Sep 27, 2014

The Big Men of American Tall Tales

In the mid-1980s, Shelly Duvall (fresh from playing Olive Oyl in the Popeye movie) hosted a Showtime series of Tall Tales & Legends, featuring live-action versions of Big Men (and Women) from American folklore: Pecos Bill (Steve Guttenberg), Johnny Appleseed (Martin Short), John Henry (Danny Glover), Davy Crockett (Mac Davis), Annie Oakley (Jamie Lee Curtis).

It was dreadful.  It brought back terrible memories of childhood, when those "colorful figures from our nation's past" were pounded into my brain through incessant classroom assignments and Wonderful World of Disney episodes.

Pecos Bill rode a mountain lion instead of a horse, used a snake for a lasso, and ate dynamite for a snack.

Davy Crockett was once swallowed by a bear, so he turned it inside out and escaped.

Paul Bunyan carved out the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe in the dirt.

Mike Fink (left) was half horse, half alligator, and half snapping turtle.

Who cared?  I much preferred Tarzan, Batman and Robin, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.  For that matter, Li'l Abner and Alley Oop from the comics page.

For that matter, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.

And some of the tales weren't even very tall:

Casey Jones ran a railroad engine fast.

John Henry...well, he drilled a million holes in rocks, and then died.

Johnny, well, he walked around planting trees.

But, on the bright side, they weren't given many heterosexual exploits.

Pecos Bill had a girlfriend, and I just discovered that Paul Bunyan had one, but she doesn't appear in any stories that I recall.

The other Big Men were portrayed without Big Women.

And there was a a lot of beefcake.  Big Men were by definition as muscular as Superman.

You could ask your parents for a Davy Crockett action figure, and then strip him out of his clothes.

John Henry was portrayed as a hard-iron bodybuilder, as in this 8-foot tall statue in Talcott, West Virginia.

 And Paul Bunyan?  Just think about the possibilities.  If he is 30 feet tall, then he must have a three-foot long....

See also: G.I. Joe and Ken; Roadside Beefcake

Sep 26, 2014

How Do We Know that Paul Robeson was Gay?

When I was in college in the late 1970s, Paul Robeson (1898-1977) was one of my heroes.  I loved his booming, soul-rending "Old Man River" in Showboat:

I get weary, and sick of trying
Tired of living, and scared of dying
But ol' man river, he just keeps rolling along.

And his hysterical megalomaniac in Emperor Jones.

He was one of the few African-Americans who managed to break into mainstream theater and film, but during the Cold War his radical political views caused him to be blacklisted -- he called America a "fascist state," and spoke favorably about the Soviet Union.  He had to live in exile in London, and his movies and songs were censored for many years.

How cool is that?

His physique was almost as impressive as his voice, so directors had him rip off his shirt whenever possible.  In the 1920s he became the first African-American to pose nude, for photographer Nickolas Muray.

When sculptor Antonio Salemme saw a performance of The Emperor Jones, he asked Robeson to model for him, and produced several busts, as well as the nude, arms-raised "Negro Spiritual."

I always assumed that he was gay because...well, I assumed that everybody was gay.  Besides, he was friends with many of the gay figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and Paris between the Wars, and many of his film and theatrical roles involved gay subtexts.

I got my proof in 1987, when an article the Advocate mentioned that he was "recently discovered to have been gay."

In August 2014, a new biography of Paul Robeson came out, written by none other than distinguished gay scholar Martin Duberman.

Great!  I thought.  Now I'm going to hear all about Robeson's male lovers, maybe a long-term romance with Antonio Salemme or director Sergei Eisenstein, maybe cruising for hunky sailors in Paris with Jean Genet or visiting Paul Bowles in Morocco to troll for rent boys.

But Duberman found no evidence of Robeson's male lovers, not a hint of cruising for hunky sailors or trolling for rent boys. Not that Robeson had a problem with gay people; he was "wholly accepting," according to his gay friends.  But he never expressed any same-sex desire.  As a young man in Harlem, he was often approached, even offered money, but he wasn't interested.

 Instead, Duberman found a long list of women.  A very, very long list.  Robeson had a robust sexual appetite. Robust, but exclusively heterosexual.

So where did the "Robeson is gay" come from?

Author Marc Blitzstein tracked it down to a story told by gay liberation pioneer Jim Kepner.  One day in 1947, the young Kepner made a delivery to Robeson's apartment in Manhattan.  Robeson answered the door in a "lavender dressing gown," invited him in for tea, and made some cruisy eye contact as they chatted.

In 1987, he was interviewed by Stuart Timmons, who then wrote "he was recently discovered to have been gay" for his Advocate article.

That's it.  One anecdote, 40 years old, where nothing actually happened.

Robeson still might have been gay or bisexual, with super-secret liaisons, or desires that were never fulfilled.  But his very busy heterosexual sex life and his openness to friendships with gay people lead me to doubt it.

Well, at least he was an ally.

Sep 25, 2014

Cinderella: Men in Tights

Let's face it -- 90% of the reason we go to the ballet is for the beefcake -- to look at the muscular male dancers in skin-tight leotards.  10% or less is for the bonding -- gay subtexts are scarce, even when the choreographer is gay.

And Cinderella is the most heterosexist of the lot.  It's based on the most iconic of Charles Perrault's fairy tales:

1. Cinderella escapes from her horrible childhood home to a fancy dress ball, with the help of a fairy godmother and a furry-animal makeover.
2. The Handsome Prince falls in love with her.
3. She flees at midnight, before she turns into a pumpkin.
4. The Handsome Prince tries her shoe out on every woman in the kingdom, but it only fits Cinderella.

Cinderella has no female friends, only bullying stepsisters.  The Handsome Prince has no male friends, just fawning courtiers.  It's male-female pas de deux, heterosexual love! love! love! from here to eternity.

There have been about 20 ballet versions, but the most commonly performed is the 1945 version with music composed by Sergei Prokofiev.

It adds some comedic touches, such as having the stepsisters performed by men in drag (as they are in the popular British pantomimes).  In 1948, it was re-choreographed as a full-blown comedic ballet.

Still entirely heterosexist, from stem to stern.

Fortunately, costumers usually compensate by dressing the Prince in the most tightly revealing leotards they can find.

So audiences who are bored by the heterosexual love! love! love! mantra can still find something to look at.

See also: The Midsummer Night's Dream Ballets.

Sep 23, 2014

I Was Betrayed by Keanu Reeves

For Boomers, Keanu Reeves is indelibly linked with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), a comedy about two "dumb and dumber" teenagers (Keanu, Alex Winter) on a time-travel quest to bring back some "historical dudes" for their history project.  It was wildly popular, spinning off into a sequel and a cartoon series and giving teens of the early 1990s the catchphrase "Excellent!"

But Keanu was nor really cut out to be a comedic actor; his mumbling James Dean style was more suited to quirky indy dramas with gay subtexts, such as The Brotherhood of Justice (1986), about a group of shirtless teenagers becoming vigilantes to fight crime in their gritty urban neighborhood, and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), with 18th century French aristocrats play seduction games.

He also tried his hand at action-adventure movies.  In Point Break (1991), he plays Johnny Utah, an FBI agent assigned to investigate crime in the world of professional surfers, where he bonds with surfer bum Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).  It's gay-subtext buddy-bonding at its best.

He even played a gay (sort of) character in My Own Private Idaho (1991), about hustler buddies ( the Hollywood "men who have sex with sexy women for pay" kind of hustler).  Mike (River Phoenix) is frail, sickly, and gay (does Hollywood have any other kind?)  He pines away with unrequited love for Scott (Keanu).

By this point, I assumed that Keanu was gay in real life, or at least a strong ally who would give us many open gay characters, or at least a series of gay-subtext buddy-bonds.  My friend Will claimed to have hooked up with him during the summer of 1986.

But then I was subjected to a decade of dreary "fade-out kiss" actioners and romances full of heterosexist statements like "every man is searching for the woman he was destined to be with": Speed, A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, The Matrix, The Replacements, Sweet November.

Where were the gay characters?  Where were the gay subtexts?  Where was the plain old inclusivity?

I felt betrayed, and gave up on Keanu altogether. I haven't seen any of his movies since 2001.

See also: River Phoenix: Running on Empty; Will and Scott's Wild Night with Keanu Reeves.

Sep 21, 2014

Robert Allerton and his Boyfriend/Son

Gay men in earlier generations devised all sorts of clever ways to be with their partners without arousing suspicion.  They became valets, secretaries, business partners, brothers-in-law.

But Robert Allerton is unique.  He made his boyfriend his son.

Born into luxury in 1873, son of the founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, Robert Allerton rejected the usual route of private school, Ivy League college, and tycoon career.  Instead, after he graduated from prep school, he bummed around Europe, collecting art.

In 1897 he bought a farm near Urbana, Illinois, and turned it into a series of ornate gardens, stocked with neoclassical statues and Asian art.

In 1922, at age 50, he met the 23-year old John Gregg, an aspiring architect who everyone called Jack.

There were some gay rumors, but in that far more heterosexist era, it was more commonly assumed that Jack was merely the protege of the older man.  Besides, they often took girls to public events.

Otherwise they lived happily together for thirty years.  They spent summers in Illinois, and traveled during the winters.  One year they'd go "Europewise," and the next "Orientwise."

They got some decidedly homoerotic work from their friends in the gay art world, such as Primitive Men from Glyn Philpott and The Sun Singer from Carl Milles. They are now visible at the Robert Allerton Park, which is open to the public.

Robert and Jack  were a common sight at parties, benefits, concerts, and nightclubs.  Their Thanksgiving Parties were legendary.

They had a wide circle of friends, including Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.

They endowed the Robert Allerton Park, the Allerton Gardens in Hawaii, the Honolulu Academy of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Robert was getting older.  What to do about inheriting his fortune?  In the eyes of the law, they were strangers.  Robert could merely amend his will to give Jack everything, but then relatives would protest, and there would be endless legal battles.

He came up with a clever solution.  In 1951, when Robert was 77, he legally adopted 52-year old Jack.  When he died five years later, his "son" automatically inherited everything.

Jeff MacKay

The problem with meeting celebrities is that you usually don't recognize them, and then their feelings get hurt.

I never saw Black Sheep Squadron, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Magnum PI, or The Transformers, so how did I know that the guy I met was a celebrity.  I didn't even know that he was an actor, although it's a safe bet in West Hollywood

He was living in Hollywood, a few blocks from Mann's Chinese (and near where the Gay Community Center is today).

He told me that he was born in Dallas but grew up in Oklahoma City, and....

That's all I knew about him, except he had a nice smile, a husky, hirsute physique, and his name was "Jeff."

Later he revealed that he was Jeff MacKay, the actor.  I pretended to know who he was, but really I didn't.

After that night I never saw him again.

He died in 2008 after a long struggle with alcoholism, leaving many family members and friends with fond memories of his kindness and good humor.

I'm sorry I didn't get to know him better.

See also: Guess which celebrity I've dated.


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