I found myself very
busy again, in San Francisco. I was doing lots of sets, mostly now
for commercial work, or more specifically, Industrial Films, which
is a huge part of the total movie-making industry. It was lots of,
as I think I said, doctors’ offices! Kevin and the gang at Ready
Set had been growing and doing a lot of work and they had me on to a
lot of their shoots, Toyota, Kodak, real boring stuff. We had left
the heady, exciting world of porno movies long ago and were into
Meanwhile, Russell was
on to his next art project! Seems he had cleaned out someone’s
garage in the Sunset and had ended up with a boxful of little old
rolls of black and white 8 millimeter home movies from the thirties
and forties. A handful of color reels appeared to be from the early
fifties. All silent, of course. He began looking at them and
putting them in a rough chronological order; some were dated, many
were not, and began to see the lives of this family in Los Angeles,
sort of middle class early suburban, centered around their children,
their home, their vacations. The repeated casualness of their
doings and their actions, the meaningless repitition in the family
lives began to fascinate Russell.
He talked about the
similar middle class repetition which we’ve always found in Gertrude
Stein, and especially, he said, her long masterpiece “The Making of
Americans.” which Maria helped read so beautifully with George
Ashley at the New York reading. He enlisted sk dunn and she began
reading pieces of the Stein with the running of the home movies.
With David’s help, they cut a forty-five minute short and had it
transferred to 16 mm.
Keith St. Claire, my
old friend, miraculously still in the Neighborhood Arts Program,
booked them into one afternoon in the big South of Market hall.
It was called “A Family
and Its Progress.” The images flickered through the decades onto a
large overhead screen, sk sat at a microphone on the side under a
small spotlight and read the haunting words of Gertrude Stein about
family life over and over. It was a beautiful and moving piece well
presented to a big audience.
* * *
That spring, Karolyn
and Neil Fraser, the hunky young Scot to whom I had introduced her
some years before (E-hem), ran off to his family in Scotland and got
married! Well, we were all thrilled, of course, or sort of,
especially the running off to Scotland part and they returned and
announced that they would be having a big reception at Karolyn’s
folks’ house in Pasadena. Karolyn said everybody could stay in the
old hotel; there were certainly enough rooms. So a bunch of us
headed south, me, Jeffery, Billy, Jim, Genie Merrick, Jonathan,
Bermuda, Kevin, Rachael, Iris, and such. Russ was busy.
We arrived throughout
the day at the old hotel and each claimed a room. Some of us quite
casually, as we didn’t yet know just who would be sleeping with whom.
Billy had been there a couple days before and had set himself up in
a room where he was drawing. I took the little room in the back,
far right, which I would have many times over the next few years.
Others camped around. Karolyn had done a lot of cleaning to the
place since I had last been there but it still had plenty of the old
atmosphere, if you know what I mean. Some of the guests looked a
Kevin and the gang from
Santa Cruz were staying in a “real” hotel out near Karolyn’s folks
and were planning on meeting us at the reception. It seemed they
were running late, they had to find diesel fuel or something, Kevin
ran into a store to buy a pair of pants right off the shelf to wear
to the reception. Back at their hotel, they’re scurrying to get
dressed and Kevin puts on the pants and they’re three sizes too
small! We heard about all this later. I don’t remember what he did.
Probably just suffered.
The party was a great
affair and went on into the night. After a while it began to peter
out and just Karolyn’s friends were left. Jeffery was wearing
Karolyn’s aunt’s antique tablecloth in the Jacuzzi and some of them
were wearing nothing at all. The older folks decided that perhaps
that was enough partying for tonight and Karolyn came around and
suggested that maybe we should all move the party to the hotel.
So we all wound up back
at the old hotel none the worse, and partied further into the night,
hanging out in the various rooms and out the back door, which opened
onto the big old metal fight escape, drinking beer and smoking pot
and having a great itme.
The next morning we
woke late and moved slowly. With nothing in the hotel to eat or
drink, we ended up at Elliot and Sharon’s house in Hollywood, where
we sat in the back yard in the shade and played in the sprinkler.
Iris and Rachael went off to the local mall and to look for a copy
of the new book, “The Beverly Hills Diet” which was very faddish
just then. They came back loaded down with a number of copies, all
signed by the author, with clever inscriptions to several AAA
members. They were all so excited. They had run across the author
signing her books quite by chance, they said, and had a great time
talking with her and getting the books signed. We were all amazed.
Some weeks later, the
girls gleefully let it escape that the whole thing had been a ruse,
they had signed the books themselves and had made up the whole thing
just to see the envy on our faces. It always seemed to me a sort of
dumb trick, but it certainly goes to show the kind of things those
girls would pull.
I remember sitting
around one day with Kevin and Rachael and talking about their little
boy, then called Cosmo, and making comments about how I always had
to work real hard as a kid and how I was raised, I don’t know what,
but something general.
“Well, MY parents ... “
Rachael cut me off,
“Yeah, and you haven’t SPOKEN to your parents in twenty years!”
She had me there.
After the wedding and
party, Karolyn and Niel never lived in the hotel again but instead
took a small apartment in Glendale. I always thought that was so
* * *
Then we had to get back
to San Francisco and put the Bloolips into the Boarding House!
As I said, when we were
in New York with the Box Lunch, we, well mainly Jeffery and Jim
Nettleton, had invited the troupe of British drag queens called
Bloolips, headed by one mighty Betty Bloolips (!), to bring their
show to San Francisco, which we knew would be a hit and we would
handle everything, booking them into the club, publicity, stunts,
and, we promised, a starring float in the San Francisco
International Gay Parade!
Well, they went for it,
of course, and we miraculously did manage to get them into the
Boarding House in North Beach; Jeffery was truly the big time
producer now. And for the parade, that June, we covered a big truck
with a big, round, cartoon, cardboard Rocket Ship (sound familiar?),
with the Incomparable Bloolips riding on top. It was a big hit and
everybody had a good time.
They even stayed in our
apartment for two whole months (all eight drag queens!), and Russell
and I moved over to David’s apartment on Dolores Street where we had
a good time with him, especially knowing it was only going to be two
That’s where we watched
Charles and Diana’s wedding, at some ridiculous hour, like three AM
in the morning. Well, David decided to have
a big pajama party and everybody came in British-looking robes and
nighties. We all sat up late and drank champaign and had
another great time. David had gotten some souvineers of the
wedding, in fact. I still have a couple.
But finally the
Bloolips' run at the Boarding House ended and they went on their way
and we’ve kept a little correspondence with them over the years. I
think Maria has seen Betty a couple times.
* * *
Then one day I got a
call from Vince Stanich, my old friend the manager of the Mitchell
Brothers’ porno movie house, the O’Farrell Theater, over on
O’Farrell Street. “Come on up (the brothers’ and Vince’s office was
above the lobby) and talk about a big project for you, Bill. Jim
and Artie have some great ideas!”
Well, the O’Farrell had
been always changing, with new ideas, and such, and was becoming
something of a “sex emporium” with live acts, and talk-to-a-naked-girl,
and private booths and dildos. So I went to see them and see what
they had in mind.
“Bill! Bill! Come
in!” the brothers shouted. They were always really nice to me and
asked how everything was and said they were so glad to see me.
“Come in! Sit down, Bill!”
In their big office
upstairs, Jim and Artie really played the big porno producer act to
its fullest. Deep-sea fishing enthusiasts, they had big mounted
sharks and tunas on the walls, poker tables and chips laying around,
big leather sofas, and lots of nearly-naked girls running through
every five minutes saying something like Oh, Jim, I gotta talk to
you, real important, like right now! ...but...uh...private, you
know? And Jim, or Artie would roll their big eyes and say Sure,
Candi Honey, let’s go in here!. and disappear for twenty minutes.
And, like I say, they always treated me real nice.
“Now, Bill, we got some
great ideas, and I know you’re going to ... Vinnie! Now, Vinnie,
take Bill around back and show him what we talked about, you know?
Bill, you’re going to love it!”
So Vince says Come on,
Bill, and leads me out a little door in the side and we walk down a
long dark corridor and I can hear the sound track of humping from
the movies and music from the lobby and we wind our way far into the
theater and behind the big main screen. Suddenly, we walk into a
giant dark space. Vince flipped a switch and a couple of feeble
bulbs gave some idea of the big, haphazard room, on several levels,
with some kind of weird construction started and unfinished,
apparently years ago all across the vast floor.
“Now, see, Bill,” said
Vince, and he started to explain that the brothers wanted to turn
this into the great “Mitchell Brothers’ Sex Universe” or some such
silly name and they were relying on me to transform all this into
the biggest, the greatest, the sexiest, you get the idea. “Now,
this is going to be the Great Pyramid of Isis,” he said and walked
over to a monstrous half-built Egyptian pyramid with a retractable
opening leading down to ramped seating inside, “and over here is
Well, I looked around
and realized this could be a lot of work for me, and said so to
“Bill! You bring in
your friends! All of Triple-A can work on this! It’s a big
project!” and he led me back to the brothers’ office where they
“All set, Bill? Good,
good! You get the idea? BIG project, OK? Good, good!” they said,
and finally, “OK, you let us know what it’s going to cost, right?
And when you can start, OK? Big project, Bill. Let’s get right on
That’s how Artie and
Jim always were with me, real nice guys and I did a lot of work for
them, and they always treated me real good.
It came at a good time
for us; we needed the money. I roped in Karolyn and Russell and
Kevin and even Billy King, eventually, in the building of this
ridiculous “world” or “universe” or such. Building on their theme
and the Egyptian pyramid, of course, we soon had built “the streets
of Paris,” “the shores of Bali,” and, most peculiarly, “the baths of
Ancient Rome!” where a wall of plexiglass with little holes
separated the audience from naked women in a “marble” grotto and you
could squirt water on the naked women with a little pneumatic water
Karolyn kind of rolled
her eyes, “They’re going to squirt the girls?”
Artie said, “The
girls’ll love it! It’ll be clean!”
Warm water, we hoped.
So it was several
months of work, with hang-ups and delays, the pneumatic water
pistols, and then they wanted to mirror the inside of the pyramid.
Everything took a lot of time and stretched out. Then too, they had
us do all sorts of other painting and small repairs around the
place. At one point, Billy King almost lost it painting the walls
of the women’s changing rooms and showers WHILE the dozens of naked
women performers were using it. He almost got stuck to the ceiling
above the women’s douche.
Karolyn even made
pretty little curtains for the Paris Street Scene.
But in the end it was
never used. That’s right, they decided not to open “at this time”
and paid us well and that was it. I always sort of had the feeling
they knew we needed work and made up the whole thing to help us.
But that can’t be right.
* * *
That was the year, too,
when I went to the first meeting about the new “gay cancer” in
Brooks Hall in the Civil Center; Diane Feinstein led the meeting, as
well as a Dr. Silverstein, head of Public Health at that time. It
was called G.R.I.D., Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It was said it
was spread by sex and that it had to be stopped. Later much more
would be learned about this disease, spread by what exactly type of
sex, for example. Much of the information would come from one of
the most extensive sexual pratices investigation in the history of
medicine, of the enormous and sexually very active gay community in
Tommy Ammiano would
later say in the studio, “Well, the good news is it’s very hard to
get; you have to do only one or two things.”
But, for the moment, a
small chill touched the city, our friends, ourselves.
It would play a long
and depressing role in our lives.
* * *
So, after the Mitchells’,
I had a little money and Karolyn had been suggesting that I come
down to LA and I could stay in the old hotel if I wanted. I thought
back on how enjoyable Billy King always found it and decided to go
down for a month or so.
I flew down and took a
bus to the New Otami Hotel in Little Tokyo, a few blocks away. She
came to pick me up and we rode to the hotel. She had cleaned up a
little and had brought down clean linens and such from the Glendale
house and was apologizing for the mess. I kissed her! The place
looked just great to me, just the funky kind of place I loved.
I used the furthest
room on the front, there were four, as a drawing studio for me, and
cleaned out the other three as a display area or gallery, using
Billy King’s technique of once-over with a roller of white. I
continued to clean and paint, Karolyn would buy the paint, the rooms
in back, where I slept and the kitchen and bathrooms. Old
patchworks of linoleum carpets covered the floors and halls. I
fixed up the electricity as best I could and lit the place up.
They were idyllic days
for me, working on the old building, walking into Little Tokyo for
my coffee and newspaper, and downtown, I didn’t have a car, and
hanging out with Karolyn and her newfound artist friends in the
neighborhood. The Atomic Cafe a couple blocks away was the hot spot
at the time, staying open all night, full of punks and spreading
rumors that Andy Warhol had been there.
One day Karolyn and I
got the idea to have an art show in the gallery rooms across the
front and invite a few of her art-type friends to come over. Too,
Russell and Michael were planning to come down for a weekend visit
and we thought it would be a perfect welcoming party. I decided to
paint a series of works for the show, scenery-painting approach.
Karolyn had a big roll
of brown newsprint at the hotel which I think she got from the
Japanese California Daily downstairs and which I rolled out and cut
big pieces the right sizes for each of the walls. Some of them were
We had a lot of white
latex paint in the place but only a small assortment of other colors.
I rummaged around and found a small can of black gloss enamel. In
the setting of the white walls and the bright light of November in
Los Angeles, I thought a series of big black paintings would look
great. I stayed up late that night with the paper stretched out on
the floors of the various rooms and covered the surfaces with solid,
swirling masses. I signed my name in pencil and the date ‘81. I
hung the pieces on the wall with push pins and brought in a couple
bedraggled plants which I cleaned up the best I could.
The place looked
terrific. A real artist’s hovel type. What’s more, the paintings
didn’t look half bad! I had taken my time to make them as
consistent as I could and I had often made copies of famous moderns
like Franz Kline and Rothko, so I had a feel for the brush-strokes
and other qualities I wanted them to have. Karolyn looked at one
and said, “Turbulent!”
So the day came, a
Saturday afternoon. Karolyn had phoned a number of her friends,
plus her folks, who I was glad to see, of course, and whom Karolyn
wanted to see the hotel looking half way good (I think they’d
shuddered about it in the past!). We bought some nice champaign and
plastic glasses. Russell and Michael arrived.
The party was a big
success, with everyone agreeing I had done wonders for the old
hotel. Among the gallery types Karolyn had invited, almost no one
said anything about the paintings, except one did take Karolyn aside
and asked her how they cost. “Oh, I have no idea!” she answered.
Russell and Michael and
the rest who knew me thought they were a riot and couldn’t stop
exclaiming and chuckling to themselves.
That was the first time
I had painted in this manner in a long time, since the old days on
Vicksburg doing my collages of Pat Nixon and Raquel Welch, for
example. That is, as art, to be hung on the wall. All my drawing
and painting had been for sets of other designs, backdrops of for my
book, or the Bermuda Think Tank. These black paintings, some
fifteen or so, had started out as a lark, something to decorate the
walls for a party. They became, however, something more for me, and
allowed me to find the courage to do more.
It would be more than a
year still, before I would begin painting and drawing regularly,
works of art, but always those black paintings will be for me a
begining. I would do more like them and different. Later
that year I would paint a big
one on my studio wall in San Francisco. I envisioned a big one
on the side of a building.
* * *
I stayed on at the
hotel after Russell and Michael left, Charlie the dog staying with
me. I worked on more drawings and fantasized
about living the free and easy life again, like I once had in
Seattle, in Pioneer Square, fixing up old buildings, sleeping late,
and living the life of the artist, my favorite.
The hotel faced onto the old First Street Bridge over the Los
Angeles River. I drew the view out the front window.
Then, too, I loved the old buildings downtown and would walk around
and make quick sketches or just look and file them away in my memory
to draw back at the hotel. I would do lots of drawings of
downtown L.A. over the next few years. They were big pieces of paper, 28
by 36 inches, and good quality. City Hall and Union Station were
nearby, and lots of old factories and wearhouses.
* * *
Of course, I started to
run low on money in a few days, as usual, and was having to borrow
from Karolyn, who was always obliging. And then I got sick for a
few days, the flu I guess, and was moaning around the place and
feeling lousy. It may have been partly my state those days that
prompted Karolyn to call me up one night at the hotel and suggest
that she and Neil and I all ride out to Edwards Air Force Base the
next day to see the Space Shuttle come back to earth.
immediately better, all my old cares, out the window in a flash!
“Yes! When shall we go?”
”Well, the shuttle
lands at 1:30 pm and my Dad says it takes about an hour and a
half...How’s 10 or 11?”
“What! Karolyn, are
you crazy? We’ve got to leave by six or seven.”
I kept at her and she
agreed to come pick me up as early as possible. “Fine! See you
Unable to sleep, I rose
at about six AM and went to get a morning paper, thinking I’d be
lucky if Karolyn and Neil showed up before 10 and was prepared to
cool my heels with coffee and the news for a while.
Minutes later, she had
beaten me back to the hotel! My blood surged.
“Bill, I’m afraid I
have bad news. We can’t leave before eight, you see the car’s out
of diesel and the station doesn’t ...”
A stern look from me
would have been dishonest. “Fine! Fine! No problem!” I exploded.
Bundling Charlie into the car, we drove to Glendale to finish
packing, bagels, cream cheese, ham sandwiches, candy peanuts,
champagne, beer, dope, and Neil. The map, not surprisingly, was
A tankful of diesel and
we were headed north on US 5 by eight-ten in high spirits. Mapless
our conversation mostly concerned which freeway exit would take us
to our destination. A useless exercise, as “Edwards Air Force Base
Next Exit” was clearly marked and a long, slow moving line of cars
was turning into the barren countryside. This was to be the third
landing of the shuttle, each at Edwards, so it was not like the
first time, still there were lots of people coming out to see it.
From there the way was
obvious; hastily printed signs saying “Shuttle Viewing” were stapled
along the way. It was a long road. A dusty little crossroads store
was, coincidentally that day, installing a big new sign that said
“Liquors” and surrounded by cars and trucks. “Ice and more beers!”
we chorused with enthusiasm. It was to be our last view of the old
world as we had known it.
We entered the air
force base and were warned by big signs of toxic substances and
other things apparently just beyond our view. “Toxic substances!”
said Karolyn, her dander up. I told her the signs probably meant
ammunition and such. “This is the military. Of course, they have
toxic stuff here.”
The traffic had slowed
to a crawl. Army uniforms, jeeps, and odd-looking drab green
vehicles were everywhere. We stared at a big sign with disbelief:
Shuttle Viewing 12 Miles.
After the longest 12
miles, I tell you, we finally crept onto the giant dry lake bed
which is the Edwards landing area and took our place with about a
million other cars, campers, buses and motorbikes. It was 10:30 AM.
We stepped out of the
car and looked up into the sky. It was about two-thirds covered
with long, wispy clouds. A chill breeze blew dust at us from across
the valley. Everywhere we looked the sky was abuzz with all manner
of flying machines. Helicopters in formation, ominous-looking big
planes ascending and descending on the cris-cross of runways, and
far overhead, swarms of tiny jets, etching loops and streaks on the
dome of the sky. I guess everybody wants to get into the act.
And on the horizon, as
far as we could see, row after row of cars, the public, like us,
stepping out of their cars, and stretching and looking at the sky.
We took Charlie and
decided to take a walk. We started forward in the direction all the
cars had been instructed to park. We discovered we were about ten
rows back from a long, rickety, temporary lath fence that had been
rolled out across the desert. On this side of the fence was a wide
empty area which had become a promenade for strolling. Here the
abundance of high technology showed itself, every type and size of
telescope, camera, monitor, headphone, shortwave, and unfathomable
apparatus was on display.
After what seemed a
mile, at least, we came to the edge of what we thought was the far
side of the viewing area. It was not so! The rows of cars had only
taken a slight turn and continued far out of sight. We had not come
even half way. It must go on for miles, and behind us, creeping
down the sides of the valleys, rows of tiny cars continued to come.
It was then the huge size of this instant city hit me. We would
later hear there were 400,000 saw the shuttle come down.
Back at the car,
nothing would do but a toast of champagne! To Joe, and Dick! To
their safe return! To us! To the hundreds of thousands of us!
Somewhere over the
Indian Ocean, we heard, the astronaughts had performed their
de-orbit burn and had begun their fall to earth.
The wait could have
been longer ifit wanted; anxious of course, for the shuttle to land,
but savoring every moment of our time, every emotion, every sight.
What Charlie thought of
this most unreal outing, we never will know. The hard baked clay
underfoot, the giant parking lot, the smell of the giddy, tense
masses of humans. But we empowered him with extra senses, of
history, of adventure, of the cosmos. Yes, he too, realized what a
lucky dog he was.
Time crept, more unreal
All the radios around
were tuned to the same station, every ear alert. The sisteen-minute
black-out came and went. The ship would soon be approaching the
Go faster, clock...no,
Karolyn admired the
female soldiers’ woman-of-the-desert attire.
Our hands, our faces,
our hair were gritty with dust. The car, inside and out, was
covered with a thin white layer. More champagne, another joint! To
the shuttle, to the shuttle Colombia!
We left the car, now
with Charlie inside, and walked to the promenade with the rest of
our big new city. Near the fence the air was rich. Every human
head and eye scanned the blue. Here and there, an occasional shout
would arise, “There! There!” and a chorus of cheers would rise and
then fall. I stepped over to a nerdy-looking group of youths
huddled around a radio. “That’s not it!” I said, half a question.
They smiled at me. No, no. It’s just now over Big Sur, they said.
Neil, Karolyn and I
would catch each others’ eyes from time to time, breathless,
flushed. The wind smelled of dust, ... of humans, ... of Earth!
“There it is!”
Directly overhead, a
tiny, white line was being drawn against the blue sky, impossibly
far away. A deafening roar arose from the valley floor. And
suddenly we knew: all the technology of NASA and mankind would not
be enough! WE would have to help! We would have to use our very
lungs and voices.
“Come On In! Bring ‘Er
Down! Come On, Shuttle!”
The space ship was as
small a speck in the sky as seemed humanly possible to see. It
ducked behind a cloud. There were 400,000 gasps and then utter
silence; we struggled with the unfathomable. It was lost.
It burst upon us. It
had a shape. It had a tail. It was gleaming white. Chaser gnats
flew behind. Now, more than ever it would need our help. Every
muscle, every voice.
It tipped us a flash of
its shiny, black underbelly. It had heard us! We called back
louder than ever. The seconds raced forward in dizzying slow-motion,
a ballet from another world. It grew bigger, louder, nearer.
We landed it perfectly
on the broad, shimmering mirage of Edwards, a cloud of dust in its
wake, then let it roll past us, further and further across the
valley to a slow and gentle stop far, far away near the hangers and
equipment at the other end of the long runway. We knew they would
want to inspect it and service it and dust it off. That was their
job, the NASA workers and such. And the shuttle was theirs now.
Our job was done.
* * *
Below, we had always been a big "space
ship fan club," of course, throwing parties for the lift-offs and
moon walks and Star Wars openings, you know. My old Getstetner
machine, in fact, printed out the announcements.
* * *