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From Broadway to Hollywood

‘Double Life’ memoir recounts 50-year love story of artist and TV mogul

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From left, Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine with Christine Baranski and Charles Busch at a launch party for their book in November. They’ll be in Washington this week for a similar event. (Photo courtesy Scott Manning & Associates)

Careers in the arts are never easy, but for every Sinatra, Hepburn or Garland there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of actors, singers and behind-the-scenes moguls and designers who manage long, successful careers in New York or Hollywood without becoming household names.

Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine are two such figures. Shayne is a former actor-turned-casting agent-turned TV mogul who nurtured hit ‘70s shows like “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Alice” to the airwaves during his 10 years as president of Warner Brothers Television. Sunshine, his partner of 50 years, is a painter and sculptor who made ads for Blackglama Minks (“What becomes a legend most?”) and Danskins (“Danskins are not just for dancing”) famous between stints of having his own exhibitions and commercial projects. After decades of navigating the thick jungles and uphill battles of the art world and entertainment industry, one wonders their thoughts on the ways of those worlds: with tenacity, does the cream inevitably rise or have we missed geniuses along the way?

They say it’s gotten tougher to “make it” over time.

“I think the thing I’ve observed in the fine arts is the phenomenon of money coming into play more and more in which careers are measured by the amount of money that can be made off of it,” Sunshine says. “All these art fairs are really about money, the dealers and collectors being able to make money off of it. It’s different. I don’t know how one quite survives that … there’s a horrendous fickleness now on a scale we’ve not seen before.”

Shayne, who gave up acting because casting seemed more stable and practical, agrees.

“It’s a really tough road to hoe,” he says. “In my day, I could go to New York and live and rent a room for $5 a week and make it work. Now you can’t possibly do that. I don’t know how the young actors and young artists do it today. Yes, the Meryl Streeps and the Dustin Hoffmans and the Robert De Niros are going to succeed but I worry about some of the little people who are also very talented.”

In November, the two had their joint autobiography published by Magnus Books — “Double Life: a Love Story from Broadway to Hollywood.” They’ll be in Washington Monday for a private reception for the book.

A self portrait of the couple by Sunshine. (Image courtesy the couple)

And even though the book is drawing raves — Joan Rivers called it “beautifully written” and “filled with humor” and legendary critic Rex Reed called it a “riveting” book by “two extraordinary men” — Shayne and Sunshine, who worked on it for about three years, say getting it published was not easy.

“We got the most glowing rejection letters you could imagine from the leading publishing houses,” Shayne says.

He says it was worth the effort to get the book in print to show that long-term gay relationships are possible.

“We’d been terribly disturbed by the suicides,” Shayne says. “Time magazine did a story where they talked to young gays in their 20s who didn’t believe any [gay] relationship could last past 10 years. People have told us we’re a rather inspirational couple so we decided to tell our story.”

“There had always been this thinking that, ‘Oh God, it’s a terrible life,’” Sunshine says. “We wanted to kind of deal with that issue and let people know we’re not always in feathers or this and that. We’re like you. We have the same loves, desires and careers. We felt we had a responsibility to tell that story.”

And it is quite a story. With fun anecdotes of the famous paths with whom they’ve crossed — Lena Horne, Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, David Susskind, Helen Hayes, George Cukor, Katharine Hepburn, Norman Lear, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson and more make memorable appearances — the book is delightfully shameless in its name dropping.

Just as vivid, though, are lengthy passages where the two write evocatively of what it was like to be gay in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to what degree they were able to be out (if at all) and how their relationship evolved over the decades. Shorn of any Jackson-Paris-type false idealism — they make it clear it wasn’t always a bed of roses — their experiences come vividly to life.

“We felt we had to be totally honest for the book to work,” Shayne says. “We found out things about each other we didn’t know but we felt if we weren’t totally honest about it, what would be the point? Otherwise it would be so goody-goody you couldn’t stand it. But we got through it and that’s really the story of our relationship. We ended up supporting each other.”

“A lot of people have identified very strongly with the book,” Sunshine says. “It gives them insight into the time period and the history of the gay situation vis-à-vis us.”

During a lengthy phone chat from their home in Palm Beach, Fla., the two — on a joint call — happily elaborate on topics touched on in the book.

Though they still drink, it’s mostly just wine these days —they’ve traded in the Rob Roys they drank copiously for years for California chardonnay.

Norman, left, and Alan on their wedding day. (Photo courtesy the couple)

They attribute their long careers to their mutual abilities to adapt. Some opportunities came out of nowhere — like the Tiffany display that helped launch Sunshine’s impressive art career — while others were built piece by piece through painstaking work like the cards Shayne kept on each actor he saw so he’d have a bounty of suggestions to directors casting various projects.

Their various country houses — in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and more — have helped them grow together, they say.

“In the ‘50s, when you couldn’t really be openly gay, our homes became terribly important to us and we were happiest when we were there by ourselves,” Shayne says.

He also says the popular notion that CBS didn’t care about “Alice” spin-off “Flo,” an eponymous sitcom for Polly Holliday’s sassy character, isn’t true. It was not a victim, he says, of the network carelessly changing the show’s time slot repeatedly in those pre-VCR or TiVo days. Shayne says he worked hard to make “Flo” fly just as he’d done with “Alice” in its rocky first season but ultimately the audience wasn’t buying the character in a world outside Mel’s Diner.

But how did “Alice” succeed another five seasons without its most popular character while “Flo” failed?

“I love Polly and at the time, it seemed like a good idea to bring Diane (Ladd — who’d played Flo in the film) back (to ‘Alice’),” Shayne says. “We really had hoped ‘Flo’ would be a big success and believe me, we did everything. We changed writers, changed producers, nothing seemed to work, but God knows we tried. … the public kind of wanted her there saying, ‘Kiss my grits’ in the diner and she became really a different character when she had her own show. She wanted to be different … CBS was actually very cooperative.”

Ironically perhaps, Shayne and Sunshine say though they socialized several times with Cukor, the legendary “old Hollywood” director who was gay and famous for his parties, they never discussed their relationship or homosexuality with him.

“He knew we were a couple, he would invite us both to dinner, but it was always a mixed group. Sometimes Kate (Hepburn, who lived in Cukor’s guest house when she was on the West Coast) would stop by and say hello, but it was all very proper … I don’t think he ever mentioned the word gay to us,” Shayne says.

As for the changing times, they say it’s only in the last eight or 10 years that they’ve felt comfortable being fully out in all aspects of their lives. They wed in Massachusetts eight years ago initially for practical reasons. They were pleasantly shocked at how welcomed they were by the hotel staff where they stayed.

“AIDS really exploded the conversation on gay issues,” Sunshine says. “It was the instrument by which the whole gay thing came out as a national discussion.”

And what about the irony of Sunshine being the Emmy winner in the family despite Shayne’s long career in television (Sunshine won for titles he designed for a special in the mid-‘70s)?

“Can you hear me gnashing my teeth,” Shayne says.

 

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Theater

Jessica Phillips shines in ‘Penelope,’ a ‘pandemic parable’

Alex Bechtel was inspired to write about loneliness, waiting, separation

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Jessica Phillips in ‘Penelope’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Daniel Rader)

‘Penelope’
Thorough April 28
Signature Theatre, the Ark
4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington 
$40-$99
Sigtheatre.org

In the new musical “Penelope,” Broadway’s Jessica Phillips gives an unforgettable take on the title role torn from the pages of Homer’s “Odyssey” — more or less. Fortified by bourbon and backed by a Greek chorus of musicians, the character uncharacteristically steps out from the background to share her story surrounding two decades waiting on the island kingdom of Ithica for the return of her absent husband Odysseus. 

Sometimes described as a “pandemic parable,” the 70-minute work is based on composer/playwright Alex Bechtel’s personal experience. While separated from his partner during COVID, he was inspired to write about loneliness, waiting, and separation, a subject Phillips was eager to tackle. 

An accomplished Broadway actor and mother of two, Phillips, 52, is best known for memorable turns in “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Next to Normal,” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” 

Two years ago, she made news for coming out as queer after having long been identified as straight. Parts of the theater scene were caught a bit off guard, but only momentarily. Now, she lives in New York with her partner Chelsea Nachman, a theatrical publicist.“We share the same professional community but in very different roles. I think that makes life easier for us.” 

Currently enjoying an extended run at Signature in Arlington where the trees are in bloom, she spares time for a phone interview, starting off with“Perfect timing. I’ve just finished the last song on Beyonce’s ‘Cowboy Carter.’ Let’s talk.”

WASHINGTON BLADE: Increasingly, I hear artists report having been deeply changed by the pandemic. Did that have anything to do with your coming out in 2022?

PHILLIPS: Definitely. During the pandemic, those of us in the arts were in deep crisis, because our industry had collapsed in almost every way. At the same time, that space allowed us to be contemplative about where we were. For me, that period of time gave me the space to both come to terms with and confront those fears about saying who I was, out loud and publicly. 

BLADE: Did you have professional concerns?

PHILLIPS: Oh yeah, I was specifically worried about perception. Not so much about being queer but more what it meant to have come out relatively late in life. I had some fear around whether people would take me less seriously. 

At the same time, I was nervous about being fully transparent and worried about my privacy and being vulnerable. Like other women I knew, I was more comfortable dealing with traditional societal expectations in America. I grew up with those cultural expectations and thought of myself in those terms for a long time. 

BLADE: What changed? 

PHILLIPS: What’s been so freeing for me, I can confront how I took on those expectations and say I’m not going to let those determine how I live my life. I get to decide.

BLADE: There’s a lot of wonderful storytelling in “Penelope.” What’s been your way into that? 

PHILLIPS: My way of moving through the show is allowing this character to experience all five stages of grief. Humor, slapstick comedy, bargaining, denial. And ultimately acceptance and deep grief. 

When an audience is alive and invested, it’s palpable and elevates the storytelling. When an audience is having a thinking rather feeling experience that changes the tone of my storytelling and not in a bad way. 

It’s interesting how much they’re a part of everything. It’s really intimate. The audience is just six feet away. It’s a unique experience and we’re on this ride together. And I find this to be a really beautiful and satisfying experience that I’ve not had before.

BLADE: After Signature, what’s next for “Penelope”? 

PHILLIPS: That’s the million-dollar question. Hopefully we’ll take it forward to New York or tour it, but that requires willingness and money. I do think there’s a broad audience for this. It’s beautiful, unique, artistic, really emotional, and at the same time possesses an intellectual quality that’s missing from a lot of commercial theater these days.

BLADE: And what’s next for theater?

Phillips: I think one good thing that came out of the pandemic is that people like Alex Bechtel had an opportunity to create. In the next decade we’re going to see the results of that. I think we have some extraordinary things to look forward to. If a work like “Penelope” is any indication, we’re all in for something really good. 

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Movies

Trans filmmaker queers comic book genre with ‘People’s Joker’

Alternative ‘Batman’ universe a medium for mythologized autobiography

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Vera Drew and a friend in ‘The People’s Joker.’ (Image courtesy of Altered Innocence)

It might come as a shock to some comic book fans, but the idea of super heroes and super villains has always been very queer. Think about it: the dramatic skin-tight costumes, the dual identities and secret lives, the inability to fit in or connect because you are distanced from the “normal” world by your powers  – all the standard tropes that define this genre of pop culture myth-making are so rich with obviously queer-coded subtext that it seems ludicrous to think anyone could miss it.

This is not to claim that all superhero stories are really parables about being queer, but, if we’re being honest some of them feel more like it than others; an obvious example is “Batman,” whose domestic life with a teenage boy as his “ward” and close companion has been raising eyebrows since 1940. The campy 1960s TV series did nothing to distance the character from such associations – probably the opposite, in fact – and Warner Brothers’ popular ‘80s-’90s series of film adaptations with gay filmmaker Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned “Batman and Robin,” starring George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in costumes that highlighted their nipples, which is arguably still the queerest superhero movie ever made.

Or at least it was. That title might now have to be transferred to “The People’s Joker,” which – as it emphatically and repeatedly reminds us – is a parody in no way affiliated with DC’s iconic “Batman” franchise or any of its characters, even though writer, director and star Vera Drew begins it with a dedication to “Mom and Joel Schumacher.” Parody it may be, but that doesn’t keep it from also serving up lots of food for serious thought to chew on between the laughs.

Set in a sort of comics-inspired dystopian meta-America where unsanctioned comedy is illegal, it’s the story of a young, closeted transgender comic (Drew) who leaves her small town home to travel to Gotham City and audition for “GCB” – the official government-produced sketch comedy show. Unfortunately, she’s not a very good comic, and after a rocky start she decides to leave to form a new comedy troupe (labeled “anti-comedy” to skirt legality issues) along with penguin-ish new friend Oswald Cobblepot (Nathan Faustyn). They collect an assortment of misfit would-be comedians to join them, and after branding herself as “Joker the Harlequin,” our protagonist starts to find her groove – but it will take negotiating a relationship with trans “bad boy” Mr. J (Kane Distler), a confrontation with her self-absorbed and transphobic mother (Lynn Downey), and making a choice between playing by the rules or breaking them before she can fully transition into the militant comic activist she was always meant to be.

Told as a wildly whimsical, mixed media narrative that combines live action with a quirky CGI production design and  multiple styles of animation (with different animators for each sequence), “People’s Joker” is by no means the kind of big-budget blockbuster we expect from a superhero — or in this case, supervillain — film, but it should be obvious from the synopsis above that’s not what Drew was going for, anyway. Instead, the Emmy-nominated former editor uses her loopy vision of an alternative “Batman” universe as the medium for a kind of mythologized autobiography, expressing her own real-life journey, both toward embracing her trans identity and forging a maverick career path in an industry discourages nonconformity, while also spoofing the absurdities of modern culture. Subverting familiar tropes, yet skillfully weaving together multiple threads from the “real” DC Universe she’s appropriated with the detailed savvy of a die-hard fangirl, it’s an accomplishment likely to impress her fellow comic book fans — even if they can’t quite get behind the gender politics or her presentation ot Batman himself (or rather, an animated version voiced by Phil Braun) as a closeted gay right-wing demagogue and serial sexual abuser.

These elements, of course, are meant to be deliberately provocative. Drew, like her screen alter ego, is a confrontation comedian at heart, bent on shaking up the dominant paradigm at every opportunity. Yet although she takes aim at the expected targets – the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, corporate hypocrisy, etc. – she is equally adept at scoring hits against things like draconian ideals of political correctness and weaponized “cancel culture”, which are deployed with no quarter from idealogues on both sides of the political divide. This means she might be risking the alienation of an audience which might otherwise be fully in her corner – but it also provides the ring of unbiased personal truth that keeps the movie from sliding into propaganda and elevates it, like “Barbie”, to the level of absurdist allegory.

Because ultimately, of course, the point of “People’s Joker” has little to do with the politics and social constructs it skewers along the way; at its core, it’s all about the real human things that resonate with all of us, regardless of gender, sexuality, ideology, or even political parties: the need to feel loved, to feel supported, and most of all, to be fully actualized. That means the real heart of the film beats in the central thread of her troubled connection between mother and daughter, superbly rendered in both Drew and Downey’s performances, and it’s there that Joker is finally able to break free of her own self-imposed restrictions and simply “be” who she is.

Other performances deserve mention, too, such as Faustyn’s weirdly lovable “Penguin” stand-in and Outsider multi-hyphenate David Leibe Hart as Ra’s al Ghul – a seminal “Batman” villain here reimagined as a veteran comic that serves as a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure in Joker’s quest. In the end, though, it’s Drew’s show from top to bottom, a showcase for not only her acting skills, which are enhanced by the obvious intelligence (including the emotional kind) she brings to the table, but her considerable talents as a writer, director, and editor.

For some viewers, admittedly, the low-budget vibe of this crowd-funded film might create an obstacle to appreciating the cleverness and artistic vision behind it, though Drew leans into the limitations to find remarkably creative ways to convey what she wants with the means she has at her disposal. Others, obviously will have bigger problems with it than that. Indeed, the film, which debuted at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, was withdrawn from competition there and pulled from additional festival screenings after alleged corporate bullying (presumably from Warner Brothers, which owns the film rights to the Batman franchise) pressured Drew into pulling it back. Clearly, concern over blowback from conservative fans – who would likely never see the film anyway – was enough to warrant strong arm techniques from nervous execs. Nevertheless, “The People’s Joker” made its first American appearance at LA’s Outfest in 2023, and is now receiving a rollout theatrical release that started on April 5 in New York, and continues this week in Los Angeles, with Washington DC and other cities to follow on April 12 and beyond.

If you’re in one of the places where it plays, we say it’s more than worth making the effort. If you’re not, never fear. A VOD/streaming release is sure to come soon. 

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Travel

Hot fun in the desert sun: Your Palm Springs guide

Hiking, dining, bar hopping, and more await

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There are plenty of hiking options for visitors to Palm Springs. (Photo by Bill Malcolm)

Palm Springs is a favorite destination of mine. I have lots of friends there and there is always something new to do. This trip was no exception. Hiking in two new natural areas. A cabaret shows at Oscar’s. Swimming with the USMS Masters at the Palm Springs Swim Center. A bagel at Townie Bagels and a baguette at Peninsula Pastries. And a cocktail at PSP Air Bar were among the highlights.

WHAT TO DO

Enjoy the Villagefest Thursday night downtown. They block off the street, and it becomes a huge farmers market and art show.

Hit the PS Air Bar for an airline themed evening. They have piano bar Sunday nights in the front. Shop at the Revivals store in the same complex.

Hike in the new Prescott Preserve, formerly a golf course.

Take a hike at the South Lykken Trailhead in Oswit Canyon. Enjoy the cacti and wildflowers. We saw 3 big horn sheep in the meadow. Check out the Oswit Land Trust website for more information.

Go shopping on Sunny Dunes just off South Palm Canyon drive where you will find vintage stores, the Tool Shed leather bar, the new Club 541, antique stores, and a cactus and succulent gift shop (as well as Townie Bagels). Then walk or bike along the new trail along the river just south of Sunny Dunes Road. They even have the plants marked. All are steps from the Motel 6 Downtown.

NIGHTLIFE

Catch a show or go to the Sunday T Dance at Oscar’s. They also have a drag brunch both Saturday and Sunday called “The Bitchiest Brunch.” I saw the fabulous trio, Brandon, and James with Effie, on a Thursday night.

Toucans Tiki Lounge has a popular drag show Monday night. Pick up some new underwear or adult novelty items at the Not So Innocent store next door, 200 N. Palm Canyon.

The Tool Shed at 600 E. Sunny Dunes has a Sunday beer bust and BBQ. They also have an underwear night on Thursdays.

Hunters Palm Springs on Arenas Road has a fun happy hour. (This is the same owner as the one in Wilton Manors, Fla.) You will find 10 other bars nearby.

Fasten your seat belts for the Karaoke Thursday night at PSP Air Bar. The airline themed speakeasy is inside Bouschet. Sit in an old first class American Airlines seat (or an old coach Southwest Airlines seat) while the captain pours you a drink at the PS Air Bar. Then enjoy a show at the Revolution Stage Company next door.

WHERE TO EAT

Grab your morning bagel and coffee at Townie Bagels at 650 East Sunny Dunes. Get there early or expect a line. They open at 6:30 a.m. They are at 650 E. Sunny Dunes Road and have a cult following.

Enjoy a café Americano and pastry at Ristretto For Coffee Lovers (500 S. Palm Canyon Drive).

Enjoy a French baguette or pastry at Peninsula Pastries, 611 S. Palm Canyon in the Sun Plaza. They are only open Thursday to Sunday starting at 8:30 a.m. Get there early to avoid the line. All baked goods use French flour. Like Townie Bagels, they are quite popular. Next door is the Palm Greens Café for a healthy lunch.

Nature’s Health Food and Café (555 Sunrise Way) has fresh juices like carrot juice and vegetarian items like the eggplant wrap. You can sit outside on their patio with your to-go food.

Pick up fruit, yogurt or a pre-made sandwich at Grocery Outlet, Bargain Market in downtown Palm Springs.

GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND

I took United through Denver on the way out and through their Houston hub on the way back. United had the best fare and best departure times so I chose them despite my disdain for their policy charging for carry on for basic economy passengers. I had Economy Plus so I got a no charge carry on.

Palm Springs has a cute, small airport with a huge outdoor area. It’s the nicest airport I have ever been to. However, pack something to eat as they have few food options at the moment.

Hop on the #2 SunLine Bus across the street from the airport to go downtown. It’s a two block walk and costs $1. Rental car not needed if you stay downtown. (The lines for the rental cars can be long and they are packed with fees and surcharges.) I used Uber when not taking the SunLine. (SunLine.org)

Leave your bike helmet at home. The city does not have a shared bike system and is not pedestrian friendly outside of the downtown area despite being flat and having a warm climate.

WHERE TO (AND NOT TO) STAY

I stayed at the very handy and very affordable Motel 6 Downtown, 600 S. Palm Canyon. It is across the street from the Sun Plaza, which consists of many shops and restaurant, is a short walk to the bars on Arenas Road, is around the corner from Townie Bagels and the Tool Shed Bar, and more. Rooms are cleaned daily without asking – unheard of with most motels and hotels. The internet is good. No annoying resort fees. Free coffee every morning at 6 a.m. Get a quiet room on the third floor facing east.

Beware of junk fees like resort fees at other Palm Springs hotels. Most hotels in Palm Springs now have them and they are only disclosed on third party booking sites at the end of the reservation process making the room rate look lower than it actually is.

Often, they are lumped under “taxes and fees” to make you think the government requires them. My favorite (not) was the mandatory “community impact fee” at the Hotel Zoso. It is for a mandatory contribution to a charity.

Happily, I have yet to see hotels add a “pillow fee” or “key fee.”

Palm Springs has many lodging options including VRBO and specialty resorts. Men will like the new Twin Palms Resort as well as their sister property, The Descanso Resort. Both are excellent. Service is top notch. Lunch catered everyday. And more.

MORE INFORMATION

GED is the local magazine. RAGE Monthly out of San Diego also covers PS as does the Los Angeles Blade.

The weekly is the Coachella Valley Independent, which covers upcoming events, restaurants, hikes, local politics and more.

Palm Springs also has a gay radio station. Pick up a copy of their KGay desert Guide or view them at kgaypalmsprings.com (106.5 on the FM dial).

You won’t run out of fun things to do in Palm Springs and summer is their value season.

There is nowhere else where you can enjoy the desert sun surrounded to the west and north by snow capped mountains. And you won’t find a gayer city anywhere.

Bill Malcolm is an award-winning travel writer. His syndicated travel column in run by select LGBTQ publications throughout North America. You can find him on Facebook and read his columns at the travel blog section of the IGLTA website. He received no compensation of any kind for this column.

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