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Celebrating silver in style

Gay-owned furniture company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams marks milestone

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Mitchell Gold, Bob Williams, furniture, design, home, gay news, Washington Blade
Mitchell Gold, Bob Williams, furniture, design, home, gay news, Washington Blade

Mitchell Gold (left) and business partner Bob Williams at their Washington store for an event in 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams

25th anniversary event

A benefit for Sitar Arts Center

Wednesday

6-9 p.m.

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Washington location

1526 14th St., N.W.

mgbwhome.com

RSVP requested

[email protected]

202-332-3433

Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, co-owners of the eponymous furniture company, didn’t originally intend for their company to be as big as it is today.

Gold says they were originally thinking of a modest business model in which they’d work four days a week, have a small stable of customers and do about $5 million a year in sales.

“We didn’t have to make that much money,” Gold says. “It was just the two of us living down South, it’s much less expensive to live here, and we thought we would just have this nice little company. … But as Bob often tells people, ‘It’s not that Mitchell lied — it’s just that he can’t count.’”

Started in 1989 with about $60,000, things took off rather quickly. They sold about 800 dining tables and 5,000 chairs before they started making any of the pieces. Gold, who’d been fired from the furniture company he’d worked for, had connections with major retailers like J.C. Penney, Crate & Barrel and others, which he visited armed with sketches and fabrics Williams had made. They were profitable the first year they were in business.

“We had fabrics that were different and unusual for the time,” Gold says. “So we were able to show retailers, ‘This is how this will look in your store.’ And they bought it right away. People have said I’m not a bad salesman, so I was able to close the sales and get the production going quickly.”

The two, who’d been together as domestic partners about two years before, had moved to Hickory, N.C., from New York and were interested in going into business together.

“We just thought we could do it better than traditional manufacturers,” Gold says. “We thought we could make a better commitment to customers, ship it more quickly and with Bob’s sense of style, you know, I certainly felt we could offer people a more stylish look for a better price.”

Williams worked for a small ad agency and gradually cut back his time there as he spent more and more with the company, then known as the Mitchell Gold Company (it was changed to its present name in 2002).

Now they’re celebrating 25 years and have more than 700 employees, a stable of celebrity clients, 17 stores and plans to open four more by year’s end and a 600,000-square-foot factory and home base in Taylorsville, N.C.

Several spoke at a company event two weeks ago where 11 of their original 21 employees who are still with the company were recognized. It appears, from a transcript of comments, that morale there is strong.

Ken Hipp, the company’s senior vice president of retail stores and merchandising, has been with them for seven years and calls Gold and Williams “wonderful mentors.”

“It’s been quite a ride,” says Hipp, who’s also gay. “I can’t imagine my career or my life without them.”

Known for a style they call “quintessentially American,” their products are designed to be stylish, yet comfortable. Interior designer Brian Patrick Flynn of TBS’s “Movie & a Makeover” show has called their products “custom-looking pieces at medium-to-high price-points” and says it’s a “genius brand” he and his clients “can’t get enough of.”

On Wednesday, the two will be in town for an event at their D.C. store at 1526 14th St., N.W., an anniversary event that will benefit the Sitar Arts Center. It’s one of a series of events they’re having at their various locations throughout the year.

In a country where just 25 percent of new employer firms are still in business 15 years or more after starting according to the Small Business Administration, theirs is a nearly unfettered success story.

It hasn’t all been easy going, though. Williams remembers many long hours in the early years, though he also says those were some of the most “exhilarating times of my life.”

They recall years of working what felt like round-the-clock schedules and didn’t take a vacation until two years into it, but were gratified by strong out-of-the-gate sales.

“Customers liked what we were doing immediately,” Williams says. “We never had to go call on people. The more they heard about us, the more we had people wanting to buy from us.”

They broke up on the personal side about 12 years into the business, though they’re wholly comfortable working together and are each married and have been with other men for years — Gold has been with Tim Gold for seven years; Williams has been with Stephen Heavner for 11 years.

Might their relationship have lasted if it weren’t for the company? It’s a thorny question they don’t wish to dwell on.

“We don’t give much thought to it,” Williams says.

“It takes a lot of time and energy to go back and visit the past,” Gold says. “We’re more focused on the future.”

They acknowledge there were “a few little awkward moments, but not too much,” as Gold says. Keeping the company strong was chief among their priorities as always, they say.

The only time they had any significant downsizing was in 2008. Gold says it was a hard, but at the time necessary, decision in the face of a huge recession.

The company prides itself on the health care package it offers, on-site day care and cafeteria and unabashed LGBT advocacy work.

They say providing such amenities pays off in the long run.

“I think what we have proven is that you can be profitable and do the right thing,” he says. “When you have people who aren’t sick, they’re being more productive and that makes things more profitable. With our day care, if little junior has a problem, somebody goes and takes care of it and is back in 15 or 20 minutes, not the three hours it would take to go across town.”

They guess about 15 percent of their employees are also LGBT and estimate between 15-20 percent of their clientele is as well. Gold says it’s “certainly higher than other furniture retailers.”

Gold, who wrote a book called “Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America” in 2008, says being open about such things is a central component to the company.

He relishes telling of a celebration dinner they had with loan officers after paying back a $25 million loan they’d used to expand. Several of the bank execs told him how reading “Crisis” had given them new compassion for LGBT issues, from one man who stepped up his giving at a homeless shelter to another whose wife came out.

“One by one, they went around the table and told us how much our advocacy work had meant to them,” Gold says.

Coming from a staid banking environment, Hipp says finding a place he could be out on the job was a revelation.

“I thought I loved banking but I realized banking did not love me,” he says. “I was very uncomfortable and very conflicted over my future and I was met with some very harsh realities. I could not believe that someone of my age, I was in my early 20s at the time, could actually go to work someplace where it was OK for me to be who I was. I didn’t have to tuck any part of myself under my sleeve. I could actually say that I was gay and it didn’t matter. … I was just a kid from the south and I thought that was the best it would get.”

Some of the 25th anniversary events will benefit LGBT and AIDS causes. Gold next plans an open letter to the Pope urging him to change Vatican teaching that homosexuality is sinful behavior.

“When you get down to it, that’s really the seminal reason why people think gay people should not have equality,” Gold says. “The whole issue of sin is really the crux of why people are against it.”

But has there been backlash or lost sales along the way?

“Our business just keeps going at such a pace that’s ahead of the industry with sales and growth and things like that,” he says. “You know, we can’t worry about the one or two people who aren’t going to buy from us because we’re gay and outspoken.”

 

Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams on:

 

Mitchell Gold, Bob Williams, furniture, design, home, gay news, Washington Blade

Bob Williams (left) and Mitchell Gold in the early years of their business. (Photo courtesy of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams)

• Their all-time favorite products:

GOLD: Leather club chairs they designed after spotting vintage pieces at a Paris flea market.

“If something sells that well and looks pretty, I sure do like it,” he says.

WILLIAMS: “Our slipcovers are great because they’re just so versatile — you can dress them up or down, change the style and they just give off this great ambience of relaxed, casual comfort.”

 

• How practical the whites and neutrals they use so often are for everyday

GOLD: “Today’s fabrics are a lot different from what you saw 20-30 years ago. They’re much friendlier to live with and stain resistant.” And if you spill red wine? “In a lot of the fabrics, yes, it will come out. But you have to get it quickly, not let it sit there a day.”

 

• Nate Berkus

GOLD: “We love Nate Berkus.”

WILLIAMS: “He has great hair.”

GOLD: “Yes, he has great hair, he’s cute and adorable and we’re fairly friendly with him. I like his work a lot.”

WILLIAMS: “His last book was great.”

 

• Thom Filicia (of “Queer Eye” fame)

GOLD: “Sweet guy and talented. We were at a design kind of home in South Hampton and his room was really a standout.”

 

• 2013 sales?

GOLD: “Over $100 million.”

 

• Lulu, the company mascot

GOLD: “She’s resting in peace. She was 12 and a half and she will be the mascot in perpetuity. The thing about bulldogs is once they decide on something, that’s it. They figure out a way to get it. She came to work with us everyday and loved walking around and saying hi to everyone.”

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Arts & Entertainment

After COVID hiatus, John Waters resumes touring schedule

‘Every single thing is different after COVID’

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John Watersis on the road again. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the first time in nearly two years, writer and filmmaker John Waters will be appearing on stage this fall before live audiences in the Baltimore-Washington area, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Waters, who lives in Baltimore, is scheduled to bring his spoken-word holiday show, “A John Waters Christmas,” to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Dec. 15, and Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 21. He’ll also be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Nov. 29 and The Vermont Hollywood on Dec. 2.

Waters’ holiday shows were cancelled in 2020 due to the theater closings and travel restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some book signings for fans were converted to Zoom sessions. He last toured the country in November and December of 2019.

This year, with vaccinations on the rise, Waters has made a few in-person appearances, including a concert with gay country crooner Orville Peck in Colorado in July, where he was “special guest host”; a Q&A session with fans in Provincetown in August and a music festival last weekend in Oakland, Calif. He’s scheduled to visit another 18 cities between now and the end of the year, including a weekend in Wroclaw, Poland, where he’ll be honored during the American Film Festival there in November.

Waters said he has completely rewritten his spoken-word shows to reflect changes brought about by the COVID pandemic. “I haven’t done it in a year and a half,” he said in an interview with Town & Country magazine. “Every single thing is different after COVID. You cannot do the same show. Nothing’s the same.”

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Theater

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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