Before 1950's Feed

Learning About Gay Life Before Stonewall

SageSAGE is a social welfare organization that looks after the needs of elderly gay men and lesbians.  In the summer of 1985, when I was 28, I volunteered for its Friendly Visitor program, which matches volunteers with a SAGE client for weekly visits - to talk, do light errands or have a meal together.  My client was 75-year-old Jim Chesbro, who lived on East 21st St.  He grew up in Albany and was in the Merchant Marines where he was involved in resettling European refugees after World War II.  Like Sammy Davis Jr., he lost an eye in a car accident when he was in his 20s.  His voice reminded me somewhat of Truman Capote's.  Every other week I'd visit with Jim after work for an hour or so.  Besides being gay we were also both Mets fans.  


My visits proved beneficial for both of us.  Over a cocktail or a glass of wine he'd tell me stories about his life in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and I enjoyed getting a first-hand history lesson about what gay life was like back then.  In some respects Jim was the grandfather (s) I never had.  He told me that in Albany everyone in his gay circle had an assigned woman's name (his was Laura) and he'd go to house parties where everyone changed into drag upon arriving.  And in Cherry Grove of the 1950s there was no electricity so dinner parties were held by candlelight and guests often wore tuxes.




Occasionally we'd eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant, and he insisted on paying.  He also gave me cash gifts at Christmas, Easter and on my birthday - which was against SAGE regulations.  For Thanksgiving 1985 I made a pumpkin pie for him and we went to dinner at The Old Forge on 3rd Ave. and 17th Street.  And while Jim was always a gentleman, during one visit he said that he'd like to see me in a sailor's suit and have me pretend that I was "rough trade"!  




It seemed that most of Jim's gay experiences were with hustlers or furtive moments with straight sailors.  However, he did tell me of one long-term romance.  In the 1930s, before joining the Merchant Marine, he was a teacher and librarian at a prison near Albany, where he carried on a 7-year relationship with a prisoner.  He was able to pull some strings and get him an early parole and they moved to Jacksonville, Florida.  However, it turned out the fellow was more or less straight, so Jim moved out after five months.




Jim's mobility was severely impaired by arthritis, which forced him to curtail traveling, something he used to love to do.  The few times we ventured out he'd use a cane and hold on to me.  It was quite a challenge crossing the street with him before the light changed.  Because of his frail condition Jim wanted me to accompany him to the Jersey shore for a vacation and to Fire Island, where a friend owned a home.  In fact, a weekend visit out to the Pines was planned during the summer of 1986, but Jim took ill and it was postponed. 


Jim was a client for little more than a year when he died of a heart attack at the end of July 1986.  I got a call at work from one of the friends he often spoke about, Bill Funck.  Later that day I went down to Jim's apartment and met Bill and a few of the friends he mentioned as well as his sister, Mae, who still lived in Albany.  Bill was the friend of Jim's with the house in the Pines and he invited me out a few weekends later.  (He also owned one of the liquor stores in the harbor.)  His house was on Driftwood Walk, and when I took a share in the Pines ten years later my house was on the same walk.




After Jim's death, Arlene, the manager of the Friendly Visitor program sent me a note expressing her condolences and encouraging me to call her if I needed to talk.  She also hoped I would continue with the program, but I didn't because I didn't want to experience another client's decline and death.  Also, I had heard from other Friendly Visitors how high maintenance some of the clients could be and I realized how easy I had it with Jim.


What struck me as I listened to Jim's stories was that despite the  homophobic times Jim lived in he had fun and interesting experiences, even while living a closeted life.  Nowadays I wonder if gay men in their 20s and 30s think living in the 1970s and '80s was also somewhat of a Dark Ages for acceptance for gay men of my generation.





Favorite Musical Numbers from Hollywood Movies

MoviemusicalsAsking a gay man to choose his favorite musical numbers from movies is like asking a woman to open her closet and pick out her favorite shoes (of course, it might be a challenge for a gay man as well).  It's fun and agonizing all at the same time.  And no matter how dreadful the movies themselves are, the musical numbers from musicals of the 1930s, '40s and '50s are immensely entertaining.  They tend to be inane and over the top, filled with thousands of frenetic singers and dancers.  Some have extravagant sets, others feature great dance routines, but all revolve around a wonderful song, often with delightfully zany lyrics.


I've divided the numbers I selected into two groups - those from the "golden era" and those of more recent vintage (post 1975).  Each performance has a link to a You Tube clip.



I Only Have Eyes for You (Dames/1934) - Mesmerizing and yet a bit creepy, this is one of hundreds of dazzling productions staged by the legendary Busby Berkeley.  In this clip the rather mousey Ruby Keeler is the object of Dick Powell's affection/obsession.  The New York subway system also plays a prominent role.




A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody (The Great Ziegfeld/1936).  This is one wild number.  It was shot on a huge revolving sound stage.  I'm still stunned at the end of the number when the camera pulls back to show the enormity of the set.  I would have loved to have been there to watch it being filmed.




Waiting for the Robert E. Lee/Babes on Broadway (Babes on Broadway/1941) - This number comes in the final minutes of the movie and is part of a 15-minute number titled "Minstrel Show".  The men in blackface is a bit jarring; even Judy Garland's skin was darkened (but not blackened).  I love the catchy lyrics of Babes in Broadway, and the line "We're milking applause instead of milking a cow" always amuses me. 




You Stepped Out of a Dream (Ziegfeld Girl/1941) - The handsome and debonair Tony Martin sings to the likes of Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland, among other Ziegfeld Girls.  (The clip, from TCM, is frustrating because the audio doesn't play and it's the only clip available.)




Pass the Peace Pipe (Good News/1947) - Halfway into the number it becomes a dance extravaganza done to Indian drums.  Broadway star Joan McCracken (who was married to Bob Fosse in the 1950s) is the featured dancer.




New York, New York (On the Town/1949). This number perfectly captures the bustling energy of the city it pays tribute to.  And Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, as Chip, Gabey and Ozzie look snazzy in their sailor suits.  One of the all-time great song lyrics is "The Bronx is up, the Battery's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground."  In a big change the number was filmed on location rather than on a Hollywood set.




Good Morning (Singing in the Rain/1952).  This is an incredible dance performance by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor.




Triplets (The Band Wagon/1953).  Yet another number with just three performers.  It has clever lines such as "MGM has got a Leo, but Ma-ma has got a trio."  One of the triplets is Fred Astaire.




Sing Hallelujah (Hit the Deck/1957) - This is the movie's closing number with Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and .... Ann Miller dancing up a storm on a battleship.




Stereophonic Sound (Silk Stockings/1957).  Compared to earlier choices with a cast of thousands, this routine used just two people.  And one of the two is Fred Astaire





The Time Warp (Rocky Horror Picture Show/1975) - We're not in the "Golden Era" any longer!  Wild, orgiastic energy ... and tap dancing!




Summer Nights (Grease/1978) - This has got to be one of the most carefree numbers of any musical.  Many years later I was in heaven when I went to see Singalong Grease at the Ziegfeld Theater and eagerly participated in the singing of this number.




Xanadu (Xanadu/1980) - This is easily the worst musical of all that I've chosen, but its closing number is wonderfully cheesy.  When Olivia Newton John appears in her goddess regalia (pictured below) she looks embarrassed to be seen in it.  And at the beginning of the clip Gene Kelly is on roller skates at a roller disco!  Whenever this video came on at Splash the crowd would squeal with delight.




Love is Good for Anything That Ails You (Pennies from Heaven/1981) - All of the music in this dark musical is from the 1930s and the numbers were lip-snyched.  This seems particularly odd since one of the stars of the film was Bernadette Peters.  This glitzy number, all in sparkling white and silver, begins and ends in a dreary school room during the Depression.




Hindi Sad Diamonds (Moulin Rouge/2001) - From one of my all-time favorite movies, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.  I saw it at least half a dozen times during the summer of 2001.




Happy Working Song (Enchanted/2007) - Amy Adams already had one of her three Oscar nominations when she appeared in this Disney musical.  This number, which she sings to rats, mice, pigeons, flies and cockroaches was nominated for an Oscar.  Adams sang it on the telecast - but not dressed as Cinderella.




Without Love (Hairspray/2007) - A sweet song that builds to a nice climax.  I got a kick when the photo of Tracy Turnblad came to life whenever Link (played by Zac Efron, below) sang to it.




Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire/2008) - This selection is unique in that it was shown interspersed with the closing credits.  Also, the dancers didn't sing, they just danced over the recorded track.  It was filmed on the platform of Mumbai's main train station with a cast of hundreds.  At the Academy Awards the movie won for Best Picture and this song for Best Song.




Cinema Italiano (Nine/2009) - This long delayed movie version of the Broadway musical starred Daniel Day Lewis in a singing role.  This particular number was written exclusively for the movie and features Kate Hudson.  With a cool '60s/La Dolce Vita vibe, it managed to temporarily rouse me from the stupor I fell into during this dull movie.




With thousands of other numbers to choose from, I'd like to hear which are your favorites ...




The Andrews Sisters & My First Stirrings of "Camp"

Andrew.sistersWhen I was around the age of 14 or 15 I saw a TV commercial for a compilation of the Andrews Sisters' greatest hits and I was captivated by Patty, Maxene and LaVerne.  Their harmony, their look, their pep!  My favorite song of theirs was Hold Tight.  And Bette Midler had a top-10 hit in 1973 with her cover of their WWII classic Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (from her first album The Divine Miss M).  I also came to embrace other songs from the 40s, such as Hut Sut Song, Three Little Fishies and Elmer's Tune.  At the time I had no inkling about being gay (that would come a few years later), but my nascent gay sensibility was beginning to blossom.


Candyman.christina.aguilera Fast forward to the 21st century where in 2004 I was tickled by the inclusion of the Andrews Sisters' version of Winter Wonderland in the movie The Polar Express.  Then a few years later Christina Aguilera paid homage to them with her music video for Candy Man and its uptempo Big Band-like beat and military motif. 


Andrew.sisters.whatsmylineHere are links to two marvelous You Tube clips.  The first, from 1959, is an appearance by the Andrews Sisters on What's My Line?.  The second clip, from 1966, has them in a sing-off with the Supremes, performing each others' hits on Sammy Davis Jr.'s short-lived variety show.  


Madonna_trueblueWhen I became aware of the Andrews Sisters' music, part of its appeal was how old fashioned it was.  Today, however, when I look back at the popular music from 25-30 years ago by Madonna, Culture Club,  George Michael, or the Eurythmics, their songs don't seem like "oldies" at all - "classic" is more appropriate.  Ah, how different the world appears looking through the eyes of youth and the eyes of the AARP set!

Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney's First Movie Together (December 3, 1937)

Thoroughbreds.dont.cryAfter Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the next most popular movie pairing of the 1930s and 1940s was Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Between 1937 and 1943 they appeared in eight movies together.  The first of these, Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, opened in theaters on December 3, 1937.  At the time Judy was 15 and Mickey 17.  (This was two years before The Wizard of Oz.) 


Strikeuptheband2Probably their most popular movies were Babes in Arms (1939); Strike Up the Band (1940); Babes on Broadway (1942); and Girl Crazy (1943).  (Available in a boxed set on Amazon.)  All contained delightful, over-the-top-musical numbers that could very well have been the inspiration behind Disney's wildly popular High School Musical franchise.


Judy.mickeyWhat's always struck me about these movies was the comportment of their characters.  Their interaction with each other and the other teens was what you might expect from adults in regards to being polite and in their formal introductions ("Miss Jones I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Miller.")  I realized that back then movies were used as a way to teach social skills to the masses.  Fast-forward to the present and the exact opposite is happening on TV as reality shows instruct viewers in how to be anti-social as a way to gain fame.


Besides their eight movies together, they also appeared in two other movies that weren't traditional Mickey and Judy movies; they appeared in just a few scenes together: Thousands Cheer (1943) and Words and Music (1948).


Looking Back at Gay History: The 1930s



Dec 21, 1932 - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appear in their first film together, Flying Down to Rio

Feb 23, 1933 - Less than a month after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, the Nazi Party outlaws all homosexual rights organizations and clubs.

Jan 30, 1933 - Playwright Noel Coward appears on the cover of this week's issue of TIME Magazine.

Nov 13, 1933 - Top-level members of Germany's Third Reich advise police to deliver homosexuals and transvestites to the Fuhlsbuttel concentration camp.




July 1, 1934 - The Hays Code, a laundry list of guidelines drawn up to ensure "decency" in movies, goes into effect.  One of the guidelines strongly discourages any depictions of homosexuality (falling under the category, "sex perversions").

Nov 1, 1934 - Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed drama The Children's Hour opens on Broadway.

Aug 19, 1936 - Famed Spanish writer and poet Francisco Garcia Lorca is executed in the initial weeks of the Spanish Civil War.  He was 38.




Oct 24, 1937 - Cole Porter's legs are crushed when the horse he was riding while out in the Hamptons falls on top of him.

Dec 3, 1937 - Thoroughbreds Don't Cry is the first movie Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney appear in together.

Aug 25, 1939 - The Wizard of Oz opens in theaters.

Sept 1, 1939 - The movie The Women opens in theaters, one week after The Wizard of Oz had its opening.  (World War II also began on this date.)




(To read about LGBT history and pop culture from other years, double click here.)

Highlights of Gay History During the 1940s



Nov 14, 1943 - 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein becomes the first American to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jan 11, 1944 - Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, starring Tallulah Bankhead, opens in theaters.

June 15, 1945 - 23-year-old Judy Garland marries closeted movie director Vincente Minnelli, nineteen years her senior.  It's her second marriage and it would last six years.




Feb 12, 1947 - 22-year-old Christian Dior shows his first collection, dubbed by the fashion press as the "New Look."

Jan 3, 1948 - Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male is published and reports that 10% of American males surveyed were "more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.  It also introduces the public to the Kinsey Scale, whereby a rating of zero indicates someone exclusively heterosexual while a '6' was assigned to those exclusively homosexual.




Sept 29, 1948 - Rope, an Alfred Hitchcock film with a gay subtext, opens in theaters.  The screenplay was written by Arthur Laurents and two of the actors, Farley Granger (below, left) and John Dall, were also gay.




Nov 20, 1948 - Tallulah Bankhead appears on the cover of this week's TIME Magazine.

July 29, 1949 - 3-year-old Liza Minnelli makes her screen debut in the closing moments of her mother's movie In the Good Old Summertime, which opened today.




Oct 10, 1949Newsweek publishes an article titled “Queer People” in which the writer opines that all homosexuals are perverts

Dec 8, 1949 - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opens on Broadway and makes 26-year-old Carol Channing a star.




(To read about gay milestones from other years, double click here.)

The Beginning of Leonard Bernstein's Ascent (November 14, 1943)




On Nov. 14, 1943 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein became the first American to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  At the time Bernstein was the assistant conductor and was called upon at the last minute (without the benefit of rehearsal) to fill in for the conductor who had been taken ill with the flu.  The concert was at Carnegie Hall and broadcast to a national radio audience.  13 months later Bernstein showed off another talent when On the Town opened on Broadway, a show for which he composed the music. 


Like other gay men of his generation (e.g., Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee, Malcolm Forbes, Philip Johnson) Bernstein led a discreet personal life that was largely kept from the public eye.  To learn more about Bernstein, both professionally and privately, the blog Gay For Today does a good job of covering all the bases.  And, of course, Amazon has a huge inventory of all things Bernstein.

Cole Porter Seriously Hurt In Horseback Riding Accident (October 24, 1937)

Cole_porter_at_pianoIn the summer of 1937 the nation lost the brilliant composer George Gershwin to a brain tumor at the age of 38.  Then just three months later tragedy struck another renowned American songwriter when 46-year-old Cole Porter's legs were crushed in a horseback riding accident.  He was riding with friends at a country club near Oyster Bay, Long Island on October 24, 1937 when the accident occurred.  (1937 also saw the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and the death of blonde bombshell Jean Harlow.)


Coleporter_sepiaKissmekateThe accident left Porter crippled and in constant pain for the rest of his life (he died in 1964).  However, despite the challenges posed by this debilitating accident he continued working and wrote classics such as From This Moment On; I Love Paris; Begin the Beguine; and the score to the Broadway musical Kiss Me Kate.  


Jack_cassidyIn the summer of 2013 actress Shirley Jones (The Music Man; The Partridge Family) published her memoir, and in one chapter she discussed the homoerotic dalliance her ex-husband, actor Jack Cassidy, had with Porter after his accident.  As she tells it, Cassidy would make Porter crawl to him if he wanted to service Cassidy and his legendary huge cock.  

Michelangelo's "David" is Unveiled in Florence (September 8, 1504)

Rear_view_davidDavids_eyeMichelangelo was in his mid-20s when he worked on the statue David, which took him two years to complete.  The piece of marble he worked with had been left sitting outside, exposed to the elements for some 25 years after it had been hauled from a quarry 60 miles away.  The original commission for the creation of the statue was handed out before Michelangelo was born, but the first sculptor died and the second moved to another village.  This glorious piece of sculpting was unveiled to the Florentine public on Sept. 8, 1504 (Michelangelo was 33 at the time).  Five hundred years later adoring tourists still clamor to gaze upon and pose before it.





I had the good fortune of seeing David in person during a trip to Italy in the spring of 1993 (that's me, below, in the glasses).  This was two years after it had been vandalized.  At seventeen feet tall he was much larger than I expected.  This made him easy to spot, looming in the distance when we entered Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia.  Visitors could get surprisingly close to him, and the smoothness of the marble tempted me to reach out and run my hands over his tight, perfectly formed buttocks.  What a magnificent sight to behold!





Mario_lopez_niptuckLopez_niptuckSpeaking of beautiful butts, fast forward 500 years and we had Mario Lopez's sexy buns to ogle during a tantalizing shower scene from a 2006 episode of the TV show Nip/Tuck.  (It starts at about the one-minute mark.) 








Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Glide & Twirl in "Top Hat" (August 29, 1935)

TophatTop Hat was the fourth movie Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together and is considered the most popular of their ten movies.  It opened on August 29, 1935 and became the highest grossing movie of that year, bringing in $3.2 million - comparable to $110 million in today's inflation-adjusted dollars (back then the average ticket price was 24 cents).  It included the Irving Berlin classics Cheek to Cheek and No Strings (I'm Fancy Free).



Their refined style and the glamorous settings they danced in make it easy to see why Fred and Ginger have gay fans.  I'm guessing this was true back then as well.  Many gay men identify with Rogers being twirled around in her gown and it's been said that the older Rogers was the inspiration for many drag queens.  And although I love to watch Astaire's effortless dancing, I find him oddly asexual and not sexy in the least.  He was too Upper East Side/effete for my taste.  (Gene Kelly was more to my liking.)




Watching Fred and Ginger was surely a great way to escape the grim reality of the Depression - as opposed to the glut of superhero movies during the first 15 years of the 21st century.