Sep 22, 2012

Taxi and Tony Danza

Everything WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82) did wrong, Taxi (1978-83) did right.  It was a hip, urban workplace series, like WKRP, except that it followed the adventures of the employees at the Sunshine Cab Company in New York.

Alex (Judd Hirsch) was the only professional cabbie; the others were just driving a cab until their Big Dreams came true: Elaine (Marilu Henner), art; Tony (Tony Danza), boxing; and Bobby (Jeff Conaway), acting.  To round out the ensemble were smarmy Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito), the dispatcher, and innocent Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), the mechanic.

What did they do right?

1. Beefcake.  A cab company doesn't lend itself to shirtless shots, but the producers always found some way to get Tony's clothes off  -- usually at the gym or a boxing match during his off hours.

During the early 1980s, his shirtless shots became a mainstay of the teen magazines.  He also appeared in the gay magazine In Touch, though the famous nude shot is probably a fake.

2. Bonding.  Tony and Bobby became so inseparable that even teenagers in the Midwest, barely aware that gay people existed, noticed their subtext.

3. Not much homophobia.

When Elaine is stiffed by a fare, she threatens to retaliate by accusing him of attempted rape, until he announces that he's the president of the Gay Alliance.

A 1980 episode called "Elaine's Strange Triangle" sounds like it will be homophobic, but when Elaine's boyfriend gets a crush on Tony, Tony handles the "problem" with tact, nonchalance, and an utter lack of homophobic panic.  Meanwhile, Alex goes to a gay bar, and ends up teaching all of the gay men how to dance.

4. A mostly gay-friendly cast.  In spite of his pro-gay character, and his gay tv son (Danny Pintauro from Who's the Boss), Tony Danza has become quite homophobic.  Jeff Conaway and Andy Kaufman died without revealing their attitudes toward gay people publicly. But today Judd Hirsch has made pro-gay statements, and both Marilu Henner and Danny DeVito are supporters of marriage equality.

Sep 21, 2012

Little Nemo in Slumberland

Winsor McKay's Little Nemo (1905-1914) comes from the era when comic strips were works of art, intricately detailed and gorgeously realized. It is about a boy who visits a dreamworld every night, only to be awakened at a climactic moment, usually when he was about to be eaten or destroyed.  In early strips, his goal was to reach Dreamland, where he would become the consort of the Princess.

But soon a boy named Flip came into the picture.  The exiled son of the Sun and nephew of the Dawn, he wore worn hobo costumes and green clown makeup, and chomped on a cigar to demonstrate that he was a Lord of Misrule.  He decided that he didn't want Nemo to reach the Princess, so at climactic moments he would shout "Wake up!" or display the words "Wake up!" on his hat, and Nemo's quest for heterosexual fulfillment would be foiled for another day.

Why was Flip so obsessed with ruining Nemo's quest for the Princess?  Because he had designs on Nemo himself!  He was a trickster, a "queer" character, disrupting the presumed naturalness of the heterosexual bond.

It seemed to work.  Within a few years, the Princess was forgotten, and Nemo and Flip were constant companions, exploring little-known corners of Slumberland, diving under the ocean, taking a dirigible to Mars.

Eventually Nemo picked up the Imp, an African stereotype (though he was actually from a cannibal tribe in Slumberland), who spoke only in gibberish, but proved a brave and loyal companion.  Naturally, Flip was jealous, and the two argued and fought constantly.

The queer subtext is obvious: two boys bonding, rescuing each other, forming an emotional attachment, jealously guarding against potential interlopers, with the original heterosexual goal of the journey long forgotten.

See also: Alphonse and Gaston

Sep 20, 2012

Gilligan's Island

Gilligan's Island (1964-67), the tale of seven nitwits who set out from Honolulu for a “three hour tour” and end up stranded on a desert island is famous for its ineptness and naiveté, but actually it was no more inept or naive than most other 1960s escapist sitcoms, and it had a lot for gay kids to like.

1. Beefcake First mate Gillian (Bob Denver, below) was slim, smooth, and occasionally shirtless.

Lithe, hard bodied Denny Miller, a 1959 Tarzan (left), appeared twice, as a "jungle man" and as as a surfer who rode a wild wave all the way in from Honolulu.

 In February 1965, Kurt Russell appeared as a jungle boy, wearing only a loincloth (he counts as beefcake when you're five years old)

Even the Professor (Russell Johnson, whose son David was a fixture in West Hollywood) take off his shirt a couple of times.

2. Utter lack of heterosexual interest.

There was lots of heterosexism, of course.  When the Professor wonders why headhunters would abduct only the girls, Gilligan quips “Because they’re boys!”  When Mrs. Howell becomes the recipient of anonymous love letters, they interrogate all of the male castaways. They are innocent.  "But that's impossible!" she exclaims.  "That's everyone on the island!"  It never occurs to her for a moment that either Ginger or Mary Anne might be interested in her. 

The Skipper occasionally bats his eyes at Ginger or Mary Anne, but the other two single men, Gilligan and the Professor, never display the least interest in girls.  (Incidentally, Russell Johnson's son was very active in gay politics in Los Angeles.  Since his death from AIDS in 1994, the elder Johnson has devoted himself full-time to fundraising for AIDS research.)

3. Same-sex bonding.  When Gilligan and the Skipper fantasize about being rescued, they mention hamburgers and milkshakes, but never girls or “settling down.” Perhaps they've already settled down: they’ve been together since the War (probably the Korean War, over a decade ago), without even a perfunctory search for girlfriends or wives. 

Presumably Bob Denver, who had previously played "allergic to girls" on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis played Gilligan as a man-child with “arrested development,” excused from demonstrating heterosexual desire because he hasn’t “discovered” girls yet,

But occasionally we see a hint of an alternative explanation:. In “High Man on Totem Pole” (February 1967), a new batch of headhunters captures the Professor, the Skipper, and Mr. Howell. The girls are disconsolate:

Ginger: All of the men are gone!

Gilligan: I’m still here!

Ginger: [Dryly.] I said, all of the men.

But what sort of man is not really a man?

 In the last original episode of the series, “Gilligan the Goddess” (April 1967), savage tribesmen visit the island in search of a “white goddess” to throw into a volcano. Gilligan pretends to be a girl, donning a wig and a sixties mod dress, so he will be selected (the plan is to go to the other island and call Hawaii for rescue).

 Blustering King Killiwani (Stanley Adams) demonstrates an interest in Gilligan even when he is male, ignoring the other castaways while forcing him to dance, but when Gilligan becomes “Gilliana,” he becmes downright grabby. Unwilling to reveal the truth and ruin the rescue plan, but also unwilling to let Killiwani commit date rape, the castaways try to distract him with food and entertainment.

Mrs. Howell: Anybody for passion fruit?

Gilligan: No passion fruit! I think I’ll have a banana. [He grabs one and peels it, then feeds a piece to Killiwani.]

Girls: And now for your pleasure we present the great magician, Thurston Howell the Third!

Gilligan: [Applauds.] He’s great. He knows a thousand tricks, and I want to see them all.

Killiwani: [Places hand on Gilligan’s knee.] You the only trick I interested in!

Gilligan rejects the passion fruit because he is skittish about getting passionate, of course, but his choice of a phallic symbol-banana instead suggests another dimension, especially when he feeds it to Killiwani. His gesture is natural, almost unconscious, and surprisingly intimate; he behaves as if he really in a romantic relationship. (We should note that he objects to the ruse because he doesn’t want to dress like a girl, not because he dislikes Killiwani’s attention.)

Maybe  same-sex desire was  not beyond all imagining, even in 1967.

Jason James Richter

Several of the boys who starred in various Neverending Stories had brief but memorable teen idol careers. Born in 1980, Jason James Richter was already famous before playing Bastian in Neverending Story III (1994) for his role as Jesse, best friend of the killer whale in Free Willy (1993).

The Free Willy franchise lasted through two sequels (1995, 1997).  Meanwhile Jason was busy in a caper movie (Cops and Robbersons,1994), a sci-fi thriller (Laserhawk, 1997), and some tv, including the teen favorite Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

With all that acting exposure, you'd expect the teen magazines to be gushing in ecstasy and filling their pages with shirtless photos, but they virtually ignored Jason -- only a few shots, none shirtless. Maybe it was because he was a little. . .um. . .chunky, not thin and androgynous or a man-mountain in training.

But most gay boys couldn't care less about a few extra pounds.  He had a nice smile, and he had lots of roles that minimized girl-craziness to emphasize platonic friendships with giant aquatic mammals and elderly Native Americans.

Jason still acts on occasion, but recently he has been concentrating on his music.  He plays bass guitar for a band called Fermata.  He is no longer chunky, but he still has a nice smile.

Sep 19, 2012

The Bay City Rollers

During the mid-1970s, I occasionally saw pictures of the Bay City Rollers in teen magazines, but I knew nothing about them, except that Ian Mitchell got the lion's share of semi-nude and bulging swimsuit photos, even though he was a member of the band for only about seven months.

I figured they were from Bay City, Michigan and performed on roller skates.

No, they were Scottish, trying to capitalize on American chic by throwing a dart at a map of the U.S. and naming themselves after wherever it hit.

And "roller" meant "rock and roll."

Consisting of Alan and Derek Longmuir, Eric Faulkner, Stuart Wood, Les McKeown, and for awhile Ian Mitchell (with Tam Paton as their manager), they were so big in Britain that they were compared to the Beatles.  There were also big stars in Australia, Canada, and Japan.  They established an entire "Bay City Rollers" lifestyle, complete with costumes and slang terms.

In the U.S., they charted in 1975 and 1976, but had only one #1 hit: "Saturday Night," which I remember only vaguely:

Gonna dance with my baby till the night is thru
On Saturday Night, Saturday Night
Tell her all the little things I'm gonna do
On Saturday night, Saturday Night

Maybe that's why I don't remember it; incessantly heterosexist.

In 1978, they appeared on The Krofft Superstar Hour on Saturday morning tv, along with such Krofft superstars as Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf (which had been off the air for years).

The program was even renamed, briefly, to The Bay City Rollers Show, making it one of the famous short-lived 1970s variety shows, along with The Brady Bunch Variety Show and The Hudson Brothers Show.

By the end of 1978, Les McKeown and Tam Paton left the group, and the remaining guys renamed themselves The Rollers, and then the New Bay City Rollers. Their last official concert was in 2000.  But today there are two competing groups: Les McKeown's Legendary Bay City Rollers, plus The Bay City Rollers Featuring Ian Mitchell.

In spite of their largely heterosexist lyrics, there are some gay connections. Tam Paton was gay.  In 2009 he faced charges of child sexual abuse for alleged incidents with under-aged boys. He was cleared, but the stress weakened his health, and he died shortly thereafter.  

Les McKeown came out as gay on tv in 2009.  He states that no one knew, not even his wife of 25 years.

Stephen Dunham

Stephen Dunham has died of a heart attack at age 48.  His obituaries all talk about his work in Dag, but I knew him from the 1999-2000 tv season, when a sitcom called Oh, Grow Up appeared just after The Drew Carey Show on Wednesday nights.

That season was full of Friends rip-offs, ensembles of young, attractive people who had lousy jobs but lived in fabulous apartments and were concerned primarily with hooking up.  But, except for Will and Grace, they were all aggressively heterosexual.

Not Oh, Grow Up.

Stephen Dunham played Hunter, the "Joey" character, a promiscuous hunk who discovered that he had a teenage daughter.

David Alan Basche played Norris, the wisecracking "Chandler" character.

John Ducey played Ford, the insecure "Ross" character, recently divorced.  And recently out (photo is from Squarehippies).

There was nothing on prime time like it; a gay character who wasn't a feminine stereotype, like Will Truman, and who lived with a pair of caring heterosexual male chums (unlike Will Truman, who hung out only with straight women).

It only lasted for 13 episodes, but those episodes resolved all of the plot arcs, so it had closure, like a miniseries.  It's not available on Hulu, and it hasn't been released on DVD.

I guess you had to be there.

Sep 18, 2012

Jack LaLanne

During the 1960s, gay boys who were too young to go to school, or home sick, could get their beefcake quotient at noon, when The Jack LaLanne Show was on.

Born in 1914, Jack LaLanne was one of the old school of bodybuilders, hanging out on Muscle Beach with greats like Joe Gold, John Grimek, and Charles Atlas before there was such a thing as Mr. America or the International Federation of Bodybuilders.  He opened his own "health spa" in 1936, and began airing The Jack LaLanne Show in 1951 (national syndication in 1959).

It was aimed at an audience of housewives, and quite sexist, with exercises designed to not only promote fitness, but to keep the ladies "beautiful for your husband."  LaLanne never seemed to notice the queerness of a man teaching you how to accentuate your bust, firm up your butt, and create "a figure that will make men sit up and take notice."

But lots of gay kids did, and even followed his tips to become not only healthy but beautiful.

LaLanne didn't make a lot of homophobic comments during the 1960s, but during the 1970s the homophobia came out.  In 1979, he announced that he intended to parade down Hollywood Boulevard with a 350-pound barbell on his shoulders to protest "the damn queers and homos and little boy prostitutes" who had "taken over."  He never actually followed up on his protest march.

In 1979, homophobic comments didn't cause a furor, so he continued broadcasting his show until 1985, when he retired to promote his fitness books, line of juice-makers, and hate his former fans.  He died in 2011.

Lil' Abner: Backwoods Adonis with No Interest in Women

During the 1930s and 1940s, gay kids could pick up any daily and Sunday comic strip to see a muscular, usually shirtless teenager who was not interested in girls, plus a committed same-sex couple.

Al Capp's L'il Abner, started in 1934, chronicled the adventures of 19-year old muscleman Abner Yokum, his elderly parents, and the colorful residents of Dogpatch, U.S.A.  It was part of the contemporary hillbilly fad.

Books, movies, and radio programs were presenting the hills (Ozarks or Appalachians) as an untouched wilderness, an Eden inhabited by rustic Adonises whose muscles and rude manners provided a remedy for the ultra-sophistication of Cary Grant and Clark Gable.

The backwoods Adonis became a common image, extending through Jethro of The Beverly Hillbillies to The Dukes of Hazzard.

The prelapsarian state had one drawback, at least for heterosexual readers: no place for heterosexual romance.  So uninterested were the men of Dogpatch that Al Capp instituted a Sadie Hawkins Day, an annual festival in which man-hungry spinsters chased "skeered" bachelors, and whoever got "ketched" had to marry.

But there was plenty of room for same-sex romance, notably the man-mountain Hairless Joe and his diminuitive Indian companion, Lonesome Polecat, who live together, embark on various money-making schemes together, and even count themselves as a "married couple" on their census form.

Their soft drink brand, Kickapoo Joy Juice, is still being sold in Asia.

In 1952, changing sociocultural mores -- such as the increasing awareness that a man who is not interested in women may be interested in men -- prompted Al Capp to marry off Abner.  Soon he became a father.

Increasingly conservative and unfunny as time progressed, the strip pushed forward in a dwindling number of newspapers until 1977.

There were two movie versions of the strip.  Everyone remembers the 1959 version, with Peter Palmer as Lil' Abner, and a plot about a "yokumberry tonic" that turns ordinary men into bodybuilders but has the side effect of making them uninterested in women.

See also: Li'l Abner, the Musical; and I Go Pogo: The Gay Possum of Okefenokee Swamp

Noah Hathaway

After starring as the barbarian Atreyu in The Neverending Story (1984), Noah Hathaway got the full teen idol treatment. His cut-off t-shirt and skin-tight white shorts became a common sight in the teen magazines, and every time he went to the gym, a photographer was there to show the world his biceps and abs.

He couldn't compete with super-hunks like Robby Benson and Scott Baio, but he was cute enough to inspire many romantic fantasies.

His roles were rather scarce, but memorable.  In Troll (1986), he plays Harry Potter (not that Harry Potter), a teenager who displays a muscular chest and has no interest in girls.  Instead, he must save his sister.  No wonder gay boys found a kindred spirit in him, and speculated that he might be gay in real life.

Unfortunately, his response to the speculation was not always gracious; he tended to become livid with rage and shout his denials.

In 1986 Noah retired from acting.  He studied dance and martial arts, and competed in the sport of motorcycle racing.  Recently he has starred in the independent films Sushi Girl (2012) and Mondo Holocausto (2012).  Mellowing as he pushes past 40, he has become more accepting of his gay fans.

Sep 17, 2012

Neverending Stories

During the 1960s and 1970s, teenage boys in movies were always portrayed as girl-crazy, but their younger brothers had no interest in girls.  But in 1990s, as producers became more aware of the existence of gay people, they realized that you could read "not interested in girls" as "interested in boys," so they began increasingly shrill, hysterical attempts to establish the heterosexual identity of 11, 12, and 13 year olds.  By the 2000s, boys as young as six and seven were leering, drooling, and making crass propositions to demonstrate that their girl-craziness began in the womb.

We can see the change in the various adaptions of The Neverending Story, based on the Michael Ende novel about a boy, Bastian Balthazar Bux, who reads a book about a fantasy world, and realizes that he can control the actions of his barbarian alter ego, Atreyu.

In The Neverending Story (1984), neither Bastian (Barret Oliver) nor the heroic Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) gaze longingly at the Childlike Empress who rules Fantasia.

The Neverending Story II (1990), similarly kept the new Bastian (Jonathan Brandis, left) and Atreyu (Kenny Morrison, above) from soliciting the Childlike Empress (or any other empress) as their prom dates. They even had a buddy-bonding romance with each other.

But four years later, The Neverending Story III (1994) omitted Atreyu and made the next Bastian (Jason James Richter) gaze longingly at girls.

And in the tv series Tales from the Neverending Story (2001-2002),  Bastian (Mark Rendall) has a girlfriend, and Atreyu (Tyler Hynes, left, recent photo) abandons a perfectly good wacky sidekick to kiss a girl of his own.


In the U.S., movies and tv programs aimed at a juvenile audience are strictly censored.  Kids never hear or see anything that suggests the existence of boys who like boys or girls who like girls.  Period. Ever.  And if a writer, actor, or director manages to squeeze in a subtle hint, the howls of outrage begin.

Even if there are no hints.  In 2006, fans of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody discovered that actor Patrick Bristow, who played restaurant maitre d' Patrick, was gay in real life.  About 50% of the posts on the Suite Life fansite screamed that he should be immediately fired, lest the world come to an end.  The other 50% were more "tolerant," stating that it was ok to hire a gay actor as long as his character was absolutely, emphatically straight.  Not one post said it would be ok to have a gay character on the program.

American movies are censored even more.  I can only remember one juvenile movie -- and I've seen lotd -- with gay characters.  In Good Boy! (2003), alien explorers masquerade as dogs and take up residence with human families.  One of the "dogs" lives with a gay male couple, who appear briefly, twice.

And that's it.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when I saw Paranorman (2012), a stop-action animated film about a boy with paranormal powers who encounters a 300-year old witch's curse and zombie Puritans.  He gathers a ragtag band of allies -- his teenage sister (Courtney), his best friend (Neil), Neil's teenage brother (Mitch), and the school bully (Alvin).

Wait -- a teenage boy and a teenage girl?  We see where this is headed! The heterosexism of the American cinema demands that every movie end with a man and a woman in love.  And Courtney begins throwing herself at the studly Mitch the moment she meets him.

But something is different about Courtney's attentions -- they are portrayed as ludicrous, desperate, at her expense, while Mitch rather pointedly ignores them.

It is not unprecedented for teenage boys in kids' movies to be oblivious to girls' advances -- they usually are too dim-witted or naive to notice, and they come around at the denouement.  But Mitch does not.  At the conclusion, in a last-ditch effort, Courtney asks him to a movie.  He consents -- as long as his boyfriend can come -- since he's a fan of chick flicks, too.  Finally defeated, Courtney gives up.

Another joke at Courtney's expense, and it comes and goes so fast, with such utter nonchalance,  that some viewers could have missed it.  But there it was -- Mitch. Boyfriend.  30,000,000 kids just learned that same-sex romance exist.

There have been screams, but fewer, and less shrill, than one would expect.  Maybe the screamers are getting tired.

By the way, there's a gay subtext, too, as Neil aggressively courts Norman, and whispers to his brother "Don't spoil this for me!  I really like him!"

Can you have a gay subtext and a gay character in the same movie?

Paranorman is #6 on the list of 10 Gay Movies I Loved

Read an interview with writer/director Chris Butler in Instinct magazine.

Sep 16, 2012

WKRP in Cincinnati

During the late 1970s, there was a fad of hip, urban workplace sitcoms that were very popular but had little to offer gay teens.  The office setting meant no shirtless scenes, the business plots meant no daring rescues, and buddy-bonding was all but absent in casts full of New Sensitive Men seeking out boogie nights.

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), about a struggling radio station, was the worst of the lot.  I watched it -- everybody watched it -- but I didn't like much except the catchy theme song: "Got kind of tired of packing and unpacking, in town to town, up and down the dial").

1. The male actors not only displayed no beefcake, they weren't even cute to look at fully-clothed. Rock dj Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) was scraggly, reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) mousy, and advertising manager Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) smarmy.  That left station manager Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), who at least could fill out a flannel shirt and pair of 1970s extra-tight jeans (and appeared fully nude in Playgirl)

2. No buddy-bonding, not even a lot of same-sex friendships.  Most of the conflict involved not external threats, but the various on-air personalities and support staff bickering with each other.

3. Most of the hip urban comedies had at least one "very special episode" with someone's visiting brother or college buddy informing the cast that he was gay, resulting in "hilarious" spit-takes, denials, some homophobic comments, and finally tolerance.  Not WKRP. Instead, tt had:

Les Nessman so upset by an unfounded "accusation" that he tries to commit suicide (see "Most Homophobic Moments in College #4).

A smarmy photographer with incriminating photos claims to be gay, so Herb Tarlek puts on his most effeminate facade to flirt with him and try to retrieve them.  

Dr. Johnny Fever wants to get out of his condo lease, so he pretends to be gay, and the condo board, aghast, practically kicks him out the door.

4. No gay-friendly actors.  Howard Hesseman had played gay before, but only negative stereotypes.  Gary Sandy had a few connections with gay people: he shared an apartment with gay superstar Sal Mineo, and got his start playing a hustler who beats up Candy Darling in Some of My Best Friends Are (1971).  But, all accounts suggest that he is even more homophobic in real life than his character was.

Better stick to the catchy theme song.

See also: Frasier, another sitcom about a radio station.


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