At the Old Place
Joe is restless and so am I, so restless
Button’s lips fram “L G T TH O P?”
across the bar. “Yes!” I cry, for dancing’s
my sould delight. (Feet! Feet!) “Come on!”
Through the street we skip like swallows.
Howard malingers. (come on, Howard.) Ashes
malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,
Alvin.) Jack, Earl and Someone don’t come.
Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-
cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floot. Wrapped in Ashes’ arm I glide.
(It’s heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s
heaven!) Joe’s two-steps,too, are incredible,
and then a fast rhumba with Alvin, like skipping
on toothpicks. And the interminable intermissions,
we have them. Jack, Earl and someone drift
guiltity in. “I knew they were gay
the minute I laid eyes on them!” screams John.
How ashamed they are of us! we hope.
Frank O’Hara wrote the above in July of 1955. According to Joe LeSueur in his invaluable Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, what the poem describes is a visit to
“a gay dance bar, a world of difference. . .And when I say the place was gay, I don’t mean it was anything like what came later, in the sex-crazed seventies, the pre-AIDS period when you sniffed poppers, snorted coke and had sex on the dance floor of the more raunchy queer joints. No, the Old Place was sweet and innocent, more limp-wristed than S&M or pseudo-macho, and it was about as wild as a high school prom of years past.”
Yet this high school prom was illegal. “The Old Place” (not at all sure if that was its name, or it even had a name) was a speakeasy. In New York in 1955 it was illegal for men to dance together. Any club offering such dancing would be closed by the police and its owners jailed. In fact it was illegal for men to gather together at drinking establishments where so much as the promise of same-sex activity arranged to take place in private settings was proffered. And so gay bars, and dance clubs like “The Old Place” (which someone — I think Mario Dubesky — told me was behind the Cherry Lane Theatre) was run by the Mafia, who paid off the police. When the payoffs didn’t come, clubs were raided. And that’s what happened that fateful night in 1969 when the Stonewall Inn was raided. The difference was the customers fought back. The resultant “riot” quickly mushroomed inot a street party that went on for days. I never went to the Stonewall. I preferred playing the “Mirror Game” at Julius’ and swanning around the streets of the West Village where I got to know a lively bunch of queens including the youth in the lower right-hand corner of the fabled “class photo” seen above — almost cut out of it.
His name was Tommy. He was sweet as pie. And I haven’t heard hide nor hair of him in 39 years. If you’re still alive, dear — BIG KISS!
My tenderest memories have been stirred by the appearance of two (count’em) spectacular new websites: The History of Gay Bars in New York and Not in Kansas. The former is a comprehensive survey with quotes and links to a literally overwhelming variety of sources — books, newspapers, magazines et.al. You’ll be months reading it all. The latter is the life history of “Jack” — a lively astute gay New Yorker ranging from 1945 to the present. Set aside another few months to get through it. Both are beyond worthwhile. Neither are studies of the gay world as we’ve come to know them from such reputable historians as George Chauncey, Martin Duberman, Lillian Faderman, Stuart Timmons and Charlie Kaiser. As “Jack ” explains –
“I have tried to show that gay people of the past were agents, instead of understanding gay history as a chronicle of political organizations and “great events,” which reduces individuals to flotsam carried on a tide of impersonal movements. The overwhelming majority of gay people, after all, directly participated in neither these political organizations nor the great events.”
IOW “The Personal is Political,” writ large.
Besides the epochal trip to “The Old Place” made by Frank O’Hara and his pals the other signal event of 1955 was the Broadway premiere of Tennesse Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof . Already famous for The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, America’s greatest playwright solidified his stature with this work about what we would today call a “dysfunctional” Southern family whose paterfamilias “Big Daddy” is dying of cancer, while his alcoholic son “Brick” broods over the suicide of his closerthanthat friend “Skipper,” leaving his wife “Maggie” feeling like the play’s title. Starring (as these respective characters) Burl Ives, Ben Gazzara ad Barbara Bel Geddes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was directed, and if truth be told partially rewritten, by Elia Kazan. The great director, who had collaborated so successfully with Williams in the past wanted more of “Big Daddy” in the play, less about “Skipper” and a finale in which “Brick” sexually reconciled with “Maggie.” Subsequent productions (and there have been many) have brought out more of what Kazan tried to supress. Yet Williams’ always triumphs in that the play has attracted one teriffic actress after another — Elizabeth Ashley, Kathleeen Turner, Ashley Judd, Mary Stuart Masterson all taking a crack at it on stage, Natalie Wood and Jessica Lange on televison, and of course Elizabeth Taylor in Richard Brooks’ wildly “degayed” 1958 film.
We are about to see a new production of Cat with an All African-American Cast headed by James Earl Jones as “Big Daddy,” Terence Howard as “Brick” and Anika Noni Rose as “Maggie.” This time the director is a brand name — Debbie Allen.
It goes without saying that James Earl Jones could play “Big Daddy” blindfolded, hog-tied and hanging upside down like a bat. Ms. Rose, last seen as the most diminuitive of the Dreamgirls is a far less-known quantity. But she certainly looks fetching in a slip. As for Terence Howard — well that’s another tin roof entirely. An article in today’s Los Angeles Times refers to “Brick” and “Skipper” as having a “Brokeback” relationship.
But that they’re African-American wouldn’t it be preferable to say that they were “on the down low” ?
WAY down, apparently:
Howard says he was attracted to — and challenged by — the enigma of Brick, particularly his sexual ambiguity. “I chose this part to say those lines — ‘Why can’t exceptional friendship, real, real deep friendship between two men, be respected as something clean and decent . . . ‘ — because I think a man should be free to express affection for another man, to tell another man he looks beautiful,” Howard says. “I’ve felt very intense, real closeness to a man before with no sexual overtones to it. But we live in a society with such hypocrisy and mendacity that you can’t put your arm around your best friend without someone accusing you of being homosexual.”
(All together now – )