Category Archives: San Francisco

Outsider moves

FreshMeat_Outsider Moves_Cinderbutte
Sean Dorsey and Mair Culbreth in “The OutsiderChronicles.” Photo: Max Ferman.

When a dance production comes along that involves beauty and imagination to the nth degree, and I’m lucky enough to be there to witness it, I feel incalculably grateful. In the midst of fractured times, for a choreographer/dancer to pull together a full-length evening of flawless dance and story telling is immeasurably wonderful and healing. The boundlessly gifted Sean Dorsey and his Fresh Meat crew performed perfectly this past Friday, November 18, at that jewel of a dance space, ODC Theater, and when it was over, a packed house gave the dancers, musicians and tech crew a much deserved, prolonged standing ovation. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was smitten.

“The Outsider Chronicles”, billed as “a dance theater journey into the world of the gender outsider,” stripped off layers of confusion surrounding the transgender experience, baring a simple, spare, sublime representation of otherness, while retaining that certain mysteriousness that makes transgendered people so alluring. Five dances encompassed a lifetime of experience, mostly told in duets with super handsome Sean and exquisitely beautiful Mair Culbreth, or by Sean solo. In the opening piece “Second Kiss,” Sean and Mair represented two school girls, nine year olds, exploring romance and reeling from confusion. Mair was the cute, pushy girly girl who wanted her first taste of boy lips. She looked over her options, and mistaking Sean for a boy, chose him. Sean, realizing he’d be taking part in a deception, dragged Mair away from his playmates, who knew his true gender, to indulge in the desire he and Mair both shared, albeit with different levels of awareness. They kissed, just once, and rolled around, and found their limbs entwined, then they were lying side by side, breathless. Her passion aroused, Mair then wanted to have a look “down there,” and Sean knew the gig was up. “Oh gross!” reeled Mair, confronted with the evidence. She fled, but soon edged back, taking Sean’s hand. There would be no second kiss. The first kiss, however, was unforgettable.

By the second dance, Sean was all man, androgynous to be sure, but male without a doubt. There was no question he had transitioned. “Red Tie, Red Lipstick” opened with him dressing at a sink, fixing his pressed, starched white shirt and dark suit jacket, arranging his red tie, as Mair, the seductive woman in a red dress, circled slowly around him, dancing to sophisticated electronic lounge music, closing in on her man, the two of them preparing to embark on a night on the town. In a voice-over by hip hop poet/writer Marcus Van, we heard of the couple’s brutal queer-bashing by thugs posing as cops. It was a gritty, gut-wrenching urban tale. The faux-cops spat out the word lesbian as a slur, and dragged the one with the red dress and red lipstick into the shadows. Sean and Mair, danced exquisitely, reflecting all the punches and insults, even as the red dress became irreparably soiled. The dance continued after the physical violence was over, but clearly the saga of the red dress would always be with them.

The other dances were equally affecting, “Six Hours” involved a road trip by car to meet Sean’s dad, who didn’t know Sean now identifies as a man. Mair and Sean in the car bickered endlessly, employing passive aggression and other tricks to work out some of their relationship kinks. In “Creative,” Sean solo danced a hilarious piece about a teenager in school sent to a Guidance Counselor to discuss gender inappropriateness. That piece was about courage, how a teenager wants it and needs it, and how it can fail at crucial times.

Little old lady takes over Cannabis Buyer’s Club

 

Peron's_Pot_ClubSAN FRANCISCO, April 1998: It was the kind of wacky-sweet political and cultural concordance likely to be recalled again and again for generations as a hallmark of San Francisco’s off-beat character. And like so many other mind-bending events here in the nexus of hippiedom, queerness, AIDS activism, and marijuana wars, it all occurred amid a crush of media. For many, in fact, it was the ’60s all over again, with a distinct late-’90s twist.

On Monday afternoon in San Francisco, amid a barrage of television cameras and reporters’ questions, a popular county sheriff and a revered, gay, marijuana seller got together to deliver a major slap in the face of California Attorney General Dan Lungren. The two old friends, backed by their Mayor and District Attorney, united to let their state’s AG know, in no uncertain terms, that they strongly disagree with his senseless quest to circumvent the will of California voters who overwhelmingly legalized medical marijuana by passing Proposition 215.

What might have turned out as an ugly citizen-police confrontation, had it occurred under different circumstances or in almost any other locality, instead transpired as a near love-fest between natural foes.

To comply with the letter of an order issued on April 15 by Superior Court Judge David Garcia, at the behest of Lungren, Sheriff Michael Hennessey and at least a dozen of his deputies politely entered the famed, now-former Cannabis Buyers Club at 1444 Market Street, greeted its founder, gay activist and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Peron, smiled at his merry-making band of pot-smoking patients, and respectfully ordered everyone to vacate the spacious, five-story premises, which since 19__ had served as San Francisco’s primary hemp haven and dispensary.

When Hennessey first told Peron he had no choice but to come in and shut the club, “I told him we weren’t going to resist and that there would be no confrontation,” said Peron. “He said he was going to obey the law, and I said I was too.”

After entering the building precisely on schedule, at 1:30 p.m., Hennessey and his deputies casually combed its interior, going through the motions of confiscating whatever pot plants and paraphernalia they found. To satisfy them, Peron and club volunteers conveniently left behind several scraggly pot plants, some bongs and pipes, and a heap or two of marijuana “shake”, meaning the shaken-out leaves of pot plants. All other hemp plants and products had previously been removed from the premises, as everyone well knew.

Out on the sidewalk, in front of the building, dozens of buoyant club clients, along with the media types, craned their necks upward in fascination as they watched deputies, behind the windows of the club’s second-floor offices, sort out the confiscated items. Occasionally those below would wave, while those up above would grin down and acknowledge the cheers.

Every once in a while Hennessey would pop outside to answer reporters’ questions, and occasionally he invited Peron and some of his associates inside to help carry out the eviction. But never did the officers touch or remove any client files, and nary a discouraging word was uttered by anyone.

The whole affair, the much-anticipated, well-choreographed shut-down of Peron’s dispensary, was set in motion by Lungren, whose right-wing views and rival gubernatorial candidacy blinded him to the need of patients for the one medicinal substance — THC from marijuana — that could ease their nausea and relieve much of their pain.

Yet despite Lungren, who has indicated he wants nothing more than to put all medical-marijuana clubs out of business permanently, Judge Garcia issued only a limited order, charging Peron and one assistant with violating the provisions of Proposition 215 by selling cannabis products not just to prescription-wielding patients, but to primary-care givers as well.

That order required Peron to cease selling pot and to close his club, and called on the sheriff to enforce the action. It did not, however, prevent Peron from ceremonially passing the keys to the shut building’s owner, Mr. Zacharia, who then turned around and handed a new set of keys to Hazel Rodgers, a 78-year-old glaucoma victim who for years has volunteered at the club where she obtains the marijuana she was prescribed as a relief for her condition.

By 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Rodgers was in charge of a reincarnated medical-marijuana establishment, the Cannabis Healing Center, in exactly the same place, with exactly the same clients as before.

“Hazel instituted a couple of new policies,” Peron told the B.A.R. on Tuesday afternoon. He spoke by phone from the new club, where he was busy giving interviews to reporters from around the country. “She no longer allows caregivers in building, and does not issue cards to caregivers. We’re now in conformance with the new law and the court rulings.”

Dennis_Peron
Dennis Peron

Peron, who served as a primary caregiver to thousands, claimed he never knew it was against law to dispense medical marijuana to other primary caregivers. Even so, he added, relatively few such individuals came to the club anyway, “maybe 5 percent” of all those coming to the club for pot.

“Now if they want to come here,” suggested Peron, “they’re going to have to be diagnosed with something and get a prescription.”

It is precisely Peron’s willingness to openly confront hostile state (and federal) authorities, his conviction that marijuana eases suffering and should be made readily available to those who need it, and his theatrics in popularizing his cause that have revered him to thousands if not millions of progressive voters and politicians throughout California, while infuriating conservatives like Lungren.

“A hundred percent of what I’ve been doing is spreading a message of hope and empowerment,” said a relaxed, smiling Peron as he milled about among a host of admirers, media types, television news cameras, and deputies on the sidewalk in front of the club in which he is no longer allowed to take an active role. “I’ve been carrying this thing for six years, and I’m ready to have this chapter of my life close.”

Peron added that he now plans to devote himself full-time to his quest for the governor’s seat.

Meanwhile, those who have worked with Peron in running the club continue to do so under the new banner and Rodgers’ management. They also look at this latest maneuvering in the fight for medical marijuana as just one more step toward complete victory.

“In this [judge’s] decision, both sides claim victory,” said John Entwistle, who has been at the side of Peron since the club first started in a storefront on 19th Street at Castro. “It enables us to continue to exist and serve patients. Everyone’s coming around. We’re a large group of people, and we’ll influence the rest of the nation. Just because the judge shut down the club for a few hours doesn’t mean the genie goes back in the bottle.”

 ###

 

Skateboard

SKATEBOARDAGAINST THE YELLOW WALL there are no mysteries. There the tall man sits, the slender young man with the green sweater tied around his waist, there he sits, his back against the wall, his butt upon a skateboard, upon its non-skid surface, his legs drawn up, his arms folded around his knees. He contemplates the world. There are no mysteries. There is concrete, asphalt, and metal. There is some brick and wood. Every once in a while there’s a tree. It is no mystery why the tree is there: someone planned it, just like everything is planned–then falls apart. There is nothing natural in the City, and nothing eternal. That’s why the tall young man with the green sweater sits upon his skateboard. If there is nothing natural, there is also nothing unnatural–all is fixed, all is a facade. Skateboarding is just another facade in the City, another way of life.

 All-American punk kids on skateboards: as standard in the City as cream cheese on bagels. You see them in the skateboard shops with their parents, when they’re still squeaky clean and innocent and too young to buy the equipment on their own. They plaster their boards up and down with cartoon decals, hideous monsters and demonic faces of evil. They are delighted by the clash of flourescent greens, oranges, reds, and the black lips of hell creatures.

They wear the requisite multi-colored hi-top tennies and the standard knee-length Hawaiian-patterned shorts. They assemble on street corners, consciously cool post-pubescent boys, wanting to be looked at, never admitting it. One steps out of the circle, gingerly tosses his board to the ground, toes it, makes it pop up, steps on it, makes it squirm, dance. The others watch impassively out of the corners of their eyes; he pays no attention to them, only to his motions, to his performance. But the dance is quickly over, even before any climax to it can be made, and the boy rejoins his buddies. He hasn’t the power to leave them. Not yet.

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“Skateboard” was published in “Frank,” an arts magazine in San Francisco in the 1980s, now long out of print.

The girls will thrash on the hills with their rad boys and one of them will end up bloody. It’s cool. Her boy will like her better after that. She widens the rip in the knee of her jeans and exposes the five-inch scab. That’s just one: you should’ve seen what she did to her head!

Out of the City there are the highways, even unto the Midwest. On these highways in ages past and even unto the present there sailed solitary figures in convertibles. They were loners, drifters, free spirits. They were, and ever are, American heroes.

No less, the solitary skateboarders of the City. These few, a very few, feel no tie to heaven and are ever defying the earth, but it holds them. It holds them and twists them, but they twist back, and so an antagonism of forces conspires to create a most startling and unworldly ballet on the streets. Nothing engages these women and men as the act of breaking free. They are a long way from their gangs on the streetcorners, all of whom vanished from the scene. These individuals are on their own. You and I cannot touch them.

A green sweater around his waist, a blue, torn tanktop, some well-worn black jeans, old sneakers–shoulders, arms, and neck bare, skin tanned, jaws wide, hair long, curly, dirty blonde, turned-up nose, cleft chin, high cheekbones, hardened look, wary eyes, eyes that have seen inside the walls of the City, into the cubicles of human isolation, a body that has felt the humiliating blows of ignorance and contempt. Maybe he’ll open up for someone, either a woman or a man, but someone to pound his flesh and heart hard.

This man on a skateboard lives an aesthetics, a philosophy, a sport, and he doesn’t give a damn if you or I or anybody knows it.

But I do.

Burroughs for opera lovers: Erling Wold’s ‘Queer’

Reviewed by Mark Mardon.

Erling_Wold's_Queer
A scene from Erling Wold’s “Queer” chamber opera.

Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.

Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.

Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.

Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.

Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.

Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.

Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.

Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.

Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.

Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.

 

Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.

Whither Goeth the Rhino?

Doug Holsclaw talks of Theatre Rhinoceros

Doug_Holsclaw
Doug Holsclaw

On the map of gay San Francisco, Theatre Rhinoceros is a sacred community space. Five times a year in the old Redstone Building it calls home, the company mounts main-stage productions – with more shows in the downstairs Studio – and the faithful come to witness. At these times, the grizzled old gal radiates gay splendor.

For nearly 25 years, cutting-edge queer theater has found a home at Theatre Rhinoceros, beginning in times of heady optimism and fervent activism of the gay lib era, brazening through the dark years of the plague, lit by a spirit of defiance, and finally emerging again into the light of new hope. Or would that be the twilight of old hope?

This is the question of the moment as I meet with Theatre Rhinoceros Artistic Director Doug Holsclaw one recent afternoon at his Rhino turf in the Mission. We sit facing one another downstairs in the emptiness and shadows of the Studio, his chair perched on low stage platform, higher than mine, the difference in our heights emphasizing his regal nellyness. It’s just he and I, a microphone and digital device recording his every lisp, and a file-folder’s worth of images I’ve brought along, culled from a newspaper archive, documenting the many years of Theatre Rhinoceros productions. To get to the future, we’ll need to review the past.

“I don’t want to be an isolationist or separatist,” Holsclaw declares at the outset,” but I do think there is something to having our own home,” a place where queer stage artists can be themselves. He adds: “I feel like we’re not about straight approval.”

In his breathless, breathtaking way, Holsclaw justifies his theater’s existence: “If Theatre Rhinoceros didn’t exist, Barebacking wouldn’t have existed.” He adds an extra oomph: “I feel real strongly about that.”

John Fisher’s Barebacking, Holsclaw declares, “was a big production with great productions values and really controversial subject matter. Nobody else touched this show.” He beams with the pride of a proud parent, mother and father mixed in one.

He lives and breathes theater, you can tell, and the more in-your-face queer the play, the more he seems to like it: “I must say I don’t think we get a lot of credit for being as adventurous as we are.”

There’s a devilishness in him. He loves controversy. He also loves to tout the sheer variety of Rhino presentations: “We are not a theater that does just one thing,” he harrumphs, responding to invisible or imagined critics. “We just did Noel Coward, now we’re doing a women’s prison comedy, then we’re doing a gay version of Of Mice and Men. This is following Marga Gomez’s Twelve Days of Cochina, and Serina Queen of the Tango, about a drag queen tango dancer.” The last, he shakes his head, met with an unlucky fate, despite Matthew Martin delivering “the best performance he ever gave.” Alas, the play opened on September 9, 2001. It’s life was cut short by the bombing. The audience stayed home – a pity, he sighs, “because it was just wonderful!”

Doug_Holsclaw_1Continuing through the photos, Holsclaw comes upon yet another image of sexy guys baring all that counts to the Rhino audience: “This was a hot little comedy we did in the Studio,” he remarks of Out Calls Only. “When the first nudie boys shows started coming around, I said: ‘Let’s beat them at their own game. Let’s write something that’s really sexy, where sex isn’t the punch line. . . . It wasn’t like, oh, Naked Boys Singing: ‘Isn’t it funny when we wiggle our dicks?'”

Speaking of dicks brings him to Ronnie Larson, infamous director of 10 Naked Men and other controversies: “Ronnie Larson, you know, is a nut!” laughs Holsclaw, “but he’s talented, I’ve got to give it to him. I always say I’ll never work with him again, and I always do. He’s coming back next year.”

Holsclaw remains gently miffed at Larson for a nasty trick he pulled in the production of Girl Meets Girl: “He lied to me and told me it was [by] a woman playwright! It was really Ronnie using an assumed name. I took all sorts of heat. People wrote vicious things about me in the press, and I honestly got tricked!”

He recalls another play that caused a ruckus, and seems to revel in the memory, looking at the photographs: “This was Shopping & Fucking, which was one of my favorite productions ever. It caused all sorts of problems. We got hate mail. A major funder withdrew funding because the show was offensive to straight people. They said [the play presented] a very dark view of humanity.” Holsclaw sighs deeply, then replies: “Now, you step over people to come to this theater. Then you come inside and we’re supposed to be at a beach house at fire island? You know what I mean? Shouldn’t theater reflect the experience of the world?”

 

A dream come true

This place, this project, this dream called Theatre Rhinoceros, has been Holsclaw’s life and career and home for almost 20 years, almost since the time he moved to San Francisco from New York, in 1983. He never intended to become Artistic Director of a gay theater company, nor aimed for precisely the heights he’s achieved in the role, or the gravitas he carries with grace but can’t escape: “I never aspired to this, but now I’m the organizational history and memory of Theater Rhinoceros, because so many of my colleagues and dear friends before me are no longer here.”

It’s an awesome responsibility. If you want to do queer theater in San Francisco, you have a few choices: go the low-budget, anarchist/independent route, either in rental spaces or through workshopping at the Jon Sims Center and elsewhere; or plead with mainstream theaters to produce your gay-themed piece (thus currying the queer community’s gratitude); or turn to New Conservatory Theater Center or Theatre Rhinoceros, the two main homes plays and spectacles by, for and about queers.

“We recently started using Equity actors,” proclaims Holsclaw with pride. Rhino, he says, is “the first gay theater in the country to have a seasonal agreement with Equity. We pay our actors $125 a week.”

The amount is absurdly low, a mere token, and Holsclaw knows it: “Economics in the Bay Area have made it hard for young artists to live here because rents are so high. Young people are going to Portland and Seattle, not San Francisco, except the more professional ones. I don’t sense a rising class of younger artists in the volume there was when I started, because it’s a tough city to live in.”

Holsclaw describes finances at Theatre Rhinoceros as touch-and-go, but declares that thanks to his small, hard-working staff, and careful allocation of new grants, “At Rhino, you see the money on the stage.”

Just after he says this, Holsclaw drops the big news: “We’ve been in the planning process for our relocation; we’re in the process of negotiating an option to buy on a new building.”

The specific building Holsclaw has in mind for Theatre Rhinoceros is the old City Athletic Club smack dab in the center of the Castro. “If the homeless shelter moves out, it might become available,” Holsclaw says. “The location is beautiful. The idea of having a performing arts facility in the Castro would be a great thing for the community.”

Holsclaw feels the Castro location, for which they’ve already don an architectural feasibility study, would make GLBT theater accessible to a larger segment of the population: “What I hear from our audience is that while some people love the Mission District, some people don’t feel safe coming here. And people should feel safe coming to the theater. Once inside the theater, there should be an element of danger, because you don’t know what you’re going to see on stage.”

As for himself, says Holsclaw at interview’s end, “I’m not sure what the future holds, but in the next couple of years I would like to transition out of being to dog, and that will mean groom and coaching somebody.

Is anybody waiting in the wings?

“Well, that’s a top secret,” he winks, “just like my Boo Boo Bear.”

. . . . .

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

Tripping over Tricia: The Cockettes on film

San Francisco filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber restore the long-lost Cockettes film  Tricia’s Wedding.   

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Preserving cultural trivia is no easy task. Much of the fluff of life disappears without a whimper, gone before anyone notices. By the time anyone realizes a thing’s importance, it may be too late to salvage. Fortunately, the world has documentary film makers such as David Weissman and Bill Weber, two San Franciscans feverishly dedicated to preserving the legacy The Cockettes, one of the more outrageous queer hippie performance collectives of the 1970s.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

In the course of assembling their documentary, Weissman and Weber salvaged a precious piece of trivia, a campy film produced by The Cockettes, called Tricia’s Wedding, long lost and mostly forgotten, but now restored, thanks to their efforts. Scenes from that film will show up in their documentary when they complete it (in roughly a year). Meanwhile, the story of Tricia’s Wedding and its restoration deserves telling, because it says a lot about how queer culture has evolved, and what it takes to ensure that a colorful part of the past remains accessible to us at present.

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Wedding day 1971: Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon, Tricia Nixon and Edward Finch Cox.

It was 1971, and Tricia Nixon, the President’s daughter, was about to wed beneath the klieg lights of the national press corps. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, a gaggle of wild drag performers calling themselves The Cockettes decided they wanted to celebrate the joyous occasion in their inimitable way. The manager of the flock, a fellow named Sebastian, proposed they film their own version of the wedding. They would screen it on wedding night at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where they had been holding regular Friday night “Nocturnal Dream Shows,” at which gender-bent hippies gathered to take acid, watch offbeat movies, display their feathered finery, and camp it up until dawn.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It took two days to make the movie,” says Weissman, who works out of an office in the South of Market space occupied by Frameline, the organization dedicated to promoting queer cinema. “It was made at a place called Secret Cinema on 16th Street. This was Steven Arnold’s warehouse. They put together the sets overnight, and filmed the sort-of-sober parts on Saturday, with the understanding from Sebastian that Sunday was the day they would all go completely berserk and have the post-LSD reception. There was a certain amount of consumption of substances during filming.”

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Reggie spikes the punch in a scene
from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

As Weissman describes it, the film Tricia’s Wedding is “basically is a psychedelic drag parody.” Among its huge cast of characters – all portrayed by wacky transvestites – were many of the notable political and cultural figures of the time: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; Lady Bird Johnson; Vice President Spiro Agnew; India’s Indira Gandhi; Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general; and Mamie Eisenhower, the former president’s wife. The recently widowed Coretta Scott King was portrayed by Sylvester, whose rise to fame as a disco diva was just beginning. A Cockette named Reggie played the key role of Eartha Kitt, who spikes the wedding punch with LSD in revenge for having been blackballed from the White House, the result of criticizing the Vietnam War during an intimate performance for Lady Bird Johnson, which had caused Lady Bird to cry.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It wound up being a huge, wild orgy at the end of the show,” says Weissman, describing the film’s wedding-reception scene. “Wigs and clothes come off and people flip out and have a lot of fun. Mamie Eisenhower, who was the mother of our country, has a wonderful drunken performance.” And Tricia Nixon herself was played by “the eternally hideous Goldie Glitters.” That she was marrying a man named Cox was ripe for Cockettes parody.

Weissman recalls first viewing the half-hour-long Tricia’s Wedding when he was about 20 years old, a few years after it was made: “I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but it changed my life. It really brought home to me the subversive power of comedy and particularly of drag. It was a really entertaining assault on all the norms of bourgeois American culture. It was just one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.”

For years, Weissman has wanted Tricia’s Wedding to be shown publicly by Frameline or some other group, “because I knew it was a piece of gay history.” Yet one big stumbling block prevented this: the only print anyone in existence was in the hands of Sebastian, and it was in very bad condition.

“Every time it would play,” says Weissman, “it would catch at a particular point and burn in the projector, and everyone in the audience would scream and yell.”

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Weissman knew that Sebastian, who now lives in Los Angeles, had made a video copy of it, but it was made from the one bad print, so he worried Tricia’s Wedding would be lost once this print finally shredded. But making a fresh print proved highly problematical since neither Sebastian nor Mark Lester, the film’s producer, had any idea what happened to the original materials. They assumed everything had been lost.

Undeterred, Weissman looked up the film’s cinematographer, Paul Aratow, figuring he might know which laboratory the film was done in. Through an Internet search, he found Aratow in Los Angeles, and asked him “Did you shoot Tricia’s Wedding? He laughed and said: ‘Oh my god, I haven’t thought of that in 25 years!'”

Aratow said he thought the film had been processed at a lab on Columbus Street, Monaco, which still exists. Weissman called there and asked: “What are the chances of finding a piece of film from 29 years ago in your vaults?”

The person he spoke with knew the film, but said it had been processed at Palmer’s, which had long since closed down. The inventory from Palmer’s, he later learned, had been picked up by Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and by an archive in New York City.

It was at the latter that Tricia’s Wedding turned up.

“They had no idea what it was,” says Weissman. “They had the original sound track, and the original negatives.”

Once Sebastian authorized the release of the materials to Weissman and Weber, the two were quick to turn it around: “We just now completed making a brand new, absolutely perfect print and preservation negative of Tricia’s Wedding to save for posterity,” says Weissman.

And in this way, yet another chapter of queer history gets beefed up.

For information about Tricia’s Wedding and the making of The Cockettes documentary, contact David Weissman at GranDelusion Production, 346 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone (415) 703-8661.

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

 

‘Out in the Castro’ — Eureka!

The old guard of San Francisco’s gay liberation movement reunite in Winston Leyland’s Out in the Castro, 2002.

 

out_in_the_castroSAN FRANCISCO: A charming reunion, fit for the history books, took place in early December, 2001, at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. An assemblage of mostly old-guard GLBT writers, politicos, activists, photographers, preachers, journalists, editors, and artists cozied up to the lectern to proudly unveil their new work, Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism (Leyland Publications, 2002; $24.95, paper). Editor Winston Leyland, the local publishing legend, was present in the flesh, presiding over his book’s contributors like a literary hen clucking over her brood.

The place was packed with spectators, old and young and in-between, all greeting one another like family. In the newly refurbished, nicely re-arranged bookstore, it felt homey – perfect for deep immersion into the rich cultural and historical life of that part of town we call Gay Central, the nexus of queer life in San Francisco, despite its increased commercialization and tourist-centered businesses, and the squeeze put on low-income residents.

For those of us who’ve lived in gay San Francisco a while, and those just joining us who want to get a sense of where we’re all coming from, Leyland has performed a great civic service. In inviting essays and art from the likes of Anne Kronenberg, Jewelle Gomez, Frank M. Robinson, Harry Britt, Susan Stryker, Jim Mitulski, Sister Dana van Iquity (aka Dennis McMillan), N.A. Diaman, Rink Foto, and many other stalwarts of the local queer scene, Leyland has rounded up a priceless bunch of colorful, inspiring characters for our boundless enjoyment. Not everything they have to say is profound or poetic – but much of it is. Not in every case were the contributors lead players in local politics and culture – but very often they have been and still are. These are the very people who have recorded and shaped our core culture for decades – not just in the Castro, but city-wide. They have been our friends and neighbors, co-workers, teachers and leaders on many fronts. To bask in their glory at a reading or through their printed words and images is to be warmly welcomed into the bosom of gay San Francisco.

In the book, when poet/essayist Justin Chin grumpily declares he’s outgrown the Castro (in “Death of the Castro”), he reflects a sentiment common to many who’ve lived to experience the neighborhood’s changes, and disapprove. Yet despite his ho-hum assessment – “The Castro has become a few blocks of expensive T-shirt and clothing shops, juice bars, yuppie eatery chains, and trendy neighborhood shopping and dining. Thrilling, huh?” – clearly the Castro has ingrained itself in his poetic psyche: he longs for the place to be the way it was in March 1990, when he alleges it still had the power to dazzle.

Since Chin is relatively young-guard, and his tattooed style at odds with the prevailing sweater/Gap esthetic in the ‘hood – and since he didn’t appear at the reading – it was left to older, not necessarily wiser heads to more generously tout the Castro’s virtues.

Former Supervisor Harry Britt, looking every bit the statesman, started off by apologizing for a less-than-stellar essay, a piece about Harvey Milk that had been written for another publication. That’s okay, Harry: you made up for it by noting that San Francisco has become (to use a phrase by writer Hakim Bey) a Temporary Autonomous Zone – a secure place where queers can enjoy a fair amount of freedom to be themselves. Some might say that’s just another term for gay ghetto, and they might be right. But as Britt noted, it was in the Castro ghetto that Harvey Milk rose to prominence, becoming a symbol of freedom for lesbians and gay men world-wide.

Solid settings for Milk’s saga are provided by historians Susan Stryker (“How the Castro Became San Francisco’s Gay Neighborhood”), and Jim Duggins (“Out in the Castro: Creating a Gay Subculture, 1947 – 1969”). They do an admirable job of tracking the evolution of Eureka Valley (aka The Castro), from its working-class Irish Catholic roots to its becoming the focal-point for a revolutionary gay-rights movement. Leyland opens the books with their pieces, giving readers ample preparation for the more personal perspectives to come.

Harvey Milk is central to Anne Kronenberg‘s recollections (“Everybody Needed Milk”), since she personally experienced the stresses, strains, triumphs and tragedy of working alongside the “Mayor of Castro Street.” So, too, was Frank M. Robinson (“Castro Street, That Great Street”) up front and center to the spectacle – and his account, among all of the contributors, is one of the richest in detail, colorfully capturing the hippy-ish flavor of the Castro in the 1970s, during the heyday of gay lib. It is from him that we learn of the large role played by hippies in the development of the Castro – that Harvey Milk was, in fact, a hippie from New York City. Robinson, who’d worked as a reporter for the underground press in the Haight Ashbury, got caught up in Milk’s campaign and the subsequent euphoria – and tragedy. His personal perspective puts us vividly up close and center in those heady, extraordinary times.

Things get even more personal in the reminiscences of Blackberri (“Andy’s – Center of the Universe”), who moved to the city from Nebraska in 1971, at age 21, and ended up working at and eventually owning Andy’s Donughts in the Castro, before going on to buy a leather bar, The Bootcamp, on Folsom Street. He was friends with Cosmic Lady (aka Janet Planet), and personally experienced the cosmic presences of the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Divine, Sylvester and a host of other queer notables. [see correction]

Also on the scene from the late 1960s on was writer/artist N.A. Diaman (“Living in the Castro: A Gay Writer Reminisces”), who tellingly remarks that when he first moved into the Castro, the total rent for his flat was $140 per month. It’s a time long gone, but his descriptions of establishing a gay household during those days is not all that far different from today’s ordeal.

Among the young-guard contributing to the book is Katie [Zak] Szymanski, assistant news editor for the Bay Area Reporter, who profiles a member of the old-guard: her boss, Publisher Bob Ross, noting that he “anchored for good in San Francisco” in 1956, fresh out of the Navy, and joined with the throngs of gay men who would cruise his corner at 20th and Castro. The concise story of his creating this newspaper, and its 30-year history at the center of gay politics and culture, is one you won’t find anywhere else.

Photography holds a prominent place in Leyland’s Out in the Castro – with spectacular results. The images balance and illuminate the text, making the book a joy to browse or read straight through. If you’ve been here very long at all, you’ll recognize the faces, places, and events. The photographers include Rick Gerharter, Rink Foto, Freddie Niem, Greg Day, Crawford Wayne Barton, and Marc Geller, all of them first-rate and well known for being in the thick of things, capturing images that by now have become legend. Even the surprising absence of images by Daniel Nicoletta – undoubtedly the most acclaimed queer “scene” photographer in San Francisco – and Jane Philomen Cleland does not diminish this book’s powerful impact. It’s a reunion in print well worth attending.

 

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

Tino Rodriguez —Dedicated to his Tormentors

… being a lengthy, completely superfluous, shocking profile of fabulously demented queer Latino artist Tino.
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“Forever and Ever,” oil on canvas, by Tino Rodriguez

 

Just now, Tino Rodriguez is hot. Some would say he’s always been hot, but consider his art, rather than the 32-year-old San Francisco painter’s vibrant queer sexuality. Even those who don’t regularly patronize art galleries could well run across Rodriguez’s work. Walk into a bookstore carrying gay literature, and there among the new arrivals you’ll see a paperback volume with a striking cover illustration by Rodriguez. The anthology, Virgins, Guerrillas, & Locas: Gay Latinos Writing on Love, edited by Jaime Cortez (Cleis Press; 1999) is adorned with a painting of a young Latino man with dark-shadowed, unblemished features. The youth’s huge, piercing eyes seem to gaze inward as his scarlet lower lip puffs out, as though he were about to cry; thick black eyebrows are accentuated by an ebony choker around the lad’s smooth neck. Most notable is the translucent-white wedding veil adorning the young man’s head, framing his androgynous face.

The image smacks of transgression, a Mexican artist’s slap in the face of machismo, through the somewhat heretical feminization of what ought to be, by traditional Mexican cultural standards, a thoroughly masculine visage. Is this merely a metaphorical portrayal of a virginal boy, no more offensive than a church icon? Or does this figure represent something much more revolutionary: an already thoroughly deflowered Latino youth, veiled to lure the attentions of other, predatory males – a youth who wants to be mauled for the umpteenth time, his lips pried apart and forced to wrap around someone’s monster cock? His apparent sadness, in this view, would be that of a youth torn by his queer desires and the recognition of his outcast status in Mexican society.

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“Erase una vez,” oil on canvas, by Tino Rodriguez

To puzzle out the answer to the image, one must know Tino Rodriguez and his body of work. Fortunately, opportunities to do so are near at hand, with showings of Rodriguez’s work happening first at Bucheon Gallery, located in art-trendy Hayes Valley, and shortly thereafter at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, at the prestigious biannual group exhibition, “Bay Area Now 2.”

The Bucheon exhibition, a one-man showing by Rodriguez entitled Apocalyptic Innocence, features a host of miniature paintings, all realized in the artist’s signature style, a formalist approach to bizarre and often deeply disturbing scenes. The works resemble Renaissance paintings in technique and presentation, yet a close glance reveals twisted themes of decapitation, bloodletting, cock sucking, ass play, boys and adults flaunting their penises, rabbits and fairies at play, and demonic creatures with human torsos, erect, lustful, and sadistic – all rendered as in fairy tales.

“It’s a formal style, yes,” responds Rodriguez when asked about his approach, which he developed mostly on his own, albeit with some training at the San Francisco Art Institute and elsewhere. “I’m painting in a very traditional way a very non-traditional subject matter. Like, one has someone sucking cock, and in another one someone’s sticking his finger up someone’s ass – in a beautiful Renaissance style. This kind of painting wasn’t even done in the Renaissance, and if it was, we’ll never see any of it, because they were burned by that guy Savonarola.”

In one of Rodriguez’s miniatures, “Forever and Ever,” a fanged monkey leers at a genteel, almond-eyed woman adorned in Elizabethan finery. The grotesque creature seems drawn not only to the woman’s body, but to her bodace. Behind the two stretches a hazy, verdant landscape, a sort of dreamscape.

“We have a saying in Mexico,” says Rodriguez, who was born in Guadalajara and moved to the United States at age 12: “When you’re a monkey, even if you wear the fanciest clothing, you won’t stop being a monkey. Meaning people are what they are, regardless of what they wear or how much money they have. I think this [“Forever and Ever”] is a take on that.”

His parents were not artistic, and had little education. The first art that captured his imagination, says Rodriguez, were the religious images adorning old churches in his native country: “paintings, murals, retablos, all the statues with glass eyes. I think all these images are somehow a part of my childhood – a lot of blood, a lot of suffering. But there’s a lot of magic too, all those cherubs and little kids.”

Cherubs, kids, blood, erections, and magic gardens are all reoccurring themes in Rodriguez’s work. One of his signature pieces in the “Apocalyptic Innocence” exhibit, “The Golden Age,” a 10″ x 14″ oil on wood painting, depicts all of these elements. It could be a fairy tale rendered in Renaissance style, but Rodriguez says it was based on no story, but simply emerged from his imagination without connection to any particular story (Rodriguez devours darkly poetic writings by Rimbaud, Genet, Bataille, Blake, and the like). A trio of rabbits dances in the scene’s foreground, their shadows visible against the mysterious metallic ball behind them on the parquet floor, a manicured garden observable through the open-curtained window in the background.

Why the inclusion of rabbits in this and so many other of his paintings, Rodriguez is asked. He replies in typical blunt, forthright style: “I like them because they’re horny.”

Rodriguez places a huge emphasis on sexuality both in his imagery and in his personal life. When he isn’t painting – and it’s rare that he isn’t, because he makes his living solely through his art, which requires enormous discipline and working late into the evenings as exhibitions loom – he fully enjoys the boisterous company of fellow young artists and gay revelers. He’s a dancing fiend, particularly enamored of techno-trance music, and on his nights out at house parties, art openings, bars and clubs, he exudes boundless energy, enthusiasm, and lust. His laughter, rich and full, fills any room he occupies; in conversation, he displays a gentlelness that seems at times at odds with his chosen themes, so often dark and disturbing. Yet that gentleness can be seen in the faces he paints – so often modeled on his own handsome features. His subjects rarely smile, however; most often they betray an odd passivity, whether they’re experiencing orgasm or being beheaded, or they grimace in the throes of unspeakable terrors.

Why, he’s asked, is blood evident in so many of his paintings? “Well, I’m Mexican, hello? I still have the pagan in me. It hasn’t been that far away, the sacrifices in the 16th century.”

But one can’t help think Rodriguez is working through some very personal issues in his chosen subject matter, a fact he confirms in explaining the subject of a self portrait entitled “Broken,” part of the Bucheon Gallery exhibit: “That’s me after being slapped.”

And who slapped him? “Oh, fuck, life. Actually, I was hoping to dedicate ‘Apocalyptic Innocence’ to everyone who had hurt me, which is really kind of cool, because everybody else dedicates shows to people they love, their mom, dad, boyfriends, girlfriends, families, things like that. And I’m like, why can’t I just fuckin’ dedicate this to everybody who’s hurt me?”

 

The opening reception for “Apocalyptic Innocence” took place at Bucheon Gallery (540 Hayes St.) on Friday, October 29, 1999. The opening reception for “Bay Area Now 2” took place in the Grand Lobby of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St.) on Friday, November 19, 1999.

This article originally appeared in the October 28, 1999 Bay Area Reporter.