Nov 25, 2015

Are the Pantos Gay?

Before researching my post on Father, Dear Father, I had never heard of a pantomime or panto, in spite of my years of study of English literature and hours of watching British tv. Apparently everyone raised in Britain has fond memories of Christmas pantomimes, but never writes about them or mentions them on tv, almost if as if they're too personal to share with the rest of the world.

The pantomime is a type of musical comedy performed during the Christmas season, using well-known stories.   Next winter, for instance, you will be able to attend the pantos of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood (prices range from $12 to $30 U.S.)

It's important for the basic plot to be familiar, since it will be skewed, augmented with satiric bits, slapstick, references to current events, and ad-lib scenes.  The audience, mostly children, will interact with the cast, boo the villain, ask questions, shout "It's behind you!", and even argue: "Oh, no it isn't!" "Oh, yes it is!."

There are five standard characters, plus a chorus and various comedic players:
1. The Principal Boy, traditionally played by a girl in drag, but now more often a tv star, such as Ray Quinn of The X Factor as Aladdin (top photo), or a boy band hunk.

That explains why, when I saw Peter Pan back in the 1960s, Peter was played by Mary Martin.  And why the audience had to shout "I believe in fairies" to save Tinker Belle's life.  Panto roots.  But it doesn't explain the creepy dog in the nanny cap, or why people who aren't sick need to take "medicine."

2. The Dame, usually the Main Boy's mother, traditionally played by a man in drag.

3. The Comic Lead, the Main Boy's zany friend or servant, often played by another celebrity, such as Robin Askwith, or wrestler Nick Aldis as the Genie in Aladdin (left).

4. The Love Interest, an attractive woman with whom the Principal Boy will find love. If the original story lacks hetero-romance, not to worry, one will be added.  For instance, in the Wizard of Oz panto, Dorothy falls in love with Elvis.

5. The Villain, male, female, or a drag performer.

Questions immediately arise: why the drag?  What does it mean to watch a woman in male drag fall in love with a woman?  Does it ameliorate the heterosexism of the boy-and-girl plotline?  Are the pantos gay?

Maybe not.  Maybe the drag serves to accentuate rather than challenge gender norms.

Although there have been pantos for adult gay audiences, such as Peta Pan (a lesbian version of Peter Pan), Get Aladdin, and Snow White and the Seven Poofs, two gay writers who grew up with the pantos felt that they weren't "for us."

And attempts to incorporate gay characters or situations into the traditional panto have met with hysterical hand-wringing of the "It's for kids!!!!" sort.

If you still haven't met your beefcake quota after seeing a panto, check out the Boxing Day Dips, hundreds of people -- mostly cute guys -- dashing into the ocean nude, or at least wearing as little as the censors will allow.

See also: 15 Reasons to Skip Christmas.

Inner City Prettyboy: What's Happening!!

In 1971, there were no network television programs with all-African American casts.  In 1976, there were six, including such hits as Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons.  But only What's Happening!! featured teenagers (yes, two exclamation points in the title).

It began as a four-episode summer series about the exploits of Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), a sassy waitress in a poor African-American neighborhood.  When the regular series began, Shirley was still present, but the focus was on the bookish high schooler Raj (Ernest L. Thompson, right), his best friend, the rotund schemer Rerun (Fred Berry, left), and Duane (Haywood Nelson, center), a shy younger boy who was happy that they let him hang around.  Filling out the cast was Raj's imposing, no-nonsense Mama (Mabel King) and his little sister Dee, whose catchphrase "I'm telling Mama" enjoyed a brief popularity.

There were immediate complaints about the simplistic plotlines and the cultural stereotypes. Weren't Raj and Rerun just a teenage Amos and Andy?  And Mama just a new version of Aunt Jemima?  Mabel King wondered why her character had to be a maid.  Why not have her go back to school, get a better job, start a business?  It didn't happen, and at the end of the second season she left.  Without Mama as a moral center, the series limped along with low ratings and was finally cancelled.

But there was a lot for gay kids to like in What's Happening!!  

1. Minimal heterosexual interest.  During the first two seasons, no episodes involved Raj and Rerun liking girls or getting girlfriends (two involved Duane).

2. Homoromantic buddy bonding between Raj and Rerun.  In the third season, they even move into an apartment together.

3. Duane was shy, soft, passive, pretty -- gay-vague.  Maybe that's why he got girls, because audiences need reassuring about his sexual identity.

4. No shirtless or semi nude shots, but lots of bulging.  Duane looked good coming and going.

A sequel, What's Happening Now!!, aired from 1985 to 1988.  The gang was now young adults.  Raj, newly married, was working as a writer. Rerun sold used cars. Duane was a computer programmer with a spectacular bodybuilder's physique (but he took off his shirt in just one episode).  They also added a couple of teenage best friends (Martin Lawrence, Ken Sagoes).  The homoromantic subtexts were all but forgotten.
Ernest L. Thomas has busy since the 1980s, most recently in a recurring role as a creepy funeral director on Everybody Hates Chris.  I met him in Hollywood in 1988.

Fred Berry died in 2003.

Haywood Nelson was a popular teen star during What's Happening. His roles included The White Shadow (1979), where he got to buddy-bond with Timothy Van Patten (right), and Evilspeak (1981), where he had a nude scene.  Today he is well known as an inspirational speaker.  There are gay rumors, but he hasn't made any public statements.

Nude pics of Hayward Nelson are on Tales of West Hollywood.

Nov 24, 2015

My Date with Michael J. Fox

This is the story of my date with Michael J. Fox, actor, director, advocate for Parkinson's Disease, and all around nice guy.

Wednesday, July 3rd, 1985:  I arrive in Los Angeles and stay with my old high school friend Tom and his parents in Van Nuys.

Friday, July 5th: I am sitting in the human resources department at Paramount Studios, waiting to interview for a job as an administrative assistant, when Marcus comes in to drop something off.  He's my age, African-American, with very light skin, freckles, and a hairy chest.  I get his phone number.

Saturday, July 6th: Our date, an inside tour of Paramount, followed by cruising at the Gold Coast and dinner at the French Quarter.  He came to Los Angeles to become an actor five years ago, and has been in a few things.

"Do you know anyone famous?" I ask with tourist zeal.

"Nobody really famous.  I mean, some guys on tv.  I know Michael J. Fox from acting class."

I'm not impressed.  I've barely heard of Michael J. Fox -- he's getting some teen idol exposure for his role as Alex P. Keaton, conservative son of ex-hippie parents on the sitcom Family Ties. But I've only seen the show a few times.

Marcus plans to stay celibate until there's a cure for AIDS, so no more dating.  But we stay friends.

Wednesday, July 10th: I start working at Muscle and Fitness, two days a week as a "contributing editor," aka gopher.  On my first day, I meet Ivo, a stringer for the magazine, about 30 years old, a Bulgarian bodybuilder, with short brown hair, a boyish open face, massive shoulders, and slates for abs.

Saturday, July 13th: My first date with Ivo.  I'm curious about Back to the Future, the new time travel comedy starring Michael J. Fox.

"No way, man!" Ivo exclaims.  "That Mike Fox thinks he's a big deal, but he's terrible in bed.  They should call him Princess Teeny-Tiny!"

Weird coincidence!  I think.  I've been in town a week, and already I've met two people who know Michael J. Fox, and one of them is his ex-lover!

Sunday, July 14th: I have lunch with Marcus and tell him about my date.

"Strange," he says.  "I'm completely out to Mike, and he's never said anything about being gay.  Sounds like Ivo is one of these celebrity name-droppers who claims to have been with everyone from Harrison Ford to Arnold Schwarzeneggar."

"But he wasn't bragging.  He got upset.  He said Michael was bad in bed and should be called Princess Teeny-Tiny."

Marcus laughed.  "Well, I don't have any information on that.  But tell you what -- Mike is in London right now.  When he gets back, we'll all get together, and you can ask him yourself."

Ask Michael J. Fox about his size?  I don't think so!  But it would be fun to meet him.

I date Ivo three or four more times, until his crazy, obsessive behavior drives me away.

Saturday, August 3rd: I finally see Back to the Future.  I'm not impressed with the heteronormative plotline.

Saturday, August 10th: The promised date.

Marcus picks me up and drives me to a small, bare-brick cafe on Melrose.  We are just ordering drinks when Michael comes in, wearing a white shirt, buttoned down to reveal a soft smooth chest, tight bulging jeans, and sunglasses.

He's my age, short, slim, androgynous  The feminine teen idol type.

He hugs Marcus and reaches out to shake my hand, then says "What the hell" and hugs me, too.

I feel a definite something.  So much for the Ivo's "Princess Teeny-Tiny" claim.

"So, are you guys together?" Michael asks as he scans the menu.

"No, we're friends.  We dated once, but you know some guys can't handle celibacy."

"Well, who can blame them?  You got the goods, Marcus!"  He nudges Marcus affectionately.

This is the 1980s, an era of rampant homophobia.  Michael is either gay or amazingly gay-positive!

"So..I was dating another guy who said he knew you.  Ivo the Bulgarian bodybuilder."

"Doesn't ring a bell.  But you know how it is, you get a tv show, and suddenly every guy you have ever said hello to claims to be your bosom buddy."

"Or your ex-lover," Marcus adds.

"So far I've been spared those kinds of rumors.  I don't know why.  I'm here having lunch with two hot guys, wouldn't you naturally assume that I'm into hot guys?"  He wraps his arm around my shoulders.  "What do you think, Boomer?   Want to be on the front page of the National Enquirer tomorrow morning?"

Is Michael cruising me?  "Um...only if you bring the condoms."

"Wouldn't you know it!" he exclaims with a grin. "All the hot guys are bottoms!  I'd better stick to girls."

The conversation goes on to other topics.  We finish our lunch, and Michael pays and leaves.

"Was Michael cruising me?" I ask on the way home.

"Oh, no, that's just his way.  He makes everybody feel like he's in love with them.  And it works -- there's not a soul on Earth who doesn't like him."

Except for Ivo.

A few weeks later, the movie Teen Wolf comes out, with a scene in which Michael's character claims that he's "not a fag," he's a werewolf.  I ask Marcus about the homophobic dialogue.

"This is Hollywood," he says with a shrug.  "You do what sells."

The uncensored story, with nude photos (of Ivo and Marcus, not of Michael) is on Tales of West Hollywood.

See also: 15 Celebrity Dates, Hookups, and Sausage Sightings.