Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Gay Gossip/Gay History: The Deliciously Gossipy Books of Robert Hofler

I just spent the last few weeks living in a world of wild parties and carefree sex courtesy of three books by Robert Hofler: Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts; Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs and Rock ’N’ Roll starring the Fabulous Allan Carr and Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange—How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos.
It all began with an excerpt from Dominick Dunne in The Daily Beast, which showed up in my Facebook newsfeed. The excerpt dealt with the filming of the Elizabeth Taylor film Ash Wednesday in Rome, when Liz was in the midst of her relationship with Richard Burton. In addition to her frequently being late for her call time (and drunk), the excerpt also detailed her conversation with her co-star, Helmut Berger, about being constipated. We're also told that Burton was jealous of the handsome (and gay) Berger, who at the time was having an affair with director Luchino Visconti.
Dunne was the producer of Ash Wednesday, but he's probably most famous for being a writer for Vanity Fair, as well as the author of several novels.
Dunne's specialty was true crime stories, and this was probably due the murder of his daughter, actress Dominique Dunne (Poltergeist), by her boyfriend and Dunne's subsequent disillusionment with the outcome of the murder trial. (Her boyfriend wound up spending only a few years in prison.) Dunne may have led a charmed life career-wise, but his personal life was beset by tragedy. In addition to his daughter's murder, his wealthy and beautiful wife eventually developed MS.
That all may sound like a downer (and it is), but there's plenty of excitement in this book as well. Dunne would go on to write about two of the most notorious murder trials of the 20th century: O.J. Simpson and the Menendez Brothers (the former, the subject of a recent TV series and the latter about to be.)
Before that, we see Dunne's rise from stage manager at NBC to movie producer, to his career at Vanity Fair and as a novelist. There's also some literary gossip about his strained relationship with his brother and sister-in-law, the writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion.
Oh yeah, and Dunne was also gay (despite having a wife and three children). There's one great story about Dunne inviting a hustler to his New York apartment and barely escaping with his life. That's probably the most extreme example of the struggles Dunne went through in coming to terms with his sexuality.

Then there's Allan Carr, who never made any bones about his sexuality, but struggled with his weight throughout his life. Carr is best known as the producer of the movies Grease and Can't Stop the Music (which featured The Village People and a pre-transition Bruce Jenner) and the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles. Carr was perhaps equally well-known for his wild parties and some of the best sections of Allan Carr describe these parties, as well as his four homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu, New York, and Hawaii. (His Beverly Hills home had a disco in the basement!). I also enjoyed the many behind-the-scenes showbiz stories, like that of a 30-year-old Harvey Fierstein being invited in his down jacket held together with duct tape to Carr's St. Moritz Hotel penthouse to work on La Cage with Jerry Herman and Arthur Laurents.

Sexplosion deals with the sexual revolution in movies, theater, books and TV between 1968 and 1973, a period I think of as a golden age in American culture. Hofler shows us the evolution of such cultural (and sexual) landmarks as the films Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge, Women in Love, Last Tango in Paris, and Deep Throat; the plays The Boys in the Band, Oh! Calcutta! and Hair; the books Portnoy's Complaint, Couples, Myra Breckenridge and Fear of Flying and the TV shows All in the Family and An American Family. What's remarkable is how many of the artists involved in these projects were gay (Midnight Cowboy director John Schlesinger, The Boys in the Band playwright Mart Crowley, Women in Love screenwriter Larry Kramer, Hair creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado, Myra Breckenridge author Gore Vidal and American Family's Lance Loud.) What's also remarkable is how shocking such things as nudity (especially male nudity) and homosexuality were back then and how strange it now seems that people (including celebrities like Jackie Onassis) once watched pornography in movie theaters!
In spite of the now wide availability of pornography on the Internet (and, before that, on video), I'm struck by the feeling that being an adult from 1968 to 1973 was much more interesting and exciting than it is today.
Perhaps Hofler’s next books can tackle talent manager Sandy Gallin, record industry-turned-movie mogul David Geffen and former Paramount Pictures and Fox TV honcho Barry Diller. Velvet Mafia, anyone?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gay Bars That Are Gone


515 West 18 Street, former site of The Roxy

Yesterday, I went on a walking tour called Gay Bars That Are Gone, organized by Michael Ryan and Kyle Supley as part of Jane Jacobs Walks1.
We started out at The Roxy2, a huge former disco on West 18 Street. I recounted my story of how once I had gone to see Chaka Khan perform there and she invited some man up on stage to sing with her. That was brave enough of him! But this man had the audacity to criticize Ms. Khan’s singing, to which she replied, “I have perfect pitch, bitch!” (OK, she didn’t actually say “bitch.”) That was the end of him!
There were other shows I saw at Roxy, in addition to going to their regular John Blair Saturday nights, which were probably the preeminent gay dance party of the ’90s. I saw Malcolm McLaren there when the venue was booked by an English woman named Ruza Blue, who promoted hip hop nights there. I saw New Order in concert there when it was called 1018. And I was supposed to see Dee-Lite there when they were at the peak of their popularity (after “Groove Is in the Heart” was released), but they never showed up. Roxy was never really my scene, though, because it catered to what were then known as “Chelsea boys” (i.e., gay men who worked out and generally lived in Chelsea). In fact, Supley even mentioned that Blair had a rating system to determine who got in the door.
I was not surprised.
Then we moved on to The Anvil. Now that was my joint!
Although I was too young and naïve to even know what was going on in the catacomb-like backroom, I was there for New Wave nights every Tuesday (deejayed by Bill Bahlman), which featured performances by a lip-synch artist named Bernard Zette, who later appeared in the film Last Exit to Brooklyn. My former neighbor, actress/comedian/playwright Nora Burns, told about how she was prevented from getting in at a nearby disco called Alex in Wonderland by the doorman and later wound up appearing in a play with him.
On the way to our next stop, we paused around the corner from Little West 12th Street to talk about the notorious Mineshaft. This was a club that was known for its wild sexual exploits and its strict dress code, which was as follows:
Cycle leather & Western gear, levis
Jocks, action ready wear, uniforms,
T shirts, plaid shirts, just plain shirts,
Club overlays, patches, & sweat.

NO COLOGNES or PERFUMES
NO SUITS, TIES, DRESS PANTS
NO RUGBY SHIRTS, DESIGNER SWEATERS, or TUXEDOS
NO DISCO DRAG or DRESSES
also
NO HEAVY OUTTER [sic] WEAR IS TO BE WORN IN PLAYGROUND
Apparently, such celebrities as Mick Jagger and Elton John were refused entry for not dressing the part.
I only went there once when I was very young and ran out screaming like a frightened schoolgirl (OK, I exaggerate slightly) when some gentleman tried to pick me up and, shaking his hand, I realized it was covered with the same lube that was covering his bare buttocks.
The next stop was Florent, the much-missed French bistro owned by the eccentric Florent Malloret. (There’s an excellent documentary about him called Florent: Queen of the Meat Market3). In addition to their reasonable menu, Florent was probably most famous for its Bastille Day street fair, where the owner would sometimes dress up in drag as Marie Antoinette. They were also known for being very accepting of HIV-positive people at a time when that was a very rare thing. (Florent himself was openly HIV-positive at a time when that was also very rare and would keep a running count of his T-cells on the menu.) There was also a famous nude photograph of HIV-positive people which appeared on the cover of Poz magazine, which was taken in his restaurant.4
Then we continued to Jackson Square (passing the former site of the notorious Hellfire5 and J’s Hangout6 on the way) to talk about a lesbian bar called Sea Colony7, which I’d never heard of. (Perhaps I can be forgiven for that, since they were open in the '50s and '60s and I'm not a lesbian.)
Me talking about watching the season finale of "Dynasty" (where the entire cast gets shot) at Uncle Charlie's.
On to Uncle Charlie’s8, where I talked about the night I watched the season finale of “Dynasty” (in which everyone was shot). Uncle Charlie’s was a chain of gay bars (the other branches were in Midtown, the Upper East Side and the Village). They had a reputation as a “stand and model” (or “S&M” as it was jokingly abbreviated) bar and the customers were generally young and preppy Izod-wearing All-American Boy types (as in the clothing store that used to be on Christopher Street). It was also the site of the first anti-gay terrorist attack in the United States, and the owner was allegedly involved in a murder.
After Splash opened in Chelsea in the early ’90s, all the preppies migrated to Chelsea, which marked the beginning of Chelsea’s reign as the preeminent gay neighborhood of that decade.
Next stop was The Ninth Circle. I was never a big customer there, but apparently it was a very cool place (according to Burns, it had a great jukebox). I know that it’s featured heavily in Brad Gooch’s memoir Smash Cut (it’s where he met his lover, film director Howard Brookner), and it’s where Edward Albee allegedly got the idea for the title of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.
Further down West 10th Street was the Snake Pit. This bar was a contemporary of the original Stonewall bar, and its history was equally marked by violence. In March 1970, for example, after a police raid, a terrified young Argentine jumped out of a second-floor window and impaled himself on a 14-inch spike while attempting to escape from police custody.9
Walking down Grove Street, we passed what used to be a veritable “piano bar row” of Marie’s Crisis, the original Duplex (later Rose’s Turn) and the Five Oaks. The only one remaining is Marie’s Crisis.
Finally, we stopped in Christopher Street Park10 (now a National Historic Landmark along with the Stonewall) to talk about the Duchess, another lesbian bar which apparently had a lot of fighting outside (again, according to Burns), before adjourning to Julius (another landmark11, and New York’s oldest gay bar) for drinks and dancing.

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roxy_NYC
3 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1378667/
8 http://lostwomynsspace.blogspot.com/2011/06/sea-colony.html
10 http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/julius-bar-gay-rights-landmark-named-historic-site-article-1.2575251

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mexican Radio

Yesterday, I walked downstairs from my apartment to discover that Mexican Radio, a restaurant next door to my apartment building whose customer I’d been since they’d opened in that location, had closed. This was the latest in a string of small business closures in my neighborhood over the last few years that included a newsstand, a laundromat, two delis and Spring Street Natural restaurant, which had been in its old location for over 30 years.
I wrote an email to Lori Selden, the owner of Mexican Radio, expressing my sadness at their closing, and the owner wrote back with a short history of her experience in the neighborhood, which I found absolutely fascinating. With Ms. Selden’s permission, I thought I’d share some excerpts from our email exchange here.

Good evening, Paul, and thank you for your sweet note.
It has been very sad and painful for us to shut the NYC doors after 21 years, 17+ at the Cleveland Place location.
We struggled for quite some time with excruciatingly high rent and overheads, not to mention just the onerous day-to-day routines that NYC requires.  As a long-time resident of the neighborhood, you know all too well what we’ve been witnessing the last couple of decades and, most recently, the last five years or so.  It happened to SoHo, it’s happening to the entire city—there’s just no way that small independent businesses can survive anymore.
What a different planet it was back then!
I think some our proudest (and saddest) memories are tied up in the fateful day when we all stood outside on Cleveland Place and watched The Towers fall.  As you well know, our guys were all First Responders, many of whom we lost that day.  The neighborhood was shut down with a Checkpoint Charlie on Houston (we would have to walk up there continually to vouch for our staff to come down into the restricted zone) and we felt honored to be able to provide a solid month of food, drink and the comfort of community to those of us living and working where the ashes fell.
When the cleanup was mostly over and the fire station received the gift of that sweet little Dalmatian, it brought a giant smile back into our lives as we all began to regroup and try to move forward.
We are both very grateful to have been in the right place at the right time.

I also asked Selden about 236 Lafayette Street, a building on the northwest corner of Lafayette and Spring Streets that had seemed mysteriously empty for years and which I was surprised some developer hadn’t bought and turned into luxury condos. She talked about that, as well.

Sam Salstein was the owner of 236 Lafayette until he passed away, and then I believe the family sold it to a developer of some sort.  Sam and the guy who used to own the bank building (now Duane Reade) owned a lot of downtown real estate.  In fact, the former owner of the bank building  (Saul?) inherited it from his father, who bought it for like $20k in the ’40s!  We had an office in that building for a short period of time back in the day.
236 was four “mini lofts,” super funky, with bathrooms in the hallway except for ours, which had been slightly improved upon at some point, so our bathroom was in the apartment. Thank goodness, as those hallways were FREEZING!  At one point it had clearly been an industrial building and, as per usual, Sam put zero $$ into maintaining it, so funky it most certainly remained.
The windows facing Spring (now with the continual screen ad banners hanging) were the bedrooms and on the Lafayette side were the living room/kitchen areas above what we used to call La Cucaracha, the greasy spoon Dominican place where they played dominoes and blasted car radios all summer.  Chris and Nora, who lived in the first apartment, always went crazy because the guys banged those dominoes so loudly that Nora eventually made them a felt pad to muffle the noise. It actually did help a bit!  The best thing about the apartments were they got a lot of light.  The worst thing was living above the 6 trains, especially when they power washed the stairs every morning around 4am right outside all our bedroom windows!  We lived there for about 10 years…lotsa stories, as I’m sure you have as well.

Mexican Radio continues to operate two restaurants in Hudson and Schenectady, New York. For more information, go to www.mexrad.com.

For more posts on this blog about other New York businesses that have closed in the last few years, see also:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Who’s Hotter, Joe Tippett or Billy Magnussen?

Last night I saw The New Group's production of All the Fine Boys at The Pershing Square Signature Center, where Joe Tippett plays a 28-year-old nuclear technician whose relationship with Abigail Breslin’s 14-year-old middle school girl takes a dark turn. I immediately recognized the hunky Tippett from his previous role as the bashful boyfriend in Playwrights Horizon’s Indian Summer, in which he was frequently shirtless.
That got me thinking. Who’s hotter, Joe Tippett or Billy Magnussen?
Magnussen, of course, is most famous for his role as the sexy Spike  in Broadway’s Vania and Sonia and Masha and Spike (where he was also frequently shirtless), as well as Second Stage’s Sex with Strangers.
They both have a certain “aw shucks” charm, in addition to their gym bodies.
What do you think?








Sunday, February 19, 2017

Post Trump Stress Disorder

Since November 8th, I’ve been suffering from Post Trump Stress Disorder.
I’ve been having trouble falling asleep at night and getting out of bed in the morning.
This has come on top of the depression I’d already been experiencing for the last year and a half due to being unemployed/underemployed.
And the situation is even worse if you’re a stand-up comedian, like I am.
For the last year and a half I haven’t felt funny.
While I live for Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression (as well as Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer), it was hard to me to joke about Trump even during his campaign, because I was always aware of the dangerous possibility that he could actually become our president.
Now that he actually is our president, the situation is even worse.
Beyond that, I’m not sure if being a comedian is the even best use of my time and abilities anymore.
And, at my age, time is of the essence.
How can I make jokes when keeping track of all the shit Trump is doing on a daily basis is a full time job in itself?
I thought I would feel better after I took part in the Women’s March in New York City. But I felt like, at best, we were preaching to the converted and, at worst, we were marching in a canyon of deserted office buildings.
I took some consolation from the protesters who showed up at airports all over the country, seemingly out of nowhere, after Trump’s Muslim ban.
And I’m heartened by Michael Flynn’s resignation and the rejection of Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor.
But, as I said, there’s so much shit happening on a daily basis, it’s hard to keep up.
And I feel like the clock is ticking.
If I really want to get depressed, I think about how different a Clinton presidency would have been and the progress we’d already be making.
I don’t even dare to think about what a Sanders presidency would have been like. That would push me over the edge. And I know he’d have to deal with a Republican majority in Congress—but still. At least we wouldn’t have this disastrous cabinet and Supreme Court pick, on top of all of Trump’s other executive orders/policy blunders.
That’s what’s also so frustrating. The thought that we were uniquely positioned for someone like Sanders to win the presidency and we may never have that chance again. The idea that there was clearly a populist uprising happening (you could see it in the size of Sanders’s rallies—if the media bothered to cover them) and that someone as singularly unqualified as Trump was able to take advantage of this, while someone as singularly experienced as Clinton was tragically blind to the evidence all around her.
I had been prepared to spend the next four years holding Clinton’s feet to the fire, making sure she delivered on the progressive promises she made, only after Sanders succeeded in pushing her to the left.
Instead, we have Trump, whose first month in office (can it possibly be only one month? It feels like an eternity!) has been worse than I ever could have imagined.
And that’s why I have trouble falling asleep at night and getting out of bed in the morning.
It’s the sinking feeling that this is what the next four years are going to be like.
If not worse.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fag Hags and Disco Bunnies: A Meditation



I just came from seeing David’s Friend, Nora Burns’s autobiographical tribute to her best friend at La Mama, and I’m absolutely devastated.
Why did this show have such an effect on me?
First of all, it’s about death (David’s, from AIDS). It’s also about the larger death of New York City, a place where people came to find themselves in a world of sex, drugs and disco.
Watching the show was a very emotional experience for me because, in a way, this was my story.
Like Burns, I was a bit of a club kid in the early ’80s.
I, too, moved to New York City to attend college. In fact, the main reason I chose to attend NYU was because it was in New York City and it provided me with a means for moving there. And, like Burns, I eventually found that going to college was interfering with my nightlife (or, perhaps I should say, going to college was what allowed me to have a nightlife, since I didn’t have to get up early for work and my expenses were covered by student loans).
In fact, I suspect that pretty much anyone who lived in New York during this heady period will find much to appreciate in this show.
Burns has had a long career as a member of various comedy groups such as Unitard and the Nellie Olesons, and her writing and performing chops show. But this show takes her talent to a new level.
Because of this show, we get to know David, a stunningly beautiful man who died in the prime of his life.
So, while the show is very funny and entertaining, there’s also an undeniable poignancy to it.
Burns does a great job of recreating the era with the help of music, photographs, and her own journal entries.
The result is an important historical record of this unique time and place. (I’m reminded of the documentary Gay Sex in the ’70s or Brad Gooch’s book Smash Cut, about his lover, the film director Howard Brookner, who also died of AIDS.)
I was lucky that there was a cancellation for the last performance of this sold-out show, whose run was extended. But this is a show that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
It deserves to be seen by anyone who’s just moving to New York now and doesn’t know the exciting city it used to be before it became a boring city of rich people and chain stores.
And it deserves to be seen by a new generation of gay men who don’t know what it was like to lose an entire generation to AIDS.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The Year in Death

Of all the deaths that happened in 2016—and it seemed like there were more deaths in 2016 than in any year since the Plague—the one that hit me the hardest may have been the one that happened today, when I opened the New York Times and discovered that my local supermarket of the last 25 years—the Met Food on Mulberry Street in Nolita—was going out of business.
That was the final blow.
I know that may sound trivial, coming on top of all the other deaths and myriad other disasters we’ve witnessed this year, but this one, coming on the last day of the year and by complete surprise, was a bridge too far. I guess I should have known something was up this week when they stopped restocking their shelves, but still I soldiered on, my reputation as The Queen of Denial undiminished.
In the last few years, every amenity in my neighborhood has either completely gone out of business or had to relocate. The newsstand where I bought my beloved Times every day: relocated around the corner. The laundromat: relocated a few blocks south. Where once there were two delis on the same corner, there are now none. (Indeed, there are almost no delis left in my neighborhood, whatsoever.)
Last week, my gym of the last seven years, David Barton, announced to their members that they were closing all their New York locations in an email sent out at 1:30am. Surprise!
Our democracy has also, arguably, died. What else can you say when someone wins the popular vote and, because of some farkakte system called the Electoral College, fails to win the presidency?
And this is coming on top of a year that has seen a seemingly unending stream of celebrity deaths: David Bowie, Prince, and, in just the last week, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
So forgive me if I’m feeling a little less than festive this New Year’s Eve. Excuse me if my sentiments are more along the lines of John Oliver’s season-ending “Fuck You, 2016” episode.
I have a feeling that a lot of people will be joining me tonight when, as the clock strikes midnight, I’ll be saying this to 2016:
“Drop dead!”