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.”

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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1970s & 1980s Porn Directors on Porn Filmmaking

 

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

Jack Deveau:
[Credits include Left-Handed, Drive, Ballet Down the Highway, Good Hot Stuff, Wanted: Billy the Kid, A Night at the Adonis, Rough Trades, Sex Magic, Fire Island Fever, Dune Buddies, Times Square Strip]

 

"We were looking for a while to describe the porno movie because it doesn't really relate to anything else. it is only starting to find its milieu, or genre, whatever you want to call it. It's a musical comedy, but now instead of singing, they fuck. Now that I've been able to make that generalization I think, well, are they going to sing a happy song now or a sad one? What condition is this character in? And then we try to structure the sex in those terms... Good or bad, gay or straight, this is becoming a literature that you can't ignore. Now there are 40 films in our library and there are a number of other organizations or companies who have the same thing. There are magazines in Europe who are devoting whole issues every other month to critiques of the erotic cinema. Eventually this will have to become a literature." -- Soho Weekly News, 1975
 

Jack Deveau
Jack Deveau on the sets of Ballet Down the Highway and Sex Magic
Jack Deveau shooting Ballet Down the Highway & Sex Magic


Peter de Rome:
[Credits include The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, Adam and Yves, The Destroying Angel]

"I think that we've barely scratched the surface of pornography in filmmaking, and that it has become a sort of mandatory thing in sex films to show a positive view of sex and all of the sex is supposed to be the ultimate, the pinnacle of excitement and life simply isn't like that. It seems to me that sometime we've got to get honest about sex and admit to ourselves that very few sexual encounters do work out agreeably or are compltetely successful. I think we can learn from our failures as from our successes. I have a very simple if not simplistic attitude toward sex films, and that is that sex is just as much a part of life as living, eating, breathing, sleeping. It's just another function of life and I don't see why it can't be depicted dramatically just as those other functions are and as honestly, too. And I think we have to show every aspect of sex in films before we can really say we are making sex films."
 

Peter de Rome
Peter de Rome directing the stars of The Destroying Angel

Peter de Rome directing the stars of The Destroying Angel



Michael Goodwin:
[Credits include The Goodjac Chronicles, Goodjac Too]

"Filmmakers have prettied-up and candy-coated male sex so much that most people who do get off on it don't think that they're worthy of being photographed or seen. That's a real putdown of the community. I don't think it was planned that way, but everybody just got on the bandwagon. Good-looking sex and tantric moments are going on with people who have pot bellies, have hair in the wrong places, or don't have hair in the right places. I believe people want to see that kind of good sex... I'm stepping into this the way those people stepped into those rockets: they believed in what they were doing, they believed it was for a good cause, they believed it would do some good for people, and they just stepped in and did it." -- Mandate, 1986

Goodjac series logo
Michael Goodwin shooting The Goodjac Chronicles
Michael Goodwin shooting The Goodjac Chronicles


Al Parker:
[Credits include Dangerous, Therapy, Head Trips, One in a Billion, Rangers, Oversize Load, Strange Places Strange Things, High Tech]

"Surge is a small company - very small. People are amazed when they find out that Surge was basically two people, my lover, Steven [Steve Taylor], and me. When you think of a studio, you think of M-G-M or Warners, but all of our sets were built in our living room in the house at Hermosa Beach, which was a 1500 square foot house that had a wonderful cathedral ceiling. But if you pulled up my carpets, my floors were ruined. I mean, there were nail holes everywhere. We trashed that house - but that house was our studio. And all of our successful films from One in a Billion to High Tech were done in that house." -- Manshots, 1990
 

Al Parker on the set of Strange Places Strange Things
Al Parker on the set of Strange Places Strange Things


Steve Scott:
[Credits include Track Meet, Rough Cut, Twelve at Noon, Gemini, Inches, Wanted, Games, Turned On!, A Few Good Men, Screenplay, Non-Stop]

"We're trying to create an erection. Now, to me, that's a feat in itself. It's a harder job than legit films. A lot of people may talk down porno, but I'll stand up to David Lean, to all of 'em, because what we do, in the limited time we do it in... Why, we're now doing 70 to 75 minutes on Inches for maybe ten, twelve thousand dollars. That's unheard of! That's lunch! So, it's an undertaking, and what we've done to date we're proud of, and hopefully we'll go on making milestones. And we don't like to cheat the audience. At least when they come out of the theatre from watching one of our films they're satisfied, they're entertained, and they don't feel like they're ripped off... and they may come back to see the next one." -- Skin, 1980
 

Steve Scott filming Twelve at Noon
Steve Scott filming Twelve at Noon
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RetroStuds of the Past: Focus on Dave Connors

Dave Connors

Connoisseurs of retro gay porn are perhaps familiar with Dave Connors because of his starring role in One in a Billion, enjoying his big balls and big dick. (In fact, I can't think of another stud's privates who one could so aptly call “meat.”) In the movie, big businessman Dave can magically hear what others are thinking, which add some flavor to a day of kinky adventures. All seem to want to taste what is really magic, his meat.
 

Dave Connors in a buisiness suit

Dave Connors' huge cock

Art can reflect reality, and in an interview for Stallion magazine, Dave jokingly admits there are disadvantages to being “super hung:”

Connors: People have used any ploy and every ploy to get me into bed.
Stallion: How did they find out about what you were packing?
Connors (laughing): People talk! It's not something I can keep secret.
 

Dave Connors interview in Stallion magazine

According to the interview, Dave was born in Florida, and he was inhibited as a child. He came out at the ripe old age of twenty-one:

“I finally came out at twenty-one in the Marine Corps. I had a lot of friends – and I could never understand why now, I know, at least I know what I missed – although I did have some very nice encounters in the service.”

But the path to pornhood was not smooth for Dave, as he claims he lost that Marine-induced “self-discipline” to drugs, and then gained it back in prison. Yes, prison.

By the age of 39, Dave had already made several porn movies, but he claims his experience in One in a Billion was enlightening, as it was his first experience with sync sound. And Dave did not have to lie on the casting couch to obtain his meaty part in that movie; he asked Al Parker, Parker had an idea, and voila!

Now, for a country boy from the sticks of Florida who looks like naturally strong, like he could wrestle a couple of alligators, he certainly fills out a business suit well. His career climaxed in the yuppie eighties, and in some ways he embodies that look: clean-cut, chiseled jaw, a “dirty blond” with just a hint of bad frat boy now grown up to dominate board rooms.
 

Dave Connors at 35

Some of the more famous films he made include The Biggest One I Ever Saw by Giant Films and Dirt Bikes for Falcon.

Tragically, at the time he was shooting what was to be his last film, Wakefield Poole's One, Two, Three, Dave succumbed to AIDS.

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Thanksgiving Porn?

We at Bijou Video carry some of the best Halloween porn, and we are in the process of coming out with some interesting “Christmas tree” porn, but Thanksgiving porn?

Seems perhaps an oxymoron, as turkeys and green bean casseroles and Norman Rockwell grandmas in aprons (and family feuds too), don't seem to lend themselves particularly well to erotic expression.
 

Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

I did a search on google, and Thanksgiving porn does show up; on pornhub, I found an image of a cute young guy in bondage trussed up like turkey on a table, but not much else that really ties into the holiday.
 

CTA train, Chicago

I did find a link to a Thankgiving parody vintage gay porn video from 1983 called Spanksgiving, complete with wavy lines that indicate a well-played Beta videotape and the ubiquitous pornstache. It's pretty hilarious, if you now what is being satirized. I particularly enjoyed the placement of the pumpkins around “Rock Hansen's” crotch.

Perhaps the easiest erotic connection one could make with a day that focuses on food is food porn, which comes in all shapes and sizes. I don't think some of the usual Thanksgiving food items would work with assplay (a firm zucchini, for example), as they are usually too glutinous and goopy. But if you get into messes, I guess one could certainly rub some cooled down gravy on a willing victim and lick it off. Ew …
 

Traditional Thanksgiving food

I am forcing the issue here, I am afraid.

I am wondering perhaps it Thanksgiving could be a day to rest form the libido; instead of feeding it with a healthy diet of erotic play, one just feeds. Literally.

Perhaps the inevitable nap could stimulate some cuddling, which could always be start rof some hanky panky rather than the end of it.
 

Cute guys cuddling

But most significantly, remember that many LGBTQ persons will not be able to spend time with blood family. I hope that many will thankfully enjoy Friendsgiving, a newly coined word that emphasizes inclusivity and the real situations of many who courageously created their own bonds of love and sharing.
 

Friends toasting over Thanksgiving meal
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Names in Lights: Porn Stars Live at the Bijou Theater

I was looking at some footage on YouTube of Chicago in the 1940s (my nostalgia kick keeps kicking and kicking and kicking, ouch!), and I noticed, as most of the footage was of tourist sites like “State Street, that great street” and its plethora of movie theaters.

And these were not movie theaters hidden inside in decaying malls or bland multistory cineplexes with parking garages, but both glitzy and palatial structures (quite a combo!) that beckoned to passersby (yes, people walked more, it seems, to entertainment) through signs.
 

Chicago's Oriental Theater in the 1940s showing the Jane Russell film, The Outlaw
Chicago's Oriental Theater in the 1940s showing the Jane Russell film, The Outlaw

Yes, the marquee, the name in lights, oh so Old Hollywood. In fact, on one of the videos, I saw theaters whose marquees displayed Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney, and on another one, Joan Crawford in A Woman's Face. Heady stuff for a gay Old Hollywood fan!

The adult movie houses, and in the gay world, often called porn palaces, followed suit when censorship restrictions were lifted in the wake of the 1960s sexual revolution. Even though such venues were usually ghettoized "red light” districts (think 42nd Street in New York City) and often shared buildings and neighborhoods with the seedier peep shows and massage parlors (live sex, less cinematic content) and the like, they still boasted the marquees and the names in lights.
 

42nd Street theaters in the 1960s
42nd Street theaters in the 1960s

In fact, I remember in the camp classic Valley of the Dolls, Neely O'Hara sees her friend Jennifer's (now a star of soft-core French porn) name lighting up that ubiquitous XXX signage as she wanders drunkenly through what is probably the Nob Hill area of San Francisco.

Gay XXX's home in Chicago was the Bijou Theater, and in its heyday, it showed some of the famous, finely crafted classics of gay porn (shot on film, of course). A premiere there was akin to a red carpet event, like it was in Old Hollywood.
 

42nd Street theaters in the 1960s
The Bijou Theater, 1976

Midwest premiere of Michael, Angelo and David at the Bijou Theater with a live appearance by star Marc Stevens
Bijou premiere of Michael, Angelo and David & live appearance by Marc Stevens

Porn studios like Hand in Hand Films and Falcon and, later during that Golden Age, Al Parker's Surge Studios were definitely producing more substantive work, but the assembly-line, amateurish product with mostly anonymous participants (like that being churned out in Europe these days) were confined to peep show booths.

The Bijou Theater thus showcased some groundbreaking gay porn films, but in tandem it also showcased the stars of those films. Again, think Old Hollywood. Fans, autographs. Stars!
 

Ad for a live appearance by porn star Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Live apperance by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater

For example, when Al Parker, the greatest of them all, appeared at the the theater in the early 1980s, he did a live sex show (a live orgasm to complement so many of those on-screen orgasms), but according to Steven Toushin, owner of the theater, he spent most of the time there signing autographs and talking to fans.
 

Vintage poster for the Al Parker film Inches
Vintage poster for the Al Parker film, Inches (Steve Scott, 1979)

And the uber-Daddy of them all, Richard Locke, also appeared at the Bijou Theater in 1984. Here's a description of the event, which, as with many other events that showcased porn movies and their stars, blurs the lines between on and off screen performances in an enticing, exciting way:

“The screen on the Bijou screen – a dimly lit room at truck stop, fitted with grimy cots, where truckers catch forty winks before they hit the road again. [A scene from Joe Gage's 1976 classic, Kansas City Trucking Co.] In this case, however, the truckers are not sleeping; they are fucking and sucking with a vengeance. The center of the action is the older, experienced trucker, played by Richard Locke, muscular, masculine, bearded and obviously enjoying himself on screen. The light on the movie screen fades, and suddenly a figure appears from behind the screen. A cool blue light silhouettes a muscled body and music builds. A new kind of show is in progress at the Bijou Theater — but Richard Locke is still the center of attention... Richard turns to face the audience, clad only in a leather harness, stroking his erect penis... Finally he reaches orgasm, shooting onto the mesmerized audience. He turns back, the lights fade, he exits and the film Richard Locke returns to the movie screen.”
 

Kansas City Trucking Co. poster
Vintage poster for Kansas City Trucking Co.

Photospread of Richard Locke stritease from suit and tie to leather harness
Richard Locke striptease

Now, the above event may be unique to the dynamic of gay porn and its purpose of sexual exploration and gratification, but what happened after that movie/performance links to that Old Hollywood world:

“After his live show, Richard meets his public, signing autographs and talking to a group of eager fans. He is friendly and unassuming as he talks. One young man asks Richard to autograph his back and tells Locke that he will have a tattoo made of the signature. (A later encounter with the same man proves the truth of his boast.) One by one the crowd drifts away and another day's work is finished for Richard Locke, erotic entrepreneur.”

Amazing, and so exciting! Joan Crawford would have been thrilled (perhaps more by the method rather than the content!). Richard, like she did, was working a publicity machine, one of his own making. And he understood that what fuels that machine are the fans and their fantasies, hopes, and dreams. The young man with the tattoo in the quote above was living embodiment of these emotions.

Yet, unlike Joan, he skillfully kept his “divo-hood” on the screen, but at the same time let that larger-than-life screen persona become real in the flesh when he appeared live in that brief moment of ecstasy.

Some say home video (and then the internet) and the tragedy of AIDS killed this world. Perhaps, on the surface, yes.

But in hindsight I think it's a deeply complex issue revealed in today's cultural climate as red carpet events still unfold, and the culture of celebrity has become something like a 24/7 fuck fest. But the cinematic magic that thrives on finely-crafted illusion that elicits an audience's deeper intellectual and emotional responses gets lost in a weird combination of special effects and banal cynicism.

The great porn stars like Al Parker and Richard Locke created and crafted a visual and sexual magic in their films and in their performances and in their audiences.

Bette Davis said in her movie The Star, “If you're a star you don't stop being a star.” And thanks in great part to the Bijou Video's preservation and revitalization of their legacies, Al and Richard still shine.

Look for their movies on DVD at BijouWorld.com and streaming at BijouGayPorn.com, including our brand new release The Best of Richard Locke!

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