. I had never lived in a city, only suburbs: of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Fran cisco. I knew no one. I was excited and scared to be on my own. I couldn’t quite believe I had achieved my dream of living in San Francisco.

I delighted in my furnished one-bedroom apartment at the Lucerne, 766 Sutter Street. I worked two blocks away at Scott Martin Books, 527 Sutter Street. I had been hired by Scott Martin to develop a new paperback book section in the small bookshop catering to the carriage trade. Our customers included the libraries of the local private clubs (Pacific-Union, Metropolitan, Olympic) as well as many of their high-class members. Their names—a who’s who of San Francisco society—with private phone numbers and addresses, appeared in the Social Register, the slim black volume kept at each telephone. I was the shop’s token “real person.”

One afternoon a large, not particularly attractive woman browsed the tables. She had scarcely closed the door behind her when the bitchy store manager sniffed: “Hard to believe that Audrey Hepburn came out of that.” How had he recognized Audrey Hepburn’s mother? Celebrity sighting seemed a natural trait to gay men, at least the witty ones. I listened attentively to his gossip about the cocktail parties, the dinner parties, and the goings-on of the tony customers.

The small staff at Scott Martin Books, mostly gay men, frequently socialized with the staff of Williams-Sonoma, the gourmet cookware shop directly across the street. Scott and the owner, Chuck Williams, were old friends. Daniel, who ran our shipping and receiving department, lived with Terry, who worked at Williams-Sonoma. Shortly after I started working, Daniel and Terry invited me to a party.

That Saturday night, I nervously entered the apartment full of good-looking men. In the middle of the room was a film projector through which spooled a sixteen-millimeter print of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I had never seen a Hollywood movie projected in someone’s private home.

Previously, most weekends I had explored my new town: up Nob Hill, through North Beach, across Aquatic Park, along Polk, and back to Sutter. To alleviate my loneliness, many nights I wandered through the Emporium department store on Market Street, usually ending up at Club Rendezvous, at 567 Sutter. It was my Sutter Street triangle: home, work, bar. I wasn’t yet twenty-one, but perhaps some combination of my youth, my height and my looks motivated the doorman to wave me in without asking for ID. Night after night, I ascended the steep staircase to the dark bar on the third floor, where a background of Barry White, Roberta Flack, and Al Green sang about love.

I would order a beer and assume a posture that I simultaneously hoped and feared indicated my availability. I would wait for someone to initiate the insipid bar chat that sometimes segued to sex. I wasn’t looking for sex as much as love, and, the Waylon Jennings song title to the contrary, I had no idea that I was looking for love in all the wrong places. I got involved with a variety of men whose skills at establishing a relationship were as rudimentary as my own.

Now, at this party with Carmen Miranda and her friends, I was even more impressed with the unexpected entertainment that had happened so spontaneously. After the madcap performance, the poodle came up and introduced himself to me as Bob Bendorff. I felt special as we chatted briefly. I must have mentioned where I worked, because a few days later he appeared at the bookstore. I was both excited and embarrassed to see him there. I hustled him out of the shop by agreeing to go out with him. As we began dating, he proudly paraded me, his new boyfriend, around town, introducing me to his friends.

One morning he dragged me to a small apartment on Union Street. What now? I wondered uncomfortably, as he rang the doorbell. His friend, a woman still in her bathrobe, was obviously humoring Bob when she invited us in. That morning Nancy Bleiweiss looked more like a Jewish hausfrau than a Brazilian bomb shell, and it took me a while to recognize her as Carmen Miranda. Then I met Nancy’s sister Roberta, who everyone called “Bug” and who had a crush on Steve Silver. She had been the singing Santa Claus, while Steve, the leader of the group, was the Christ mas tree. For a while they called themselves Tommy Hail Group after the name on an old suitcase they had found. Then they became Rent-a-Freak. I felt I was meeting major celebrities, thrilled at being granted entrée to the backstage theater world.

Daniel and Terry invited me to a holiday party at Williams Sonoma, where Chuck Williams always made sure there was plenty of food and alcohol. Everyone seemed to drink a lot, and so I followed suit. When I got home, somewhat tipsy, I felt like I was still camping it up, just as I had been at the party. I called an old friend for confirmation.
“Do I sound gay?” I demanded.
“Not at all,” she assured me.
I didn’t believe her. I was leaving to visit my family the next morning, and I was afraid my transformation would be obvious to everyone. Apparently, I managed to hide my newfound sexual orientation. I was happy to return “home” to San Francisco.

Bob Bendorff supported himself by playing piano in gay bars. For a while he accompanied a young, zaftig performer named Sharon McKnight at the House of Harmony on Polk Street. In those days “Polkstrasse,” between about O’Farrell and Washington Streets, was the heart of the gay neighborhood.

Sometimes I would walk the few blocks from my apartment at Sutter and Taylor to the bar to hear the buxom brunette sing “Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah” and “My Funny Valentine.” I didn’t know these old songs, not even from my parents’ LPs on the blond hi-fi. I immediately responded to their witty lyrics and sophisticated melodies.
Other times, because the Lucerne had no street buzzer, Bob would call me at two A.M. from a pay phone on the street. I would groggily pad down the stairs from the second floor to let him in, then listen to him recount the events of the evening as I slowly fell back to sleep.

Bob was eager to introduce me to more of his friends: Angela, the lovely Irish lass who sang at the Sea Witch in Ghirardelli Square; Judy, the vivacious actress who worked in improv; Jim, the handsome singer; Mary Cleere, the beautiful redhead with the silky voice; Greg, finishing his degree in directing at San Francisco State; Randy, also studying at State, who later became a jeweler. I was impressed to be on the periphery of show business. When Steve Silver and his troupe opened a show in a back room at the Savoy-Tivoli restaurant and bar in North Beach, of course I was at opening night. I wouldn’t have missed the irreverent fun of the newly named “Beach Blanket Babylon” for anything.

Now, Nancy was Glinda the Good Witch from Wizard of Oz, surrounded by multiple singing and dancing Christmas trees, M&M’s and a Mr. Peanut. They sang a mix of standards like “Stardust,” “Twilight Time,” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” juxtaposed with more contemporary compositions like “Hello, Dolly” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Mary Cleere was the ultimate cosmopolitan as she performed “Put the Blame on Mame,” wearing an exact replica of the sexy gown from Gilda. Even though I had never seen the movie, I knew from the crowd’s hooting, as she slowly tugged off her long glove, that she accurately captured Rita Hayworth’s persona. The evening ended with a rousing rendition of “San Francisco,” simultaneously invoking Judy Garland, Jeannette MacDonald, and the others who had sung about “comin’ home again, and wanderin’ no more.” At that moment I felt I, too, was coming home.

A few Sunday mornings later, on June 2, 1974, Judy called and woke me up. “Have you seen the Chronicle magazine section today?”
“No. Why?” I was still asleep.
“Run down and get one.”
I immediately turned to the four-page spread on Beach Blanket Babylon, not noticing that it was written by Armistead Maupin. There on the last page amid photos of the cast, was a picture of me laughing with Nancy on opening night. I had arrived.

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Mary and Bob put on some cabaret shows at the Eureka Theater, in the basement of a church at the corner of Market and Noe. Mary Cleere was sensational, especially singing Sondheim’s “And I shall marry the miller’s son.” Then she starred in a production of Dames at Sea. When I recognized her one New Year’s Eve at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway and Grant, I considered it a good omen to have seen a star in San Francisco’s version of Times square.

Shy and insecure, I was overwhelmed by Bob. He was bright, sensitive, and a talented musician. He was also childish, manipulative and an alcoholic. But none of that mattered: he liked me. Bob got invited to parties, and insisted I accompany him. We moved in together and threw festive dinner parties. I thought I should be having fun, but I wasn’t. As his drinking worsened, his jealousy increased and he became abusive. We fought frequently. I threatened to leave him. At one point I ended up with a broken hand, later a black eye. Always he coaxed me back, promising it would never happen again. I wanted to believe him. I didn’t recognize my role as the typical “battered wife” until long after we broke up.

I noticed another pattern: I seemed to have a propensity for piano players. I slept with Mike, accompanist for Charles Pierce, the “male actress” famous for his impersonations of Jeanette Mac Donald and Bette Davis. Then I had a brief affair with Barry, a pianist who played at the Sea Witch, among other local spots. This was all new for me. I was trying to find my way in the world as a gay man. I didn’t understand that this was new for a lot of other people, too. They all appeared much more adept with this newly found freedom, sexual and otherwise. I stayed on the periphery, uncomfortable and awkward.

Occasionally on the 38 Geary bus I ran into Mary Cleere. Fresh from therapy appointments, her face was tear-stained and she looked nothing like her stage persona. I couldn’t imagine what this beautiful, talented star needed a therapist for. Even admitting to having one seemed chic.

Beach Blanket Babylon moved to Club Olympus on Columbus Avenue before finally landing in Club Fugazi, the old Italian social club on Green Street. Now there was an entire orchestra of poodles. The headdresses had evolved from replicas of Carmen Miranda’s pineapples, bananas, and feathers to spectacular constructions featuring hot-fudge sundaes, Christmas trees, even, in the finale, the San Francisco skyline. Now the star was Snow White singing “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” a longing I could relate to. My pal Jim Reiter was in the show, dressed as a cowboy and popping out of the pocket of an oversize pair of jeans to sing “Me and My Shadow.”

I didn’t see Beach Blanket Babylon all that often. I was busy dancing at Buzzby’s on Polkstrasse and the End-Up, south of Market. After the bars closed, we would often stop at Pam Pam West, on the corner of Geary and Mason. In a corner booth of the twenty-four-hour coffee shop would be Steve, Nancy, and Roberta, sipping sodas and carrying on like teenagers at the malt shop. Brainstorming new ideas for the show, no doubt.

When I did see Beach Blanket Babylon over the years, the hats got even larger and more numerous, and the skits and musical numbers became more outrageous. Rather than spoofing classic movies, the show began parodying current celebrities, ultimately becoming self-referential. The tourists and locals still loved it, but I had moved on.

Bob had introduced me to Bobby Short and Barbara Cook’s interpretations of the American Popular Songbook and the Broadway shows of Stephen Sondheim, and I continued my exposure to cabaret and theater. Bob left Beach Blanket to pursue other activities. Steve and Nancy and Roberta had a nasty falling out over ownership of the show. What had started out as kids having fun ended up in court, and in the papers.
By then I was back in college, getting a master’s degree in library sciences at UC Berkeley. There I met Doug, a French major. We moved to Paris after we both graduated. Returning from our year abroad, Doug and I moved into an apartment in North Beach-one block away, it turned out, from Club Fugazi. When the tenth anniversary rolled around in 1984, I invited Jim and Mary Cleere, who were both living in New York at the time, to stay with us. As an assistant buyer in Macy’s handbag department, Doug was especially thrilled to meet Mary Cleere, whom he recognized as the star of an industrial called “In the Bag.” Then I met Rob.

On May 24, 1994, Jim invited me to the San Francisco Opera House for the twentieth anniversary of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon. As I sat in the very last row of the balcony, watching one hundred people celebrate the city’s longest-running theatrical revue, I marveled at the extravaganza spreading across the stage. As everyone around me laughed at the singing and dancing and the huge hats, I found myself reminiscing, unprepared for the long parade of characters dancing in my head

From high in the balcony, I admired guest stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, figures from my youth. I remembered them from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club and the “Beach Party” from which Beach Blanket Babylon had adapted its name. I remembered the fresh, fun frolic that Beach Blanket had been, and winced at the excessive exercise it had become. Tears filled my eyes as I realized how it paralleled who I had been and who I had become. The show inadvertently celebrated my own coming of-age as a gay man in San Francisco.

Afterward, in the crowded lobby of the opera house, I noticed a familiar face, a man a little older than myself. As I walked over to greet the good-looking man, I tried to remember his name. I knew we had once worked together.
“Hello, Jim. It’s Daniel,” he said with a smile. Of course—the shipping and receiving clerk at Scott Martin Books who had inadvertently changed the course of my life. We chatted briefly, then drifted apart. As I stood talking to Jim, I noticed Armistead Maupin across the room.

Just that morning I had made a photocopy of the first installment of Tales of the City, Armistead’s serial novel from the May 24, 1976, San Francisco Chronicle for an exhibit I was preparing at the San Francisco Public Library. I had brazenly called my exhibit “Tales of the City: Lesbians and Gay Men Since Stonewall,” and had written to Armistead requesting permission to use the title. I was too shy to walk over to meet him.

Little did I know that I would soon be chatting on the phone with Armistead, asking him to write a foreword for the book I was writing with Susan Stryker. When I made the cold call, Armistead was charming and gregarious, eventually penning the perfect preamble to Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. Published in April 1996 to coincide with the opening of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, it chronicled a history I had been only peripherally part of.

In June of 1995, Steve Silver died. Jim and I attended the memorial service at Grace Cathedral, knowing it would be a production. Apparently, every detail had been planned by Steve. But a strange, surreal quality lay at the foundation of the event. No mention was made of Steve’s sexuality or the fact that he had died of AIDS. His surviving wife, Jo Schuman Silver, played the part of his grieving widow, and Charlotte Maillard Swig, San Francisco’s Chief of Protocol, eulogized a man I had never met. Jim went on to the gravesite service, but I couldn’t take any more of what I perceived as hypocritical obfuscation of the truth.

Sometime later I met playwright, director, and stage manager Allen Sawyer. According to his version of the story, we dated for a year without me knowing it. I wondered why he kept inviting me to lunch and the theater. When Theater on the Square closed in 2003, Allen landed a job managing the box office at Beach Blanket Babylon. I marveled at the coincidence.

Of course I accepted when Allen invited me to a dress rehearsal of the thirtieth anniversary celebration. As I sat upstairs at Club Fugazi, watching the parade of parodies and chapeaux, once again I had an odd perspective on the past, once again I sat alone with my memories.

Today, Steve Silver, Bob, and Randy are all gone, lost to AIDS. My friends Jim and Angela have stopped performing. I’ve lost touch with Judy but occasionally run into Roberta and Greg. Mary Cleere is a well-known cabaret singer in New York. I still manage the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, one floor away from the Steve Silver Room. I write a regular column about San Francisco for Cabaret Scenes magazine and sometimes interview singers for the Bay Area Reporter, the local gay weekly. Ever supportive, Armistead Maupin blurbed my new book about sites from movies made in San Francisco, Celluloid San Francisco, which includes Club Fugazi because a scene from the Tales of the City series was shot there.

Recently, Allen confided that during a brief visit to the Bay Area, Prince Charles and Camilla were scheduled to attend a performance of Beach Blanket. I might be allowed to attend the special event, to which all San Francisco society and politicos were hoping to be invited. Allen worked for weeks with Jo Silver and Charlotte Maillard Swig Shultz, negotiating guest lists and planning seating charts. The more he regaled me with the inner machinations of the major event, the less interested I became in attending. I realized I had no interest in British royalty, San Francisco society, or the popular attraction that Beach Blanket had become. The popular show with its wacky headdresses would go on without me. The celebrity evening, from all reports, was a success. Beach Blanket Babylon is such part of me that I didn’t need to be there.

Coda: This essay appeared in Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco (Alyson Books, 2007), which Katherine V. Forrest and I co-edited. Much has changed in the intervening years. Next month a new version of Tales of the City is set to debut on Netflix, and Armistead and his husband have recently moved to London. Mary Cleere and Angela are now gone, and in Spring 2019, Jo Silver announced that Beach Blanket Babylon’s last performance will be on New Year’s Eve. Allen, as well as everyone involved with the venerable revue, will be out of job and the City will have lost another of its “only in San Francisco” treasures. It’s truly the end of an era.

Holotropic Breathing Workshop

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“Shoulder Work Ahead”

I passed several such signs on the long drive to University of Earth. My left shoulder had been bothering me for some time. Perhaps this was a message from the Universe that material might come up during the Holotropic Breath workshop. Or not. My first two sessions had been markedly different, so I had no expectations about this one. On the first night I mentioned the highway sign to an amused circle of attendees. Everything had been lovingly prepared by UofE co-founders Janet & Rich. No detail had been overlooked, as we settled into our cozy cabins. As I took my mid-afternoon nap I felt I was surrounded by all my deceased family members. They stood around me in a circle as the forested mountains spread up behind them. Then I realized that the evergreen trees were actually more ancestors, millions of them, in ever widening circles. I didn’t know what it meant, merely a reminder that this was a sacred place.

The next afternoon as I lay on the mat, waving my arms in time to the lively music, my shoulder was indeed aching. Stacia, the workshop leader had repeatedly suggested that one could ask for body work, and she would direct pressure against the area. For some reason I wouldn’t, didn’t, couldn’t, ask for help. My internal conversation seemed to go on for quite a while (one loses track of time during the sessions) until I ordered myself to ask my sitter to summon Stacia. As I lifted my shoulder, she pressed gently downward. Repeatedly. It felt like there was poison in the shoulder. As she continued exerting pressure she suggested I let go. Suddenly I started yelling. At the top of my lungs. Long and loud and filling the yurt. I was bellowing, perhaps disturbing others. My yelling continued. There was no story behind either the aching shoulder or the vocalizing. Just physical responses, energetic release Stacia patiently pushed repeatedly, until I relaxed, and she momentarily massaged the area.

Then I was back in my song-filled dreamscape. Not much narrative this time. One image of a tiny jewel shining high above me. I reached up to hold it and it got bigger, and bigger. I knew to bring it close to me as it enlarged, and then popped it into my… mouth. Now my whole body was sparkling and shining, as I extended my arms and legs into a shimmering starfish.

At one point came a message “Bring My Baby Back!” What might that mean? It repeated, sometimes as if it were a do-wop song title. I had obviously given birth to no baby, perhaps I was the baby. Maybe it was a message about my grandmother, who lost her first child after six days, and then her second (my mother) was kidnapped at the age of six years. Maybe it was about Allen’s birth mom, with whom he had just reconnected after 62 years. Or maybe there was another family of origin story I didn’t know about. The message continued, but I gave up trying to figure it out.

I continued to coast on the music, sometimes seeing snippets of images, or experiencing nuggets of feelings or thoughts, but nothing cohesive. I was floating, flying, hovering over the mat. As the music became more mellow, I could hear the river rumbling nearby. Slowly the session came to an end and I was able to reenter the “real” world fairly effortlessly. I slept soundly and explored the campus along the rushing Feather River’s Middle Fork. I saw a family of eight deer prance across my path, snowflakes suspended precariously on a spider web, and water droplets on garden netting shimmer like diamonds. Someone even said they saw otters cavorting in the river.

Taking an alternate route home I noticed more signs reading: “Low Shoulder”. My shoulder girdle did seem lower, much less bothersome. Was it the Universe or was it Rich, with his attention to every detail, who had placed those signs along the highway?

Coda: A warm bath, a good night’s sleep, and in the middle of this morning’s meditation, I realized it was Mother Earth insisting, pleading, singing, shouting, “Bring back my baby.” I am that baby, we all are.

“…We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden…”

I listened, learned, and yearned

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As a kid I borrowed original cast albums from the Buena Park Public Library. Repeatedly. Obsessively. I hadn’t seen these shows, didn’t know these singers, but these songs spoke directly to me, instilling in me an indelible belief that there was somewhere beyond my mundane existence, someone other than the unsophisticated, acne-ridden, pre-teen boy at odds with his environment. I listened and learned, and yearned.

“Most people live on a lonely island / Lost in the middle of a foggy sea / Most people long for another island / One where they know they will like to be / Bali Hai may call you / Any night, any day / In your heart, you’ll hear it call you / ‘Come away, come away’…”

“Out there / There’s a world outside of Yonkers / Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby / There’s a slick town, Barnaby / Out there / Full of shine and full of sparkle / Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby / Listen, Barnaby…” I was Barnaby, waiting for an urban adventure, not necessarily dinner and dancing at the Harmonia Gardens, but — well, why not? I often pretended I was someone else, “We got elegance / If you ain’t got elegance / You can never ever carry it off…”

I was The Girl in the Fantasticks: “I can see it / Shining somewhere / Bright lights somewhere invite me to come there / And learn / And I’m ready / I can hear it / Sirens singing / Inside my ear I hear them all singing / Come learn / Who knows, maybe / All the visions I can see / May be waiting just for me / To say: take me there, and / Make me see it /Make me feel it / I know it’s so / I know that it really may be / Let me learn…” Her monologue was mine: “I hug myself till my arms turn blue, then I close my eyes and cry and cry till the tears come down and I can taste them. I love to taste my tears. I am special. I am special! Please god, please, don’t let me be normal!”

I was Charity Hope Valentine dancing around and fervently believing “There’s gotta be something better than this / There’s gotta be something better to do /And when I find me something better to do / I’m gonna get up, I’m gonna get out / I’m gonna get up, get out and do it!” I wasn’t planning on becoming a taxi dancer, whatever that was, but I would — I promised myself — find a way out. And I knew that I would, knew that I would be able to look back: “If they could see me now, that little gang of mine / I’m eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine / I’d like those stumble bums to see for a fact / The kind of top drawer, first rate chums I attract / All I can say is, “Wow-ee”, looka where I am / Tonight, I landed, pow, right in a pot of jam…”

I was Holly Golightly strumming her guitar on the fire escape and dreaming of “Moon river, wider than a mile / I’m crossing you in style someday / Oh, dream maker / You heartbreaker / Where ever you’re going I’m going your way…” I didn’t play guitar, have access to a fire escape, or dress in Givenchy, but I knew what she meant.

There were many others, of course: “Climb Every Mountain,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Wouldn’t it be Loverly”… (Does every musical have a get-me-the-hell-out-of-here number?) The requisite trope spoke to me loud and clear, motivating me to get an education, earn money, move to the city, fall in love, and — eventually — find myself. Was it because I was gay that I knew I didn’t fit in, wanted more? That might have been part of it. When I hear these songs now, all these decades later, I weep for that unhappy boy, as together we sing and dance all night…

Slide souvenirs

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I’ve been invited to a Slide-O-Rama birthday party. Guests are asked to prepare a short presentation of slides. Do I still have any slides? Do folks today even know what a slide is? Once ubiquitous, the technology is now charmingly obsolete. It took some time to even find a description on the internet: “35mm slides are small, positive pieces of film, held by rectangles of cardboard or plastic so that they end up as two-inch squares. They can be viewed with small hand viewers but are usually projected onto a screen.”

Descending doubtingly into the basement, remarkably I rediscovered a likely container. Inside were two batches of small rectangular yellow plastic and colorful cardboard boxes: my 3-month trip to Europe with my friend Jim in the fall of 1971, and the road trip across America with my brother, John, the following summer of 1972. Eagerly holding them up to the light, I took in each image. What, I wondered, could be more boring, then or now, of looking at someone else’s vacation slides? Even I wasn’t much interested in revisiting these forty-five-year-old souvenirs. I had to come up with something.

I was 20 in 1971 on my first trip to Europe. Jim & I flew from Seattle to London and — armed with our BritRail, Eurail, and International Youth Hostel cards — we travelled throughout Britain and the continent for three months. Our itinerary was so eclectic and speedy that we referenced (perhaps only after the fact) If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium, the 1969 film that became shorthand to illustrate the whirlwind nature of European tour schedules. And how did we determine our destinations? I’m embarrassed to say our interests were interpreted through our exposure to ’60s Southern California culture.

For example on the way into town from the airport, we cooed over the “rooftops of London,” which we’d seen in Mary Poppins. We hightailed it to St. Paul’s Cathedral and even though there was no bird woman sitting on the steps we sang all the lyrics to “Feed the Birds”: “Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul’s, the little old bird woman comes. In her own special way to the people she calls ‘Come, buy my bags full of crumbs. Come feed the little birds, show them you care and you’ll be glad if you do. Their young ones are hungry Their nests are so bare. All it takes is tuppence from you. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.'”

I won’t bore you with our entire itinerary, but here are a few more examples of our simplistic approach to culture. When we learned that Castle Combe had been a location in Doctor Doolittle, 20th Century-Fox’s 1967 big budget, musical version of Hugh Lofting’s story, we hopped on the train. We were excited to see the “Prettiest Village in England,” used to portray the coastal town of “Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.” Even if I hadn’t seen the Oscar-nominated film!

In Edinburgh, I was keen to visit the site of Greyfriar’s Bobby, depicted in the 1961 Disney film. I only vaguely remembered the plot: in 1865, an old shepherd and his little Skye Terrier, Bobby, go to Edinburgh. When the shepherd dies of pneumonia, Bobby remains faithful to his master, refusing to be adopted by anyone, and takes to sleeping on his master’s grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, despite a caretaker with a “no dogs” rule. And when Bobby is taken up for being unlicensed, it’s up to the children of Edinburgh and the Lord Provost to decide what’s to be done.

Jim & I took the hovercraft to the continent. In Normandy, we visited Mont Saint Michel, the famous commune, monastery, abbey, and prison. In The Mystery of Mont Saint-Michel, Michel Rouzé 1955 children’s book, five children are trapped in an underground passage, when the rising tide cuts them off from their starting point. I was fascinated by the idea that depending on the tide the commune is accessible by road or becomes an island.

In the south of France I visited Carcassone. I remembered reading the legend, when, in the 8th century, the city was under Saracen rule and Charlemagne’s army was at the gates to reconquer it for the Franks. A Saracen princess named Carcas ruled the Knights of the City after the death of her husband. Early in the sixth year of the siege, food and water were running out. After Lady Carcas ask the villagers for an inventory of all remaining reserves, she was brought a pig — in some versions a cow — and a sack of wheat. When she suggested feeding the wheat to the pig and then throw it from the highest tower of the city walls, the villagers thought she was nuts. I still recall the scene when, according to plan the army discovered the fattened pig, and believing that the city had enough food to the point of wasting pigs fed with wheat compelled Charlemagne to lift the siege. Pleased by the success of her plan, Lady Carcas sounded the city’s bells. One of Charlemagne’s men is said to have exclaimed: “Carcas sonne!” (“Carcas rings”). Hence the name of the city, or so the story goes.

In Germany, we visited Nuremburg, the name of which I knew from Judgement at Nuremburg, the 1961 courtroom drama about the post-war trail of four German judges. I knew nothing about its role under the Nazis, nor as the birthplace of Albrecht Durer. I also wanted to visit Bremen, which I remembered from the Brothers Grimm story, “The Bremen town musicians.” A donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster all past their prime and usefulness on their respective farms, are soon to be discarded or mistreated by their masters. One by one they leave their homes and set out together to Bremen to live without owners and become musicians there.

Vienna was the site of Miracle of the White Stallions, the 1963 Disney movie that recounted the story of how, in 1945, the fate of Vienna’s famous Lipizzaner stallions was hanging into balance. American general Patton could save them but first he asks to see them perform. I think we blew our budget to see a performance of the beautiful steeds. Similarly, in Salzburg, we splurged to take the Sound of Music tour, riding a bus to the actual locations used in the popular film.

In Amsterdam, one of our first stops was AnneFrankHaus, which we’d read all about in Diary of a Young Girl, then experienced in the George Stevens film adaptation. And of course we had to see the Swiss Alps, having ridden the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland so many times. Disneyland also influenced our visit to Füssen to see Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Venice was represented by Katharine Hepburn in Summertime. And Rome epitomized all the sword & sandal movies I loved. Spartacus, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, and especially Steve Reeves as Hercules!

Don’t even ask why we took an overnight train to spend one full day in Paris. (It had to do with a bottle of Phisoderm my mother had thoughtfully sent to the American Express office in Place de l’Opera to help combat my acne.) With our French class, Jim & I had taken a field trip to Hollywood to see Is Paris Burning? about the Germans plan to destroy the City of Light. As I walked through the Palais Royale, did I recite lines to my favorite Audrey Hepburn movies “Carson Dyle has no brother!” (Charade), or was that on a later trip? We certainly understood the sentiment, if not the lyrics, “There’s something missing, there’s something missing I know, there’s just one place I’ve got to GO!” (Funny Face) when we climbed the Eiffel Tower.

We explored a lot more places, but you get the idea. Our European adventure, as preserved in slides, was certainly inspired by our albeit limited, cultural references.