Interview with Robert Alvarez, Hand in Hand Films Co-Founder/Editor

In 2019, Robert Alvarez, co-founder and editor of the groundbreaking and influential early gay porn studio and distribution company, Hand in Hand Films, kindly took the time to do a phone interview with Bijou.

Along with his partner Jack Deveau, as well as Jaap Penraat, and, later, Kees Chapman, Alvarez co-founded and was at the helm of Hand in Hand Films. Formed in 1972, a mere few years after more permissive legislation in the U.S. began allowing for the exhibition of hardcore films, the studio undertook ambitious and elaborate cinematic productions, expanding the ideas of what a pornographic film could be, and constructing their ideas into a large catalog of outstanding and entertaining narrative features. They additionally became an early distributor of the work of a number of other gay adult filmmakers, as well as their own product. A highly collaborative enterprise, Hand in Hand's films combine the creative influences of all of their participants. They continued making films until 1982 and distributing until 1988.

Alvarez, a skilled editor with a background in dance and experimental and documentary film, elevated Hand in Hand's output with his technical polish and creative flair, helping to create the distinct style and high quality level of the studio's output. From character dramas, to comedies, to outrageous psychedelic and horror films, his work on Hand in Hand's productions covered a range of tones and genres, but maintained Hand in Hand's cinematic quality and particular sensibility. With some of the studio's wilder and more avant-garde films and sequences, Bob applied complex and experimental editing and post-production effects, leading critics to frequently praise the “Alvarez effects” that enhanced scenes and often created some of the movies' best moments.

In the conversation that follows, Bob discusses his artistic background and influences, Hand in Hand's formation, his relationship with Jack Deveau, his editing style, the studio's philosophy, and more.

Robert Alvarez in front of French poster for Good Hot Stuff, 1975
Robert Alvarez in front of French poster for Good Hot Stuff, 1975
[Image Credit: Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau]

Bijou: I am curious about some of your filmmaking influences and your experimental film background.

Alvarez: Well, I’ve always loved movies. And, in addition to that – this goes back to 1958, maybe – I started going to see some experimental films that were being shown in a little storefront place, and I got to know about Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos, for whom I worked. Not even worked – I assisted [Markopoulos], is more like it. And then I ended up being in one of his films. And then there was Warhol, but Warhol didn’t really influence me that much. I wasn't a great fan of his movies, but I did follow certain ones. Chelsea Girls is one of his early ones that I more or less liked, because it was so outrageous. The most influential [experimental filmmakers] for me were the ones that I just mentioned.

In addition to that, one of the first things that I came to New York to do was to become a dancer, because I started studying in Florida when I was about 18 or 19 and decided that New York was the only place that would be smart for me to go to. So I moved here and I kept studying dance and going to auditions, and so forth. After a while, I wound up doing Summer Stock and then a touring company. I did it ‘til I was about twenty-five and then I just decided that I should not continue to pursue it, that I should do something else. And, of course, the thing that came up in my mind first was film. I worked for [the animator] Francis Lee while I was doing the experimental film part of my life. He worked with this thing called photo animation. And he also made some experimental films, as well as regular ones.

I started getting more into film and wound up working for another animation man who did commercials for NBC, and then from that I went onto NBC and became assistant editor to the supervising editor there, and after that I got my first editing job. And, in between, I did some other stuff and wound up doing the documentaries [Woodstock, An American Family] and working freelance for mostly – it was Channel 13; it’s now PBS - until 1971 or ‘72.

It was my partner who I convinced we should get into the business of making movies, which is a story in itself, but, anyway, we turned out our first film, which was Left-Handed, and it was very unlike any other gay films that I’d ever seen. I became more and more interested in how far we could push the envelope, you know. Wakefield Poole, a pretty good friend of mine, made Boys in the Sand prior to this and that was a big success. And so we decided we would do ours, and that’s when we did Left-Handed. And ours was quite different, of course. We tried to take it from a different gay slant than just porno, give it some kind of a plot and characters and motivations, and so forth, as well as some editing that I did that I think was somewhat experimental.

Bijou: Had you edited any pieces that were that experimental at that point in time, or were you kind of getting to develop some of those techniques in your editing style on Left-Handed?

Alvarez: I actually was influenced by… I never got over being a dancer, and I was interested in dance and choreography, and so forth. When I started editing, I began to feel that there were a lot of similarities in certain aspects of editing to choreographing, and became a real fan of Bob Fosse, among others. So I used a lot of their techniques, but I also used some other techniques that I learned back when I was seeing experimental films, that involved quick cutting and a lot of - especially in Markopoulos - a lot of very extended dissolves, and things, that were quite beautiful. And I used those things, myself, as well as my sense of rhythm and cutting to music, which I loved to do, because that really gave it movement; some emphasis, depending on the music that we used. And we had original music for Left-Handed that came from a friend of ours, a guy that was a sound mixer, who had a small band. He composed some music for us.

Bijou: Yes, those are wonderful pieces.

Images from Left-Handed (1972)
Images from Left-Handed, 1972 (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: Anyway, I really enjoyed it, because I was doing it like I wanted to do it, and I was given a free hand to do whatever I did. So that more or less gives you an idea of how I got started, and where.

Bijou: I didn’t realize you came from a dance background, also. I know some other people involved [in making gay porn in '70s NYC] were from that background. Did you get connected to anybody through the realm of dance that wound up working with you?

Alvarez: Well, I had known Wakefield slightly back in Florida, because he was in a ballet company and I was in a different one. We met at some kind of convention. We got to know each other and we were sort of, not buddies, but… We were in two different locations in Florida. But when I came to New York, I saw that he was dancing, and, also, he did some choreography. So I got to know him pretty well.

Bijou: Do some of the people involved in Ballet Down the Highway come from those connections?

Alvarez: They did, but they weren’t friends or anything. They were people that we cast, who were dancers, to be in the ballet scene, as well as the lead in the movie, who was a Dutch young man [Henk Van Dijk] who came with a choreographer that we got to know from the Netherlands ballet, and became rather close friends with after this lover of his appeared in our film. Anyway, we got this young man, who was studying dance, and he was not a great dancer, but through editing and so forth, I made him look better. (laughs) You know?

Bijou: (laughs) It does look good.

Alvarez: He always remarked on that, you know, how I made it look like he could really dance. Other than that, the other people that were supposedly in this company he was dancing for were cast from, I guess, one of our casting calls. We put out casting calls for some of our films, like in Show Business [the newspaper].

Henk Van Dijk (left) and other dancers & cast members (right) in Ballet down the Highway, 1975

Henk Van Dijk (left) and other dancers & cast members (right) in Ballet down the Highway, 1975 (DVD | Streaming); clips from the film

Bijou: Is that how you found most of your performers - casting calls? I noticed, with Hand in Hand's films, there’s some crossover between people you have in the crew and the cast, and some people that I don’t see in any other [adult] films. I was curious where the Left-Handed cast came from or if you knew some of them from social circles, as well.

Alvarez: The Left-Handed cast, I’m not sure, because I wasn’t involved in the casting, directly. That was Jack Deveau, who was, of course, my partner, and the guy who was primarily the producer/director - you know, the whole shebang. He used to put out casting calls. And, I think, we knew the guy who played the lead. We knew both of them. And so they agreed to be in it. And then we had an orgy scene at the end that was a lot of other people that we weren’t particularly friends with but somehow got to be in this, our first film. And I’m not sure whether they were cast directly, or they were cast through friends, or something. But that’s more or less how that happened.

Ray Frank & Robert Rikas, the leads in Left-Handed, and orgy cast
Ray Frank & Robert Rikas, the leads in Left-Handed, and orgy cast

Bijou: How did you and Jack meet? I don't think I know that.

Alvarez: Oh… That’s a kind of a story in itself. We met several years before. I met him, actually, at a performance of an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti called The Saint of Bleecker Street. It was written up in the papers as being a really good production, and blah blah blah. I had a friend who wanted to be an opera singer, and I think he told me about it and said, “Do you want to go see it?” And I said, “Yes. I definitely want to go see it.” Because I knew who Gian Carlo Menotti was and I’d heard some of his other work and always liked it. But anyway, I went to that and, during intermission, this young man came up to me, you know? And we started talking, and so on, and so on, and so forth. And I had a feeling that we were… we were evaluating each other. (laughs) Also, it turns out that his mother was part of the orchestra. She played the viola. During that intermission, she came out, and he said, “Tell me your name really quick, because there comes my mother and I want to introduce you.” (laughs) So we met and… She’s a wonderful lady. Just a wonderful, wonderful person. Anyway, I immediately got interested in knowing more about him. He invited me to go out with him after the opera, which I did. And that was the beginning, you know? And, little by little, we became more and more involved until we decided to live together. It was good. We had a sort of an open relationship - not completely open, but rather. And so there were a lot of other sexual experiences that I had that were not with him, but were influenced by him. I’ll put it that way. (laughs) He was very interested in people that he’d meet off the street who were either hustling, trying to make a little money, or sailors, you know. He had a very great gift of gab, so he could charm anybody - and did. (laughs)

Bijou: Yeah. It sounds like everyone loved hanging out with him, from all the people I’ve spoken with about him.

Alvarez: Yeah, he was a lot of fun. He was a funny character.

So anyway, we had this relationship, never really committing to a long-term thing, but it kept going, kept going, kept going, and we ended up being together for twenty-one years. And at that point, he died, and so... It was a long, long relationship. And I loved him very, very much. And vice versa.

But I always thought it would be great if we could work together. Incidentally, another person that was greatly responsible for Jack getting the courage to get into this and actually direct people was [Rebel Without a Cause star] Sal Mineo, who became a friend of ours some years before.

Bijou: Yeah! I was so curious where you knew him from.

Alvarez: We met him in Madrid, and he was getting ready to shoot a film somewhere in Europe. I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, we got to know each other, and while we were there, we went out together. And he was sort of… not just coming out, I guess, but he was definitely coming out. (laughs) And so he enjoyed being with us, and was always a good friend.

And then a little later, we got into the film business and decided to become our own distributors, because we didn’t trust any of the distributors. Everybody that had dealt with the distributors had been pretty much ripped off by having copies of their films made and sold, and all kinds of stuff that went on. We felt it was better if we could set up a business to distribute our own movies and not sell them, which a lot of other gay filmmakers were doing. Instead of selling them to make a quick buck, we’d keep the movies and then rent them out to the exhibitors and charge them a percentage of the gross. And, of course, they were never exactly honest, either, but we found ways to kind of get around that. When we showed our stuff in New York, we had somebody counting the number of patrons that would go into the theater, so we had an idea of about how much money we should be getting. But anyways, that’s a whole other area of the business. And, incidentally, that’s how we met [Bijou owner] Steve Toushin, because he started renting some of our films, and we liked him. He was always really very nice and very fair.

Bijou: I was wondering about Good Hot Stuff [Hand in Hand's documentary about their studio] showing in Paris. I read that that was the first gay porn film to show in France. I was curious about that trip over there and what that experience was like.

Jack Deveau & Bob Alvarez in front of French Good Hot Stuff billboard
Jack Deveau & Bob Alvarez in front of French billboard for Good Hot Stuff (DVD | Streaming); excerpt from the film

Alvarez: It wasn't the first film. It was the first American explicit gay film ever shown in France. We hooked up with a man named Norbert Terry in France who had apparently shot one or two movies that were in French. I always wanted for us to go there and be shown with subtitles and (laughs), you know, the whole thing. Because there’s a lot of narrative to Good Hot Stuff; Jack and some of our actors talked about being in the films, and so forth. We opened in Paris at two or three theaters. And they made a big deal out of promoting it. And, sure enough, we ended up outgrossing the [Robert Altman] movie Nashville, which was also playing there (laughs) - and Nashville is a classic film.

Bijou: (laughs) Yeah, that's amazing.

Alvarez: Jack and I had been to Paris a couple of times before, and we loved Paris... I still do. It’s a magical city and I love it. So we ended up, eventually after we made some more films, making a deal with a guy who was a producer in Paris, and contracted to make a movie in French and we would share the profits. It turned out to be a disaster, but we released the movie anyway.

Bijou: Was that Le Musée, [also known as Strictly Forbidden]?

Images from Le Musee aka Strictly Forbidden, 1974
Images from Le Musée aka Strictly Forbidden, 1974 (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: Le Musée, yeah. I had to end up using our work print, because they had confiscated our original negatives from the lab, so I had only the work print to work with.

Bijou: Oh wow, they confiscated it?

Alvarez: Yeah. They figured they had a legal right to do it, because we ran out, I guess. We didn’t continue working on the film. We left, and when we went to get our original negatives, found out that they had already been taken by the production company, and they weren't about to give it up.

Bijou: Wow.

Alvarez: Which is too bad, because it was really a beautiful film in many ways.

Bijou: Yeah, the footage is gorgeous from that film.

Alvarez: Yeah, the color footage is really good. And that’s only the work print, so you can imagine the original.

Bijou: Oh wow. I see, so the B&W is the work print?

Alvarez: Yeah, that’s all from the work print.

Bijou: Oh!

Alvarez: And I decided, from my experimental film days (laughs), “Hell, I’ll just mix them all up,” you know, and we’ll have B&W and color.

Bijou: I like that about it. I thought that was intentional. It felt intentional, watching it. (laughs)

Alvarez: That’s what I tried to do - make it look like it was intentional. I wasn’t happy with it, completely, because I knew what we could have had, but we didn’t want it to go to waste, so we released it. And made some money on it, you know.

Bijou: Yeah, I still think it’s a great one, but that would be sad knowing that you lost a good chunk of footage. What was your philosophy on making the Hand in Hand films at the time?

Alvarez: Well, almost all of them were shot in New York, and we dealt with New York situations and stories. I mean, Left-Handed is certainly that. And several others we did were about typical New York scenes. Some of our slighter stories had New York characters in them, and we used New York as a kind of a backdrop for everything. So we decided our films would have that element, as well as kind of a freewheeling style where we made it seem like being gay was a normal thing, long before (laughs), long before [many gay rights advancements]. We were just assuming that our characters all were gay and that’s how they talked, as normal people would talk.

Bijou: That’s true, that is kind of distinctive about your films - now that you said that - versus some other studios. In Hand in Hand's films, most of the people are already out and it’s set within gay life and that’s not, like, a huge ordeal with it.

Alvarez: Yeah. And another film that we did early was… Well, we worked with this guy Peter de Rome on his first feature-length film. ‘Cause he had done some short films on 8mm. We ended up blowing up a lot of them to 16mm, and then adding a couple of his [other] short movies, and making a movie, after that, called Adam & Yves, which took place in Paris.

Posters for The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome and Adam & Yves
Posters for The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome 1972, (DVD | Streaming) and Adam & Yves 1974, (DVD | Streaming)
 
Jack Deveau and Peter de Rome filming Adam & Yves

Jack Deveau and Peter de Rome filming Adam & Yves; audio and set photos montage

Alvarez: Another chance to go to Paris; I didn’t go to, but Jack did. We made the film that Peter de Rome directed. Well, Jack actually directed it more than he did, but…

Bijou: Oh really?

Alvarez: But we gave him the credit, because it was his idea, and his concept and the whole thing about shooting some of it in Paris.

After Adam & Yves was released, we started working on a film which was a little more intricate… a lot more intricate, actually (laughs), called Drive. And I did a lot of quick cutting and switching from one scene to another, like in the middle of a sex scene; kind of making a comment about what was coming up, you know, sort of like a prequel to what was going to happen.

Bijou: Yeah, I love the edits in that movie.

Alvarez: And it took place in this decadent disco that was run by the character named Arachne, whose goal in life was to rid all men of their sex drive. But she would do it by castrating them, up to the point where she found out that there was this drug being developed... This was funny, too, because this was long before Viagra or any of that stuff. But there was a drug being developed that would kill the instinct or the desire to have sex. So she wouldn’t have to be mutilating people anymore. (laughs) So her goal was to go out and get this drug and the scientist. She was an evil character. But as far as the movie goes and my involvement in it, I was very taken by this and I loved the idea that some of it took place in a disco. And there was a scene that was kind of a tribute or take off on Marlene Dietrich’s gorilla suit sequence in [Blonde Venus]. But we did our version of that with the character Arachne, who was in drag, of course, and I loved it. I think it really works well. And that’s one of the scenes where I cut to the disco. And we had original music for it. Now, I did my best to cut to the music, and then I intercut with the sex between the detective and his partner. So we go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until the scene at the disco became a climax when the Arachne character takes off the gorilla head and out she comes. And so that was the end [of the scene], and that was in vivid color. And at the same time, the couple was climaxing in their scene, and so the two climaxes kind of coalesced together.

Bijou: It's a great sequence.

Christopher Rage as Arachne, after emerging from the gorilla suit in Drive, 1974

Christopher Rage as Arachne, after emerging from the gorilla suit in Drive, 1974 (DVD | Streaming); Drive's original theme song by David Earnest

Alvarez: That’s what I mean about our films. I mean, there was so much… Not to make art, necessarily, but to make something that would be contemporary, of the day, and also would get us… We always had the goal, really, to get into regular movies - mass market movies - eventually, and this was sort of going to be our training ground. And, for a while, it looked like we could do it. I know Wakefield had the same desire and almost made it. But the whole business changed so quickly, and it became corrupted, and more of a “quick buck” kind of thing, and so forth. There were exceptions. There were a few filmmakers that were rather important at that time, and one of them was a guy by the name of Tom DeSimone, who ended up working with us on a couple of movies.

Bijou: Right, he shot a couple of them, didn't he?

Alvarez: Oh, he shot many films. That’s a whole other story. It’s in the book [Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau], in the chapter on Tom DeSimone. Anyway, we liked him, because his movies - the movies he made, himself - were more substantial, and often had plots, and so forth. There were a few people like that. Another one was Fred Halsted who, in L.A. Plays Itself, used a rather - not only shocking - sequence, but also some underground film tactics.

Anyway, I was talking about Drive and how that was a departure from everything.

Bijou: Yeah! That’s the first really kind of elaborate effects piece that you did, right?

Alvarez: Yeah, exactly. I took some of the disco stuff to an optical house and had them do several things to make it more unusual. You know? I incorporated a lot of stuff like that in all our films, if possible.

Bijou: Right. Destroying Angel has couple of those great sequences, too.

Alvarez: Right, Destroying Angel, especially.

Bijou: I love that one.

Images from Peter de Rome's The Destroying Angel, 1976

Images from Peter de Rome's The Destroying Angel, 1976 (DVD | Streaming); excerpts from the film

Alvarez: Yeah. And there’s one called Fire Island Fever, which has a sequence where one of the characters accidentally takes a tab of acid and we kind of see what he’s seeing through his eyes as he is high, which is a fantasy sex scene with what turns out to be one of the characters that he meets at the end of the film. Anyway, I tried as much as possible to incorporate some more daring kind of editing. You know, make our films look different. And they did. (laughs) For the most part, they did.

Bijou: Yeah, they did!

Fire Island Fever fantasy sequence
Fantasy sequence from Fire Island Fever, 1979 (DVD | Streaming)

Bijou: Oh, I wanted to ask you about Kees Chapman.

Alvarez: He was also, I think, from a Dutch background. But he was an American; I think he was born here in the States. His lover had been one of our actors early on. [His lover] was actually in Drive. He played the scientist. He had long blond hair. For the movies, he was [named] Mark Woodward; to us, he was his real name, Sydney Soons. And he became an employee of ours, and was helping Jack with keeping track of the finances and getting the movies sent out to the exhibitors, and all that.

Fire Island Fever fantasy sequence
Mark Woodward aka Sydney Soons hosting Good Hot Stuff and slating for A Night at the Adonis, 1978 (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: After a while, he and Kees ended up breaking up, and then Kees kind of took over his job, and became even more of a necessary part of Hand in Hand Films. And he also ended up doing some camerawork for Jack, as well as directing, and so forth.

In fact, he shot the sequence I directed in In Heat, which was shot in a dance studio. It was guys taking a ballet class, and then the teacher takes a break, and during that time, the boys get together and have sex. And eventually, the teacher comes back and he joins the crowd. (laughs) So that was one small segment that I directed, because I’d always wanted to, but I didn’t want to impose on Jack’s ideas, you know, because he had plenty of ideas.

In Heat dance studio segment directed by Robert Alvarez
Dance studio segment directed by Robert Alvarez in the Hand in Hand shorts collection In Heat (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: In fact, Kees and I tried to make a full film, with Kees directing, after Jack died, but it turned out that I couldn’t use the footage; it was too dark and just a mess. And I’ve always thought I should take that footage again and look at it again with today’s technology, you know?

Bijou: Oh, you should. I bet it could be enhanced a bit, yeah. That would be interesting. What was the premise?

Alvarez: I’m not too sure, except I know that it had the lead character going to Fire Island and having several encounters there. And finally, at the end, I think he gets back with his lover that he had at the beginning of the movie. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at it.

Bijou: I bet it could be brightened.

Alvarez: Yeah. I think with today’s video technology, especially, a lot of things can be certainly improved. Steven’s done that already. I’m very pleased with the way he has kept our movies up to date.

Bijou: Oh, I'm glad.

Alvarez: Oh, let me finish with Kees. Like I said, he became part of our group that ended up being Jack, Kees, and myself, who were the principal people. We had another partner for a while named Jaap Penraat. But that ended at some point and… Not too happily, but it ended.

And that’s when Kees became interested in working for us and kind of took over Jaap’s position, and started working with Jack directly. He was a terrific guy. And I was very surprised when he died of AIDS because… He must have gotten it from his lover, Sydney, because Sydney also got it and also passed away. And, a year or two later, Kees became ill and he died.

So that left it just up to me, and that’s where I finally decided - after making that little film, which was kind of satisfying for me - that it was time to get out of the business. That’s when I started looking for people that might be interested in buying the business, buying all the material, which turned out to be Steve. And I’m glad it was, because he’s been the most trustful of the ones that I talked to about it. There were other people interested, but I knew what would happen. We wouldn’t be who we are today if it had gone to somebody else and they copied our films badly and, you know. It would have been awful. So I’m glad Steve had some real interest in keeping it as a sort of a record of what was happening in the time when they were made, and so forth, which was one of the things Jack…

Speaking of the philosophy, you know, he said that these films were like literature and that if we kept them - you know, rather than sell them - we would end up eventually having them seen over and over and over again and be a representation of what it was like in the days that we shot them, you know? Because most of them were contemporary stories of people at that time. So that’s kind of what his philosophy was. He would make films and try to incorporate things that were relevant to the time that we were shooting in.

Bijou: Yeah, that was probably a conscious effort from the start, even from Left-Handed?

Alvarez: Yeah. It’s funny. After making Left-Handed, and then making a few others, I kind of became a little bit… It wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but… Left-Handed is, no question about, it a crude film. We didn’t shoot in sync sound, we had to dub in the voices, and so forth, and we did it as best we could. And then, Left-Handed always bothered me, because, to me, it wasn’t professional. And looking back at it now, I find I like it very much, you know? (laughs) I like what we were doing.

Bijou: Yeah, I think it's great.

Alvarez: And the fact that it was different. It was different than any other gay sex film that was ever made.

Bijou: Yeah, it is! It does stand out. Even the non-sync sound does something really interesting in it. Its style feels really different, even from your other work.

Alvarez: Yeah, yeah. To me, now, the dubbing almost becomes like a narration, you know? Like it’s almost purposefully done that way (laughs), you know, after the fact. But anyway, I ended up really liking Left-Handed a lot, because it sort of set the mood, also, of my type of film editing. And a lot of the techniques I used in Left-Handed, I used later on in other films that we made, so it kind of was our benchmark movie, being our first.

Bijou: That’s interesting you mentioned developing some techniques there, because in terms of developing cutting hardcore sequences, since the genre was pretty new in the era, were you sort of figuring that out from scratch or… I mean, you’d seen some other [porn] films, but… What was that like developing how to cut and how to pace those sequences?

Alvarez: Well, for one thing, our films, sometimes they got criticized because they weren’t explicit enough, whereas some films are almost like a medical study.

Bijou: Yes. (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Alvarez: Ours were more like – at least I felt and Jack felt – to capture the sensuality of the sex or the dynamics of a sex scene, and whatever shot said that the best is the shot that we used. So we didn’t go in for, like, where you can see every pubic hair, you know? (laughs)

Bijou: (laughs) Yeah. Right. Because that B&W sex scene from Left-Handed is, I think, very beautiful and erotic, but it’s far from being like a medical, durational kind of sex scene.

Alvarez: Yeah. And that B&W sequence in that section, Jack did on purpose B&W, because he said, “We’re going to do like The Wizard of Oz, only backwards.” (laughs) In The Wizard of Oz, it’s in B&W until Dorothy goes through the door, and goes into Oz, and it becomes Technicolor. [And in Left-Handed], when it becomes a dream sequence, it turns into B&W film. And that’s how that came about. And with things like that, you know… I mean, we did that before anybody else [in sex films] did that. Maybe some people followed us, you know, and did the same sort of thing, but… But my cutting, especially, I really loved the idea of creating a piece, a sex scene that had some rhythm to it and some sense of movies, of real movies, you know?


Bijou: Oh yeah, that’s a good distinction, because the sex scenes do feel cinematic in your films.

Left-Handed color to black-and-white shift
Left-Handed color to B&W shift

Alvarez: Yeah. So that’s pretty much the story of Hand in Hand Films. There’s a lot more. If you look at the book, you’ll see that there is a lot more. (laughs)

Bijou: Oh yes, there is. It's a fantastic read. I’m so happy you all put that together.

Alvarez: The book was written by a German guy [Marco Siedelmann] that I met and got to know at a festival where our films were shown, and he said, “I want to do a book on Jack Deveau.” So I said, “Great!” And he said, “And it should have pictures,” and I thought, well, I have some pictures. I mean, Steve has most of them, but I kept a few for myself. You know, things that were duplicates, and so forth. And so, with that, I was able to help him get this book out.

Good Hot Stuff book cover
Book cover - Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau

Thank you to Robert Alvarez for taking the time to talk to us and share stories. For much more information about Hand in Hand Films and a more extensive interview with Alvarez, please check out Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau.

Bijou is very proud to present Hand in Hand's full film catalog! You can watch their movies on DVD and Streaming.

Further Reading, Listening & Viewing for more information on Hand in Hand Films:

Excerpt from the Hand in Hand Films documentary Good Hot Stuff (1975) on Vimeo and more Hand in Hand clips on our Vimeo and YouTube channels
Bijou Blog - Jack Deveau: Vintage Gay Porn Director Profile
Interview with Tom DeSimone (Part 1 and Part 2)
Ask Any Buddy podcast episodes on movies produced and/or distributed by Hand in Hand Films: Good Hot Stuff, Drive, The Night Before, Adam and Yves, The Destroying Angel, Rough Trades, Fire Island Fever, American Cream, Catching Up, The Idol

Rate this blog entry:
1829 Hits
0 Comments

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

Rate this blog entry:
8501 Hits
0 Comments

Contact Us | 800-932-7111 | Join our email list

Go to top