Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rendezvous At Lucky's

Male couples were such a common sight at Lucky's Rendezvous, a popular nightclub in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s, that people didn't bother to look twice at them. This liberal attitude put Lucky's Rendezvous ahead of its time and attracted nightlifers to its friendly, relaxing environment.

The narrow, smoky nightclub on St. Nicholas Avenue, at 148th Street, counted among its clientele those of the lavender persuasion, as well as artists and intellectuals, black and white. Celebrities such as Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, and the black gay composer Billy Strayhorn were either frequent or occasional drop-ins. According to Strayhorn's biographer, David Hajdu, Lucky's had "a piano that Strayhorn would likely end up playing by dawn." As a result, Strayhorn, one of the nightclub's frequent patrons, developed a following there.

Lucky's, which had no cover or minimum charges, and was described by Ebony magazine as "Harlem's strangest nightclub," because of the wide assortment of people it drew, was opened in December 1942, one year after the United States entered World War II, by jazz composer/pianist/bandleader Charles Luckyeth "Lucky" Roberts and his two silent partners. After an altercation with his partners, he became sole owner of the club in 1946. [Note: My aunt, Victoria Watkins (1917-1997) worked at Lucky's as a waitress.]

The garish red and white facade of Lucky's wasn't considered eye-catching or trendy (the club, writes Hajdu, "was located partway below street level"). Its interior decoration consisted of plain furnishings, a discolored ceiling, and uncomfortable chairs. Despite all of that, its bar was always crowded, especially Thursday through Sunday, when Harlem's cafe society set congregated. The reason Lucky's Rendezvous was popular, despite the above-mentioned shortcomings, explained a Columbia University psychologist to Ebony in 1951, was the fact that it "made [customers] feel at home. There was no hostility shown towards any of them."

A version of this article was published in NYQ magazine, April 19, 1992.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Remembering James Dean 55 Years Later

September 30 marks the 55th anniversary of actor James Dean's death. Dean would have been 79 years old this year. To commemorate the date of his death, I have posted a shortened version of a review I wrote on a biography of him.

Paul Alexander's Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Viking) is a real page-turner that focuses much attention on James Dean's life as a sexually-active, but closeted, homosexual man.

Although for years it was rumored that Dean, who hated effeminate men, was either gay or bisexual, despite studio-generated publicity about his many romances with young, beautiful actresses, Alexander leaves no doubt about Dean's true sexual identity. An early tip-off was the fact that despite his good looks, "throughout his pre-high school and high school years, Jimmy never had a steady girlfriend, unlike most of the other Fairmount [Indiana] boys." It was during this time that Dean "lost his virginity" to a local minister, James DeWeerd, who became sort of a surrogate father to him.

Dean would be invited to candlelit dinners at DeWeerd's house, where they would read, listen to music, and talk. "With DeWeerd," writes Alexander, "he could enjoy the company of a man and experiment with his sexuality at the same time."

DeWeerd was only one of a long string of men with whom Dean would have sex. Some of these men, who were part of a homosexual clique, were the movers and shakers in Hollywood.

Much of Boulevard of Broken Dreams reads like a novel. The dialogue-- taken from books, magazine articles, journal entries, and taped interviews-- gives the reader the feeling of being in the same room as the participants. Alexander's description of what took place on the day the 24-year-old Dean was killed in a car crash is well-written.

The book, however, is not flawless. Alexander sometimes repeats himself. Twice he compares Valentino's adulation by fans to Dean's. There are factual errors such as the one that has World War II the "war to end all wars,: instead of World War I. And too much space is devoted to the Deaners, those who idolize Dean and come to Fairmount each year to celebrate his deathday.

Otherwise, Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a must-read for those who admire Dean's acting ability and who are not reluctant to read about his sexual proclivities which were kept hush-hush for many decades.

This review was originally published in the Lambda Book Report, July/August 1994.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Review: "Wild Ride"

Bia Lowe's collection of essays, Wild Ride: Earthquakes, Sneezes, and Other Thrills (HarperCollins), has turned me into a fan of hers.

These 19 essays are eloquently written and cover a wide range of topics (blood, Evil, her fear of insects, bats, etc).

What makes her essays outstanding and fun to read is her ability to seamlessly blend nature writing ("Insects crept on the planet millions of years before the appearance of flowers."), social commentary ("There are no predators more bloodthirsty, indeed more inhumane, than we."), and unflinching autobiography ("For ten years I drank, like my father, like a lush.").

Lowe is unafraid to let the reader know she's "a dyke, a mammal of homoerotic persuasion," but she doesn't persistently make a big deal of it. It's only one aspect of who she is.

Lowe, a 45-year-old freelance writer, who has written for Harpers magazine and The Kenyon Review, is "a lifelong nature zealot." As a child growing up in Northern California she "saw how life asserted itself on our own ranch through all manner of new plants and animals." And, she continues, "I'm reminded of how the world is not really dominated by a human sensibility. Impudent flies keck on my window ledge. Earwigs steadily encroach, squatters under my carpet. Moths plunder bits of my wardrobe, and daddy longlegs appropriate my bedroom after dark, giving me pause before I reach to turn out the light."

Now she lives in Los Angeles with her lover, Susan, high up in the Hollywood Hills, where "I see deer, raccoon, skunk, opossum, owls."

In Wild Ride, Lowe shows the many ways all living things are interconnected ("Insects and flowers enjoy a symbiosis.") and have shared traits ("And as we are the greatest imitators of all, child after human child falls into bed clutching a worn toy cub. It's a ceremony in which we reenact the bear's maternal bond, and make our descent into the den.")

Wild Ride, like all the books published before it and all those that will follow, represents "a memory outside the body." Lowe freely admits that her "life will not outlast the forces of entropy," but she does offer a glimmer of hope regarding the immortality of her literary life: "I will be reborn...possibly, though not probably, through the curves and serifs of these words."
One of the most beautiful images in Wild Ride among the "curves and serifs" is Lowe's description of a storm: "I thought our oak had cracked in half. It was really the night that had been split, razored by light. The gape it left waited to be sealed by thunder."

In short, Bia Lowe doesn't know how to write a boring sentence.

The above review was originally published in the Manhattan Spirit, February 9, 1996.

Note: It deeply saddens me that no other books have been published by this wonderful writer.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Black Gay Literature, 1984

The following is from a transcript I made from a broadcast I recorded off the radio and onto a cassette in 1984. The program was called "Ain't Misbehavin'" and dealt with black gay literature. It was broadcast on New York's WBAI-FM on July 25, 1984. The host was Isaac Jackson, co-founder of Blackheart, a black gay writers group. He spoke with poet/playwright Assotto Saint and poet Salih Michael Fisher.

Assotto Saint: "The people out there might ask," Is it necessary to have black gay art, black gay literature, all these categories?" Yes, it is. We are part of this world. It is necessary for other people to hear what we're all about, to hear us share our lives, and communication is forwarding the action. You need communication to survive. Black gays, white gays. You need to express who you are and if I can identify with white characters, I expect, I demand that an audience, that readers out there at least try to identify also with my black characters, with me as a person. I'm a human being. I bleed. I have feelings. That's something I demand as a human being."

Salih Michael Fisher: "I do feel a little frustrated when I have people questioning it [his work] as poetry and that's mainly been the white gay establishment when they say, 'Oh, it's too long' or 'It's about something I can't deal with. It's too heavy, too many images.' My poetry is a part of me and it's like saying, 'Well, I don't accept you' or 'I don't want to try to understand you.' So it comes down to being very personal. Those that have accepted it, it's been real gratifying. There's been more people who have accepted it than not. I don't look toward the gay establishment or the black literary [establishment] and say 'Why don't you do it for me?' I used to five years ago, but I'd rather do it for myself or do it under other people who want to put together black gay publications and who are black gay themselves and do it.

"The problem for black gay men is we are invisible, number one. They don't know our voices and our experiences. They assume that it's the Village gay experience and it's not always that all the time. And the closest one who has really come to it in literature is Yemonja, the publication by black men [of the Blackheart Collective in New York City] and also James Baldwin's Just Above My Head. There's one piece from there where the guy's describing being in love with this man. All the language and rhythm is like, right on. I'm tired of being defined by my male member which is [the majority of] what you see [of the] black man in gay society when you walk into these porno book stores.

"There is racism in gay white male literature that obviously gets overlooked. It's [considered] OK."

Isaac Jackson: "There needs to be an acceptance by heterosexuals of the fact that there are gay people writing. I think a lot of heterosexuals don't realize that there are book stores devoted entirely to literature of lesbians and gay men. A lot of straight people don't even know that because the tacit assumption in all our society's actions are that heterosexuality is the norm. You don't even have to announce the fact that you're heterosexual. You just go out there and do it and people assume that you are and that's the oppression that we are fighting against when we name ourselves publicly and let people know that we are black and gay and identify with gay people and black gay people particularly."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Richard Wright's Literary Odyssey

In 1945 Black Boy, Richard Wright's searing, no-holds-barred account of his youth in racist, apartheid Mississippi, was published and became a runaway bestseller as well as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Fifty years later, in 1995, New York's Thirteen/WNET commemorated that event by telecasting Richard Wright: Black Boy on September 4 (on what would have been his 87th birthday). The 90-minute film is the first full-length documentary on the life and career of the late writer.

A co-production of Mississippi Educational Television and the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Independent Television Service, Richard Wright: Black Boy was three years in the making. Its producer, Madison Davis Lacy, whose previous films include Eyes on the Prize II and Paris Is Burning, "was initially interested in pursuing Wright's expatriation (to France), and the phenomenon of expatriation as a dynamic in African-American culture." But that plan changed when Lacy "discovered (in Wright) a self-taught literary genius of tremendous political conviction. At 19 years old," continues Lacy, a longtime veteran of the documentary form, "Wright told a friend 'I want my life to count for something.' Somehow he was able to crystallize that determination and his understanding of racial oppression into a reason to write on behalf of himself and his people."

Narrated by film actor J. A. Preston (Body Heat and Two-Minute Warning), Richard Wright: Black Boy chronicles Wright's 52-year odyssey that began in 1908 in rural Mississippi and ended prematurely in 1960 in France through dramatic excerpts from his work, historical footage, and on-camera interviews with his daughter Julia (the film's consultant), historian John Henrik Clarke, poet/playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist/Wright biographer Margaret Walker Alexander, literary critic Michael Dyson, among others.

The film was the recipient of a 1994 Southwest Regional Emmy.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News, September 2, 1995.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Advertising's Persuasions

Keep this in mind when watching Mad Men: "The growth of national advertising (and the prosperity that fueled it) fostered a very specific sense of Americanism and patriotism--wholesome, moral, aspirational and conformist--a sliced white-bread and apple-pie view of the world. Those who did not fit this mold, or could not afford to, were branded as outcasts."--Lucy Moore, Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties (Overlook Press).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Les Kinsolving: Right-Wing Gadfly

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are tuned to uninhibited radio and you can join me in becoming a broadcaster on this air tonight (with) anything that's on your mind, interspersed with my commentaries or special reports...(T)his freewheeling mixture of yours and mine is what makes this show, and why we call it, uninhibited radio."--Les Kinsolving Show introduction, WOR-AM, New York.

Tommi Avicolli's report in the Philadelphia Gay News (April 18, 1986) makes it clear that Les Kinsolving's New York and Philadelphia shows aren't entirely uninhibited. A better description would be dishonest radio. By not fully quoting the phone sex ad that appeared in PGN, Kinsolving left his listeners with the impression that the rest of the copy was in language unbefitting what he called "family radio." The part he left out invites readers to call so that the guy on the other end can "let it all hang out and tell you how it is. What it feels like. Graphically detailing their hot sexual needs, fantasies and experiences."

Kinsolving, however, is not consistent in refusing to recite what others might consider raunchy language. In the "United States Air Farce" segment of his WOR show he mentioned the April 12 gay and lesbian "Flaunt-In" at the University of Pennsylvania in which 25 students "took blankets to the college green. They lay on these blankets and lay on each other for five and a half hours of hand holding, hugging, and kissing." He went on to say that "pro-homosexual posters were either torn down or mutilated with messages concerning AIDS or there were such shouted epithets in the dormitories as 'LGAP (Lesbians and Gays at Penn) sucks as nobody can deny.'" And then before going to the next item, the Looney Tunes theme is played. Where was his purported concern for the bluenoses in the audience? Why didn't he bring up the fact that although some LGAP members were involved in the "Flaunt-In," the organization did not endorse it, and that some members thought it to be in bad taste? Kinsolving's only motive was to paint an ugly and distorted picture of the gay community.

The carnival-like approach he uses makes his boisterous pronouncements seem like harmless showmanship, but don't be deceived. His show is helping to create more fear, hate, and hysteria. And the know-nothings in his audience are eating it up. by labeling gay men as "sodomites" and "buggers," and dismissing gay activists as "offensive militant homosexuals," he is giving encouragement to gaybashers.

In his WOR press release, Kinsolving is quoted as saying: "My show makes people sit up and think." It would be more accurate to say that he causes listeners to sit up and think and express vile thoughts about society's underdogs.

Kinsolving identifies himself, among other things, as a clergyman. Hangman would be more like it. His belief that people with AIDS should be quarantined reveals his cruelness. But that should come as no surprise. This is the same man who supported the U.S. government's internment of thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans during World War II. Some priest!

PGN, in an editorial, declared that Kinsolving is "a public hazard." To some extent, he is. I would not advocate his removal from the airwaves. We must protect the free-speech rights of those with whom we disagree as well as those with whom we agree. But the members of the gay community can let the stations that carry his show know that they are not happy with the way they are being characterized and that they would like equal time on those stations or have programs produced that counterbalance Kinsolving's views. If they refuse, then pressure should be put on their advertisers, just like the Moral Majority has done to protest objectionable TV programming. No radio station can survive without advertising revenue, and gay men and lesbians are consumers of much of what is advertised in the media.

It is certainly not in keeping with the First Amendment for one group of individuals, in this case heterosexuals, to hog all the broadcast time, while gays and lesbians, a traditionally despised group, are expected to sit back and be vilified without uttering a single word of protest.

As far as I know, WMCA, in New York, is the only commercial radio station anywhere to devote three hours to gay and lesbian concerns. That was one weekend night about two or three years ago. There needs to be more of that kind of programming on commercial stations, more often. And soon.

The above is from an unpublished article that was written in June 1986.

Les Kinsolving's daughter recently published a book about her broadcaster father called Gadfly.
She was interviewed by Alan Colmes on his radio show about the book.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Porn TV

"A Swedish TV producer is holding auditions for 'Porn Idol,' in which a select few will have sex and simulate orgasms with real porn stars. Those winners will appear in some X-rated movies."
--from "Porn Again," amNew York, June 16, 2004

This program sounds a lot more interesting than Robin Byrd's nightly frolic with porn stars on her TV show to the tune, "Baby, You Can Bang My Box."

The End-Credit Squeeze

"A squeeze-back is the practice of literally squeezing the end credits of a program to one side of the screen in order to use the other side to promote an upcoming show. Squeeze-backs were invented by NBC in the early nineties as a way to keep people from channel hopping. By squeezing the credits over and using the remaining space to tease viewers with what was coming up next, they found they could retain them and prevent the habitual end-of-show channel hopping."--from The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture by Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant (Counterpoint, 2009).

I love to watch the end credits of a TV show or movie. Whenever the credits get squeezed, I get annoyed. The same people who do these squeeze-backs are probably the same ones who immediately stand up in a movie theatre and block my view of the end credits.
Shame on you, NBC, for inventing this practice. Thankfully I don't have to put up with those squeeze-backs on DVD, yet.