DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake

By Josh Eliot

 

I had a nice long 22-year career with Catalina Video. I was hired just a short time after William Higgins moved to Amsterdam to open his “brothel” and continue his filmmaking with a European flair. It’s hard to fathom, but while I was producing and directing over 100 movies for his company, we never crossed paths or even spoke on the phone. I was always intrigued with the “idea” of him watching over us and wondered what he might think of my work or if he had any input to share when I was restoring his movies for DVD. Throughout my decades of service, this was something I always thought about, waiting patiently to get the word that Higgins needed the crew and I to fly to Europe to work on his next movie. That phone call never came. But one day Higgins did call - not to talk to me, but about me with Catalina’s general manager, Chris Mann. He phoned to demand my termination because of a 10-second shot in a movie I made called Full Service. It seems my little movie found itself smack dab in the middle of a lawsuit - a one million dollar lawsuit.

My second movie for Catalina Video was Full Service, shot and released in 1989 when I was 27 years old. As I previously mentioned, Scott Masters was my producer and Chet Thomas was the movie’s editor. My first movie, Runaways, was under my belt and since Chris Mann and Scott Masters were happy with its look and tone, they gave me some leeway on my next movie. We shot both movies in San Francisco at Catalina’s studio in the Potrero Hill District. Dan Allman left the company and they put me in charge of running the studio. We would build the sets according to John Travis or Scott Masters' specifications and they would fly up from L.A. with the models in hand for filming. Things were moving fast. I moved from the Tenderloin to a great three bedroom flat on 19th and Castro and hired my best friend, Brian, to work with me at the studio. When it came time to figure out the idea for my second movie, I knew right away what the story would be. While living in the Tenderloin, I would pass the Century Theatre on my way home from work and it seemed like Grease Monkeys was playing there forever! Even though I never saw the movie, the poster imagery was so effective that I knew I wanted to do something with a gas station theme. When I proposed it to the boss, it was the quickest I ever heard Scott Masters say yes to a project. In hindsight, I’m sure it was because he immediately got a boner thinking about the great “costumes” he could make for it. He was the wardrobe wizard and a costume connoisseur. Literally before I could even finish building the sets at the studio, he called to tell me that he had all the blue jumpsuit costumes being made and he found some “unnamed gas station company” tags to have sewn onto them. He also mentioned that I should go out and shoot some exteriors of the gas station for cutaways.

 

Grease Monkeys, The Century Theatre and Full Service

Grease Monkeys, the Century Theatre and Full Service

 

My movie was taking place in a small town, so during a weekend trip to Napa Valley with Brian, I took the camera along. It was like a miracle when we drove past this older looking gas station just outside of Santa Rosa. There were cows grazing in the field behind it and the main building looked like a log cabin. What a score! The wide shot of this gas station showed everything I needed it to: small town, rural, and the “brand name” matching the tags my producer was sewing on the costumes. I was so excited by this place that I failed to see what else was written on the building; so did Chet Thomas when he edited the movie, as well as Scott Masters when he viewed it to approve the cut before release. It was one of those things that was in front of your face, yet invisible. Months later when I was shown a photo of that same gas station on the front page of The Press Democrat newspaper, I saw for myself my grave error.

 

Newspaper article on Full Service lawsuit

Newspaper article on Full Service lawsuit

 

The owner's name was written on the wall of the gas station in big giant letters. It turns out the owner’s nephew lived in San Francisco, rented Full Service from a video store and, upon viewing it, saw his uncle’s gas station. The newspaper photographed the owner with his wife and children in front of the station, looking very sad. Long story short, Scott Masters and I had to give depositions, go through arbitration with the family and finally settle for a $30,000 settlement. Oy vey, my first BIG BUDGET movie! I don’t mean to make light of it, because it really was quite serious. Chris Mann had to reach out to every buyer of the movie to buy their copies back. The “unnamed gas station company” simply asked for their logo to be removed with no request for compensation. It was all very hideous and I came very close to having no career with Catalina Video at all. John Travis and Scott Masters went to the mat for me with Higgins but Chris Mann, the GM, was truly my guardian angel. Chris had Higgins' utmost respect, and when he laid out the reasons he wanted me to stay on with the company it didn’t fall on deaf ears.

 

Chris Mann

Chris Mann throughout the years

 

Within a couple of years, Chris Mann went on to own Video Team, a “Boutique Adult Video” operation that brought Black porn genres to the mainstream. He also served on the board of the Free Speech Coalition and, after selling Video Team, became general manager of John Stagliano’s Evil Angel. Thank you, Chris, for saving my career! Things were never the same when Chris left Catalina and, due to new management conflicts, Travis and Masters shortly followed. Needless to say, copyright violations were something I always tried to avoid, moving forward from my experience with Full Service. Talk about being haunted by it. Do you know how traumatizing it is for a director to see these little pixels covering patches throughout his entire movie every time some hot stud shows up wearing a gas station uniform?

 

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment

That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?

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September 12, 1985: Remembering the Infamous Carol's Speakeasy Raid in Chicago

posted by Madame Bubby


The raid on Stonewall of course has become an iconic event because of its social and historical ramifications, but recently LGBTQ historians, including many who publicize history on social media platforms such as Twitter, have called attention to similar events before and after Stonewall. Often the goal of such histories is uncovering marginalized narratives of oppression and liberation that can frame our own interpretations of not just those people and events, but also give a valued context for the present-day legal, social, and cultural challenges to honor and justice that LGBTQ persons still face.

One raid which attained notoriety, mostly because it showed how the politics of the gay Chicago community was becoming very much intertwined overall with mainstream politics, occurred on September 12, 1985.
 

Carol's Speakeasy poster
Image Source: http://chicago.gopride.com/entertainment/column/index.cfm/col/2523

A group called NEMEG, Northwestern Metropolitan Enforcement Group, which consisted of officers from various north and northwestern suburbs, raided a popular gay bar, Carol's Speakeasy, located at 1355 N. Wells Street (that strip still at that point in LGBTQ Chicago history was the center of a vibrant gay nightlife). NEMEG was ostensibly looking for evidence of drugs and drug dealing.

According to David Boyer of Touche and Bijou and a noted figure in Chicago's gay community, who was then employed by Carol's (his first year as manager), the bar was hosting a wrestling promotion night: “We had put out mats on the dance floor and guys would challenge each other to wrestle. Had about maybe 50 or so people in the house.”

Also according to David Boyer, whose account I quote and paraphrase for much of this blog and which generally corroborates what even the conservative Chicago Tribune reported, the Chicago police were not involved; and, as one shall see, this is a most significant, telling detail.

David describes how this, I would claim, vigilante group “stormed the front door, guns drawn,” and that they also broke in through the back. These persons were not wearing any type of identifying uniform, and did not even identify themselves.

Everyone in the bar was forced to gather together and lay face down on the dance floor for a period of several hours. NEMEG members would hit or shove the face of anyone back down to the floor if they even unintentionally looked up.

NEMEG meanwhile searched the offices and serving areas behind the bars, looking for drugs. David mentions that they were even throwing around match books, claiming these contained packages of drugs.

In a manner reminiscent of pre-Stonewall raids, these persons took each person, questioned them, and, most significantly, photographed them. Everyone eventually was forced to leave the bar; no one was arrrested. David Boyer refused to leave after identifying himself as the manager, but they still did not inform him of their identity.

After what seemed an interminable time of chaos and violence, Chicago police did show up, but they did nothing to stop what was happening. Nothing; one could claim they were deliberately ignoring the many legal violations that were occurring for reasons ranging from homophobia to some unwritten code that forbade them from “telling” on their suburban officer comrades.

NEMEG did claim they found drugs on the premises, but they could not determine who brought them.

According to David, at the same time the raid occurred, a couple of employees were arrested at their homes and charged with drug dealing.

This incident did not end up being a narrative memory of injustice and degradation.

By the middle 1980s, the gay community in Chicago had gained enough political power, even during this uncertain time when AIDS was beginning to decimate its members.

Thus, those affected by this raid filed a civil lawsuit against these suburban officers, focusing on clear violations of the law, such as not identifying themselves as police and forcibly taking photographs of the bar patrons.
 

Windy City Times article about Carol's Speakeasy lawsuit
Image Source: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Windy-City-Times-30th-anniversary-issue-Coverage/52880.html

According to a report in the September 16, 1986 of the Chicago Tribune:
 

"This is one of the most massive violations of civil rights we have seen in Chicago in the last decade," said Harvey Grossman, Illinios legal director of the ACLU.

"Over 50 men were subjected to this course of conduct. They were all ordered to lie on the floor; they were subjected to illegal searches; they were interrogated against their will and required to disclose information about their backgrounds; they were all photographed and none was arrested.

"What the agents did was to take the occasion of serving an arrest warrant on the bartender and turn it into a raid on all who were present at the time," Grossman said.

By 1989, the parties reached an accord, according to a report in the August 18, 1989 issue of the Chicago Tribune. Harvey Grossman in this article makes a telling point: "Although gays have long been subject to police harassment, this is the first time a group of gay men has successfully joined together to obtain damages from law enforcement agencies," Grossman said.

The above is a story of injustice, but also a story of moral courage and faith that the justice system does indeed work, even against those who are supposedly responsible for upholding that its laws are enforced equitably and honorably. In this case, the human rights of the manager and patrons of Carol's were dishonored and dehumanized that night, and though the terms of the settlement did include financial compensation, the real issue is that no one is above the law, and this law is based on the premise that persons are innocent until proven guilty.

Currently, one cannot assume in the case of vulnerable, marginalized populations that their human rights will be respected, and that the justice system will uphold them. I think it's important, overall, to frame this raid as a #NeverAgainIsNow moment that the LGBTQ communities need to take to heart, not only as a warning, but as call for persons to emulate the moral courage David Boyer showed that night.

Sources: Chicago Tribune reports (see hyperlinks); eyewitness account from David Boyer received via email; https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/02/queer-clout-in-chicago-telling-gay-history-beyond-stonewall-and-the-castro.html

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