Apr 19, 2014

Burr Tillstrom: The Gay Puppeteer of 1950s Children's Television

Before The Cartoon Network, before Sesame Street, even before The Mickey Mouse Club, in the earliest days of television, kids (and adults) rushed home every afternoon to see the adventures of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, two puppets and their human host.  They may never have realized that there was a hunky 30-year old man behind the set, manipulating the puppets and providing their voices.

They certainly never knew that he was gay.

Born in 1917, Burr Tillstrom began the art of puppetry in college, and created the perpetually-surprised Kukla in 1936. Other characters followed, but it was the laconic Ollie (Oliver J. Dragon) who became the clown in the comedy team, a formula that extended from Laurel & Hardy to Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, and in children's tv, Rocky & Bullwinkle.

In 1947, he teamed up with the vivacious Fran Allison (1907-1989), and they began the Kukla, Fran, and Ollie tv series, a daily half hour (later diminished to fifteen minutes) on Chicago's WGN.

Themes and storylines were compelling, and not necessarily for kids. They performed mysteries, science fiction, and even the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado, with Kukla as Nanki-Poo, Ollie as Ko-Ko, and Fran as Yum-Yum.

The program drew many adult fans, including Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Lillian Gish, James Thurber, Judy Garland,  Talulah Bankhead, and Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote Kukla and Ollie a song, "The Two of You."



 During the tv season, Tillstrom lived in Chicago, in an old coach house that he remodeled with the help of his partner, Joseph Lockwood Jr. (left), also the stage manager and the costume designer.  They spent the summers in Europe or in the gay resort of Saugatuk, Michigan

After the program ended in 1957, Tillstrom and Allison continued to perform with the Kuklapolitan players.  They starred in a Broadway show, appeared in Side by Side with Sondheim, hosted the CBS Children's Film Festival, and appeared live at the Goodman Theater in Chicago every Christmas.

Tillstrom died in 1985, before gay identity was regularly acknowledged, so his New York Times obituary and his Wikipedia entry both keep him closeted.  But the gay communities of Chicago and Saugatuck knew.  In 2013 he was inducted in to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

By the way, gay people seem particularly drawn to puppeteering, perhaps because they often live in a world of masks.  Here's a link to a "It Gets Better" article for gay youth interested in the art.

And a link to Mark Milano's site on Burr and the whole Kuklapolitan phenomenon.

Spring 1998: A Swedish Bodybuilder in Estonia

In 1998, Yuri and I were competing over Jaan the Estonian mountain climber, and accompanied him home for a visit, only to discover that he already had a boyfriend.

We were scheduled to spend seven days in Johvi, Estonia, ending with the Jaanipaev, the Midsummer Festival, but there wasn't a lot to do except visit old churches and go to Russian movies, especially with Jaan off with The Boyfriend and his parents interrogating us about when we were planning to find girls and get married.  So we decided to spend three days exploring Tallinn, the capital, about two hours away by train.



It turned out to be my second-favorite city in Europe (after Paris), with an Old Town full of quiet cobblestone streets and Hanseatic red-roofed houses.  Interesting museums, naked statues of national hero Kalevipoeg, and monuments like "Kiek in de Kok Tower" (which means "Peek in the Kitchen").  No gay saunas, but several bars with "dark rooms," an area separated from the main bar by a thick curtained doorway.

On our second night in town, we were in the Angel Bar on the aptly-named Sauna Street, a few blocks from the Kiek in de Kok Tower, when an older guy came in, probably around 50, very tall (a big turn-off), but muscular, nearly a bodybuilder, with a hairy chest visible beneath his thin white t-shirt and  a blatant bulge in his worn jeans.

He looked exactly like a serial killer who was in the news back in the U.S. (I forget his name), so I said "Best keep away from that guy!" But when he went into the dark room, Yuri foIlowed.

Other guys went in and out, so I figured they were ok until, after about ten minutes, the tall guy left abruptly and practically raced out the door. Was there a problem?  Was Yuri lying on the floor, stabbed to death?

I went back into the dark room, felt around until I found Yuri -- not stabbed to death -- and dragged him out.  "Well, what happened?"

"I'm in love!"  Yuri exclaimed with a beatific smile, spreading out his hands as if he was measuring a fish.  "But I don't forget you.  We are having dinner with him tomorrow night."

"Who is he? What's his name?"

Yuri shrugged.  "How do I know?  We don't do a lot of talking back there, right?"  But he held out an address scribbled on a scrap of paper in the dark: Texas Honky Tonk, Pikk 43, 20:00 (8:00 pm).

"Wait for tomorrow -- tomorrow, we will share, ok?"

You didn't really "share" a first date -- too many things could go wrong.  Besides, a tall, stern guy who looked like a serial killer -- maybe he just wanted to get us alone to strike!

 But it beat spending the night alone.

The next night, we showed up at the Texas Honky Tonk, a restaurant with American and Texan flags outside and a live band singing Estonian versions of Mexican mariachi songs.  Maybe Yuri's date wasn't a serial killer, just gauche.

He was waiting in the foyer, wearing a ruffled white shirt and blue slacks, much less gaunt and scary than before.  I could see myself hanging out with this guy.  "Oh -- I didn't know you had someone," he said with a frown.

"Oh, yeah, Boomer came to Europe with me.  We visit our friend Jaan in Johvi.  He wants to join us, ok?"

He said "How do you do? My name is Kalle." Politely, but obviously displeased with my interference.

As we ate our quesadillas, sopa de buca, and fajitas (with pickles and marinated onions), Kalle ignored my questions.  He said only that he was in Estonia "on business," and he often traveled through the Baltic states and Russia.  He didn't say what business.  But he asked Yuri detailed, complicated questions in a mixture of English and Russian, about weather inversions, hurricanes, cyclones, and climatic patterns.

Wait...wasn't Kalle a Swedish name?  "I had a date with King Carl Gustaf," I said tentatively.  "That was before he got married, so everyone thought he was gay."

Kalle stared at me, then turned to Yuri.  "On siniy?," he asked in Russian, assuming that I wouldn't know siniy = blue = gay.

"Natural'no!"  Yuri exclaimed.  Yes, of course!

With a chuckle, he reached over and put his arm around Yuri and pulled him close. "I didn't know!," he told Yuri -- not me.  "I thought we had to be cautious -- Americans are crazy about that kind of thing, you know!"

From then on, Kalle was all smiles, but he continued to give me Attitude (pretend that I wasn't there).  I tried to pique his interest by talking about growing up in a Swedish community, attending a Swedish Lutheran college, reading Nils Holgersson, Miss Julie, and Dag Hammarsjold's Markings.

Nothing worked.

One thing I have learned:  if intellectual conversation doesn't work, penises do.  So I talked about my nude modeling career and porn movie.  But Kalle merely nodded politely and asked "How do you measure the Coriolis Effect?" while fondling Yuri's leg.

By the time we got to the flan (Mexican custard, oddly flavored with ligonberries), I gave up.  "Why don't we all meet for breakfast tomorrow?" I suggested.

"What?" Kalle exclaimed, startled. "You're not coming back to the hotel with Yuri and I?"

"Well, I thought...I mean..."

"Come now, don't be a crazy American...join us."

In the morning we had a huge Estonian breakfast of black bread, herring, fried eggs, and some kind of porridge.  "There are lots of jobs in Stockholm for men who speak English and know statistical software," Kalle announced.  "Maybe you will send me your resume."

"I'm an expert in SPSS..." I began expectantly.  But he was back to ignoring me to gaze lovestruck at Yuri.  He pressed a card with his telephone number and email address into his hand.

Back in America, Yuri and I both emailed Kalle our resumes, but he never responded.

The same thing happened in Spain a year later, when I played Third Wheel to a Muscle God.

A Pilgrimage to Mecca

When I was a kid, I kept looking for a "good place," where boys held hands and kissed, and lived together throughout their lives.  In eighth grade, my boyfriend Dan and I somehow decided that Saudi Arabia  was a good place.

So we checked out the three books on the Middle East available at the public library, and spent our allowance on others at the Readmore Book World.  We ate olives and drank coffee, and sat cross-legged on the floor (since one of our books said that no one in Saudi Arabia used chairs).  We sent away for an Arabic textbook.  And we planned a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The holy city of Islam, forbidden to non-Muslims, remote, mysterious.






It's not mysterious anymore.  There are thousands of photos and videos on the internet to show you every inch of the city. Trip Advisor offers suggestions on hotels, attractions, shopping malls, and restaurants (including the commonplace Hardees Hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken).

But 40 years ago, before the internet, in a small town in the Midwest, we found only sketchy, outdated information:
The tale of explorer Richard Burton sneaking into Mecca in disguise in 1853.
A two-paragraph description of the pilgrimage (hajj) in Hitti's Islam: A Way of Life.
Some photographs in a National Geographic article.
Nothing else.

The lack of information made Mecca even more attractive.  It could be whatever we wanted it to be, so we imagined date palms, camels, scimitars, labyrinthine walkways, towering minarets, and men, their dark hard muscles gleaming against the white linen of their ceremonial robes.

Or out of their robes.

And, most important, freedom from the mind-control chant of "what girl do you like?  What girl do you like?"

How were we going to get to Mecca?

I suggested that we become missionaries, and win all of the Muslims in Saudi Arabia for Christ. Surely it wouldn't take more than a year or two, and then they would welcome us into Mecca.

But then, Dan pointed out, it would be open to everyone, no longer forbidden, not safe anymore.

In the fall of ninth grade, we decided to move to Jiddah  to work as engineers, then cross the desert  by camel (about a two day trip) and sneak into the city. If we wore Arab costumes, we would certainly be undetected.

Once we reached "the good place," we would never want to leave.

But sometime in the spring, Dan suddenly abandoned our plans to call a girl and ask her for a date!  He had been taken over by the tripods.  He was lost.

I know now that Saudi Arabia is one of the more vehemently homophobic countries on Earth. But I still remember the dream of Mecca that kept us warm and happy during a cold Midwestern winter 40 years ago.

For more stories of junior high, see: Getting Phil to Sin; and a Naked Man for Christmas.

Apr 18, 2014

The Gay Surrealism of Kalervo Palsa

Kalervo Palsa (1947-1987) lived and died in a cottage near the town of Kittila, a ski resort in Lapland in the far north of Finland.  Like Veijo Rönkkönen, who worked in a paper mill in isolated Parikkala, he used his art to record gay dreams and nightmares.

Most are too graphic to display on this blog.  Instead, here's the cast of Bad Boys (Pahat pojat).


One rarely sees a moment of homoerotic joy on his surreal canvasses.  There are images of pain and death and disgust.

Kullervo from Finnish mythology, hanging himself, his belly distended, uses his penis to write "This is the world's reward to the strong."

A muscleman with a skull head is being invaded by his own intestines.

Men hang to death from their own penises.

Men have sex with inanimate objects, give birth to each other, explore weird fetishes, or just die in the mud.

Palsa also wrote and published a graphic novel, Eläkeläinen muistelee (Memoirs of a Retired Man), about the life of a successful mass-murderer and necrophiliac.

During his lifetime, his work was often censored, hidden, decried as pornographic or morbid.  But he countered "It is not enough to paint the flowers; one must also paint the gallows."

Did the association between homoerotic acts and death evoke of Palsa's self-loathing, a struggle with internalized homophobia?  Or was it a critique of conservative Finnish society, which labeled homoerotic beauty disgusting and acts between men perversions?

After his death, long-time friend and supporter Maj-Lis Pitkänen struggled to raise an appropriate tombstone, over the objections of townsfolk who disapproved of the "town pervert."

In 1999 she donated his collection of 3,000 paintings and sketches to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, which resulted in an exhibition, "Kalervo Palsa: The Second Coming," in 2002, and a re-appraisal of his work.

A fictionalized biography, The Surrealist and His Naughty Hand (Kalervo Palsa ja kuriton käs), by Pekka Lehto, premiered at the 2013 Midnight Sun Film Festival, and is scheduled for theatrical release later this year.  It stars Janne Reinikainen as Kalervo and Antti Raivio as his brother.

See also: Kristjan Raud; Lembit Sarapuu.

The Naked Run of Roskilde

I love running, but I wouldn't want to do it naked. Too many things flapping around unattended.  Somebody is going to get whiplash.

But I would like to see the Roskilde Naked Run.

Roskilde, Denmark, about a half hour from Copenhagen by train, has been the site of a famous music festival since 1971.

Beginning on the last Thursday in June or the first Thursday in July, it lasts for four days, with over 100 bands, vendors, camping, and 100,000 participants.


Here's a link to the official website.

Most people arrive on the Sunday before the festival, when the 200-acre campground opens, for the four-day warmup.

Every year since 1999, Roskilde Festival Radio has organized a naked run, or Nøgenløb, on the Saturday of the festival.

Hundreds of nude people sprint around the campground to win tickets to next year's festival.  Since there are only two tickets available for hundreds of runners, most are just in it for the fun, and to see things bouncing around.




There's also a naked run in Padasjoki, Finland in mid-June but the two-km course tends to get the older, dumpier crowd, whereas Roskilde gets heavy-metal and electro-pop fans: think Scandinavian twinks with tight bodies and extra-large endowments.

From the photos, it looks like there's  considerable flappage and only a little shrinkage.











The Balcony: Jean Genet's Play of the Gay Underworld

Like Yukio Mishima and Quentin Crisp, Jean Genet belonged to the old school of gay writers who thought of sexuality, especially gay sexuality, in terms of darkness, disease, and corruption.

Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), written while in prison, is about members of the gay underworld, including the drag queen Divine and the male prostitute Darling, who aspire to an antithesis of the "normal" world, finding honor in betrayal, beauty in "sordid" same-sex acts, and virtue in murder.

His Thief's Journal (1949), written while in prison, suggests that the gay underworld is the antithesis of the "normal" world, finding a trinity of evil "virtues": same-sex acts, theft, and betrayal.



His play The Balcony (1957) is a further exploration of this moral inversion.  It is set in a brothel in an unnamed city in the midst of a revolution. Three clients take on the roles of a Judge, a Bishop, and a General, who perform their duties on prostitutes acting as a Criminal, a Penitent, and a Horse, while each is interrogated by the Torturer (a hustler named Arthur).

Meanwhile, everyone waits to hear from Roger, the brothel's former plumber, and Chantal, a prostitute who has gone "straight," renounced the sordid underworld and gone off to join the Revolution.

The madam, Irma, falls asleep and dreams of three young men who are wounded and dying, presumably casualties of the revolution -- but then they are revealed to be named Blood, Tears, and Sperm.  They are casualties of sex.

An Envoy (sometimes the Chief of Police) arrives and tells them that the real-life Judge, Bishop, and General have been killed.  Irma suggests that her three client take their place.  The deviant have become normal.

The Balcony has been staged many times, sometimes with all-male casts which emphasize the homoeroticism of the shadow world.

Most productions involve semi-nudity, especially from Arthur/The Torturer.  In the 2007 performance in Washington D.C., he was played by Rashard Harrison (top), and in the 2013 version directed by Rafael de Musa, by Francesco Andolfi (left).





There have been two operas and several film versions, notably a 1963 tv movie with future Columbo Peter Falk as the Chief of Police, future Spock Leonard Nimoy as Roger, and Shelley Winters as Irma.

Apr 17, 2014

Seven Brothers: Homoerotic Rowdiness in a Finnish Sauna

I'm not a fan of the Kalevala, the Greatest Work of Finnish Literature: it's completely heterosexist, all about gods searching for wives (except maybe for a gay subtext in the teenage Kullervo).

But the Second Greatest Work is about seven guys alone in the woods. What's not to like?

Seven Brothers (Seitsemän veljestä, 1870), by Aleksis Kivi, is about guys who are perfectly happy living alone on their farm near Toukola.  They are rowdy, crude, and given to practical jokes.  They like to hunt and fish and get drunk and hang around nude in the sauna.  But then they discover that they must be civilized: they must learn to read, which will result in being confirmed into the Lutheran Church, which will result in wives!



I heard that often enough while growing up: "Your childhood will end, and your real life will begin, when you find a wife."

Faced with a vision of their fun ending, definitively, at the wedding altar, they rebel.  They light out for the territory and build themselves a house in the wilderness of Impivaara, where they can continue to be rowdy and crude and play practical jokes, and hang out nude in the sauna.






There are perils: they fight a giant bear and wild boars. There are hardships: farming is tough; their house burns down, and they must rebuild.  But in the end, they prosper.

Actually, after ten years in the woods, they return to Toukala, join the church, and get married (except for Simeoni, who stays single).  You can't hold out forever.

But no one remembers the civilizing.  The images that stick with you are the seven guys in the woods, being crude and rowdy, needing no one else.





There have been many film versions, two operas (by Tauno Martinnen and Launas Armis), and a ballet (by Marjo Kuusela).  Some versions, such as the 1989 tv miniseries by Joukku Turka, make Simeoni gay, but really a gay identity isn't necessary.  The whole work revels in the homoeroticism behind male bonding.




Apr 16, 2014

The Russian Beefcake Museum: Male Nudity in The Hermitage

When we visited Jaan in Estonia in the summer of 1998, we spent three days in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Yuri went to college.  But most of our time was spent walking around the campus of the Polytechnic University, having closeted conversations with his old friends at a straight bar across from Sosnovka Park, and, since he wasn't yet out when he was a student, checking out the rather limited gay scene ( a few bars, one with naked dancers, another with a dark room).

So we only had a couple of hours to tour the Hermitage.

You should devote at least a week.

It's the oldest and one of the largest museums in the world, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764.


The main building, the Winter Palace, was the residence of Russian kings and queens from 1732 to the Russian Revolution. Greek and Roman art, anthropological finds from the Altai cultures, Asian art, modern American art, entire galleries devoted to Titian, Van Dyck, Monet, and Picasso.

When -- and if -- you finish with the Winter Palace, you have to tour the collections of Menshikov Palace.  And the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the General Staff Building, and the Hermitage Theater.

Here are just a few of the pieces of interest for connoisseurs of beefcake:

1. Laocoon (1789), by Paolo Andrea Trisconi.  In Greek mythology, Laocoon defined the god Poseidon by having sex on sacred ground, so a sea monster killed him and his sons.  Who were naked at the time.

2. The Farnese Hercules, left.  An 18th century copy of the ancient original, one of the more muscular Hercules around.












3. Crouching Boy (c. 1530), by Michelangelo.  A very muscular boy, originally designed for the Medici Chapel in Florence. No one knows what he's doing; it looks like he's tying his shoe.

4. St. Sebastian (1570-72), by Titian.  The martyred saint is always a good subject for homoerotic art.














5. Daedalus and Icarus (1645), by Charles Lebrun (left). The master inventor is attaching wings to his nude, muscular son so he can take a fatal flight into space.

6. Mercurius (1662), the Greek god Mercury, by Flemish sculptor Artus Quellinus.

More after the break







Apr 15, 2014

Summer 1998: Wing Man for a Muscle God

In the summer of 1998, just after I returned from visiting Jaan in Estonia (and cruising the Swedish bodybuilder in Tallinn), it was time to travel to Montreal, to the annual conference of the International Sociological Society, where I read a paper on queer theory (and investigated the mystery of Formosan men's endowment).

But I also had plenty of time for sightseeing: the Basilique Notre-Dame, the Musee des Beaux-Arts, the Centre d'histoire de Montréal.

And the Gay Village, an amazingly vibrant neighborhood cluttered with gay bars, restaurants, shops, and saunas.

At the Oasis, a gay sauna on the rue Ste. Catherine, I hung around the spa (a pool-sized hot tub) and started a conversation with an older guy named James, probably in his mid-60s, a member of the English-speaking minority of Montreal.  He didn't learn Québécois French until high school, and he still couldn't parse a sentence in Parisian French.

What was the difference?

Tu as...vouz avons
C'est de valeur...quel domage 
Chatons la pomme...nous flirtons

We were so busy discussing languages that I forgot gay sauna etiquette: casual conversations must be restricted to a few sentences, or the other guy will think you are interested.  And James was definitely cruising me!

He reminded me of John Fiedler, who starred in The Bob Newhart Show in the 1970s: short enough, but rather too old for me, and lacking the other characteristics that I find attractive: he was pale-skinned, scrawny, and unimpressive beneath the belt (James, not John Fiedler).,

But, I figured, we were having a nice conversation, so why not? So when James put his hand on my knee and asked "Do you want to come to our room?" I consented.

Wait...our room?

"Do you mind if my friend joins us?"

Two pale-skinned, scrawny, under-endowed 60-year olds?  But I was in this far...  "No, I don't mind at all.  The more, the merrier."

He turned and addressed someone on the other side of the spa.  "J'ai trouvé un garz!  Eu, Jérôme!" I found a guy!  Hey, Jerome!

Wait -- there weren't any pale-skinned, scrawny 60 year olds around...

But there was a massively-built bodybuilder.  In his 30s,  dark-skinned, rock-hard chest and abs, massive biceps, and more than adequate beneath the belt (see top photo).

He had been giving everyone in the sauna attitude -- including us. But now he raised up on one arm and grinned and said, "Ok, passons-nous à la cabine,"  Let's go to our room.

I was stunned.

When two friends cruised together, the most attractive always acted as the bait, piquing the target's interest so much that he was willing to accept the less attractive one as part of the bargain.

Why did James and Jérôme reverse the pattern?  Surely Jérôme could get any guy he wanted.

It would have been gauche to inquire, so I didn't, but later I surmised: because there was such a blatant difference in attractiveness, some targets in the past had agreed to Jérôme but fled upon seeing James.

The strategy of using James as the bait resulted in fewer hurt feelings.

They both turned out to be nice guys.  Later they took me on a tour of the Gay Village, where we had dinner at Cafe Saigon and finished up the evening watching the show at Le Stud.

See also: Are the Stories about Formosan Men True?

Rasmus Kaljujärv: Getting Frisky with the Boyfriend

Rasmus Kaljujärv is one of the biggest young stars of Estonia.

And the most gay-friendly.











Born in 1981, he graduated from the Estonian Academy of Drama and Theater and went to work on the stage, starring in Estonian productions of Woman in White, Ubu Roi, Pericles, Romeo and Juliet, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the gay-subtext Lost in a Friend's Case (2012).

His film and tv career began with the drama short Fender Bender (2003), and went on to the dark comedy Fed Up (2005) and the family drama Home in the Middle of the City (Kodu keset linna, 2003).

Two of his gay-subtext performances are available with English subtitles (Region 2):











I Was Here (Min ola siin, 2008): The teenage Rass descends into the Estonian underworld, alienating his friend Aivo (Märt Avandi).

Tuulepealne maa (2008): A tv miniseries about two  friends (Rasmus and Märt again) who are caught up in the political struggles of Estonia from the 1920s through World War II.  Their gay-subtext friendship remains intact.





The Estonian blog "Gay Web" named him the "Sexiest Gay Man in Europe."  I can't tell if it's being facetious or not, but there are articles on the web proclaiming that Rasmus and this or that actress are "just friends," and photos of him and Märt getting "frisky" off-camera.



15 Public Penises of London

I haven't spent a lot of time in London, but you can't miss its obsession with monuments.  There are hundreds of them, memorializing nearly every famous and semi-famous person in the world, including Queen Victoria (a lot), Admiral Nelson, Charlie Chaplain, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wesley, Ronald Reagan, and Peter Pan (twice)  Plus window washers, roller skaters, Greek gods, animals, and intangible concepts.

Most they tend to be fully clothed and rather dour-looking, but there is a bit of whimsy, and plenty of nude, muscular male forms for the connoisseur of beefcake.  Here are the top 15:

1. The Wellington Monument in Hyde Park, featuring a muscular, naked Achilles in black bronze.

2.-3. Two ten-foot tall statues of football star and underwear model David Beckham (left), ginormous bulge intact, outside the H&M Store on Regent Street (they've probably been moved inside by now).


4. David Wynne's Boy with a Dolphin in Chelsea, the nude boy barely hanging on during his wild ride.

5. Jeté, by Enzo Plazotta, in Millbank (left).  Dancer David Wall was used as a model.





6.-7. Four allegorical nudes on the facade of the Adelphi Building, two male: Contemplation and Inspiration.  (The females, by the way, are Dawn and Night.)














8. The naked art deco guy on the Vue Cinema, Leicester Square (he's up on the top, so you have to crane your neck to see him).'









9. Another naked boy with dolphin in a Hyde Park fountain, but this one is quite muscular, and seems to be beating up the poor dolphin.

More after the break.













Apr 14, 2014

Mark Gregory: Mascara-Wearing Man-Mountain of 1980s Actioners

You're probably seen The Warriors (1979), starring Michael Beck (of Xanadu) as Swan, a gang leader trying to get from home from the Bronx, while rival gangs try to kill him.

The Bronx Warriors (1983) is a blatant ripoff, with Mark Gregory as Trash, a gang leader trying to get home from the Bronx, while rival gangs try to kill him. But it features more gay subtexts -- the mascara-wearing, leather-clad Trash doesn't particularly care for women, but he cares quite a lot for some of his fellow gang members, especially Fred Williamson's Ogre.

You've probably seen Escape from New York (1981), with former Disney kid Kurt Russell as the gnarly Snake Plissken, who must escape from Manhattan (transformed into a maximum-security prison) along with the kidnapped President of the United States.

Escape from the Bronx (1983) is a blatant ripoff, with Trash and his friends trying to escape the post-apocalyptic killing zone of the Bronx, along with the kidnapped president of a major corporation. But again, Trash is not particularly interested in women, but rather interested in gang leader Dablone (Antonio Sabato).

In 1983, director Enzo G. Castellari discovered the 17-year old shoe salesman working out in a gym.  Renaming him Mark Gregory, Castellari groomed him to capitalize on the man-mountain fad, beginning with the two Bronx Warriors movies.

Gregory didn't seem to like acting much.  His feminine mannerisms resulted in homophobic harassment from some of the extras.  He kept to himself, not socializing with anyone except Castellari and his teenage son Andrea.

During the next six years, Gregory appeared in seven movies in the U.S. and Italy, including the Thunder series, about a Native American seeking revenge; Fred Williamson's Delta Force Commando; and Adam and Eve, with the primordial couple fighting cannibals and dinosaurs.  

He gave it his best shot, but acting wasn't his cup of tea, and in 1989 he returned to being Marco di Gregorio and disappeared into civilian life.






Gregorio remained incognito for over 20 years, in spite of efforts from fans and Castellari to find him.

Finally, after extensive research, a fan managed to track him down: he still lives in Rome, where he is the manager of a company that specializes in personal growth.  No, he won't do an interview.  He doesn't want to be disturbed.

Apparently the homophobic harassment took its toll.


Hannes Bok: A Closeted Gay Life in Science Fiction Art

When I was in junior high, I discovered The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and thought it the best thing ever written. Was heroic fantasy always so wonderful?

As it turned out, no.  My friend Darry kept shoving novels from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series into my hands.  The titles were evocative and strange: Golden Cities, Far; The Wood Beyond the World; The Water of the Wondrous Isle; Red Moon and Black Mountain; The Broken Sword.  But the stories inside were boring, overwrought, and full of men obsessed with rescuing, winning, and wooing women.

One of the books that Darry recommended strongly was Beyond the Golden Stair (1970), by Hannes Bok.  I gave it a glance: in the first paragraph, a guy named Hibbert has a recurring dream about a beautiful woman; in the end, he wins her; and in between, there's some stuff about a golden stair, crystal masks, and a blue flamingo.  Yawn.


A few years later, I stumbled across a book, The Life and Legend of Hannes Bok (1970).  Turns out that he was an artist who illustrated over 150 covers for fantasy and science fiction magazines and paperback novels.  Some naked men in the lot, mostly being threatened by weird alien monsters, but also a lot of naked women.






I didn't think about it again for many years, until I met Emil Petaja, who published science-fiction versions of the Finnish Kalevala.  He was then in his 70s, one of the elderly gay men who had been part of the San Francisco gay scene since the days of the Black Cat Club.  But science fiction and the gay scene didn't merge easily.  In the 1960s, he and his lover had to pretend to be just roommates, even among close friends like Lin Carter, editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

His lover?

Hannes Bok!

But wait -- if Hannes Bok was gay, why all the female nudes?  And why did he fill his novel with heterosexist imagery?


Petaja stared at me.  "Are you kidding me?  Sometimes he had to draw naked women in cover art -- that's what the publisher asked for -- but his real art was all about gay men being threatened by a homophobic world."

"Ok, well...why was Beyond the Golden Stair so heterosexist?"

"Hibbert falls in love with a woman, sure, that's what sells.  But what about Burks?"

"Um...." I didn't remember the character.  It had been over 20 years since I leafed through the book and tossed it aside.

"The one who's transformed into a blue flamingo?"

"Gay?"

He nodded triumphantly.  "Code.  He displays his true nature -- the blue flamingo -- and he becomes the Guardian of the Pool.  A position of authority.  The straights didn't get it, sure, but the gays did."

Even today, gay artists, writers, directors, and actors often present heterosexual love stories, in order to sell.  But never underestimate their ability to acknowledge same-sex desire and romance, if only in subtle, heavily coded images.