Oct 3, 2019

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.

Oct 2, 2019

"Wet Hot American Summer": Gross Kissing, a Gay Wedding, and Time Passages

I didn't see the 2001 movie Wet Hot American Summer.  I assumed from the trailers that it was all about girls in bikinis.

Besides, it was a bomb -- it made $295,000 on a budget of $5,000,000. 

And reviewers hated it:

 Roger Ebert wrote a parody poem instead of a review.

Stacie Hougland said "it's not only unfunny, it's downright repulsive."

Stephen Hunter: "This is supposed to be funny?  It was so depressing I started to cry."

But recently I heard that it had a gay couple in it, plus it starred several gay and gay-friendly actors, so I plugged it in on Netflix.

It's the morning of the last day of camp at Camp Firewood, Maine, in the summer of 1981, and all of the boy campers are squirming around in bed with the   girl campers. Gross!

Then singularly ugly, 30-something teenage counselors all get together for their last morning briefing. Andy (Paul Rudd, top photo) is licking his girlfriend's uvula (I'm not kidding.  Never in my life have I seen such gross kissing).

They go out to various activities that could not possibly fit into a single day.

Andy is so busy kissing a girl that he lets one of the campers drown. Later he lets one of the campers fall off water skiis and drown.

Camp director Beth (Janine Garofalo) falls for Henry (David Hyde Pierce), an associate professor of astrophysics who is coming up for tenure (associate professors have tenure!  Anybody hear of fact checking?).  So she and some other counselors drive into town to research astrophysics to impress him. While there, they smoke pot, buy cocaine, shoot up heroin, and mug a woman.  But they're back by 11:00.

Henry teaches several science lessons to the campers, and he and Beth become a committed couple.

Coop (31-year old Michael Showalter, left) unsuccessfully tries to woo Kate (Marguerite Moreau) away from Andy, who doesn't like her anyway.

The virgin Victor (33-year old Ken Marino) is scheduled to hook up with  Abby (who also kisses in that disgusting uvula-licking fashion), but he is forced to take some boys rafting on a river a two hour drive away.

He sneaks away and tries to drive back to the camp, but crashes the van, so he runs.

At least 100 miles.

Then he discovers that the boys are trapped on a raft heading for the falls, so he runs back to rescue them.

At least 100 miles

But they all return safely (and dry)  in time for the evening talent show.

McKinley (30-year old Michael Ian Black) doesn't like kissing girls or watching girls skinny-dip.  His two buds wonder why.

We find out when he sneaks off to the supply shed to have sex with Ben (25-year old Bradley Cooper).  (A brief kiss and  a shot of their legs while they're having anal sex).

Next the buds see them getting married, with Beth  officiating.  Wait -- how did they....and  isn't Beth in town, shooting up heroin?

I'm not sure if it's a homophobic scene or not.  Beth's over-the-top teary-eyed gushing sounds insincere, like she is making fun of McKinley and Ben.

"McKinley's a fag!"  The buds exclaim.  "What are we going to do?"

Why is he hanging out with homophobes, anyway?

Or are they homophobes? They show up at dinner with a wedding gift, a chaise lounge in a gigantic crate.  Wait -- did they drive into town?  How...

That's the end of the McKinley plotline,but we see him doing other things, like forcing a kid who hasn't bathed in two months to take a shower, and sitting in the audience at the talent show.  I don't know who Ben is.

For other characters, time seems to stand still.

Gail (Molly Shannon) spends the entire day in the arts and crafts cabin, crying over her ex-husband and being counseled by her campers.

Except for a brief scene of uvula-licking, Gary (AD Miles, left) spends the entire day in the kitchen, where head chef Gene (Christopher Meloni) says things that sound sexual, then backtracks:  "The juice packets are in the store room, next to my dick cream.  I didn't say dick cream, I said stick team.  They're next to the stick team's snacks."

Aside from the uvula-licking scenes, the heroin/mugging scene, and some queasy anti-Semitic bits, the movie is not particularly disgusting.  But actors are so old that they are not at all believable teenagers, and the time-compression and time-dilation are bizarre.  I spend the entire 90 minutes yelling at the screen: "Wait...that's impossible.  They couldn't have gotten that done.  How did they end up together so fast,,.  Is Gail still crying?  But..."

I'll give it a D just for the crazy pacing.

Netflix has somehow come up with two series, a prequel (same actors 20 years later, still playing teenagers) and a sequel (set 10 years later, so 1991).

Sep 29, 2019

Mac Comes Out on "Beaver Falls"

Beaver Falls (2011-2012), streaming on Amazon Prime, is a British sitcom in the "Aren't Americans wacky?" genre, about three graduates of Oxford Brookes University (Oxford Brookes, not Oxford) who get jobs at a ritzy American summer camp.

I'm not watching.  In spite of the little beaver on the camp logo, the opening sequence reveals exactly what kind of "beaver" the show is about.  These boys came to the U.S. to have sex with American girls, who apparently are easier to seduce than their British counterparts.

But I did watch Season 2, Episode 5, when a camper comes out.

Barry (John Dagleish left) is smoking pot with a jock named Mac  (Tom Austen, top photo), who suddenly kisses him.  He responds with amused nonchalance: "Chicks can't take their weed."

I was so shocked by the implication that gay men are actually women that it didn't register that he was smoking pot with an underaged boy (I looked it up -- Mac is actually a counselor, not a camper)

Mac is horrified at his faux pas.  He rushes to his girlfriend's cabin and has sex with her, thus "proving" that he's really straight in spite of the kiss.

In the aftermath, Barry becomes the subject of gay rumors.  The whole camp becomes angry and suspicious, except for some who defend him: "Barry is as much of a man as he ever was."  So...gay men aren't men?

When he shows up in a  "ladyboy" pink athletic singlet, his fellow counselors are outraged, and ask if he needs a "push-up bra."  Barry insists that he's straight, so he doesn't need a bra. So...gay men need bras?

He gets upset.  He doesn't mind if people think he is gay, only when they laugh at him or yell at him.  Right, that would be the homophobia....

Meanwhile, it's the big  basketball game  (why do counselors, not campers, play basketball?).  Someone calls Mac a "fag" and he beats him up.  His teammates don't get it:  "The dude just called you a fag.  There's no need to overreact."

Then, to their horror, they figure it out: Mac really is a fag!  "I showered next to him!" one of the jocks exclaims in disgust.  Rather intense homophobia for 2012, isn't it?  

To save his reputation and keep him from being killed by his teammates, Barry says that he made the first move; he's a gay pervert trolling for jailbait, but "Mac is a man." So...gay men aren't men? 

Mac, meanwhile, runs into the woods.  His girlfriend follows, and claims that kissing a guy is not a problem.  But he says "I'm sorry....I'm so, so, sorry."

Gulp.  That's what people say before they commit suicide....

Instead he dumps her.  He's gay.  Wait -- he's had sex with lots of women, and he kissed a guy once, so therefore he's gay. That must have been one powerful kiss!    
The episode ends with Barry and Mac smoking pot again, and Mac upset because he's ruined everybody's life.  The episode fades out to a song.  The only lyrics I heard were: "I'll wear my coat in shame."

To recap:
1.The slightest moment of same-sex affection means that you are gay.
2. Gay men are not men, they're women.
3. Being gay is something shameful.
4. The year is 1975. Or else this is an episode of Will and Grace.

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