What if I told you that one of the very first successful drag queens made quite a name for herself in the 1950s, all the while preferring the term “Male Actress”, leaving the expression “drag” to something one might take off a British cigarette? Would it surprise you to know that renowned West Hollywood watering hole Barney’s Beanery used to sport a “Fagots Stay Out” sign above the entryway (yes, I said “Fagots” and yes they DIDN’T know how to spell it right in all their classy, cultured splendor); the employees and customers alike waxing more offended by the very notion of a homosexual customer than Jim Morrison (the Lizard King himself) in all his Greek God Glory exposing his manhood at the bar and draining the proverbial lizard thereon? Think Greenwich Village’s Stonewall was the first gay uprising the U.S. has ever seen? Guess again. Los Angeles experienced its very own revolt two years prior on the eve of New Year’s 1967 when two gay men were arrested for copping a celebratory kiss outside the Black Cat! Lastly and certainly not any less astounding, did you know Sherman Hemsley aka the most bigoted of television characters by way of George Jefferson (and second only to Archie Bunker) was, himself gay!?! And the education only commences there at the Hollywood Museum’s fourth annual opening of its commemorative LGBTQ display: Real to Reel-Portrayals and Perceptions of Gays in Hollywood.
Yes, on this colorful, magical eve’s eve of LA Pride, and the commencement of Pride Month proper, the Hollywood Museum is all a bustle with folks adjoining in an aperitif, admiring each other’s ensembles and uttering “Happy Pride”: An emerging phrase waxing as universal and celebratory as “Merry Christmas” these days!
Studded with stars and packed with politicians and police officers to boot, this year’s pride month kickoff was an utter crowd pleaser! In attendance: Self-proclaimed goddess—Judy Tenuta, Hollywood Legend Ruta Lee, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, Little House on the Prairie’s quintessential bad girl Alison Arngrim, (aka Nellie Oleson), OZ actor and creator of new and groundbreaking sitcom Life Interrupted, Steven Wishnoff, actress Roslyn Kind, LAPD Deputy Chief Beatrice Girmala, Happy Days’ Potsie, aka Anson Williams, everybody’s Facts of Life favorite Geri Jewell, filmmaker, writer, and daughter of Dee Wallace, Gabrielle Stone, Jeremy Miller, best known as Ben, formerly on Growing Pains, now free of any and all referential aches, twinges, and teen awkwardness, along with his cohort in creativity, also known as his wife (with a fashion sense to knock off even the most rugged cowboy’s boots) Joanie Miller, Drag singer VINZIN (sporting the most arresting powder pink dress and teal blue tresses), one of the 1980’s most treasured TV moms, Ilene Graf of Mr. Belvedere fame, sultry soap star Chrystee Pharris, Uber Valley Girl Lee Purcell, lovely songbook singer Laura Pursell, and TV actress Darcy Donovan!
The evening’s dialogue is as festive as it is fascinating, as guests of players and politicians alike, reflect on everything from noteworthy trends and TV shows, historical movements, and mindsets along with the state of the ‘gaytion’ present day!
“[As far as TV goes], I’m always amazed. I like the whole Neil Patrick Harris phenomenon. I always laugh at that,” reflects a comprehensive Alison Arngrim. “Then there was Ellen… [And then there was] Steve Tracy who played Percival on Little House. When he went public with his AIDS diagnosis, it was a big deal for him to say he was gay…and that he had AIDS. Nobody was admitting to being gay in 1986, and I always tell the young people, ‘There was no such thing as a Neil Patrick Harris yet’. That hadn’t happened. There was no Ellen. Liberace was still telling people he was going to date Sonja Henning the ice skater and he was on a watermelon diet for Godsakes!!! So that’s very big that we have so many openly gay celebrities [now] and that Ellen has a daytime show for moms buying soap! And it’s not like she became UN-a-LESBIAN–and yet she is in a slot that’s considered super, super America…wholesome. So that’s been a big shift!”
According to actress Lee Purcell, Orange is the New Black is one of the most current and groundbreaking shows on TV. As to the LGBTQ movement itself, “It’s just been a gradual and wonderful progression. And we’re very optimistic about the progress. I think it’s going really, really well. I know people are impatient but y’know…Rome wasn’t built or destroyed overnight…”
“We have a long way to go in terms of portraying more gay characters with less stereotypes,” declares stunning Soap star Chrystee Pharris. “But Will and Grace was great. Jack was a stereotype but Will was great ‘cause he was just Will, and he was treated like a regular person. And I hope they continue moving in that direction…”
“…being able to celebrate themselves, being able to be respected and loved for their art, being able to be themselves,” is one of the most pivotal aspects of the LGBTQ movement thus far, according to Songbook singer Barbara Van Orden. “…Because years ago, it was very, very hard. [The] bullying was terrible…it’s just so much better and easier now, and I hope it gets better and easier too because they’re a wonderful group of people and they just contribute so much to humanity…”
“Will and Grace changed the landscape forever and made a huge difference in people’s lives by simply showing the people next door,” says Steven Wishnoff, an LGBTQ televisionic pioneer in his own right concerning his newly acclaimed postmodern family sitcom Life Interrupted starring Mason Reese and featuring a newly married lesbian couple. “And Transparent on Amazon created by Jill Soloway. Jill has always been a trailblazer, and forward thinking, and she took a story and turned it into something that millions of people now see and hopefully accept more and more.”
“Obviously, from a legal perspective, marriage equality was huge,” exclaims Alison Arngrim, reflecting on the more socio/political side of the movement. “People had been talking about the right to marry since the 70s. And actually, there were two guys who tried to get married in the 70s… I knew, as people were talking about ballot measures, it was going to go to the Supreme Court…these type of things are always….a supreme court type of decision. And when they did it, it was several states but not the country. But then they said, ‘Okay, if you’re on a military base, federal employees get benefits and from a military base, it’s okay.’ And I thought ‘Well, that’s gonna get mighty interesting because if it’s okay if you’re definitely married to your spouse and you’re both in the military, or your spouse is on the base but you’re in…one of the states that hadn’t legalized same sex marriage, then what do you do? You can’t leave the base? Or if you leave the base and you’re in a car accident—Oops, what happens? So, I said, ‘Well that’s it. It’s going to go through because you can’t have [different rules for different states]. That’s what happened with interracial marriage. So, I knew it would be a Supreme Court decision!”
The Opening Ceremony is as inspiring as it is elegant rife with rousing speeches from everyone from Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, to Reverend Kevin Downer to comedienne Judy Tenuta, and despite the potential pall the country over, the LGBTQ community has responded by choosing to react to November’s national election via self-empowerment rather than simple celebration.
Judy Tenuta opens by espousing the religion of Judy-ism—naturally adding “in our religion there is no wall! There is no travel ban. Oh, and Guess what? You can use my bathroom!” (to rightly deserved cheers!!!)
“We give you thanks for the courageous people who laid the ground: The pioneers whose stories gave us the courage and inspired us…and ensure that all of your people are included at whatever table we may sit down at,” meditatively entreats Reverend Kevin Downer pertaining to the communally spiritual portion of the evening. “We ask all these things in your many names…We ask that you bless everybody who will gather in the resistance march and the Pride celebrations in the city in our country and throughout our world in this season of Pride Amen.”
LGBTQ issues are a noted concern to two of America’s favorite Hollywood moms, both televised and cinematic, in the form of Ilene Graf of Mr. Belvedere fame and Dee Wallace: best loved and remembered as Mary (cool enough to even be called that by her kids) in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film E.T.
“The feeling in this [room] is exactly what it should be: Spirited happy, determined and very colorful. I am here tonight, and I am going to be speaking the words of America’s favorite movie mom Dee Wallace. Now Dee was supposed to be here but she’s working—yaaayyy!!! I’m not yaa-(dejectedly)-uh,” champions, yet simultaneously laments, a droll and endearing Ilene Graf “But that’s okay because I get to say this beautiful speech that Dee wrote and sent along, and when I say ‘I’, just pretend that I’m E.T.’s mom…”
“I grew up in a time when we didn’t discuss spousal abuse and LGBTQ,” writes Dee Wallace as read by Ilene Graf. “Certainly. I promise you, not in Kansas. I remember the hushed discussions when we found out some of our favorite Hollywood sex symbols were actually homosexual and everything was behind closed doors because of fear of careers being lost, repercussions from society and studios, and just the self blame and embarrassment of being different… I am glad we have come so far.”
Writer/Director Gabrielle Stone continues in her mother’s passionate and compassionate footsteps via the release of her latest film It Happened Again Last Night centering around a female character in love with a man but then leaving said man for a woman, all the while sporting a steel line of tension by way of the theme of domestic violence. “I wanted this character to not be labeled as gay or straight, but just as a human who happened to fall in love with a certain gender. I feel that too often in our society today, we try and label people and those labels come with judgments. When you strip everything away, we are just humans and we should be treated as equals.”
Of her daughter, her film and her daughter’s accomplishments, Wallace can only admit: “I am glad my daughter is being a voice for inclusion and truth. I ask you all to stand in your truth and defend the right of all people to be authentically who they are and to embrace all creativity of self to the God given right of creation.’
Overall, solid and inspiring sentiments. But my favorite testimonials of the evening had to come from Councilman Mitch O’Farrell and Brian Pendleton, board member of Christopher Street West.
All Photos Courtesy of Bill Dow Photography:
“I’m here to tell you, we’re takin’ over the world! We are. And if we can’t take it over, we’re just going to make it more fabulous…” quips our councilman from the 13th district in all giddiness and fervor. “I’m looking forward to the march on Sunday. I can’t wait! It’s what we must do! It’s not even something we can consider or think about. We HAVE to do this because we have a lot to say, and we have to assert that this is what this country is all about: Togetherness, acceptance, not just tolerance but acceptance, and love and full equality across all spectrums. That is what we are destined to become! This is just a rough patch we’re going through and we’re going to do that!”
Of the Pride Festival’s change in tenor this year, Brian Pendleton explained its emergence to rousing and impassioned effect! “It really takes a brave person to have your program change only 4 months out… It was just four months ago on January 26th, that private individual –me-– put something on my facebook page that said we should march instead of parade, and 33,000 people liked that post instead of the usual 50 and so we got the message loud and clear that this community wanted to do something more… So, on Sunday June 11th…we will rally for our rights…and we’ll hear from leader Pelosi, and congresswoman Maxine Waters and we’ll hear from congressman Ted Wu and activist Bambi Salcedo. We’ll hear from Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter… Over 125 laws are being passed right now in state legislatures that are directly aimed at us. Directly: What bathroom can we use? Can we lose our job? Can we get housing? Can we lose our healthcare? And we must resist that! …Because this year, the LGBTQ community is lending a gigantic rainbow flag to anyone who feels under threat. Anyone. Whether you’re a woman who cares about reproductive health, or you’re a person of faith, or you’re a person of color, or you’re an immigrant of any status, or dreamer…”
But the night does not stop at sentiment alone. We have not even gotten on to the display which is a fabulous force of mother nature with which to be reckoned! In hearing Hollywood Museum president and founder Donelle Dadigan tell it, one just has to know more in a song fit for any gossip-clad magazine column the likes of which could most aptly be reenacted in a telephonic song deriving from Bye Bye Birdie or that of any given set of giddy, hormonal teenagers from the likes of Grease:
“We have over 500 exhibits on display for this year’s Reel to Real Exhibit…and some of the highlights include Maura Pfefferman’s costume from Transparent, Connor Walsh from How to get Away with Murder, Dumbledore from the Harry Potter film series…and Rupaul’s Drag Race the grand prize winner from 2015…with his fabulous personally made beaded and bejeweled gown, somehow [there is] more skin shown than you can imagine… And make sure you check out our designer collection…whether it’s Bob Mackie, Edith Head, Nolan Miller…they made everyone look fabulous, and you can see some of their iconic looks downstairs… And you really need to take a look at Rhett Turner’s special spotted fur jacket that he made for Cher that she wore on The Sonny and Cher Show in the late 60s/early 70s. The Hollywood Museum is now home for Lily Tomlin’s Iconic giant-sized rocking chair that her character Edith Ann sat in…the popular hit-for-its-time in the late 60s/early 70s Laugh In. And, of course this exhibit would not be complete unless Lily loaned us her Earnestine, the telephone operator garb: The wig and paraphernalia, and you know that wig still has its curl in it! I don’t know how, but it still does. [To speak nothing of] the LGBTQ icon Miss Judy Garland… We have a dress of hers that she wore during her Judy Garland Show and she also performed onstage. It’s a fabulous hand beaded gown with emerald green heavy silk and in fact, what’s so amazing about this two-piece ensemble, and of course it’s a pencil thin skirt, is that there are weights at the bottom of the hem to keep it down. And ladies, I know you remember that. And we’re thrilled to be able to share an intimate look into James Dean’s personal life thanks to his partner Bill Bass including a hand-written note from Dean’s mom. And, of course the legendary star of stage and screen, Elizabeth Taylor’s personal outfit from the 1990s she bought at her own organization, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and again wore as AMFAR’s founding National Chairman at several events… And [the Rolodex of] Dale Olson, a veteran Hollywood Publicist. As many of you may know, he represented Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and of course Doris Roberts to name a few. And he represented Rock Hudson during the actor’s public battle with AIDS. Please make sure to check out Dale’s Rolodex. And how many of you remember what a Rolodex is? Well, we have it turned to the page where you can see Elizabeth Taylor’s personal information…quite interesting.”
The display itself is not only as colorful as the most fabulous catwalk, but sports vast fonts of both current and historic knowledge, not the least of which also encompasses a series of photos featuring James Dean along with related facts surrounding his life and upbringing (along with the aforementioned letters). Elizabeth Taylor’s greenish skirt and shirt from Giant also make an appearance right alongside Rock Hudson’s rain slicker from Captain Lightfoot. Concerning all things new and cutting edge, Alison Arngrim’s 1950s flashback dress, makes a cameo–immediately adjacent to a gem of a frock from Arngrim’s TV wife Erin Murphy (aka Tabitha from Bewitched)–in a display dedicated to a new and groundbreaking sitcom created by Steven Wishnoff entitled Life Interrupted. Starring Mason Reese, and a plethora additional stars from nostalgia-based TV, Arngrim and Murphy appear as the married lesbian couple as an answer to Reese’s divorce of Arngrim. Dawn Wells and Michael Learned make for quite the comedic duo as said lesbian couples’ mothers and mothers-in-law respectively, irrespectively, and vice versa! Charles Pierce: Ever hear of him? One of the first female impersonators to ever make it big. Though he demurred from using the term “drag queen”, the very fabric-clad thing that would have classified him “in drag” now resides in the Hollywood Museum in the form of a perfectly styled and tailored black evening gown. He is said to have done Joan Collins better than Joan Collins, but for my money he looks more like Joan Crawford, which is quite perfect as Mr. Pierce also mimicked she who would later be dubbed “Mommy Dearest” as well. Other goddesses worthy of his impersonation were Carol Channing, Bette Davis, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, and Gloria Sawnson. Pierce’s life wasn’t without regrets however as he would notoriously lament: “I’d rather be black than gay – because when you’re black, you don’t have to tell your mother.” My preferred aspect of the display would have to be the sea of two dimensional cardboard heads of any and every gay character to supportive celebrity sticking out the neck of their signature ensembles to speak nothing of a big beaming face of George Jefferson springing forth from a stunningly plaid tuxedo: The very same fabric of that of a kilt—and well, you interpret that however you very well might choose…
Overall a most rousing and colorful evening in its most fabulous fourth anniversary form!
Reel to Real: Portrayals and Perceptions of Gays in Hollywood is on display until September 25th. For more information, please visit: