Jun 18, 2015

Spring 1979: Captain Ernie and His First Mate

Back before Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, Netflix, and DVDs, you got your dose of kids' tv in two places:

1. On a sugar-rush five hours of cartoons every Saturday morning.

2. Weekdays after school, on local kids' tv shows hosted by an army of clowns, hobos, cowboys, and pirates.

The Quad Cities was on the Mississippi River, so we had Captain Ernie's Cartoon Showboat.

The tall, commanding Captain Ernie (Ernie Mims) stood on the deck of the Dixie Belle, to announce Bugs Bunny and Hanna Barbara cartoons and Three Stooges shorts.  Then he opened his "Treasure Chest" and passed out prizes to the kids in the studio audience.

When I was in fourth grade, my boyfriend Bill and I were in the audience.  I got a plastic "pirate cape," and he got a cardboard sword.

The cartoons and prizes weren't the only attraction: Captain Ernie was cute, with squarish hands, a hairy chest, and a pleasant suggestion of muscle.

Sometimes he performed skits with his "First Mate," Sidney.

I didn't know what a "first mate" was, but it was obvious that Captain Ernie and Sidney lived together on the Dixie Belle, and neither had girlfriends or wives.  Obviously a gay couple!

I found out that they weren't really a couple in fourth grade: one of the kids in my class at Denkmann was Captain Ernie's nephew.  Turns out Ernie Mims had a wife and kids after all, and Sidney was just an intern, a student at the Palmer College of Chiropractic, up the street from WOC TV.

Still, many of the iconic moments of my childhood took place in front of Cartoon Showboat, or with Captain Ernie: a local celebrity, he appeared at the Celtic Festival, the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival, the Pow Wow, the annual Christmas parade, and various ribbon-cuttings and supermarket openings.

During the 1970s, our first PBS station brought the competition of the kinder, gentler Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and frenetic but non-violent Sesame Street, and in 1974 Cartoon Showboat was cancelled.  By that time, I was in junior high, too old to watch.

Ernie Mims went on to become the weatherman.

The last time I saw him was in the spring of 1979, during my freshman year of college  I was working at the Carousel Snack Bar when Captain Ernie -- not in character -- came up and ordered an ice cream cone.

As I passed it to him, our hands touched.

I wanted to say "Thanks for a great childhood," but I played it cool.

Jun 17, 2015

Beau Mirchoff: Awkward Bromance

I am often asked if I can find a gay subtext in anyone, anywhere.  Let's try it out:

The Wizards of Waverly Place reunion movie (2013) splits young-adult wizard Alex Russo (Selena Gomez) into good and evil halves.  Good Alex is allied with on-off boyfriend, the werewolf Mason (Gregg Sulkin), while Evil Alex teams up with the hunky though evil wizard Dominic (Beau Mirchoff).  Guess which team wins?

Jake T. Austin, always good for a subtext, doesn't have much to do.

No subtexts.

This was 24-year old Beau Mirchoff's first time on the Disney Channel, but he's been playing evil teens for several years.

The arrogant equestrian Ben in the Canadian tv series Heartland (2007-2008).  Never saw it.

Danny Bolen in Desperate Housewives (2009-2010), first a murder suspect, then the hostage of his eco-terrorist biological father. No subtexts in his story line.

A teenage murderer on CSI: Miami (2011). No subtexts.

Beau is playing against type in the MTV series Awkward (2011-), about high schooler Jenna (Ashley Rickards) who gains notoriety after she has an accident, and everyone thinks she attempted suicide.  He plays Matty, who is competing for Jenna's affection with his best friend Jake (Brett Davern).  When Jake sees Matty and Jenna kissing, he angrily breaks up with them both.

Classic triangulation.

Jake and Beau, BFFs in real life, are playing up the bromance.

Found a subtext!

By the way, Awkward also has an gay character, Clark Stevenson (Joey Haro), who comes out at Bible Camp and is later caught kissing Ricky Schwartz (Matthew Fahey), the boyfriend of Jenna's bff Tamara.

Easter Island: Phallic Statues and Penis Festivals

If you thought Mongolia was remote for Westerners, try Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui).  From New York, you fly to Miami, then to Panama City, and finally to Santiago, Chile (about 24 hours).  From there, only one airline flies to the town of Hanga Roa on Rapa Nui, once a day (about 6 hours).

It's a tiny island, about 15 miles long and 8 miles wide, alone in the Pacific Ocean, probably settled from the Marquesas Islands, 2000 miles away.

Once the early Polynesians got there, they became very interested in the penis.

1. Most Rapa Nui men incorporated the word Ure, "Penis," into their names, but in the 19th century Christian missionaries put an end to the practice.

2. The Moai, "Easter Island Heads," are actually complete torsos, over 800 of them, 20-30 feet high, weighing over 80 tons, sculpted and installed over a period of 300 years (1200-1500 AD).  They took so much time and energy that the islanders had little time left for other pursuits, and so many trees were felled to facilitate transport that the island is now almost entirely treeless.

The noses of the figures have often been interpreted as phallic symbols.  Indeed, some scholars interpret the Moai themselves as giant phallic symbols, representing the sexual potency of the Rapa Nui men. There's a legend still common on the island that a penis served as the model.

3. Rongo Rongo, the Easter Island script, appears on dozens of tablets and ceremonial objects.  By the time the Europeans arrived, no islander remembered how to read it, and it remains untranslated.  But at least one of the glyphs is called "Tangata Ure Huki" "Man with Erect Penis"

4. The Tapati Fesival, held every year during the first two weeks of February, is a celebration of the island's history, culture, and penises.  There are parades, dances, athletic contests like haka pei (sliding down a mountainside on a tree trunk), and a race called the Tau'a Rapa Nui: men wearing only skimpy loincloths race through town carrying bunches of phallic-symbol bananas.

See also: The Beefcake Festival of the Andes.

Jun 14, 2015

Superman: You'll Believe a Man Can Fly

Superman first flew in 1938, and for the next 40 years he had comic books, movie serials, cartoons, and radio and tv series, but no feature films.  Nor, for that matter, did any superhero except for the tongue-in-cheek Batman (1966).

That all changed in December 1978.

 It was a dreary winter, dark, cold, and snowy, with movies about angst, tragedy, and lost love: The Deer Hunter, Same Time Next Year, California Suite, Moment by Moment, Oliver's Story.  I was depressed; a semester into college, and I hadn't met any gay people, or learned of any gay writers except Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.  Superman was a bright spot, a cozy childhood memory (though it too had a cave of ice).

Director Richard Donner was careful to include every familiar aspect of the Superman myth: the doomed planet Krypton, the elderly farm couple of Smallville, the Daily Planet, Perry White, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, the Fortress of Solitude, Lex Luthor. And some from the familiar TV Superman of the 1950s, who used to change clothes in a phone booth (no old-style phone booths left in 1978).

Indeed, everyone was so busy checking off their list of Superman conventions that they forgot to pay attention to the plot: Lex Luthor plans to drop a nuclear bomb on the San Andreas Fault, thus causing California to slip into the ocean, whereup he will get rich by selling prime oceanside real estate in Nevada.

Ok, that was ridiculous even for a comic book.

The Man of Steel was played by 26-year old Christopher Reeve, a virtual unknown (he had one movie credit and a few tv appearances). He was hired for his muscles, his square jaw, and for his uncanny ability to be both sexy and wholesome at the same time.

He didn't disrobe during the movie, but he favored us with some beefcake shots in teen magazines and in the faux-gay After Dark.

 He was interviewed in gay magazines, an almost unprecedent act of solidarity in the 1970s, and in 1982 he played a gay character, the protege of playwright Sidney Bruhl (Michael Cane) in Death Trap.  I can still remember the gasps of shock when the two characters kissed on-camera.

Gay-positive Christopher Reeve and his studly physique provided the only gay interest in Superman.  No buddy-bonding in high school, no boy pal, no subdued homoromantic sniping with Lex Luthor.

It was a heterosexual love story, and rather a sappy one.  Audiences twittered and squirmed when Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) flew endlessly through the skies of Metropolis hand in hand, while Lois thought: "Can you feel what I feel? Do you know what you're doing to me?"

On the other hand, she wasn't a complete Girl Scout.  She asked, "How big are you...um, I mean, how tall?", leading to considerable speculation about the Man of Steel's package.

William Smith: the Bodybuilder of Laredo

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the bodybuilder a human face, there were two kinds of roles available for him: Italian sword-and-sandal, and American beach bunny, an object of ridicule, vain, silly, sexless.  How dare he try to transform his body into a work of art! Women's bodies were made to be looked at, men's to be ignored.  So bodybuilders who weren't playing beach narcissists had to keep their physiques under wraps.

William Smith worked to change all that.

Born in 1933, Smith graduated from UCLA magna cum laude, and was teaching Russian (one of several languages he spoke fluently), when he began modeling for Bob Mizner's Athletic Model Guild, which published  many other posing-strap-clad hunks (Gary Conway, Glen Corbett, Randy Jackson) for a mostly-gay male fanbase.  He was also a regular at Henry Willson's infamous gay-and-gay-friendly parties.

He was also acting intermittently, with roles in projects as diverse as Meet Me in St. Louis, The Boy with Green Hair, Wagon Train, and The Nutty Professor.  

When he signed on for Laredo (1965-67), he was already accustomed to presenting his body as an object of male and female desire.  It would not be one of the stereotypic Westerns of the period.

1. Other Western heroes were loners, or had unattractive, sexually unavailable sidekicks, but Laredo, like Alias Smith and Jones a few years later, was about buddy-bonding.  Two hunky Texas rangers, Chad Cooper (Peter Brown) and Joe Riley (William Smith), worked together, played together, and had eyes only for each other, in spite of Chad's occasional dalliance with the feminine.  The actors remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

2. Other Western heroes were often displayed nude or shirtless in movie magazines, but almost never on screen, especially if they were bodybuilders.  But Joe Riley had his shirt ripped off in practically every episode.  Usually when he was captured by the bad guys, to give him some vulnerability, so his massive physique wouldn't scare the audience.

After Laredo, Smith continued to work in Westerns (Daniel Boone, Death Valley Days, The Virginian) until the genre faded away in the 1970s, and then in cop shows and mysteries.  He had big hits in Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) as the villainous Falconetti, and in Conan the Barbarian (1982) as Conan's father.

His most recent project, Tiger Cage (2012), comes after nearly 300 movie and tv show appearances over a period of 70 years, not to mention producing, directing, bodybuilding, boxing, and even writing poetry.  But few of his accomplishments can match the simple power of demonstrating to the world that the male body can be a thing of beauty.

See also: Peter Brown, the Buddy-Bonding Cowboy.