I Know I'll Have Many Other Homes, But Never a Place Like This: A Brief-ish History of Bijou Theater Parties

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

Bijou exterior and upstairs map
Bijou Theater exterior and upstairs map

I first went to the Bijou Theater in 2008. It was a snowy day that March. I was in my last month of being 21 – quite an eventful year. It was weeks after I met my first real girlfriend, who I would wind up being with five and a half years. At the beginning of my 21st year, I had my first kiss. (I was a very late bloomer.) Months later, I first had sex (in the bathroom of the longstanding goth club, Neo, another Chicago landmark that closed mere months before the Bijou Theater in 2015). Shortly afterwards, I began going to S/M events and getting curious about the sexual spaces in the city.

The snowy March evening in question, I attended one of Bijou's Wayward Sisters parties with a group of friends. These parties were a blast. They generally got good turn outs and lively crowds – mostly younger art students and predominantly women, though a big mix of folks were present, including Bijou regulars. (There were intentionally never any gender restrictions at the Bijou, unlike many other gay adult businesses. Bijou owner Steven Toushin welcomed all adults and his attitude was always, “No one should be left out; it shouldn't be an exclusive space.”)

At these parties, David Boyer from Chicago's leather bar, Touche, would hand out beers in the back garden and spank the recipients. People DJed in the theater area and danced on the stage and, upstairs, explored the space, cruised, had sex, talked to each other through glory holes. That night, I wound up in the sling in the dungeon, making out with two of the girls I'd shown up with, while some Bijou regulars stood around in the dark and jacked off, a few of our other friends peeping at this display through a window. I later went outside and saw my dude friends and some other guys standing in a circle on the balcony with their dicks whipped out, comparing them while deep in conversation.

Bijou exterior and upstairs map
Bijou's upstairs

About six months after attending this party, I wound up answering a Craigslist ad seeking an editor for a gay porn company; an ad so brief it was almost cryptic. When I went in for the interview, it was a very pleasant surprise to realize it was for Bijou and that, in addition to the theater, Bijou was also a vintage gay porn company. I was a filmmaker with a particular interest in '60s sexploitation films and LGBTQ film history and a burgeoning interest in '70s porn, so this was extremely up my alley. I very much wanted the job, even more after Steven discussed the company and its history and philosophy, so I was thrilled when I picked up the call confirming that I got it.

The Wayward Sisters events were still running when I got hired at the Bijou office and, in total, operated for around a year and a half. Steven recalls once showing up at a Wayward Sisters party with his partner and doing a flogging and fisting scene in the dungeon. As they played, party-goers wandered by and started gathering, their conversations soon growing silent as they watched intently. Afterwards, a group of young women came over to talk to his partner and pay compliments about the scene. I went to one or two more of these parties before they wound up being discontinued not long after the person who originally ran them moved to Europe.

But let's back up much further, well before my time.

Wells Street in 1976 and 1970s Bijou Theater ad
Wells Street, 1976, and '70s Bijou Theater ad

The Bijou Theater opened in 1970 in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood on Wells Street, where it was in the proximity of several other gay and sexual businesses. The first film that played there was Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech, named after the Nixon dog. The next was a gay porn film. In 1980, it expanded to a second floor, with a maze of glory hole booths and a dungeon room. By then, it was open 24/7 and people partied there late into the night. Touche and other gay bars would bus folks over and the crowd from Carol's Speakeasy, located next door, regularly spilled into Bijou (sometimes for free through its back door) after hours. During these decades, the theater endured numerous police raids, obscenity busts, bomb threats, and more, but it kept running. In addition to porn films on Bijou's screen, these first few decades saw live performances on stage by many of the films' major stars, including Al Parker, Richard Locke, Lee Ryder, Peter Berlin, Jim Cassidy, and Casey Donovan (and Colt stars later on in the 2000s).

Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater, April 1980

From 2000 to 2002, Miss Tiger and her Erotic Cabaret, featuring the Bijou Boys, took to the Bijou's stage. Drag performer Miss Tiger's events were elaborately staged erotic revues featuring theatrical pieces, humor, musical numbers, strip shows, live sex acts, and more. One notable show incorporated a Gregorian chant playing as a man came out dressed as a priest and with four men dressed as choir boys. They all read from Bibles, then the choir boys took turns sucking the priest's dick on stage.

Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Ads for Miss Tiger's Erotic Cabaret

Not long after I began working at the office, a fellow employee asked me if I wanted to help out with one of the theater's strip shows. I wound up running lights and music for these each month. Another co-worker, Bryan, took over as host for a long while and he incorporated stand up comedy into the Nude Revues. We often made elaborate videos to feature during the intros and during intermission. Finally, Michael, who worked in the box office, took over hosting. He had a great rapport with the customers, which made for a comfortable flow. (At the final Nude Revue before the theater's closing in 2015, he ended the show by singing a poignant song, which brought tears to many an eye in the crowd.)

Bjiou Boys Nude Revue posters
Bijou Boys Nude Revue posters

Bijou held a big 40th anniversary party in the first months of 2011. This was hosted by David Boyer, and the packed audience took in live music performances of classic gay porn theme songs accompanied by dancers (one of whom poured orange juice all over her naked body to a very noisy cover of the theme to Arthur Bressan Jr.'s 1984 film, Juice), videos about gay porn history and Bijou's history (both viewable at the bottom of the Bijou Theater page on our website), words from Steven Toushin, a two foot tall ejaculating dick cake (made by my girlfriend), and a strip show.

Dancers, bands, and dick cake from the Bjiou's 40th anniversary

Bijou Theater 40th anniversary party photos


During the 2000s, more people were approaching Steven with interest in doing events at the theater, as the dynamic at the bars was changing. The first huge event to be staged there by organizers from outside the theater during my era in the 2010s was the release party for the vintage gay porn soundtracks of Patrick Cowley by Dark Entries Records on Valentine's Day of 2014. DJs played in the dungeon (which got crowded, hot, and sweaty) and others played downstairs on the stage while clips from the movies Cowley scored were shown on screen. This event illuminated some new possibilities for hosting parties in the space that were influential during the theater's final two years, during which we worked with many different organizers and artists.

Later that month, a friend of mine staged reading of an erotic play he'd co-written about Abraham's Lincoln alleged gay relationship. This event segued into a year or so when a friend in the same circle proposed doing monthly variety shows at the theater. I helped him run these and they were chaotic, sometimes thrilling, and often messy installments called Upstairs/Downstairs, featuring performance art, video art, experimental film, punk bands, noise musicians, installations, DJs, and stand up comedy. Some highlights: a performance featuring a corn cob strap-on covered in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter; legendary Chicago bands and performance artists taking to the stage and finding creative ways to utilize the space; a night when I had to mop milk, piss, and cum off the floor of the dungeon after the show; and a fake human sacrifice and haunted house.

Dancers, bands, and dick cake from the Bjiou's 40th anniversary

Upstairs/Downstairs poster; performance by Chicago legends Ono and a "human sacrifce"


With these and following events, inspired by the broadly mixed crowd and dynamic use of the building seen in the Wayward Sisters and Patrick Cowley parties, we tried to find more opportunities for newcomers - across a range of ages and genders - to feel welcome in the theater, while also hopefully being an interesting change of pace for the customers who had called it home for decades. Finding this balance was tough and sometimes tense, but a worthwhile endeavor. Steven was interested in people trying new and different things at the theater and he gave them pretty much free reign in what they planned (basically unheard of), though he often suggested to organizers that one successful approach to the uniqueness of the Bijou was allowing things to unfold throughout the entire venue. The staff of the theater went above and beyond during the events in these final years, which often required a huge amount of extra work.

During this span of time, S+S Project hosted an exciting show highlighting the work of many talented local artists, including installations of artwork, video art screening in the theater, and performances on stage and upstairs (featuring nudity, lard, and balloons). Afterwards, we hung around late into the night in the dungeon while DJs kept playing.

A couple of large queer dance parties were thrown by Chances Dances – one for Halloween and one for Valentine's Day. These included DJs, performers, vintage lesbian porn, and more.

The Men's Room parties also came to the Bijou during this time and hosted several events. These quickly turned massive, culminating in a sprawlingly large and debaucherous one during the IML weekend of the theater's final year. These nights featured music on both levels and erotic performance art (once incorporating fireplay and once featuring piercing play; in the latter scenario, a disco ball was strung up to the performer's cock and balls and when the needles pierced into his chest were tugged out, blood spilled down his body and onto the disco ball).

Chances Dances and Men's Room poster
Chances Dances and Men's Room posters

In the same era, we held an intimate memorial service in the theater, hosted by the folks I went to my initial Wayward Sisters party with, for their friend Wiley, a long-time Bijou regular who loved the place and had recently died. His friends shared memories and screened videos they'd made with Wiley in the theater to a small gathering that also included theater attendees and employees who'd known him.

In the fall of 2015, we got the terrible news that the Bijou was being forced to close, as the result of a legal battle with its landlord. We quickly scheduled a series of events for its final week, David Boyer running several great Touche parties and classic porn films playing 24/7 on the screen. We set up one last party on the theater's final night in operation, and I welcomed anyone who was interested in participating to contact me. We had an overwhelming response.

The night saw wild performance art in the dungeon, live music, beautiful dance performances on stage, DJs doing disco sets in the dungeon, classic porn clips in the theater, erotic videos by local artists screening upstairs, a photobooth and roaming photos by GlitterGuts (all of which you can see here), and I even, in one gorgeous moment, walked by to see a person sawing out a section of the glory hole booths while fucking someone. (Several panels were removed for posterity, Steven keeping some and the person who removed them continuing to this day to install pieces of the Bijou in art shows and other spaces around the country.)

Glitter Guts final party photos
Forced Into Feminity and more from the final party by GlitterGuts

Many friends and strangers talked and fucked. Intergenerational conversations were happening throughout the night, as many people from all different points in the theater's history (and newcomers) showed up. I finally managed to have sex in the theater (in one of the booths, with my then-girlfriend). People were so appreciative of the space, each other, and the history, and being able to be free to do whatever they wanted there, engaging enthusiastically in the way I'd always hoped for. A few asked if they could keep the faded vintage porn film posters on the wall and we took these down and gave them out. One DJ (who'd been involved in putting on several previous events) played an entire new score to the Frank Ross classic Made in the Shade in the theater, which thoughtfully included a sample of the lead performer's final line: “I know I'll have many other homes, but never a place like this.”

Final scene from Made in the Shade
Final scene from Made in the Shade (1985)

This party ran until the next morning. As the remaining stragglers lingered, I found myself alone in the dungeon as Donna Summers' Last Dance came on the playlist, and I danced and cried.

Party remnants
Party remnants

The rest of that day is a blur. I may have napped in the office or not slept at all. A few of us, including Steven, David, Bijou's custodian Shrodney, and I, had to take down the screen and clear out any remaining equipment by the end of the night before the property was turned over to its new owners. We climbed ladders to disconnect lights from lighting rigs, cleared out the projection booth, and packed everything up. Shrodney and I made a final pass through the upstairs, which was a wreck from the party (we didn't have to clean up after it for once), and removed lightbulbs and signage and took photos of the graffiti on the remaining glory hole booths. We headed down the spiral staircase for the last time and shut the door to that room, placing a peacock feather we found, left over from one of the previous night's performers, on top of the door frame.

Screen removal, peacock feather, graffiti: final photos taken in the Bijou
Screen removal, peacock feather, graffiti: final photos taken in the Bijou

We all finished our work and headed out, locking the front door for the first time in 35 years. Steven had to install a lock for this, because the front door didn't even have a functioning one – the theater had been open every day all those years, even through fires and bomb threats, since it became a 24/7 establishment in 1980.

Weeks later, a large group of my friends, moved by their experiences there, held a beautiful memorial service for the Bijou Theater in their own space, which was deeply in the spirit of the venue. I've seen its spirit continue on in gatherings of friends, sexual spaces, and porn screenings since, and hope to continue to catch glimpses of it as the years pass.

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Why be a Homosexual? (Enquiring Persons Want to Enjoy Sex)

posted by Madame Bubby

Jim Cassidy
Jim Cassidy

Sex Play, which appears to be an early 1970s gay porn “naughty picture book,” features an article by gay porn star Jim Cassidy entitled, “Why Be A Homosexual.” (Cassidy appears in several vintage gay porn flicks - Whatever Turns Ya On, A Deep Compassion, The Light from the Second Story Window, and Chapter 3 - available on DVD at those links and streaming at BijouGayPorn.com.)
 

Sex Play cover

But the piece needs some immediate context. This picture book's full title is Sex Play: A Marital Guide for the Gay Male, which is most interesting, because of course at that time gays could not get married, but it assumes that there will be gay couples in long-term but not legally recognized relationships: “homosexual marriages.”

And the forward/editorial by a doctor lends the contents of the book, mostly pictures of different sex acts and positions with some explanation about their benefits to a healthy sexual relationship; authority and credibility. For example, the good doctor proclaims, “There must be a basic reason for homosexuality – it's been with us since the beginning of time and at certain plateaus, during the world's existence, was actually approved of and considered highly aesthetic.”

Yes, true, but here's where pre-existent prejudices come to the fore, “A homosexual can be as masculine as any hetero male and sometimes even more so. If a list were published of the inverts in professional sports, every phase of government, teaching, scuba diving – you name it – it would certainly seem unbelievable.”
 

Men kissing in Sex Play

It's quite daring that he mentions gays as teachers, given the false claims that gay guys are pedophiles, but the use of the word invert really shows prejudice. More significantly, in the late 19th and 20th century, invert was equated with homosexuality, an inborn trait; male inverts inclined to traditionally female behaviors and interests, and vice versa.
 

Sex Play editorial

Yet this theory seems to refer more to transgender individuals, looking at it hindsight, but, more significantly in the context of the times, the good doctor feels the need to show that the homosexuals aren't necessarily “nellies” but also that the masculine ones are the ones who hide their true inversion by living in the closet with a male lover. Very much a product of the times, this view: sexual liberation was occurring, but in the long shadow of the closet, a closet which confused often sex with gender.

Thus, perhaps, the question about why one should be a homosexual in the last article of the publication, seems initially to be almost a tautology. This article begins with the usual arguments that no one knows why someone is a homosexual, but one can spot the nelly ones; it's the more macho ones need to stay underground. Cassidy does allow for a “middle” category, “architects, artists, dress designers, hair dressers, and yes, teachers and members of the clergy ...” Yes, anyone can be a homosexual, but are there degrees by which one behaves as one? The author seems to assume that homosexuality most probably equals, to a great extent, sexual inversion.

But, later in the piece, Cassidy makes some valid points about how young men, using the example of his own experiences in the small town of Delaney, are socialized to be around homoerotic situations, like locker rooms, but that these situations involve references to heterosexual behavior, boasting about “conquests,” even though these guys are experimenting with each other sexually in circle jerks and the like.
 

Why Be Homosexual article headline

Perhaps referring obliquely to his own experience, he claims that, “once in a while, again more often than you would think, a true homosexual will emerge ...” Or, maybe, the person discovers he is already is one, was born that way, but there's a caginess going on here about the issue, followed, though, by some honest insight about how heteronormative sex/gender roles are constantly pushed on male youth, with emotionally damaging results to a young gay guy.

But, ultimately, Cassidy argues, it's all about “wildly throbbing cocks or hot, pulsating cunts.” Even the guy who feels like he must have sex with a girl, but then finds his true sexual fulfillment in a male relationship, having experienced both, he implies that sexuality exists on a spectrum, with bisexuality as a flexible, not rigid, center, an “and” instead of an “or.”

Thus, the supposedly restrictive social norms of a small town, with its rigid patriarchal gender roles, can actually, even for both sexes (though it's clear that the men who end up the choices, not the women, a serious, even lethal inequality reflective of the time this piece was written), end up transmuting into, as Cassidy claims, a “new generation [that] doesn't believe in merely love for the opposite gender; they are including their own sex for what it's worth, a delightful, sexual experience, although opposite from early training, and professing love for all people.”

Anyone can be gay; anyone can be straight; anyone can be bi. Homo, hetero, invert, whatever. Enjoy! The cause and the end result are the same.
 

Sex Play quote and image
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Casey Donovan on Stage: The Theater Career of the First Gay Porn Superstar

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster


 

Tubstrip poster

 


Casey Donovan, who became a legend after his lead performance in Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand, was easily the very first true gay porn star. Released in 1971, the film made its debut in the early days of gay liberation as well as the early days of hardcore (the era of “porno chic”), making a significant impact. It premiered at New York City's 55th Street Playhouse, which typically screened foreign and art house cinema, and was the first gay porn film to achieve crossover success, to garner considerable attention from the press, and to be reviewed by Variety, even making it onto their listing of the top fifty grossing films its opening week. The wild success of Boys rapidly helped to launch Casey, with his charm and glowing good looks, into underground fame and turn him into a gay icon. There was talk, at the time, that Casey might be the adult star who could fully break into mainstream film. Casey had aspirations of realizing this potential, and also of appearing in Broadway productions. He had been, and continued to be, involved in theater all his life, as an actor and as a lover of the medium.

Casey, born John Calvin Culver and typically known (and credited outside of his adult career) as Calvin Culver or Cal Culver, was raised in upstate New York. He did theater throughout high school and college, after being encouraged and mentored by his beloved high school English and drama teacher, Helen Van Fleet. (Roger Edmonson's biography Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star, source of the majority of this material, says he called her Auntie Mame, writing to her and sending her tickets to his plays throughout his life. “He took her backstage to meet Ingrid Bergman when he was in a play with the legendary actress. He took her to the Tony Awards, arranging for her to sit front and center in the audience.”)

When he eventually relocated to New York City in the late '60s, Cal made sure to attend as many plays as possible, from Broadway to small productions. He briefly moved to New Hampshire to do summer stock and joined the reputable Peterborough Players as an apprentice before returning to NYC, where he was chosen as a replacement for an actor in the off-Broadway play Pins and Needles. The success in 1968 of Mort Crowley's play The Boys in the Band, which directly focused on gay characters, paved the way for gay-themed plays. Cal was hired as an understudy in an early gay-themed play, And Puppy Dog Tails, in 1969. Around this time, Cal says (in a TV interview on Emerald City) that he was broke and searching for jobs in a paper and saw an ad hiring performers for non-hardcore roles in straight sex films. He wound up doing two "very strange little films" called Dr. X and Twin Beds, making $20 a day.

In 1970, he was cast in a raunchy low-budget thriller, Ginger (dubbed “a female James Bond”), with Cal in a role featuring some nudity. The film was critically panned, but Cal's performance received one of the few positive mentions: “Only Calvin Culver as the thrill-seeking jet set blackmailer shows any indication of better things to come.” Following Ginger, he was featured in a short run of the play Brave, following which he met Jerry Douglas. The two would go on to work together numerous times and in several capacities over the years. Douglas was directing a production of Circle in the Water, another gay-themed play, and brought Donovan on board. Douglas was impressed with how professional and charming Cal was, but commented that he was mysterious: “He always vanished promptly after each performance, not to be heard from until his next call.” Cal had a busy social life, was hustling and cruising after hours, and still making time to frequently see plays and operas.

Just before Boys in the Sand, Cal broke into the hardcore porn world at age 28 when he starred in the 1971 film Casey, originally produced by Palm Features, later picked up by Hand in Hand Films, and currently distributed by Bijou Video. This film, though produced before Boys, wasn't substantially screened until after the release and success of Poole's landmark film. A co-star from one of the sex films Cal made in 1969 had a friend (Donald Crane) who was writing and directing a gay hardcore film and was looking to cast the lead. Cal needed cash and they were paying well, so he took the job. Though he described the shooting of Casey as uncomfortable because of its largely straight and tense crew and cast, Cal carries the film, attempting to create eroticism in the (mostly faked) sex scenes, exuding plentiful charm, and expertly delivering the film's clever and incisive dialogue, full of commentary on gay life in the era. Casey was well-reviewed when it did get distribution. Edmonson's biography says, “Aside from Cal's timelessly watchable good looks, there was his performance. It was a tour de force of its type... Cal not only plays the callow hero, but he also plays [in drag] the role of Wanda Uptight, his own fairy godmother... He played the role to the hilt without a trace of embarrassment, making it one of the more memorable star turns in the history of porn films.”
 

Stills from Casey
Images from Casey

Casey is notable not only for being Cal's first hardcore porn – as well as one of the few films to properly make use of Cal's acting chops – but also, significantly, for giving him his pseudonym and alter ego. As he was modeling for a “legitimate agency” at the time and acting, Cal took the name Ken Donovan for his credit in this film, modifying it to Casey Donovan for his later porn appearances.

Because of Casey, Cal received a call from a friend who knew someone - a former dancer, theater director, and choreographer - who was making "some experimental movies" on Fire Island. This was Wakefield Poole. Cal met with him, saw some of what he'd been shooting, and agreed to take part in this beautifully photographed porn film, which was ultimately to become the classic, Boys in the Sand, that would transform Cal/Casey's life. He received glowing reviews of his performance and his image in the film and there was talk all over New York City (and, eventually, across the nation) about him.
 

Boys in the Sand still
Boys in the Sand poster

 

In 1972, Cal was cast in a small part in the George Bernard Shaw play Captain Brassbound's Conversion starring Ingrid Bergman, who described Cal as “having the same kind and as much charisma as Robert Redford.” A photograph of them together during this production became one of Cal's prized possessions and he said he learned a great deal from getting to watch Bergman act.
 

Cal with Ingrid Bergman

 

Cal with Ingrid Bergman

Jerry Douglas, his Circle in the Water stage director, contacted Cal about appearing in his porn directorial effort The Back Row (1972) co-starring George Payne. In Douglas' Manshots article “The Legend of Casey Donovan” in April of 1992, Douglas, who worked with Cal multiple times in both theater and porn productions, describes how Cal “approached stage and film work in much the same way. He began by creating the character... and by studying the script, even on porn films. Rehearsals and shoots were always filled with his laughter, easy and laid back, even in the middle of an intense sex scene. But performing or filming was always a job to him, and a job he took very seriously.”

Shortly thereafter, Douglas was adapting his swinger play, Score, for the screen and Cal was cast. The film – a talky and very entertaining, nearly-hardcore softcore bisexual film – was made by notable director Radley Metzger. Metzger had come from straight and lesbian softcore films and was soon to move into glossy straight hardcore films (including one of his more well-known works, 1976's The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which would feature Cal in a small role). The sex scenes between Cal and co-star Gerald Grant are the most explicit and erotic in the film, the chemistry and tension between the two palpable, and Cal – here, as in Casey – deftly handles a significant amount of dialogue and delivers a compelling, nuanced performance.
 

Cal Gerald Grant in Score
Cal Gerald Grant in Score
Cal with Gerald Grant in Score

In the following few years, Cal appeared in a handful of small non-porn film parts and met with a number of producers in mainstream film about potential large-scale projects. Stage and screen co-star Michale Kearns said, “He was really, seriously talked about as potentially crossing that invisible line into the mainstream world of Hollywood films. His acting was immaterial. He was a star. He had that ineffable quality...” A Variety article said Cal could be “the bridge from hardcore to legitimate features” and Cal believed he could make that transition. His friend and then-roommate, Jake Getty, says, “He really didn't see – and I honor him for it – the difference between the two mediums. To him it was all an expression of theater... There was a great deal of legitimate theater with nudity and sex, implied sex in any case. Cal felt that there was no difference, that it was just a matter of how you perceived it. For him it was all a matter of the expression of emotion. He saw no difference between the nudity in Hair and the nudity and sex in Boys in the Sand.” But Cal's Hollywood roles never quite manifested.

In 1973, Cal played a series of small parts in a Lincoln Center production of The Merchant of Venice starring Rosemary Harris and Christopher Walken. One of his roles was as Jesus Christ, wearing only a crown of thorns and a g-string and carrying an 8-foot cross. This production featured, also in small parts, Robert Tourneaux of the theater and film versions of Boys in the Band. Tourneaux was in a similar predicament to Cal, even without a porn career – his notoriety as a gay actor and from a well-known gay role was putting a stop to his film career.

As Cal was beginning to realize, the dual stigmas against porn and out gay actors were preventing his Hollywood aspirations from manifesting. Wakefield Poole said he also experienced this inability to move into mainstream film directing because of his porn work: “The legit film line couldn't be crossed. They would exploit you, but they didn't dare let you do a legitimate movie. The ugly truth was that there was no crossing over. None at all.” (Correction: There were some exceptions; gay porn director Tom DeSimone successfully crossed over into mainstream film/television directing. See our recent interviews with him about his career.)

Cal, in a 1983 Men in Film interview, said “Perhaps I was naive but it was a rude awakening for me to find out that Hollywood is one of the most closeted and hypocritical cultural centers in the world. I learned that an openly gay actor like myself was not welcome to gay directors and producers who believe it is essential to keep their sexuality a secret. Once an actor has made a porn movie, it is very difficult to 'cross over'. And it all has nothing to do with how much talent one has. It is all about how an actor is perceived and prejudged. In a limited sphere, my films made me famous, but in another sense, they were a handicap. I tried to maintain separate names and identities at first... It got increasingly confusing... Besides, the secret could not be perpetuated endlessly.”

Cal gave up his Hollywood hopes eventually, but continued to perform in porn and in theater. He was dropped from a production of Frederick Combs' play The Children's Mass, in which he was to co-star with Sal Mineo (also a friend of Hand in Hand Films heads Jack Deveau and Robert Alvarez), but he worked with Jerry Douglas once more in 1974 in his bathhouse play Tubstrip, also starring Score's Gerald Grant and a fellow early porn star, Jim Cassidy.
 

Tubstrip playbill

Cal was the biggest attraction and the play had a long run in New York, then runs in L.A. and San Francisco, and Cal performed in it to the end. Fans were excited to see Casey Donovan live and Cal “made time to meet with fans who gathered at the stage door every night after the performance.” During this era, he would reportedly screen his porn films for his theater cast-mates at after parties (Boys in the Sand for the Merchant of Venice cast and Poole's 1974 film Moving, co-starring Val Martin, for the Tubstrip cast). Michael Kearns commented on one of these viewings: “He acted like it was Gone with the Wind. He really behaved like a star – not temperamental but like a real star. He didn't feel a bit of shame about what he did on the screen. Even when he was getting fisted, there was a certain elegance about him. He had incredible aplomb.”

Between porn and theater gigs, Cal continued to work as an escort, periodically served as a gay celebrity tour guide on international trips (including to Italy, Egypt, China, and Peru), and did a stint running a bed and breakfast (“Casa Donovan”) in Key West. In his porn career, he worked with with major directors, stars, and studios, including Falcon (The Other Side of Aspen, 1978, co-starring Al Parker and Dick Fisk), the Gage brothers (L.A. Tool & Die, 1979, and Heatstroke, 1982), Christopher Rage (Sleaze, 1982), Poole again (Hot Shots aka Always Ready, 1982, and Split Image, 1984) and Steve Scott (Non-Stop, 1984), and he performed in the 1985 safe sex films Inevitable Love (with Jon King) and Chance of a Lifetime.

After a break from the stage and from New York City, Cal planned a return with a 1983 off-Broadway revival of the Terrence McNally play The Ritz. The play, which originally ran on Broadway in 1975 starring Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Jack Weston, Kaye Ballard, and F. Murray Abraham, was based on Bette Midler's rise to fame at The Continental Baths in the early '70s. (An additional connection to Cal: McNally originally called the play The Tubs, but when it was to be produced on Broadway, its name had to be changed because it was too similar to that of Douglas' Tubstrip.) Cal was brought onto the play's revival as a co-producer, as well as a star, and helped to finance it. Cal played detective character Michael Brick, who spoke in a falsetto voice throughout, and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn was cast in Moreno's leading role. The revival wound up a critical and financial disaster, the director receiving the largest amount of backlash, and only ran one night. Woodlawn said, while that performance was a mess, “Everyone panicked too soon. The opening night was a horror, but if given a chance, things would have settled in and worked out... We just needed more time to make it work.”
 

Poster for Woodlawn and Donovan in the revival of The Ritz
Holly Woodlawn and Cal

After this disappointment and its financial impact, Cal returned to Florida and was never to appear on stage in New York again. However, he couldn't give up on theater and – when not away traveling – attended and began acting in community theater productions in Key West. There, he was in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie and in William H. Hoffman's pioneering play about AIDS, As Is.

Woodlawn called Cal “the most gracious man I've ever encountered.” His friends remarked upon how dedicated he was to his fans and, while an enigma and a mass of contradictions, how sensitively he received the people he interacted with – strangers, fans, clients, co-workers, lovers, friends. Douglas' Manshots article says Cal “knew that he was a pioneer, a role model, and a superstar with obligations to his public. And so, he took great pains always to appear in public well-groomed and sober. He charmed his fans in every public appearance by listening, again and again, to their personal tales as if each of them were his closest friend. He corresponded with many, sent out hundreds (maybe thousands) of photographs at his own expense, and was never in too much of a hurry to sign one more autograph.” Bijou owner Steven Toushin similarly recalls Cal's appearance at the Bijou Theater. He was booked there to promote a film, dance on stage, and to meet fans and sign autographs. He says Cal had a great time interacting with the customers and stayed hours beyond the time he was scheduled and paid for, enjoying having conversations with his fans.
 

Signed Casey Donovan headshot from his Bijou appearance

Cal's hardcore and softcore films serve to immortalize his charm and his talent, as both an actor and a sexual performer. Though his porn roles modified his acting career, in a Men in Film interview, Cal said, “I enjoyed the idea that I was doing something that very few people had ever done... My life was made much more exciting by having done those films... I did plays, I was on magazine covers, in national fashion ads... I think porno worked in my life because I was so honest about it... Once I realized that my appearance in gay films was held against me in some quarters, I decided to put sex to even greater use – not less – in augmenting my income. We live in a society with deeply rooted feelings of guilt and shame about sex of any kind. If somebody makes a porn film, they are automatically beyond the pale. If somebody hustles, there must be something wrong with him. Maybe for some, not for me. I'm the living proof that it doesn't have to be that way. I'm still pretty much 'the boy next door' that I always was... I think my greatest accomplishment so far is something that doesn't show up in lights or get reviewed – and that's simply the sexual sanity that I have tried to contribute to over the past twenty years... I've tried to be honest, kind, and understanding with as many different people as possible, and I think that's much more important than just being gay.”

Cal's friend Jay McKenna wrote in a memorial article in The Advocate, “To myself and other young boys who were coming out in the early '70s, Cal Culver was a gay Adam – the first widely embraced gay symbol to appear during the post-Stonewall years. Back in 1971, when Cal's first film, Casey... was released, the gay movement was just beginning to amass some collective energy and wider acceptance, but gay existence was still underground and closeted. Coming out was a heartfelt and courageous choice. It was a calculated professional and social risk. So to teen-age boys like myself who were struggling to come to terms with it, Cal's spectacular emergence as Casey Donovan, unapologetic star of gay films, bordered on the heroic... My memory of him isn't obscured by false nostalgia. Cal had star power. He celebrated his gayness. He made me and others proud to be gay, so contagious was his spirit. Of course, like any human being, he had good days and bad days. But to be in his presence was to breathe a rarefied atmosphere.”

In 1985, two years before his death of AIDS-related complications, Cal returned to his home town to help his beloved drama teacher, Helen Van Fleet, celebrate her retirement. He visited with old high school classmates who all knew about his career in “the legitimate theater” and some about his porn career. Cal wanted to play a big part in Mrs. Van Fleet's celebration. Her daughter said, “it was really wonderful. He had written a parody of the title song from the musical Mame, and he sang it to her. It was an account of all the things they had experienced together over the years. It meant the world to her” and it received a huge ovation.

Sources:

Roger Edmonson, Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star

Jerry Douglas, “The Legend of Casey Donovan,” Manshots, April 1992

Jay McKenna, “Casey Donovan: To an Idol Dying Young,” The Advocate, October 27, 1987

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casey_Donovan_(actor)

https://newyorkcityinthewitofaneye.com/2013/05/20/mondays-on-memory-lane-1981-one-night-only-at-the-ritz-with-holly-woodlawn-2013/

Emerald City TV #47, Wakefield Poole & Cal Culver

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