Bye-Bye Beach Blanket Babylon


“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 Washington, given notice on my room in the apartment shared with two guys from the bookstore where we worked, and loaded my Toyota with 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 Francisco. 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. A new version of Tales of the City debuted on Netflix, Armistead and his husband moved to London, Mary Cleere and Angela are now gone. And in Spring 2019, Jo Silver announced that Beach Blanket Babylon would give its last performance on New Year’s Eve.

Allen invited me to attend, and this time I couldn’t resist. I arrived in North Beach early and parked at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I had worked in the late 1970s and again briefly a few years ago. I strolled down Columbus Avenue, past shops I remembered fondly, boarded up storefronts, and new, trendy venues. Past my old Green Street apartment, Molinari’s Deli where I used to buy lunchtime sandwiches to eat in Washington Square, down Grant Avenue, where I helped a friend sell her knit hats at a street fair. So many ghosts.

The closing performance was the hottest ticket in town, and I was excited, if mildly melancholy, to be there. When the show started, I was flooded with memories. But, wait, what was this revisionism? From the stage Willie Brown, Charlotte Shultz, and Michael Tilson Thomas all commended Steve for his vision and talent, suggesting that he single-handedly conceived of every aspect of the show: writer, director, producer, costume designer, creator of hats, Really? No mention of Nancy and Armistead’s collaboration, of the many people who brought their creative talents to the show over the years? I imagined Jim Reiter pop out of the jeans pocket, Nancy in Carmen Miranda and Glinda drag, Mary Cleere shimmy and shake at Savoy Tivoli. It was as if my entire adult life was flashing before me. I recalled Meg MacKay’s stories, the divisive lawsuit, the pervasive pettiness. And the show, which I’d always appreciated for its silly campiness, felt stale, canned, verging on vulgar. By the finale I found myself weeping, not for the end of the show, but for myself, for San Francisco. No “happy trails until we meet again” tonight. Allen, as well as everyone involved with the venerable revue, is out of a job and the City has lost another of its “only in San Francisco” treasures. The show, the city as it once was, and my younger self are now gone forever.




Holotropic Breathing Workshop


“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


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


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.

“Me and the Argonauts, Unchained”


Walking around the neighborhood in a daze, I barely noticed my usual playmates. I was mesmerized by a black-and-white portrait of Steve Reeves. I received it last night at the Fox Anaheim when I saw Hercules Unchained and would not let go. I think I might have slept with it under my pillow, as corny and clichéd as that might sound.

I was so enamored I could barely walk down the sidewalk or into nearby yards to see what neighbor friends were up to. Admiring Reeves’s buffed bare torso, did I want to be him or touch him, or both? What did I know? I was eight years old. I was protective, possessive of my newfound idol. How was this different than the other boys’ obsession with baseball players? They bored me with scores and batting averages, traded baseball cards, and listened to endless radio broadcasts. I was never invited to join the teams they formed in the cul-de-sac, right in front of our family’s house. even if I wanted to be. What was the distinction between their Mikey Mantle baseball card and my fetishized picture of Hercules”?


I remember that 3 x 5″ scrap of paper. It was glossy, as I see it again in my carefully cupped hand, and “signed”. I wonder what happened to it. Did one of the neighborhood bullies steal it from me, or did I wear it out, or lose it? With his well-developed torso, thick thighs, and dark curly hair, Steve Reeves was dreamy. It didn’t matter that the production values were cheesy, that he couldn’t act his way out of a chariot, or that the dialogue (at least as poorly dubbed into English) was laughable.

Was it because I was a wimpy bookworm, that I was attracted to he-men? I also like George Reeves (no relation). In his form-fitting Superman outfit, he too righted wrongs, rescued victims, and made the world a safer place. Might he rescue me from my boring suburban existence? Again, I remain confused: did I want to be with him, or be him. My pudgy, later gangly, body, was uncoordinated and not particularly strong. I certainly wasn’t going to enroll in the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program, no matter how many times I read the ad on the back of comics, or how many times the neighbor kids bullied me.


I came for the beefcake, hiding it even from myself, professing interest in Bible stories and Greek and Roman mythology. For example, my teenage fascination with Moses, as depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. I was fourteen when the big budget epic was theatrically re-released in 1966. I was fascinated by the massive sets, the special effects, and — especially –the men’s bare torsos and thighs.

I was even obsessed with original motion picture soundtrack album as if it might be exchanged for the soundtrack of my life. I saved up my allowance and splurged on the expensive double LP set of the score by Elmer Bernstein, listening to it incessantly and poring over the cardboard sleeve featuring color images of pouting Yul Brynner as Rameses and bearded Charleton Heston as the mature Moses.

When I needed a costume for the junior high Halloween dance, I couldn’t expose my skinny chest so I decided to masquerade as Moses. Using the image of Moses on Mount Sinai from the album cover, Mom and I shopped for brown and red fabric that she cut and sewed into a replica of Heston’s. Meanwhile I cut thick pieces of cardboard into the shape of tablets, and covered them with white butcher paper, onto which I copied random Hebrew letters from the World Book Encyclopedia to form what I hoped would look like the word of God.

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Mom’s costume looked good, but I couldn’t very well wear my regular shoes. When I found the perfect pair of sandals, they were declared too expensive. Only after I promised that I would really wear them was I able to convince Mom to buy them. I ended up loving them, wearing them so frequently that for years my friends teased me about my “Moses sandals.” Would I have worn them so proudly had I known my favorite movies were referred to as sword and sandals sagas, or peplum, another condescending term I just now learned, referring to the tunic-style Greek and Roman garment often worn by characters in the films.

There was one more thing. By the time Moses received the tablets he had grey hair. Mom bought silver colored hairspray to cover my dark brown hair combed into its usual pompadour. I didn’t much resemble Chuck Heston, but the effort we put into the costume paid off: I won second prize at the dance.

Was all this an expression of affinity for the hyper-masculine, Republican NRA ambassador? Or an exploration of my blossoming homosexual self? And it wasn’t just Heston, though he was pretty sexy as Ben-Hur, and in Planet of the Apes. There was also Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis, Richard Burton in The Robe and — be still my heart –Todd Armstrong in Jason and the Argonauts.

But my first, my favorite, remains Steve Reeves. And lest this turn into a Reeve-athon, did I ever tell you about meeting Christopher Reeve, on the set of Superman II? After showing me around Pinewood Studio, he offered to sign 8 x10 glossies. I was embarrassed to ask for one for myself, just for a handful of friends.

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The Moses costume, tablets, and sandals are now long gone; over five decades later my hair is now naturally silver. One of my friends eventually took pity on me and generously gave back one of the glossies of Reeve in his tight costume showing off his sculpted body. It now hangs prominently in my hallway, a treasured souvenir of the days when the movies made me gay.

Dennis Altman changed my life.


Having just finished Dennis Altman’s 1997 memoir, Defying Gravity: A Political Life, I was reminded of one of the very first books I read as I was coming out.

I was twenty years old, working at Books, Inc. at Town and Country Village, a suburban shopping mall in San Jose. I was excited to be working directly across the street from the Winchester Mystery House, which had completely intrigued me when I first visited with my family around 1960. Today, not only the bookstore but the entire shopping center is gone, replaced by ubiquitous high rises. The Mystery House has not only endured, but is likely to get yet another lease on life with a forthcoming biopic with Helen Mirren portraying the enigmatic Sarah Winchester.

But I digress. Barely out and trying to find my way as a gay man, I was not even 21 so couldn’t (legally) get into bars. I somehow found Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, published in 1971. I temporarily “borrowed” it, surreptitiously sliding it off the shelf and into my backpack. I wasn’t ready to come out to my colleagues by actually buying it. I read it gingerly, then a few days later slipped it back into place. The book changed my life, my way of thinking, gave me a road map. Led me to other books, including the 1972 anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay Allen Young. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Impressed upon me the power of literature, fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps even steered me to my career as a queer librarian, reviewing books for Library Journal, perhaps influencing library acquisitions across the country. I’d like to think Altman would approve: “Activism takes many forms and since my apprenticeship in underground politics I have come to enjoy certain forms of political activity ‘within the system’.”

Now, 45 years later, I am again communing with Altman. The San Francisco Public Library didn’t hold a copy of the 20-year-old book, nor was it available through Link+, so I requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Who was in charge of acquisitions for gay and lesbian titles in 1997, I’d like to know! Oh, wait, it was me! Apparently, as an Australian imprint, it was not on my radar.

I was surprised to learn that Altman, nine years my senior, is Jewish and grew up in Tasmania. Who knew? I also didn’t know in 1972 that I could claim a Jewish identity, a fact that remained unrevealed until ten years ago. Altman’s sojourns in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris parallel some of the people and places I myself visited, perhaps at the same time. How is it that a man who doesn’t know of my existence has so greatly influenced my life? Such is the power of books. Thank you, Dennis.

Alphabet Pride


When I began working on the San Francisco Public Library’s project in the early 1990s, it was called the Gay & Lesbian Center, then the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, and recently renamed the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center.

I am often asked what the alphabet soup of initials represent. There’s even a new anthology entitled ALPHABET: The LGBTQAIU Creators from Prism Comics, edited by Jon Macy and Tara Madison Avery.

As I understand it today (correct me if I’m wrong, it might change by this afternoon):
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex (the umbrella category formerly known as “Hermaphrodite”), Asexual, Agender, Allies, Assholes (my facetious favorite), Unidentified. I’ve now seen the string written as “LGBTQIAU+ ” just to make sure no one feels left out. And of course, they can be reordered as necessary, for example in a nod to history the GLBT Historical Society maintains the G before the L, and I recall the heated internal debates before adding the B and later the T. Where will it all end? Who is feeling included and/or excluded?

I am reminded, on the 21st anniversary of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, of a conversation with Armistead Maupin, who wrote the book’s foreword. “You’re not going to trot out that tired litany, are you?” I remember him saying. “Just use queer”. Armistead’s words, only a couple of years after the backlash against the San Francisco Pride Celebration for choosing “Year of the Queer” as the 1993 tagline, were music to my ears.

I am so exasperated by the ever-expanding acronym that I’ve started tacking on “LMNOP” and my dear friend (and GBTB co-author) Susan Stryker adds her own “MOUSE”. So, let’s all sing together:
“A B C D / E F G / Come and sing along with me / H I J K / L M N O P / Tell me what you want to be / Q R S / T U V / W X / Y and Z / Now I know my ABCs / Won’t you sing along with me?”



After a long, wonderful afternoon eating, drinking, and talking with a friend, Darlene and I returned to her new home in Burlingame. The two of us were in good spirits, having shared a bottle of champagne as well as a Manhattan for me.

I was in my car, already pulling away when Dar rushed up, agitated. I didn’t quite understand what had happened until she showed me: a raven lay stiff and still on her front porch. I had never seen a dead bird so close. Lucy, Dar’s rambunctious terrier (?), watched from the window.

What do we do now? Was it really, completely dead, not just dazed? We went to get a broom and dustpan. I tentatively poked at its body, simultaneously sorry/grateful that there was no sign of life. I didn’t want to get too close to it, and its large stone cold form didn’t fit into the small dustpan.

Unceremoniously I scooped it up with the broom and deposited it with a thud into the trash bin Dar had brought over. The unpleasant task was over instantly, but it seemed like there should have a moment of silence or that one of us should say a few words. Our relief felt tinged with unfinished business.

I learned afterward that what we should have done was to put the corpse in a plastic bag that could be twisted shut or sealed, or wrapped the cadaver in newspaper or rags. Though that seemed more respectful than merely tossing its naked form into the trash barrel, it would have entailed getting closer to the deceased. We surmised that it had been the victim of a window strike. Lucy offered no explanation.

It seemed redundant that a raven, a symbol of death, had died. What did this depressing dispatch symbolize? An ill omen in some cultures, good luck in others. Did it represent Bev, Dar’s soul mate, who had recently departed? Was it about our friend, in good spirits but facing the inevitable after his cancer diagnosis a few years ago. Was it yet one more message of memento mori, a morbid reminder on a waning Monday afternoon?

“I hear a symphony”


I awoke to an unexpectedly spectacular symphony.
Before the backyard fountain began its daily gurgle, 
the dawning sky filled with bird song.
This orchestra wasn’t warming up, 
it was already in full swing:
squawks and squeaks and screeches
            chips and chirps and peeps
                        cries and caws and crows
whistles and whinnies
                                    clicks and quacks and clucks
                    hoots and hollers
tweets and twitters
                        shrieks and chatter
Standing on my podium, I mean porch, 
I was not remotely the conductor,
visualizing the various, invisible singers. 
I’ve seen hummingbirds, blue jays, and recognized mourning doves, 
now an entire chorus was out in full force.
nothing to do with me, 
merely a well-placed audience member, appreciating every note, 
marveling at the rich blend of melodies, harmonies, calls-and-responses, 
with nary a hint of cacophony, 
until slowly the trilling trailed off, 
dissipating into sunrise stillness.
Coda: my neighbor now informs me that my imagined chorus was merely a mockingbird. 
Does that make the morning symphony less, or more, remarkable?

Location vacation


Movies may be ephemeral, flickering shadows on a screen, but (or perhaps because) I have always been attracted to their physical remains.

As a kid at Disneyland I was thrilled to walk through sets from the Disney films Babes in Toyland and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. On my first trip to Europe in 1971, my friend Jim and I saw our surroundings, indeed planned our itinerary, through the lens of movies. We experienced London as the home of Mary Poppins and Vienna as that of Miracle of the White Stallions. When we heard that Castle Combe had been used in Doctor Doolittle we hightailed it there, and splurged by taking the Sound of Music tour of Salzburg filming locations.

My early memories of visiting San Francisco include walking down Flower Drum Song‘s Grant Avenue and driving through the towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay to find Hitchcock’s setting for The Birds. I have collected various maps, publications and websites denoting movie locations.  This fixation developed into the book that Will Shank and I coauthored, Celluloid San Francisco: The Movie Lovers Guide to Bay Area Film Locations. Since then I have presented film clip programs depicting the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in feature films. National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell agrees that much of Alcatraz’s appeal is due to its depiction in the movies, citing nearly one and a half million visitors annually.

Over the years, I toured the backlots of Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount studios, and drove by the Hello Dolly set behind Century City more times than I can remember. I was impressed by the Hollywood Heritage Museum, the (now-relocated) barn used by Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille in early filmmaking. I was surprised to learn how many films were shot at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, known as “the movie railroad,” in Jamestown. In nearby Sonora, an exhibit identified locations in many famous movies. A visit to eastern California included the Lone Pine Museum of Film History, followed by a drive through the Alabama Hills to see the unique terrain in Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Tremors, and many Hollywood westerns.

Costumes are another physical element of what remains after the movie makers have moved on to other projects. Exhibits over the years included original costumes worn by famous stars and had loftier goals than mere hero worship. “Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film” (1988) at LACMA posited that “…Hollywood historical costumes have often initially appeared to be authentic recreations of dress from earlier eras. Contemporary viewers are not aware that the costumes reflect their own standards of style and beauty — that the cave-dwellers’ costumes are cut to emphasize the 1940s silhouette, that the antebellum dresses are made with 1930s bias-cut fabrics. It is only with the passage of time that one can see clearly how all-pervasive the designers’ contemporary aesthetics have been. “Hollywood Costume” (2015) at the forthcoming museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences displayed explanations and examples about the role of costume designers in creating a film’s characters and helping to shape its narrative. Most recently “Dressing Downton”(2017) offered a historical perspective on changing mores and fashion, inspiring me to rewatch the entire series.

I realize I am not alone. Film tourism is a thriving industry. Witness the popularity of the Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand and Harry Potter sites in London and Scotland. Next month Allen will take a TCM bus tour of Manhattan locations. High on my agenda is visiting the archeological dig of the sets from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments, recently discovered in the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes.

The attraction of visiting a setting inspired by fond memories of a film, and the desire to watch the movie again after seeing the site seems to be a symbiotic relationship, All I know is that I look forward to my next “location vacation”.