Saturday, July 24, 2010

Behind the pretty peepers of Loretta Young

I get mail from the most interesting people!  One is a gentleman by the name of J. Lee Cline who lived in California back in the 1960's.  He told me what gay life was like back then.  Something that I keep thinking over and over - how can we record this period which was itself so secret.  This generation is still around to tell us - documentarians take note!

In his words:

Gay bars were always here - hard to find as they didn't have signs outside and the door was in an alley, secret like a speakeasy.  But once you found them, they remembered you and you always had a friend. The clubs were routinely raided, you could not dress up for Halloween, the vice squad was everywhere.  They had a red light that would flash and men would stop dancing together when a raid was about to happen.  If there were lesbians in the bar, we would switch partners. 

The Canyon Club in Topanga Canyon was opened by a policeman so his nephew could dance.  Can you imagine we had to sneak to clubs in the mountains to "dance"?  Only by 1970 could you dance with another guy, in the open on a dance floor. 

Besides Canyon Club, J talks about another refuge, a place called the Raincheck Room.  It was a place where out of work actors, dancers, and singers hung out waiting for their agents to call.

I've been reading this (thanks, Lee!) multi-generational fictional epic of gay life, How Long Has This Been Going On which begins in the 1950's Los Angeles.  It begins in the safe haven of a bar called Thriller Jills, and I wonder if its author, Ethan Mordden, based this place on the Raincheck Room?  

One lady, about 70 years old who acted 27, would occasionally swing into the Raincheck Room and vamp it up when she was feeling blue.

Says J:

Someone would come in and say, "Here comes Mae!" and the fun would begin.  Drinks were on the house, and we all got to see Mae West perform some of the songs she had done in film.  I remember Minnie the Moocher was her favorite and she would camp it up.  She always said she owed her style to drag queens she had seen growing up in the 1890's.  

Each visit, rare as they were, was a performance I think she planned out and enjoyed. Mae had her one liners, rolled her eyes, and wore like 5" platform shoes to make herself 5'5" or so, she was tiny and always supported by a muscle guy who drove her white limo.  I think her driver was named Chester, a really nice guy, really gay, and I had never met a muscle guy who was a queen so that was over the top for me.  But he could butch it up and was fun to talk to while Mae was doing her "thing". 

She just loved being adored.  If you ever get a chance to see Sally Field in a movie, think it was called SOAP, where she plays a soap opera star.  She has a scene where she goes to a shopping mall when she feels blue, just to be noticed and praised.  Mae was in that mode when she was at the Raincheck. 

Doesn't that almost make you want to live in that era?   Kind of?  I'm still confused about the drag queens of the 1890's.  I thought Joan Rivers was a real woman? 

A very different kind of star lived around the corner from the Raincheck Room: Loretta Young.  J says he'd occasionally see her drive out.  My grandma was particularly fond of Loretta and her lovely eyes.  And eyelashes!  They were quite mesmerizing.

Loretta was a strict Catholic, but this didn't stop her from having affairs with married costars.  It's been said that before going out on a night with married men, Loretta would stop by the cathedral to confess and get absolution.  If a priest failed to absolve her, she went down the block until the next priest did!

When lovely Loretta had Clark Gable's love-child, she went to great lengths to conceal the fact.  She claimed her daughter, Judy Lewis, was adopted and even had her inherited Gable-esque ears pinned.  When daughter finally confronted mother about what all of Hollywood knew, Loretta had a little puke.  Then she called her daughter a "walking mortal sin".

It's hard to imagine what a woman like that went through.  Secrets that sicken her, which she can't help using to sicken others.  All because of this ridiculous notion of sin.  Before our brains are fully formed, notions of SIN are crammed down our throats.  This is actual child abuse, IMHO, but as I get older I do understand that the religious are victims, too, and begin to resent them less.

The resentment surges back when I see them refuse to stop leaking onto other people.  How about this story of a Christian student trying to get a degree in counseling.  She's suing the school, ASU, because she says they are trying to get her to change her beliefs and accept homosexuality.  If she can't or won't be impartial, she should be a Christian counselor, not a secular one.  Yet she has conversion duties!  Can you imagine some suicidal youth going in to a counselor (thankfully I never did), finally fearfully admitting he's gay, and the counselor instead of listening says: "you're wrong"? 

Becoming a Christian counselor would inhibit this student's ability to leak onto impressionable and/or suicidal young lives. Loretta Young, for all her "sins", never stopped leaking.  She had a son who was arrested around the era of the Raincheck Room for making gay films.  She disowned him.  And, as one of the first women in television, she promoted her religion on The Loretta Young Show.

In the 70's, she sued (and won) NBC when they aired re-runs of her series, without omitting the opening entrance where she swishes out in the latest gowns.  Being seen in outdated fashions, she claimed, damaged her reputation.  And there you pretty much have it.  It's not the premarital sex with married men, the child out of wedlock, the lies, the child abuse, but the garments, baby, that sully her reputation!

Hypocrisy is the ugly child of the overweening (some would say sinful) need to keep up appearances.

Damage Loretta's reputation here:

And here's the most perfect anectodal antidote to that false-face with the pretty peepers:

I saw the broadway tribute show Sondheim on Sondheim, which closed last month.  It was pretty good, what with the star wattage of Vanessa Williams and only a modicum of the usual tribute cheese.  They had clips of the legendary lyricist, narrating different parts of his life and work.  Sondheim's mentor (basically his dad) was Oscar Hammerstein, so despite his epic talent you can't help but think he had an unfair advantage.  Hey Sondheim, need an apprentice?

In one of the clips, Sondheim talks about a time he was on the Loretta Young Show with the uncouth, brassy, foul-mothed Ethel Merman.  Sondheim explained that Loretta Young had a strict no-swearing policy on-set, and she had a little pot where she collected a quarter from anyone she overheard swear.

It wasn't a minute into rehearsal set-up before old Ethel let roll a "fuckin hell!" Loretta swiftly sashayed over and said, "Now Ethel, you know I don't allow swearing on set.  I'll take a quarter for that offense."  Ethel was a bit taken aback, but ok - she dug into her purse and gave Loretta a quarter. Minutes later, Ethel couldn't find something, and "goddamnit!" she had to surrender another quarter. The rehearsal proceeded, but old Ethel couldn't help herself from letting rip another, "goddamnit!"

Seeing Loretta approach, Ethel dug into her purse and handed over a bill.  "Loretta, here's ten bucks.  Now go fuck yourself!"


Anonymous said...

Lotsov blogs made me think of some unrelated and probably unimportant musings. Loretta ended up her days here (Palm Springs) as many of the Hollywood elders do. Perhaps she came and went (LA) as was the "in thing" here, but we did count her as another Rancho Mirage celebrity resident. It seems she was as well-known here for her colostomy as for her beautiful, blue eyes.

As a lieutenant (MD) in the Navy, I first luxuriated in that magnificent city, San Francisco the summer of 1960. I was in love with that seemingly white, clean, sky-scraper-less city. Of course, gay life was pretty much under wraps and me, being in Uncle Sam's USN at Alameda Naval Air Station, I had to be excruciatingly careful.

One joyful spot was the famous (infamous) Black Cat, gay bar, tavern, showplace, drag-queen and general gathering place for those fearless people who braved the too-frequent raids by the police, the shore patrol, the MP's and some bible thumpers who warned all present of the fires of hell.

After agonizing for months, I finally ventured into that den of iniquity. The bar sat prominently right in North Beach. First time in any gay establishment, I was so fearful, my heart was pounding and with sweaty palms, I was visibly shaking. If anyone had spoken to me I probably would have fled the scene

Fortunately, that night we were not raided. Had the shore patrol asked for my ID, my Naval career and possibly my medical career would have come to an abrupt end.

I returned in the 70's to go dancing at the Endup and meet my mate at the beloved Polk Street (Polkstrasse) saloon. Gay life in that Babylon by the Bay had changed. It had truly come from under cover. After being dismantled, the Black Cat has gone down in history as a famous fixture of The City and is now part of the history of California.

Bob Frank said...

I loved this blog entry. There is so much to comment on. What gay people had to go through before Stonewall to live their lives was unconscionable, and that we still don't have our full rights today is just as unconscionable
"How Long Has This Been Going On" is the best gay-themed novel ever. I have read it twice and will read it again down the road. That would make a fabulous movie. Know anyone who could write the screenplay?

ethan2chris said...

I'm Ethan Mordden, the author of the novel you mentioned. In fact, I'm completely ignorant about oldtime gay bars, so I didn't base Thriller Jill's on anything. But I can imagine what a combination of legal and social siege machinery (so to say) can create in an oppressed group's resistance, and the bar simply conjured itself up for me.
You have a nice blog.

Jesse Archer said...

Mr Mordden,
I'm a big fan and so are many people I know. Thank you!

And also thanks for answering my question. You conjure that period most magnificently.