The man from “The Boys”

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By Scott Ross

Mart Crowley died earlier this month at the age of 84. It is probably difficult for those born in or after the 1970s to comprehend this, but there was a time, and not so long ago, when homosexuality was so terrible a spectre that, even in the field of entertainment, where gay men were legion, there were only two ways to depict fags: 1) As comic, cowardly, limp-wristed prissy swishers who sold antiques, cut hair, designed clothing, squealed like schoolgirls and could always be counted upon to make the hero look like Victor Mature even if he was as wispy as Elisha Cook, Jr.; or 2) as vicious, conscienceless, sadistic/misogynist killers who had to be put down, preferably with as much brutality as could be mustered. Even our greatest, then-living playwright had to disguise his gay characters, or obfuscate their sexuality, ore pretend their sexual activity was shameful, from the ’30s right through the 1960s… and that at a time when the stage was otherwise 50 years ahead of the movies in what could be depicted, and discussed. In such an atmosphere, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band hit New York as a cultural tsunami; what was intended for five-performances Off-Broadway became a 1,000-performance run, the play was recorded in its entirety by A&M Records (Herb Alpert’s label; he was the “A”) and it was filmed, pretty much intact and with the same cast that played it on the stage, by William Friedkin in 1970. (Note the photo of the marquee above. So much for Friedkin’s possessive credit. Cinema Center knew it was a playwright’s movie.)

Boys in the Band - Crowley and cast (Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene)

Crowley (far left) and the cast of The Boys in the Band: Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene.

Crowley, whose friend Natalie Wood hired him as her assistant largely to give him time to complete the play, wrote about himself, and those he knew, in those antediluvian, pre-Stonewall days of the furtive closet in which the only public homosexual the wider society knew of was Truman Capote (and, because he didn’t say so and neither did anyone else, for attribution, some people probably weren’t even entirely certain about him.) While Michael, the play’s bitchy, self-hating central figure, might be thought of as a self-portrait, there was likely some element of Crowley’s persona in all the characters, some of men he knew and some (hold on to yourself) he simply made up. This, not to shock the many now who think that every writer, no matter his or her genre, is constantly engaged in autobiography, is what writers do.

Some felt The Boys in the Band was hopelessly dated when the Stonewall riots took place a year after the play premiered, but this is nonsense. Were the battles the Youngers faced in A Raisin in the Sun obliterated due to the 1963 March on Washington, or because the Voting Right Act was passed two years later? Did Judgment at Nuremburg eliminate anti-Semitism? Not that things didn’t get better, for many, and fast — too fast for the prevailing culture; nasty homophobic jokes and smears in the press and popular entertainment, and legislation in the public sphere, continued apace in the 1970s, but Allen Ginsberg, who witnessed the second night of rioting, famously observed, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” The “boys” in The Boys in the Band all have that look, to one degree or another, even the exuberant flaming-queen Emory. Indeed, the late Doric Wilson, who was also there, later incorporated Michael and his friend and former lover Donald into his wonderful Stonewall play Street Theatre, where they whinge from the sidelines, their bitchiness about the participants camouflaging their fear that they might actually have to stop cringing and stand, if not proud, at least unafraid, before the straight world.

The Boys in the Band R-1773445-1256990810

Crowley never had a hit like The Boys in the Band again, but while I’m sure he would have enjoyed one, he almost didn’t need it. (Orson Welles to Boganovich: “Peter, you only need one.”) His comic drama stands as the embodiment, bold and utterly, un-apologetically queer at a time when men were routinely entrapped, and arrested for so much as dancing with each other in a bar, of a time and place, just before some form of liberation became possible. When I discovered the LP at 17, it took the top of my head off. As I had just emerged from my own sexual confusion, it was astounding to hear through my headphones this stageful of men being themselves, and flagrantly: Dishing full-throatedly. Discussing matters of intimate sexuality as if there were no straights in the audience, or within twenty miles of their voices, with deliciously obscene abandon and, by yes, camping it up. And indulging in badinage that even one of my tender years recognized could bear comparison to the wit of Wilde and Coward. There are few modern plays (or movies, for that matter) with as many quotable lines, and you can probably number those on two hands with some fingers left over.*

Harold: Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?


Michael: In spring a young man’s fancy turns to a fancy young man.


Donald: Thanks to the silver screen your neurosis has got style.


Harold: You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman.


Michael: There’s one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don’t have to look your best.


Donald: What’s good for the gander is good for the gander.


Harold: Give me Librium or give me meth!


Emory: If it’s the one I met, he’s about as straight as the Yellow Brick Road.


Michael: What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?
Donald: A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.


Harold: Michael doesn’t have charm, Donald. He has counter-charm.


Cowboy: I lost my grip doing my chin ups and fell on my heels and twisted my back.
Emory: You shouldn’t wear heels when you do chin ups!


Harold: What I am, Michael, is a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?


Cowboy: I’m not a steal. I cost twenty dollars.


Michael: It’s not always the way it is in plays. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story!


Harold: Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle beige.


Michael: As my father said to me when he died in my arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did.” Turn the lights out when you leave.

The Boys in the Band - movie poster

Not everyone loved the play, or the movie. Pauline Kael likened its characters to “the gathering of bitchy ladies in The Women, but with a 40s-movie bomber-crew cast: a Catholic, a Jew, a Negro, a hustler, one who is butch, and one who is nellie, and so on. They crack jokes while their hearts are breaking.” But better this than the sort of reflexive, prim inanities one reads about the play now on pages like Wikipedia, where Crowley’s entry refers to The Boys in the Band as his “gay-themed play.” Gay-themed?!? This, about a piece of theatre whose cast last is entirely composed of gay men (and one possible closet-case) who talk almost exclusively about matters of note to homosexual men, and in which sexuality, and the characters’ attitudes toward it, is the overriding concern!

Crowley may have been, to a degree, a victim of his own success. The play that made him famous also limited him (this was not, after all, the time of “out” gay screenwriters winning Academy Awards) as the times marginalized the work itself. And what really dated the play was not Stonewall, but the decade that followed it: By the time we had gotten through Anita Bryant’s crusade in Florida, the Briggs Initiative in California, the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco and such ancillary items as a deeply biased CBS News “special report” that in a mere hour managed to slander every gay man and Lesbian in America, that wounded look Ginsberg referred to had been replaced by one of utter fury.

And, lucky us, AIDS was waiting in the wings.

Having come out the other side of that devastation,† which I remain persuaded was CIA in origin (oh, not aimed at queers — we were just collateral damage — but at Africans) the turn of the century seemed the right time to re-examine Mart Crowley and his most famous play. It was re-published, along with the lesser-known A Breeze from the Gulf (a sort of unofficial, autobiographical prelude to Boys) and another, For Reasons That Remain Unclear, and carrying a new introduction by the author, in 1996. It was also recently given a somewhat starry Broadway production with a cast entirely composed of “openly gay” actors (whatever that means; who ever identifies as “openly straight”?)‡ including Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. The theatre writer and critic Peter Falicia believes the play helped inspire Stonewall, which I beg some leave to doubt, and that it altered the attitudes of many heterosexuals who saw it, which is more likely.

Mart Cowley did of a heart attack following open heart surgery on 7 March, 2020. There were times in the years after the play and movie when, as his old friend (and onetime “Boy”) Laurence Luckinbill notes in American Theatre, Crowley despaired, and nearly succumbed. But he survived to 84 when many of his generation (and, later, my own) were dead before 44. And what will be more important to future generations, his most well known play survives. As a period-piece perhaps, or even an object lesson, but either way The Boys go on. This one-time, fumbling, uncertain gay adolescent now sends his thanks to a man he never met but whose characters still live within his ageing breast. Thanks for turning the lights on, Mart/Michael, and for keeping them on when you left.

Mart Crowley 1970

Crowely at the time of the movie.

*My list, for what it’s worth (and with minimal thought), of ten: The Importance of Being Earnest, Pygmalion, Private Lives, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Man for All Seasons, The Odd Couple, 40 Years On, Angels in America.

†Although nearly a million people still die from HIV/AIDS every year — 13,000 of them in America. That’s hardly a victory. But its terror has largely receded here, if only among those not affected.

‡Please don’t bother telling me it’s about being “out.” I came out as a teenager, in 1979. But I don’t refer to myself as being “openly gay” any more than I identify as “openly Caucasian,” or “openly Scots-Irish.” And yes, I recognize the difference. I’m not quite a moron.

Text (other than Crowley’s dialogue) copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

“You faggots are revolting!”: Stonewall + 50

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“You faggots are revolting!” — Cat-call at the first gay parade in New York, in 1970. To which an anonymous wit shouted back, “You bet your sweet ass we are!”

By Scott Ross

For the record, your correspondent was eight years old that day, and would not learn of the significance of Stonewall for some time. Herewith, a few signposts leading to, and from, 27 and 28 June, 1969.

Below: The late Frank Kameny in Philadelphia, in 1965.

Frank Kameny, 1965

Fired from his government job in 1957 as a “sex pervert,” he took his case to the Supreme Court in 1961, eight years before Stonewall. One of the most courageous men of his time.

The Lesbian rights pioneer Barbara Gittings, in the early 1960s.Barbara Gittings

The Black Cat Tavern in the Silverlake district of L.A. On New Year’s Eve 1967 — a year and a half before the Stonewall uprising — patrons rioted when the cops arrested and brutally beat its patrons. The once-great, now insipid, magazine The Advocate arose from this infamous event. Why do so few of us know it happened?

Black Cat barsmall

Below: Protests at the Black Cat.

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Below: The Stonewall Inn, 27 and 28 June 1969. When the queers fought back.
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While many of the patrons of that Mafia-controlled bar were black or Latino, some were drag queens, and Lesbians were represented as well, it was a decidedly mixed crowd, in terms of race, of gender, and even of gender-identity — precisely the sort of polyglot gathering we now take as a social ideal. And yes, Virginia, despite the historical revisionism now masquerading as fact and perpetuated by people who weren’t even alive in 1969, there were plenty of white boys there. Even granting the participation of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and others who perhaps did not consider themselves transgendered at the time of the riots but who later proclaimed it, for 20-somethings today to make the absurd claim that the event was precipitated solely by black trans women (as I saw more than one self-righteous twit proclaim on the release of the ill-considered 2015 Stonewall movie*) is as false as the usual popular whitewash which attends so much American history and which consistently elevated whites to sainted status (even in the creation of Jazz!) It serves neither social justice, nor history, to view the Stonewall riots solely through the bent lens (to use a pointed metaphor) of 21st century racial and gender identity politics. The inclusive patronage of the Stonewall — and, by extension, of the crowd that grew outside that evening and the following night — is emblematic of the movement, and of the reasons so many later embraced Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag.†

Below: Young black, Hispanic and Caucasian patrons, including two drag queens (or possibly three; I don’t know about the boy at top center) outside the Stonewall.

Stonewall - Getty

Gay “street kids,” some as young as 14, were also represented that night and the following evening. As has been pointed out, they lived on the edge of death anyway, and had nothing to lose by fighting back.

Stonewall - Getty Images
Some accounts suggest a butch Lesbian (or even a straight man…) may have instigated the riot. But the Village “street kids” were, understandably, the angriest, and they’d had it with the cops; they were likely the first to resist.
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A patron of the Stonewall Inn confronts New York police, as seen in Stonewall Uprising, a film by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. A First Run Features release. (Photo Credit: Bettye Lane)

How the New York Times chose to cover Stonewall:

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That headline’s pro-cop bias was a love offering to the gay community of Greenwich Village compared to how the Sunday News chose to cover the event:
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Below: The playwright Doric Wilson, who was there. Street Theatre, Wilson’s dramatic fantasia about Stonewall, should be required reading (or viewing, if you can find a production) for every intelligent homo boy or girl.
Street Theater - Howard Cruse

Poster art for the TOSOS production by the great Howard Cruse. Note the figures based on Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band characters Michael and Donald at left. They represent the generation most determined to be un-affected by, if not indeed actively opposing, what happened that night in the Village.

Edmund White was passing by that evening as well, and took careful note. As he later said to David Carter, “Everyone’s restless, angry, and high-spirited. No one has a slogan, no one even has an attitude, but something’s brewing.”

Edmund White

One of the first posters of a new movement, if not the first:

Gay Liberation Front - Come Out poster

“We have cooperated for a very long time in the maintenance of our own invisibility. And now the party is over.”

Vito Russo Wearing Pink Triangle Tee Shirt at Microphone

The late — and how gay men of my generation tired of using that phrase for the many AIDS dead — Vito Russo, an early activist whose groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet, marrying two of my chief interests (movies and homosexuality) rocked my world in 1981.

Finally, to the legions of fashionable incrementalists on the left generally — and in the Democratic Party particularly — who believe we must always take baby steps and never offend or inconvenience anyone, this reminder: Meaningful social change only happens when there is direct action. While that does not necessarily mean violence (think Rosa Parks) it should be kept in mind that, had the participants at Stonewall waited to be patted on the heads and called good little boys and girls by the heterosexist Über-culture, we’d still be prohibited from dancing with each other in public.

They didn’t ask that night. They demanded. And everything since has flowed from that. A lesson we need to re-teach ourselves. To quote a murdered politician, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

It was not a Hamptons cocktail party. As a popular meme has it…

Stonewall was a riot

* Itself unnecessary, as the late Nigel Fench had already made a very fine Stonewall, based on Martin Duberman’s book, in 1995, which focused on an interracial couple (one of whom was a cross-dressing Latino) and which I doubt any of these carping, identity-blinded Millennials have ever heard of, much less seen.

†Although its Radical Faerie design actually represents Sex, Life, Healing, Sunlight, Nature, Magic/Art, Serenity and Spirit.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

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Note: This was written in 2016. It’ll be (incredibly, to me) 49 years this summer.

By Scott Ross

Forty-seven years ago, on the morning of 22 June 1969, my family was living in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. It was a lovely summer morning, pleasant and dry, and as we didn’t have a subscription to the Sunday Columbus Dispatch, someone had always on that day of the week to walk down to the little general store nearby and pick up a copy of the paper. It was either my turn, or I volunteered, I no longer recall. After I paid for the newspaper, I walked back home, looking at the front page. The banner headline said that Judy Garland had died, at 47.

I was a very naïve child, in many ways. In part, I suspect, because I seldom voiced my inner thoughts, and therefore seldom had my misconceptions corrected. (You get verbally slapped down enough times, you learn to keep things to yourself.) Example: For several years during early childhood I was convinced that the people we saw on television lived inside the box, and somehow magically sprang into action when we turned on the set. The only thing I knew of Judy Garland, at that time, was that she was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which we watched every Easter. And while I no longer believed that people took up residence inside our black-and-white(!) Sylvania television console, I must still have maintained some notion that film froze the people on it, or that movies were, somehow, live. So Judy Garland’s age really puzzled me. How could that young girl be 47 years old? She looked only a bit older than my sister. And 47 — why, that was 12 years older than my father!

I think of that walk back home every year at this time. Sheltered in the Ohio midlands, in a place that was something between a large town and a small city, I had little idea what was going on in the outside world. (Mt. Vernon is one of my lost Edens; if it was a cocoon it was a cocoon I had been happy to nestle inside.) And that summer, a great deal was going to go on, very soon, in America at least. I certainly had only the vaguest notion, despite odd stirrings within my own self for years, what a homosexual was, and wouldn’t have understood what was about to occur in a place called Greenwich Village. Whether or not grief over Judy Garland’s death had anything at all to do with the furious reactions at Stonewall — the playwright Doric Wilson thought it hadn’t, and he was there — the almost umbilical connection between “Miss Show Business” and many of her gay male fans was very real, and something I would come to understand quite well, some six or seven years later.

Judy Garland obit

When I shared the following dialogue from my play A Liberal Education on Facebook Doric, who has since died, gently set me straight (so to speak) on the tempting Garland connection. When I thanked him and said I would consider revising the scene, he replied that I shouldn’t change a word. I loved him for that. We never met in the flesh, but I miss him. He was a wonderful writer (his play on Stonewall, Street Theatre, should be required reading for every gay boy and girl), a kind man, and a living link to that moment that altered so much, for so many.

Anyway, here’s the dialogue in question…


NICK: 
David, tell them your theory.

JO: Oh, goodie—theorizing.

DAVID: Well, we were talking—on the way over—about the differences in gay behavior.

JO: There are differences?

DAVID: Not for nothing, sweetie, but some men are gay and some are—
(He stands and throws his arms up and out in a “v”)
gay!

JO: Thanks for the clarification.

NICK: I mean, you take me. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to swish—

DAVID: He tried once. At a New Year’s Eve party? Pathetic.

JO: (Singing) I can’t camp—
(SHEREE joins in)
—don’t ask me.

DAVID: Whereas I might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign. Anyway. I was thinking, about Stonewall. And as far as I can gather, that little shin-dig was thrown by a whole lotta pissed-off drag queens and effeminate Hispanic boys and oh-so-butch ladies—

NICK: Drag queens and nellies and dykes—

JO: Oh, my!

DAVID: Exactly. Has anyone ever made the connection that, the week those girls said, “Get over it, Miss Cop,” Our Lady of the Rainbow had just doffed her ruby slippers for the last time?

NICK: Isn’t it funny to think that Judy Garland just might be the unofficial mother of the whole modern gay rights movement?

SHEREE: Hysterical. Does that make Liza Minnelli the step-mother?

JO: Please.

NICK: You have to admit, if you take anger, frustration and high temperatures and compound them with grief, you’ve got one very volatile combination.

DAVID: So, the next time some slab of overfed gay beef gives me shit for camping, I’m just going to sing him a few bars of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.”

A Liberal Education playbill IMG_0007 resized

Text copyright 2016, by Scott Ross