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

posted by Madame Bubby

Family cast

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

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

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

Sada Thompson
Sada Thompson

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

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

Brian Byers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie and Zeke
Willie and Zeke

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

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

The entire episode is currently here on YouTube.

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I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together ...

Carol Burnett today

Yes, dear Carol, I was glad too, because I was able to see you in person for your annual reflection and audience/question answer event on Tuesday, June 12.
 

Carol Burnett live at the Chicago Theater

Carol Burnett at the Chicago Theater ticket stub

In fact, I was more than glad, because like the full-capacity audience at the Chicago Theater, I am a fan. If you are a person of a certain age (and many people of that age brought their now elderly parents), you grew up with this show, the last installment on that amazing 1970s Saturday night line-up that included classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family.

But this blog isn't just a nostalgia kick. Of course, to see clips of Carol singing with names like Ethel Merman and Mel Torme (names millennials might not recognize), or her spinning yarns in her inimitable way about going to the movies on a dime with her grandmother several times a week, fulfilled mine and the mostly older audience's euphoric absorption into their personal retro worlds.

What really got me was Carol (and she wanted people to call her Carol) is her complete humanity. No diva posturing (which she never did in her show anyway), no condescending royal “common touch” attitude. Like she did when she “bumped up the lights” before her show in its heyday, her wit and charm flamed out like the star she is, but rather than scorching, it emanated warmth and love.

She accepted the inevitable compliments graciously, but always managed to focus warmly and personally on the person she was speaking too, which ranged from a gay Catholic priest who admitted he would sing a variant of her song when he left a parish (how gay is that? my conservative priestly brother would cringe), to an odd question from someone who asked if she “had ever played a pregnant lady.” Huh?

When the inevitable political question came up (of course, in this fraught social climate), she admitted that she never worried about being PC when someone asked a question essentially lamenting political correctness and its effect on comedy, because the show was there for a belly laugh, not politics, and definitely not a laugh in bad taste (hear that, Roseanne?). The conservative members of the audience (they were there, I could tell the white Chicago suburban crowd like New Yorkers can tell the “bridge and tunnel crowd”) approved loudly.

But, when one of the soccer mom types who either brought her children or her mother asked her if she had ever experienced a #MeToo incident, Carol was honest. She had not. She admitted she was lucky. She married the producer of the Gary Moore Show (the place where she began her ascent to fame), and overall the men she worked with her were gentlemen. But she really zinged the audience when she said if any guy had tried anything with her, she “would kick him in the balls.” Deafening applause, ensued perhaps an elusive show of unity.

I could go on and on with her stories … her fake lesbian kiss with Julie Andrews meant to be a joke on Mike Nichols, but Lady Bird Johnson ended up as the audience for that one … the chin operation that nearly ruined a retake of a big scene in the movie Annie where she played Miss Hannigan …

And she, a truly gracious lady, acknowledged the late Harvey Korman in several clips and Bob Mackie, the masterful designer of the costumes for that show (she guesstimated he had to produce during the 11 years of that show 17,000 costumes), Bob Mackie, still active and working for The Cher Show, a gay man whose life partner Ray Aghayan died in 2011. When one thinks about the get-ups Carol wore for her beloved characters like Mrs. Wiggins and Stella Toddler, and of course the curtain rod dress in her movie parody “Went With the Wind,” one sees the show as the work of several geniuses who all came together to create (while enjoying a glorious time doing so) a world of joy and laughter.
 

Mrs. Wiggins
Mrs. Wiggins

Curtain dress
The curtain dress

The show was one of those few moments in life where time stood still. But then it was over, like the words to that song:
 

Seems we just got started
and before you know it
Comes the time we have
to say, “So long.”

Carol Burnett Show cast

Now Carol's got her own youtube channel. Check it out!

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Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy: A Criminal!

Lucy Ricardo

I so hope I am not outing myself even more as an “eldergay” with the topic of the blog this week, but I do like to think Lucy, especially as Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy, will remain always funny, even as broadcasts of that show are now making their way into interstellar space.

Situation comedies, like most art forms that move in time, require suspension of disbelief, but after some inspiration from the inimitable datalounge website (which bills itself as “serving up this steaming pile of Gay celebrity gossip, politics and pointless bitchery since 1995 (were you even born in 1995?) Go ahead. You know you want to..."), this idea really hit me … if one pretty much voids the suspension of disbelief required for Lucy and (in most cases) her accomplice Ethel to get involved in so many zany madcap predicaments, plus interpreting their antics through a fear-ridden mindset characteristic of so many 21st century persons (especially helicopter parents) … Yikes!

Yes, Lucy Ricardo is pretty much a “serial criminal,” with Ethel (usually) as her accomplice. Now, Ricky and Fred were also involved in a some of the business, but Lucy was the mastermind.

Some examples, mostly from memory (oh, I hope, dear reader, you are impressed), which may make you recall some of your favorite episodes:

Lucy often, quite often, commits white collar crime; for example, she purposely wrote a postdated check to pay for the costumes and props for the operetta her women's club is putting on. She does get caught (the check bounces), but not by the cops, but by the company she wrote the check to, who hauls and rips away everything as the performers continue to try and save the show.
 

Lucy the Operetta

I do remember her doing the whole postdated check thing in another episode, and even more brazenly, she charges exorbitant amounts at a grocery store (including the neighbor's groceries), after Ricky, weary of her financial crimes, hires a business manager. Lucy thinks the business manager will take care of it at the end of the month when he goes over her monthly grocery allowance (well, not really, it does end well, but not in the way one expects it to).

More variations of white collar crime: And in Monte Carlo, when she is in Europe, she gets in trouble for passing counterfeit money. (And she also tries to get across the France-Italy border without a passport, but that's another category.)

And to get to Europe financially, she and Ethel concoct a raffle for a fake not for profit, Ladies Overseas Aid. The FBI and the cops are really on to her in this one …
 

Lucy and Ethel's fraudulent raffle

Lucy is guilty of assault and imprisonment: for example, in one episode, with the typical theme of Lucy trying to get in the show, after losing the required weight under much duress, she ties up the woman who was supposed to be in the chorus line at Ricky's club in a broom closet so she can be in that show.

Lucy is guilty of property damage: ah, so many instances, but I remember one specifically. After a falling out with Fred and Ethel, she and Ricky try and purposely break the lease so as not to have to pay it off. After purposely making noise and even making prank phone calls to Ethel (another crime), they decide to have Ricky's band rehearse in the apartment late at night; the noise and stomping causes the ceiling to collapse on Fred and Ethel.

Lucy is guilty of theft: ah yes, the infamous let's steal (with Ethel) John Wayne's footprints from the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame by Grauman's Chinese Theater. She is pretty much out of control in Hollywood trying to meet celebrities, and her crimes include much breaking and entering, including leaping over a fence to steal a grapefruit from Richard Widmark's yard. She also tried to sneak into Cornel Wilde's hotel room.
 

Lucy and Ethel attempting to steal John Wayne's footprints

Lucy is guilty of creating public a public disturbance: many others, but in this case, the act was a stunt to get some money (they landed a job advertising some movie called “Women of Mars”) because she and Ethel lied about the amount of money they could give to a hoity-toity acquaintance's charity, but they go to the top of the Empire State of Building, scream at people in gibberish, and point what looks like stun guns at them … oy veh!
 

Lucy and Ethel as Martians at the Empire State Building

Lucy is guilty of threats to safety on public transportation: On the train home from Hollywood, she keeps pulling the emergency brake, for various reasons, but it turns out that this criminal act is not as horrible as the jewel heist going on.
 

Lucy pulling emergency brake

Lucy is involved in the Mob (not really but … ): And, right before she and Ricky (and later Fred and Ethel) move to Connecticut, she, Ethel, and Fred disguise themselves as mobsters in order to keep the deal from closing (because Lucy and Ethel don't want to separate) and end up terrorizing the owners of the house to point where the husband gets out a shotgun. Yet it is implied by Lucy at one point earlier that Fred is “packing a rod.”
 

Ethel, Fred, and Lucy: 1950s Gangsters

And I am not recounting all, yes, all the episodes where her crimes occur.

Yes, I know it was a comedy show, a parallel universe, but I just wonder if someone in today's angst-ridden culture (I am not denigrating the valid concerns persons possess about gun control, terrorism, property rights, public safety, and white collar crime) watched some of these without knowledge of the show's context and genre, what they might think.

Lucy Ricardo, I do love you, but even in the 1950s, you might have gotten locked up (which did happen a couple times on the series … oh, I could go on and on).

But in that parallel universe where problems become miraculously resolved in half an hour with commercials, the deus ex machina (in Lucy's case, often her husband) descends to make everything kiss and make up/all right/and all manner of things shall be well.

Some of our retro studs in the world of Bijou Video weren't exactly perfect citizens (and not only because they were having gay sex, illegal in many United States jurisdictions when they appeared in their movies)… check out some of our flicks where they, at various levels, bend and break the law, including Drive, Boynapped, Star Trick, Greek Lightning, The American Adventures of Surelick Holmes, and Crime Does Pay.

(For more specific information on the I Love Lucy episodes, I highly recommend The I Love Lucy Book.)

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Fairy Godfathers in the Pink Collar Ghetto

Fairy Godfathers in the Pink Collar Ghetto

Have you noticed that the typical gay celebrity on television dispenses advice on weddings, hair styles, fashion, desserts, and home décor. What if gays instead dispensed advice on fishing, truck driving, auto repair, hunting, American football, home repair (not decorating), and tool and die techniques (and I'm not in anyway referring to the classic gay porn flick L.A. Tool and Die)? Would anyone listen, much believe that the above is even possible? That gay men do men things? Or would the straight experts in those fields allow a gay guy infringe on their traditionally masculine territory? But then, there are straight male hair stylists, fashion designers, and wedding planners. Or are there, or are they hiding in the closet, pun intended?

 

I'm not calling for an all-out war on gay stereotypes, but I do wonder if the prototype of this gay advice genre, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, only served to perpetuate, if not emphasize the stereotypes. Not that all the guys on that show were as “flamboyant” as Carson Kressley, but several Carson Kressley types have popped up on such reality TV/advice show fare such as My Fair Wedding and Clean House.

 

These gay “fairy godfathers” usually help straights clean up their messes, but what do they get out of it after they work their magic? I would love to know if there is any dick involved as gratitude for a makeover well done, but nobody's telling. The straight couple gets married, their house gets decluttered and redecorated, and the gay fairy godfather returns to his lover that he can't marry in most states or countries or to his beautifully decorated empty house and a cat (more stereotypes, perhaps?).

 

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