The Legendary Baton Lounge: Just a Few Steps Away

posted by Madame Bubby

Jim Flint in the Baton Show Lounge

A friend of mine sent me a link to a news item: the legendary Baton Lounge, long a fixture of the LGBTQ community in Chicago, has moved after 50 years in the same location. The entertainment venue, which has featured over the years so many famous drag queens (Chili Pepper, see below, was one of my favorites), had been located in what is now called the River North area. But, according to the news source, rents escalated, and Jim Flint decided to make the move north. And even north of the established Boystown, in the growing gayborhood of Uptown (and walking distance from my abode).
 

Family cast
Chili Pepper

Baton Lounge performers
Baton Lounge performers

Jim Flint
Jim Flint

What is significant here is Flint did not decide to just close up shop. Apparently the venue is still thriving; the entertainment he provides has not gone by the wayside like the great gay adult theaters (Bijou at the top of the list) or the bathhouses (only one is left in Chicago with the closing of Man’s Country).
 

Bijou Theater sign

It’s obvious Flint is not providing a venue of public sex or pornography in the stricter sense; he’s putting on live theater which does not focus on a naked porn star jacking off. Yet, remember, the Bijou used to do and was doing again broader forms of entertainment, rethinking the purpose and audience of the space, before its closure in 2015.

And drag is of course in the global spotlight. Hello, RuPaul (who actually appeared at the Baton). And whether one thinks this fact is unfortunate or not, a drag show is straight-friendly. It has been for some time. Think Victor/Victoria, which of course makes the illusion even more complicated. And that illusion was the basis of theatre for so many years. Women could not appear on the stage respectably in the West until the eighteenth century. The Greek tragedies and the plays of Shakespeare relied on men playing the women’s parts.

(I can’t imagine the Baton putting on a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, though. It doesn’t lend itself well to parody or even camp, though one line in the play, “The queen is falling,” might get a laugh.)

And speaking of straight-friendly, I know someone whose date took her there on the first date. Now, both of us had met her date at a wine-tasting event, and we could not tell who he was attracted to. Still, it seems an odd, or rather, ambiguous, place for an ostensibly straight guy to take a straight woman on a first date, however original and exciting the venue. There was no second date. Que sera.

I was taken to the place on my birthday. I was not sure if that was a straight person’s “safe” idea of gay entertainment (the person who planned the event), but several persons from the office went (not all gay). I did enjoy receiving some attention from Chili Pepper, who was dressed up in some fabulous 1960s retro outfit (kind of a dress with a jacket with white buttons and trim). The host did not believe I was 28 (I wasn’t that young; so much for illusion).

Flint’s new location is in a beautiful building with a deco feel, perhaps an architectural landmark. Much of the area around it is either abandoned, waiting for or in the process of bland gentrification, perhaps diluting some of the illusion or edginess that feeds into that illusion.
 

Baton old and new locations
Baton old and new locations

Still, it’s not far from the legendary Green Mill cocktail lounge, and the Uptown Theater is in the process of renovation, or, more accurately, retrovation. That’s the paradox: idealizing and revisioning the past in a time when daylight too often intrudes upon magic and everyone thinks they are a star shining on the screen of a smartphone.

May the magical stars of the Baton reign for another 50 years.

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Coming Out in 1977: Viewing the Family Series Episode "Rites of Friendship"

posted by Madame Bubby

Family cast

I am surprised I did not remember this episode, as this series was approved viewing in our family (but then, maybe this particular episode was censored by the parents, as was the now legendary Maude obtains an abortion episode).

Family began as a six-part miniseries, and then it expanded to several full seasons, running from 1976-1980, corresponding perfectly timewise to my puberty. The Lawrences, an upper-middle class family in Pasadena, California, endures many joys and sorrows.

The central focus of the show is the inimitable Sada Thompson, who captures the unique combination of reserve and empathy of the family’s matriarch, Kate Lawrence (and she is always impeccably coiffed, definitely a throwback to June Cleaver). James Broderick, the father of Matthew Broderick, plays Kate’s husband, Doug. Meredith Baxter Birney plays their “troubled divorcee single mother” daughter Nancy; the hot Gary Frank (an early crush of mine) plays their nonconforming (mostly, you will see) son Willie; and Kristy McNichol plays their energetic tomboyish younger daughter, Letitia (aka Buddy).
 

Sada Thompson
Sada Thompson

Though one might claim the overall WASP social class of this family limits the show really serving as an accurate lens for many of the more troubling social issues of the time, the show dared to address in a realistic, often unflinching manner alcoholism, adopted children looking for birth parents, extramarital affairs, and in this groundbreaking episode, homosexuality.

The main plot of this episode is actually quite straightforward: Willie’s best friend from elementary and high school, Zeke Remsen (played by the hunky Brian Byers), returns home from college. He gets arrested in a gay bar for fighting with a cop (genteel shades of Stonewall, perhaps). Doug, a lawyer, manages to bail him out, and eventually get the sentence waived. Of course the incident forces a coming out for Zeke, an extremely attractive “straight-acting” basketball jock. (Note that the character doesn’t fit the gay stereotype of the period, and that fact shows overall genteel social milieu of the show.) Doug and Kate are sympathetic in perhaps a rather noblesse oblige way, but, most significantly, Willie starts to shun, at first coldly and then angrily, his childhood best friend.
 

Brian Byers

However, Zeke’s father coldly, even casually, disowns him after Doug shows up with Zeke to obtain some needed information for the court case. Doug and Kate, I think, would make excellent candidates for PFLAG. Kate reveals, in a particularly touching scene, that Zeke is a person who needs love, a mother’s love, and not in a sentimental way. Her moral imperative here is striking, even more so after her rather sardonic comment to Nancy, “at this point I can’t think of worse things.” She is a product of her generation, but the concern is genuine, even though she feels powerless and disoriented.

But rather than rejecting or concealing, she opens up in the only way she can do, she must do: love. And food and shelter, too. For her, one can’t separate these basic human needs. And she’s not afraid, because of this imperative, to call out Willie on his behavior toward Zeke. She really cuts to the heart of the matter in her indomitably classy way when she claims Willy will suffer a “meagre existence” because of his refusal to just accept Zeke as a person.

Yet the main relationship here is that between the renegade Willie and Zeke. Willie resents that Zeke had not told him, but now he knows, Zeke rightly accuses him of treating him like he suffers from a “social disease.” During that period, in the throes of all types of sexual liberation, the Eisenhower era social norms were really starting to crumble, and with crisis more overt scapegoating tends to occur.

Now, one could easily argue that Willie’s reaction is his discomfort with his own orientation, and in one of the episode’s final scenes, Doug picks up on this, claiming, and unfortunately this idea represents one of the common psychological views of the time, that all boys experience these “feelings,” but grow out of them, that is, normal boys, a “rite of passage.” A rather cringeworthy statement in hindsight, but Doug admitting to his son that he crushed on one of his classmates one could claim is rather groundbreaking.

But the ultimate lesson here is that heterosexual boys grow up to get married to girls. Gay males don’t and thus they tend to get into all sorts of personal and social troubles. (And the token confirmed bachelor the family knows, Emory Pope, we find at the end gets married. To a woman. Oh well. It’s 1977.)

But ironically, Zeke ends up being the mature one (and Buddy too, in a tear-jerking moment which I think shows one needs to be carefully taught bigotry, it is not innate), rather than Willie, trying to reach out to him, but failing miserably. Only after the conversation with Doug does Willie realize not just how selfish and immature his behavior has been, but that the real issue here is friendship.
 

Willie and Zeke
Willie and Zeke

And friendship here is not a double entendre for anything else. It’s a series of passages that acknowledge the past, embrace the present, and hope for the future. Willie knows he will not be able to get back the friendship of his childhood, but the show ends with a hope that his childhood friendship can grow into the friendship of his adulthood.

And an ironic P.S.: Both Meredith (now just Baxter) and Kristy McNichol are lesbians. Baxter came out late in life, while McNichol has been open for some time.

The entire episode is currently here on YouTube.

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RetroStuds of the Past: Focus on Dick Fisk

posted by Madame Bubby

Dick Fisk

On October 31, 1983, Falcon Studios model Dick Fisk was killed in a car accident with his lover, Joe Howard and the driver of another vehicle in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He was only 28 years old.

Dick's real name was Frank Ricky Fitts, and at the time of his death, he was employed in Atlanta gay clubs.

Dick was very much one of the famous faces of gay erotica during this period when the unabashed gay macho culture of the 1970s was still in full swing. Yet ominously, the mysterious “gay cancer,” (still not called AIDS) was beginning to claim victims in the urban gay ghettos of the period.

From the research I did, his porn career was not prolific, but he appeared in two of the main gay rags of the period, Mandate and Torso. His most famous image has become almost iconic: he appears as one of a trinity of porn gods of the time: Al Parker and Casey Donovan in Falcon's classic movie, The Other Side of Aspen.
 

Dick Fisk, Al Parker and Casey Donovan on the cover for The Other Side of Aspen

In the Bijou Classics repertoire, he makes an appearance in the star-studded Cruisin' the Castro, but admittedly, he does not appear in one of the more distinctive points of the movie (Richard Locke reigns supreme here).

He really ascended to the pantheon of gay gods in the famous eight-page spread in the February 1978 issue of Mandate magazine, called “A Man to Size Up.”
 

A Man to Size Up Dick Fisk spread in Mandate

Yes, he's got that overall macho look, and it's not just the mustache. It's the combination of a supremely confident (one might say arrogant) facial expression on a face that is both mature and youthful, the perfectly muscled chest, arms, and abs (muscled, but not overly bulked up), and the towering thick cock that rises like an obelisk between amazing legs that I could easily dub the Pillars of Hercules. And just enough hair, sexy growths in the most lickable places (I am thinking of the armpits).
 

Dick Fisk image from Mandate

I think he will always be an iconic image of a masculine ideal that so many gay men aspired to during that turbulent period in LGBTQ history. He died before the horrible plague, and perhaps the attraction, at least for me, is that he remains untouched by it. Of the trinity of porn gods I mentioned above, he did not suffer in body and spirit.

He is pure image, an Adonis killed tragically and suddenly as in the mortal beauty loved by the goddess Venus in Greek mythology (he was gored by a boar). But he does not (and nor does his lover) come back to life.

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The Men of Playgirl

posted by Madame Bubby

Playgirl magazine, often billed unofficially as the “magazine for women and gay men,” has undergone some changes in its presentation through the years (one can no longer obtain the traditional hard copies that were usually hidden under some gayling’s bed at some point).

Even the naked guys in the magazine have changed, and that change reflects some social trends. What is interesting is that as recently as last week, on a gay chat board, Datalounge, the subject came up, and it wasn’t just a retro/nostalgia discussion from the eldergays.

The original poster made a point that the models in the 1970s and 1980s generally revealed huge bushes, and that they were trim and muscular overall, not what one might term “gym-pumped” or, to be biased, “steroid” bodies.

Now, the first Playgirl centerfold was Lyle Waggoner, who gained fame by appearing as a regular on the iconic Carol Burnett Show. For her sketches, Carol needed a straight guy, and I bet she also knew she would attract a certain audience (the Playgirl audience) by showing off his easy, unaffected, yet indisputably, studly presence. The first issues of Playgirl did not show cock, though. That came later, when the previous censorship of such materials was finally letting up in the early 1970s.
 

Lyle Waggoner in the first issue of Playgirl
Lyle Waggoner in the first issue of Playgirl

Lyle Waggoner in a later issue of Playgirl
Waggoner in a later issue

When Burt Reynolds died recently, many remembered his moment in Playgirl. Of course the photographers hid his member, but there was plenty to fantasize about even if was not visible. And hair, so much hair. The poster I referred to on Datalounge mentioned hairy bushes as if that was a style of the past, and that observation brings up the issue of shaving. How much hair is attractive? Or the lack thereof?
 

Burt Reynolds on the cover of Playgirl in December, 1974
Burt Reynolds on the cover of Playgirl in December, 1974

And note that many of the models, especially in the eighties, loved showing off their luxuriant locks. This hair was not hippie long hair that evoked Woodstock dancing and shabby communes in the woods; it was more like the idealized long hair of medieval knights and cavaliers and the like, heroes and antiheroes of romance novels.

But the long hair encouraged even more muscles, perhaps a reaction to possible associations with effeminacy in the more conservative eighties. Thus, tight pants, pastel colors, and long hair were acceptable if your body wasn’t just buff, but pumped up.

And in 1992, a pumped up, hard-bodied stud with a tattoo (harbinging what is now a rather generic look among millennials) named Dirk Shafer appeared as Playgirl’s Man of the Year. And he was gay. He didn’t come out as gay until much later, and he died in 2015.
 

Dirk Shafer as the Playgirl 1992 Man of the Year
Dirk Shafer as the 1992 Man of the Year

Another Playgirl model, Bill Cable aka Stoner, apparently appeared with Christina Crawford (!) in a mysterious video which has disappeared from youtube, alas. He also died young, kiiled in a motorbike accident in 1992.
 

Bill Cable aka Stoner
Bill Cable aka Stoner

Now that gay for pay is prominent in the adult erotic world, one might assume that some of the current models in Playgirl’s online edition are gay. And perhaps, depending on their situation, they aren’t concerned about concealing their orientation. Still, this open fluidity seems to produce rather generic results.

The secret thrill of an actual print magazine that enticed because of its very danger, dangerous imagery, a dangerous situation for the reader, is missing.

I am not advocating for the closet, but one wonders if it’s time for Playgirl to reexamine its purpose and not just serve an Instagram page in a larger format accompanied by tips on fitness. Remember, this magazine actually dared to in its earlier years explore female orgasms and polyamory and reveal men as sex subjects and objects for women and gay men.

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Valentine's Day Homosocial Sweethearts

posted by Madame Bubby


While doing some usual “retroing” (a verb I coined a couple weeks ago), I realized that the company, Necco, that used to make those tiny candy hearts, is no longer making them. Yes, the iconic Sweethearts will not be around this year, but next year. Apparently, Necco went bankrupt, and the company that bought them out is planning to continue the line, but not this year. Apparently, there wasn’t enough time to gear up to make the usual volume, according to one media source, The Miami Herald, 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts each day for 11 months.
 

Necco hearts

Now that’s an immense quality of tiny candy hearts with messages like “Be Mine” or “Crazy for You.” And what’s also immense, I think, is the dynamic of Valentine’s Day distribution that used to occur in classrooms when I was in elementary school in the 1960s.

Every year up until I think fourth grade (I am wondering if the cultural authorities of that age, still influenced by Freud, corresponded with the first rustlings of puberty), everyone would go the drug or department store and buy a big bag of small paper valentines. You would give one to everyone in your class, and I don’t remember, at least in my case, only giving them to girls. You gave one to every person in the class, regardless of gender, and in many cases, everyone got a bunch of those little hearts. Some of the more creative students, usually the girls, would even insert one of those hearts into the envelope with the card, that is, those who put their cards in envelopes.
 

1960s classroom valentines

Maybe the teachers and parents during that time were operating under the assumption that the children weren’t really thinking about gender relationships as being romantic, even though the wider culture was assuming Johnny and Sally were heterosexual and would in a few years establishing that orientation. Yet, in the prepubescent ages, everyone in the class was potentially the child’s platonic friend, and that’s what it was at that age. Ideally.

And, I could be wrong, but I think around ages 7-8, I remember the boys pretty much played with boys, the girls with the girls. Thus, the relationships on the playground were fairly homosocial, and the adults looks askance at boys who played with the girls and their gender-specific playthings and games and vice versa. Thus, perhaps, the genderless Valentine’s Day distribution kind of makes sense, even if at that age the “other” gender was often “yucky” or “icky.”

Yet, the children were running around at that time chanting, “John and Jane, sitting in a tree, ‘k i s s i n g.’ First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes John with the baby carriage. The man was pushing the baby carriage. Very interesting image in a time when everyone was assumed to be heterosexual, and the Father Knows Best world was the ideal: the man worked, and the woman stayed home and left it only to give birth and bring home another child. Well, at least love came before marriage, but not sex, in this ideal world.
 

195s man in suit pushing baby carriage

Ideal. Yet how many of those children knew they would not ever live up to this ideal, and thus they were “sick” and “wrong” The innocence of those paper valentines and candy sweethearts was ultimately illusory. Even the conventionally heterosexual youth weren’t just smoking or peeking at “wank mags” in the bathrooms and the woods and in their own bedrooms. And, looking back in with an admittedly jaded, cynical hindsight, remember those were the times when sexual transgressions against that ideal were often so secret and so heinous that one could not even name them, and when one thinks how many transgressions at that time were acts of nonconsensual abuse by family members.

When those small candy sweethearts appear again next year, maybe one could imagine them being exchanged in an honest, inclusive world where, even after the fourth grade, a boy can joyfully give another boy a valentine. And that world will not end. The world is more than we know.
 

Gay valentine
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