This Big Slit

Viva was played by my friend Juliet. Her character was dazed and confused, a role that came easily to her. Why should she be any different than the rest of the cast? Directions were changing in the middle of performances. No one knew what they were supposed to do.

Valerie’s love for Viva is unrequited. But she pursues her anyway with a fool’s hope that she can change her thinking.

Thoughts do not go very deep with Viva. If it doesn’t involve her image, she can’t be bothered.

When Valerie finally understands the score, she identifies Warhol as the source of all her woes. Emboldened by her stirring aria I a Woman, she decides to clean house and off Andy.

Opening the Vault to: 1968, Act Two

American Gothic, ’68 Style

The End of Human Nature

Test shot for my Valerie Solanas look.

One of the reasons I liked Hamilton was because it reminded me of the play Jim and I did, 1968. Both were done to a beat. were heavy on the couplets, and had some wacky, against the grain casting: blacks as whites, men as women, one dude obviously playing three different people. The two plays did not accurately reenact events. Rather, they relayed historical details in an entertaining way.

Acting went through a severe identity crisis in the 20th century. For millennia, stage actors had ruled the roost with exaggerated gestures and loud voices projected to the back of the theater. All this while supposedly whispering sweet nothings in their lover’s ears. It was just accepted by players and audiences that it was the way it was done.

With the advent of film, however, you could physically whisper without all the gimmickry. Relatively speaking. It was still coming across at decibel levels way above normal. But compared to the other sounds in the movie they were just right.

The biggest dilemma in the early days of film making was that all actors had been trained for the stage, a style too broad for cinema. It took decades to breed the ham out of the Barrymores.

When auteurs finally got what they wanted and realized what they had, the pressure in the 50’s and 60’s was to be as natural as possible. And no one did that better than Warhol in Sleep and Empire. So natural, soooo boring.

Once film found its Terms of Endearment niche, there was no way theater could physically compete. It resorted to schmaltzy musicals and endless examinations of self worth. With a smattering of social justice avenging thrown in now and then.

What Jim and Hamilton did was to stop spoon-feeding the audience and use a format that forces them to think.

Art is not a controlled environment where a + b = c.  If the artist does their job creating a + b then c will have a million different values depending on the perceptions of the viewers.

There are no right or wrong answers in art. There are no answers at all. There’s only the experience.

Jump in, Mabel, whenever you’re feeling it.

I once had a fan tell me I reminded him of Mabel Mercer. At first I was offended. I remembered her as being kind of dog meat-ish, a little porky.

As I processed it, however, I thought of the many show business insiders who adored her. Frank Sinatra said she was the master of phrasing and timing. She taught him everything he knew.

If that’s what the fan meant, I’ll take it any day of the week.

August marks the 5th anniversary of ls2lsblog.com. I started in 2014 by circulating drafts to friends for their opinions. In particular, I wondered what Carl and Ellen thought.

Carl’s advice was to keep the pieces at 500 words. You can see how well I’ve done with that.

Ellen, on the other hand, had tried for two decades to engage me in a writing project. The things I showed her never passed muster. She was not mean about it but neither was she satisfied. Her responses were gentle but lethal. “Let me know if you want to continue this.”

When I read the first two words of her reply to the drafts I started to cry: “Well, well…..” It only took 20 years but I was finally on the right track. I’m still riding the fumes.

In late 2017 I promised readers a revamp and new feel for the blog. True to my word and a mere 22 months later that process begins today.

The emphasis is on archiving things of mine and things of the era. Up first is Act One of 1968.

I haven’t formulated an archive plan yet but my style has always been to force the issue then make sense of it later. The Mabel inside me says I can do this.

Opening the vault to: 1968, Act One

SCUM personified.

I Am What I Am, Goddamnit!

For my birthday my roommate gave me a ticket to see Hamilton. He did so reluctantly knowing my aversion to musical theater. To me they’re always the same: downtrodden minorities overcoming impossible obstacles to rise and get revenge.

That plot can be a relief to life’s woes when administered in the tiniest of doses. On Broadway the syringe is filled with one the size of the Pacific.

All I knew about the Hamilton musical was that it was done in rap or hip-hop or house–I’m not conversant in all of the nuance. I agree with Keith Richard’s take on the genre(s). He was inclined to like them but found the 4/4 beat monotonous. “Vary the meter for Christ’s sake.”

In my lifetime earth-shattering musical productions have come along about once every decade. When I was a teen it was the flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, Hair. The 1970’s saw A Chorus Line with What I Did for Love. Wah-wah-wah.

In the 80’s there was the queer triumph La Cage aux Folles (see title above.) It was followed by Rent ten years later. Sadly I know no tunes or lines from that one. Suffice it to say it’s only a rehash of La Boheme.

So the recent buzz of Hamilton being another phenomenon did little for me.  Until I read it was based on the Chernow biography I read lo those many years ago. My interest was peaked. How in the hell did they get something juicy out of that piece of dry toast?

Somehow they did. From the opening admonishment by a queeny King George’s voice warning about cell phone usage, it sucked me in. The beat, the body movements, the constant barrage of couplets, a lazy susan stage transporting actors from one scene to the next and the diversity of the cast combined to make something I never thought I’d see in the legitimate theater. (In the illegitimate theater, yes.)

The color coding of the actors was a little baffling. Why were some white historical figures played by non-whites while others were not? Could it be, gasp, because that person was best qualified for the role? Realism in an art form founded on disbelief is vastly overrated.

As a kid I joined record clubs to take advantage of the 10 LPs for a dollar. I always included at least one musical soundtrack. I thought if it was important in Manhattan it had to be important to the world.

The summer I bought the soundtrack to My Fair Lady it took Uncle Fritz’s annual visit to put things in perspective. His version of On the Street Where You Live included a verse that began, “People stop and stare, in their underwear.” Oh! The towering feeling.

I didn’t think Hamilton had any memorable tunes. Until I went to bed that night. That’s when I realized “The Room Where It Happens” had been on a constant loop in my head since I left the theater.

And I’m not good at remembering lines after performances. Although Alexander’s son Phillip made an impression. As a teen young Philip shows he’s a playa with the pick-up line, “I’m a trust fund baby, trust me”

After graduating from college Lil’ Phil has even more game. He tells a couple girls he likes their frocks. “When I get back we’ll strip to our socks.” He then does the honorable thing by getting himself killed in a duel. You gotta love that wacky 18th Century lifestyle.

The most astonishing moment occurred when there was a passing reference to General Lee “shitting the bed at the Battle of Monmouth.” Immediately I could think of only two other people in the world who would even know what that meant, Ron Chernow and my friend Peter in Paunat, France. Anyone who can link a reference as obscure as that to a street culture where the words “Battle of Monmouth” will probably never be heard, let alone understood, deserves all the Tony’s they can get.

The one minor disappointment was the death scene where the angels seemed to alight with Alex and rest him in the bosom of the holy father. I understand that when you’re selling $150 Broadway tickets to tourists from Iowa there needs to be at least one gratuitous, schmaltzy scene to validate the experience for them. The rest of the play is so innovative and modern, however, it would have been interesting to see how they could have handled this in a different way.

Joking about death is never easy to do, though Jim Jordan did a pretty good job of it in our play 1968. Which brings me to a concluding thought: if I’ve seen the future of theater, it has striking resemblances to what Jim and I tried to do 30 years ago.

Striking a Hamiltonian pose when I was 9. Mother opted for the traditional cream background over the blingier gold.

Down to the Crossroads

Every afternoon Grandmother would take a break to “pile down.” That was her term for a short nap, her favorite part of the day. When we were young we were expected to join her.

Sometimes she would sing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” while my brother and I stifled our giggles. Her voice was a little warbly and a song about a dead goose seemed odd.

Naps were also a time for Prime Minister’s questions, we could ask anything. Once I wanted to know why, if “darn” was such a bad word to use, did so many people do it? Without hesitating she replied, “because they can’t think of the correct word to use.” For the record, I never heard her say darn.

She didn’t take many liberties with language. When a lighthearted mood struck writing a letter or diary entry, she sometimes succumbed to giddy contractions. Phrases like ’twill be good to see you, or ’tis another beautiful day. Other than those reckless moments of abandon, there were only two slang words she used regularly.

One was dope. It must have been an elastic, catch-all expression like “stuff” that was popular when she was in her teens and twenties. Among other things it’s what she called her homemade chocolate sauce. I enjoyed my friends’  astonished looks when Grandmother served ice cream and asked if they’d “like some dope with it.”

Her other word was chum which was reserved for a select group: her college girlfriends. When she talked about them I sensed they were special people from a wonderful time in her life. The expectation set, I entered Indiana University in September 1968.

It was fun the first two and a half years on campus although I felt lonely and isolated. I was getting by in my friends’ straight world and resigned myself to accepting it as the way life was going to be. Back then here were few context clues in rural Indiana of the subculture that awaited..

In March 1971 I was stalked by a tall, lanky and creepy journalism student, Harry. Unbeknownst to me, he’d trailed me a couple of months and knew my name, address, hometown and class schedule. To quote Pete Rose on Ty Cobb, he knew everything except my cock size. He found that out too.

Attracted more to the situation than him, I closed my eyes and thought of Fire Island. Nothing much came of that relationship except that he started introducing me around the community. Friendships grew rapidly, many forming on the spot with like-minded gay-boys. I was awakened.

Jim Jordan knew Harry and witnessed the whole pursuit and aftermath. He said mine was not so much a coming out as an explosion. Probably from the relief I felt upon realizing I was the only context clue I needed.  I could just be myself.

The joy I felt was accompanied by underlying sadness. College was a temporary state. In my childhood I’d been through enough school changes, neighborhood moves, and summer camps to know tight bonds can dissipate quickly.

I was a senior after five semesters, on track to graduate in three years if I went to summer school. Then I came out and it took five more terms to finish. Separation anxiety caused me to prolong the last year as long as I could.

The fear of losing friends was unfounded. Besides the fun most college kids experience, we were bound by something that changed American culture. While Harvey Milk remained in the closet protecting his job, our generation drew a line in the sand: this is who we are, take it or leave it.

*****

Along with his partner David, my college chum Dale visited San Francisco last week. He’s Grand Marshal of this year’s Boston Gay (plus 5–it’s dizzying how many initials it’s become) Pride Parade. They came to attend the memorial for Charley Brown, the husband of another chum, Mark.

They also were here to celebrate Dale’s 70th birthday, which we did Saturday night at Che Fico.  On Sunday, dinner was at our chum Eric’s house.

Our after-dinner entertainment that evening was to be Joan Crawford’s Humoresque which we’d all seen before. Over David’s spanakopita we shared hazy memories of the film: Issac Stern’s hand double role, the incredible cocktail shaker, the breaking glass. When Joan’s signature face-slapping came up, someone mentioned turning the other cheek.

Seizing a malapropism opportunity, I offered what was really said on the Mount: don’t retaliate just spread your cheeks. The table erupted in childish laughter. Coming up for air, Dale said moments like that were why he’s tolerated me for 50 years.

My whole life I’ve searched for the correct, or incorrect, word to use.

With Grandmother, 1954.

Bua uuh Guul

Back in the disco days when we encountered a person of undecipherable gender, we would turn to each other and ask “bua uuh guul?” The phrase became part of our vocabulary when someone overheard a pimp on the sidewalk approach a potential customer and offer him his choice of gender in a playmate. Not only was the john’s predilection unclear, what was available was pretty murky too.

Gender confusion and challenging sex role stereotypes has always been a preoccupation of mine. As documented in a recently published book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating.

When I first saw the words “ethics” and “curators” together I thought “not another rehash of the frolicking I did back in 1973.” Those allegations involving The Detroit Institute of Art staff have been laid to rest years ago.

Then I realized it was referring to the Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art show held in Manhattan in 1982. My friend Charley Brown did a series of paintings of me in the early 80’s, a couple of which were in that New Museum show.

The portrait included in the book is one of my favorites because of Charley’s use of found materials: layers of cardboard glued together, appliqued toothpicks adding dimension to Brian’s sequined top. There’s gutter in that glamour.

The timing of that show coincided with my waning interest in drag. The derring-do and shock of what I’d done before was no longer there and my falling out with Jim had left me without focus. Plus, RuPaul was on the ascendant and about to change the drag landscape completely. I like to think I helped make the world safe for Ru. Then I think what a miserable failure I’ve been. No one’s safe from that bitch.

My friend Charley did a series of B paintings, a couple were in this show

On my trip to Indiana this month I reunited with Susan in Bloomington who I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. One of the things we reminisced about was the evening she gave me makeup lessons. As we listened to Ike & Tina records in her apartment that night, she went over the basics of eye makeup. And told me my practice of the art was particularly abysmal.

On our recent visit I tried to convince her that precision wasn’t nearly as important back in those days as how I presented myself. She would have none of it. She chided that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Then, out of the blue, she asked whether I identified as a woman or a man.

The question is an obvious one and the way the discussion seems to be framed these days. But it caught me completely off guard. The essence of my being never entered into my thinking when I did drag. It was all about what I could get away with. And looking good while I did it.

I told Susan the only thing I’ve ever identified as was a troublemaker.

Cherry

Landline

The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

A week ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and my landline rang. No one ever calls me on that phone, it’s almost always robo-calls or marketers. I’ve kept it because it was tied to the front door entry system. Since that no longer works I probably should get rid of it.

I answered it that evening because the caller id was a cell number. A man asked for me, I asked who was calling. He gave a name that was common enough to have been a made-up marketer but it was also one of someone I’d known in the 70’s.  That’s who it turned it out to be.

We had completely fallen out of touch and none of our mutual friends seemed to know anything about him. It turns out he’s lived in New York the last 35 years and worked in the publishing business. He told me he was surprised my number still worked and that my voice sounded the same. I assured him that nothing else had changed either.

He said he still enjoyed his copies of White Arms Magazine and googled the title recently. His search led him to my blog which he was reading.

We talked about people we knew in common and I got him caught up on any news I had. Many of them had died which he knew nothing about. When I asked if he remembered Jim who I collaborated with on the magazine he said, “oh yeah, he died in an automobile accident didn’t he?” I laughed.

In one of the White Arms issues Jim decided he wanted a more affected, pretentious nom de plume. So he wrote that Jim had died in a car crash and that Rene White would be taking over as editor.

At the time some of my more political friends thought the term “White Arms” could be construed as pretext for something racial. But Jim said the name came from the sheaths of blank paper that made up the magazine. And how they would circle the world in an unpredictable way.

When we were putting it together I was always questioning what we were doing, wondering what the benefit would be. Jim told me not to worry about results, to concentrate on being creative and doing things. The consequences would take care of themselves.

Jim would have been thrilled that his car crash story had legs. And that White Arms still has reach.

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

 

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The Story of Jim

Life, Afterlife and Lowlife

Gravesite Photo Shoot

In 1976 Jim published the final edition of White Arms Magazine devoted completely to me. It was called the B-Centennial Issue.

We decided it needed some photos featuring gravesite drama so I packed up a bunch of friends and we headed to this fabulous cemetery in Oakland. An afternoon of bereavement hilarity followed.

Grandmother used to take me to antique auctions when I was a kid and at one there was this beautiful 19th Century silk crepe widow’s veil. I asked her to buy it for me because it reminded me of the assassination. During the photo shoot I held it in place with a black beret–just like Jackie.

 

 

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The Jackie Obsession