WASHINGTON BLADE: Although you don’t hold back at all in your book concerning working with Faye Dunaway, your “Mommie Dearest” co-star, it didn’t feel to me that you had an axe to grind. You write of several moments too where she was gracious — signing photos, posing for photos on set with your brother, when you give her the sweater you made and so on. On the other hand, the book “Mommie Dearest” always felt to me like Christina had a huge axe to grind. Do you agree?
RUTANYA ALDA: I tried to be fair in my book and I hope when Faye reads it she can respect the fact that I was fair to her. … It’s very hard to be with a person on the set who is totally ungiving to the other actor. I just held my tongue then because, as you know from the book, she never stayed for any of my close-ups. I stayed for hers to the 12th, the 13th hour and she never turned around and stayed for any of mine. It’s really not honoring the other actor and we have to honor that. We’re a team working together for the best of the scene. I always felt Faye worked for herself only and that’s the truth. There were private moments when I felt really bad for her … but those moments really didn’t last that long. It’s too bad because, you know honestly, if she had just been gracious (to the crew), they would have embraced her but instead she alienated so many people. When my brother was there as a guest and talked to her, I just got her at a good moment. If it had been a volatile moment, I wouldn’t have dared ask her. The timing just happened to have been right and she was as mellow as she could get. But we were always on pins and needles and you just knew you didn’t want to ask certain things at certain times.
BLADE: Hollywood lore is so full of stories of bitchy star behavior. In your experience, is there always fire where there’s smoke or does some of this get unfairly exaggerated in the public’s endless appetite for such tales?
ALDA: It’s gotten to be so much about me, me, me that some people think the whole world rotates around them and that’s really the worst position for an actor to put themselves in. As Bette Davis said, you’ll meet the same people on your way down as your way up. Fame is fleeting. It lasts for a while. If you have a few years’ run or a decade run, you’re lucky and I think if you can be compassionate and kind, I think that’s a great lesson to give people. I just went to a luncheon at 21 and the coat check girl, so many fairly well known people just throw their coat down and go upstairs and you know, it only takes a second or two to say, “Thank you,” and smile. She remembered me from the time before … just because I treated her like a human being. A lot of stars have come up very quickly and without the experience of being in the industry very long and I think they don’t appreciate the audience as much as they should. A smile or a hello is all you need to give sometimes. Without the audience, you have nothing. …
And the audience of “Mommie Dearest” is a great audience and I think they are disappointed that Faye has never embraced the film. If I were Faye Dunaway, I would have said, “Look, I was great in the part, I did great things. OK, maybe I had an over-the-top performance, but it worked, didn’t it?” But all these years of not talking about it and suddenly after 30 years she’s writing a book? Why? What’s in it for her? Is she doing it for the money? She’s really deprived herself of a great audience of people who love the movie and it’s a detriment to her. Look at all the joy she missed.
BLADE: So you know she is proceeding with her own book?
ALDA: Yes, she has a contract with a publishing house. A friend I know, whom I won’t name unless he names himself, he was just offered to be her ghostwriter. I think she’s gone through several. I e-mailed him and said, “Are you going to do it?” He said, “No, not even if she gives me a million dollars cash would I put myself through this.” So she’s going to find someone from whatever point of view she’s going to do it and I think it’s supposed to be out sometime next year. When she wrote to me, it said time sensitive, she in other words, she probably has a date by which she has to turn it in. Usually it’s a year and a half, then you’re supposed to deliver the book.
BLADE: On his “Mommie Dearest” commentary, John Waters said he thought the film would have worked as straight drama with just some slightly more judicious editing, for instance the scene where you see Diana’s (Scarwid as Christina) panties. Do you agree?
ALDA: (laughs) No. Don’t get me wrong, I love John Waters, I think he’s wonderful, but no, I don’t agree with that. I just ran into an editor who was working on another movie at Paramount at the time and he’d read the script, he’s gay, and he really wanted to edit the film. He loved it and saw it as a camp movie right away and said to Frank, “I want to edit it.” Frank said, “No, you’re the wrong person, we want this to be a big drama,” and I thought, “My gosh, I never knew this.” He said, “You didn’t know it was camp when you read the script?” I said, “No.” He knew right away. But you know, they edited like an hour and a half out of that movie anyway. Some of the takes were really, really long and so much was cut, especially my scenes. I don’t know if it would have changed it but I think it would have made more sense if some of it had been put back, like when my character, Carol Ann, meets Joan and is hired by Joan. I think that would have been a good addition to the story. … But I’m kind of glad the way it turned out because it’s going to continue to have this huge following for years. If it had just been a straight drama, I don’t think we’d be talking today. I think it would have just been one of these movies that was a good movie and then people would have forgotten about it. It’s given people a lot of joy through the years.
BLADE: Do you think “Mommie Dearest” ruined Faye’s career? I know that’s probably an oversimplification, but people say that and it does seem like her filmography is quite spotty after that.
ALDA: I don’t think so. She did quite a few films after it, maybe 10 or 15.
BLADE: Yes, but there was never another “Network” or “Chinatown”-caliber film after it.
ALDA: No, because what did she choose right after “Mommie Dearest”? “Supergirl”? I mean, her choice of material — she still had the power to choose her own material at that point and she was choosing stuff that wasn’t in the same league as “Network,” or, you know, “Chinatown.” I mean these are really great films, really amazing films, and she chooses “Supergirl” and other films you can’t even remember? Even the movie she likes to talk about with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp (“Don Juan DeMarco”), well that’s not a very good movie. I mean God bless all the actors, but some movies just don’t work. Her choice of parts was really not good. Also I think when one is constantly late on a set and constantly causes production to be slowed down, sooner or later producers just don’t want to lose that money. We went a couple of million dollars over budget because of constant lateness and finally Frank Yablans pulled the plug and we just weren’t going to shoot anymore, that was it. I think today producers won’t put up with that. Show up on time. OK, once in a while, you’re five-10 minutes late, you can’t help it, but not five and six hours late. There’s too much money involved today.
BLADE: “Mommie Dearest” lives on as a camp classic and nobody takes it — at least the film — seriously. Has Joan had the last laugh?
ALDA: Oh, absolutely. Joan Crawford’s career got resurrected. All of a sudden it’s her films that are seen and viewed and she’s kind of the big star here instead of Faye. People are seeing her films. At the Film Forum downtown, there’s a retrospective of her movies next weekend and it’s just amazing. People are rediscovering her that have never seen her movies. I think Joan Crawford has become the big star instead of Faye.
BLADE: Was Joan a good actress?
ALDA: I think she was a wonderful actress for that era. She was over the top and mannered, but that was the movies of that era. I think she was marvelous in those kinds of movies. People don’t act that way today, but they’re fascinating to watch. You look at “Mildred Pierce” and “Baby Jane” and even some of the horror movies she did and she was really pretty impressive. I just saw “Baby Jane” again not long ago and I thought she and Bette were really over the top, but it works. What two actresses today could do that style in that kind of way and make it so memorable and unique? There’s nobody like them.
BLADE: Joan mistook you for Mia Farrow when you were her stand-in on “Rosemary’s Baby” where she was to have had a cameo. Did she say anything after she realized you weren’t Mia?
ALDA: No, she was just very charming. She didn’t come over and say anything afterward but I didn’t go over to her either. She was just standing there, very gracious, and there was something about her that just radiated star. She had been a star for 50 years and she knew who she was.
BLADE: But she didn’t brush you off or anything?
ALDA: No, not at all.
BLADE: You write at length about what a great actor your husband Richard Bright was and it seems like he kind of got swallowed up by the machine, so to speak, with his drug issues. With true persistence and talent, does the cream always rise in Hollywood or have you seen truly talented people fall through the cracks?
ALDA: Unfortunately I don’t think the cream always rises. When I started out 50 years ago, I knew a lot of really, really talented people, much more talented than the people that eventually became stars, I thought, so no. But it’s very difficult because a lot of really talented people are also so sensitive and their sensitivity winds up destroying them. In Richard’s case, he was a wonderful actor, really terrific, as Al Pacino acknowledges. He used to watch Richard work. (Richard was) pained by not working and that’s what really drove him to drugs — the pain from not working and expressing himself. I think so much of it is just luck. I’ve known a lot of people who do it for 10-15 years and they just emotionally can’t take it anymore, the rejection. It’s just such a crapshoot and you don’t know what direction your life takes you. … Look at someone like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. … As painful as that was, I think that opened a little more compassion in people because he was one who did achieve a lot of success. … It’s a very, very difficult business. People shove their kids in front of me and ask for advice for this teenage girl who wants to be an actress. I always say don’t do it if you have any other choice of a career. It’s gotta be in your blood so deep that you can’t do anything else. … Enjoy your life. Life is short. Being an actor is like having a virus you can’t get rid of.
BLADE: Do you wish you had left Richard sooner?
ALDA: Well I loved my husband a lot. … He was a good person, a very generous person. I just had no idea what his addiction meant and that it was so hard to break that chain. I didn’t understand that you can’t do it for them. …. This was the ‘80s and there was a lot then we didn’t fully understand. I think later when the Betty Fords and other programs, there was more understanding, but this was the early ‘80s.
BLADE: Do you think Christina wrote her book just to get back at Joan for being left out of the will?
ALDA: No, because I think the book was already more or less written before Joan died. Now, did Joan leave her out of the will because she knew she was writing a book? I don’t know, maybe. But the book was done before the will. Had it been the other way around, I might have said yeah. It was a scandalous thing to do at the time because she was the first to do it, the first to write and sort of reveal her life with a major star. Later one of the Crosby kids wrote about Bing Crosby and Bette Davis’s daughter wrote about Bette Davis, but she was the first.
BLADE: Had you read the book when it came out or did you read it when you got the part?
ALDA: I read it when I was getting ready for the film, I’d heard about but didn’t read it until I was cast.
BLADE: Why did Christina never visit the set? I would have thought she’d have been at least curious.
ALDA: She told me the script was totally different and she just wanted to let it go. She and her husband, David Koontz, had written a script that was rejected so after Frank and Frank took over, she just felt she’d sold the rights, it was going to be what it was going to be and it was out of her hands so she had not interest in visiting the set.
BLADE: Why did you choose the self-publishing route for your book?
ALDA: I’d had it with an agent for almost two years and I just felt he wasn’t getting it out to the right people. I could have tried to find another agent but I thought, OK, that could be another two years. I learned things happen rather slowly in the publishing world, at least from my experience, and I felt this was the right time to put it out. Actually Christina Crawford was one person who encouraged me to self publish because she had done it after “Mommie Dearest.” … I thought, well, at least that way we’ll get it out into the world and I won’t be waiting and waiting and waiting. I’m glad I did it because at least I beat Faye.
BLADE: You write of how painful the makeup was on the film. How long did it take your face to fully heal after the film?
ALDA: About a month. Things are better with appliances now, but at the time with all that glue on your skin, it was really sore and red and tender.
BLADE: You said you knew of the film’s camp element immediately upon seeing it, but did you realize the gay element in that then too or did that come later?
ALDA: I didn’t really know that then, no. I think my first inkling to that was when I did the Town Hall show Mother’s Day with Joan about 10 years ago with Lypsinka, who is absolutely brilliant. Then, of course, about three years ago there was a show with Hedda Lettuce. She said, “Do you have any stories from ‘Mommie Dearest,’” and I said, “Yeah, I kept a journal.” She said, “Could you come read something from it,” so I went and read a few things. Then Marc Huestis called me two years ago and asked me to come to the Castro to read from it. I said, “Do you think anybody would be interested?” He said yes, so then at the Castor there were like 1,500 beautiful gay men and honestly just this wave of love that hit me and, wow, I still feel it in my heart, this love and support that came from the audience. I’m very emotional about it still. I read from my diary and they just went wild, they were so wonderful. So they were the first real audience and I thought, oh my God, I’ve got to publish this book. It hit me that people were really interested.
BLADE: Did you read Faye’s autobiography “Looking for Gatsby”?
ALDA: No. I went to Barnes & Noble to look at it. I thumbed through it but there didn’t seem to be much on “Mommie Dearest” so I didn’t buy it.
BLADE: What would you say if you were in an elevator with her?
ALDA: Hi. But she might not answer me because there were a lot of times on the set when she’d just walk right by. I’d be prepared for that.
Paradise lost: Remembering the popular Rehoboth men’s guest house
Beach town’s pioneering B&B welcomed gay clientele before arrival of AIDS
“What hath night to do with sleep?” John Milton, A Journey to Paradise
In February 1987, 30-something Bill Courville was at his Mt. Pleasant neighborhood home. He opened the new edition of the Washington Blade. As usual, he read it from beginning to end. With a Ph.D. in psychology, Bill enjoyed the classifieds. It lifted his spirits after reading obituaries of gay men and news of meager AIDS funding from the Reagan administration. Sandwiched between personals and escorts were real estate sales listings, including a one-inch ad about a B&B in downtown Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Bill thought about his youthful days living in New Orleans and working at the Maison De Ville, a small dusty red stucco painted guest house overlooking Toulouse Street. There Tennessee Williams had once lived while penning “A Street Car Named Desire” — when not sipping Sazarac cocktails in the garden courtyard.
He circled the ad and placed it on the kitchen counter for his lover, Bob, to read. The couple had met two years earlier crossing the P Street Bridge and had gradually merged their lives. After Bob looked at the ad, Bill suggested: “Let’s go look at this! We will have a business and an income — and a place to live!” Born in Minnesota, Bob Jerome, the more cautious of the pair, had grown up in California, attending college in Claremont and later working as a Senate staffer. Like Bill, he had a doctorate and traveled throughout the world before their P Street encounter. Unlike Bob, however, Bill never had been to Rehoboth. Nevertheless, Bill insisted this could be their next adventure or at least an excuse to visit the shore off-season.
“It’s a great seasonal resort,” Bob responded positively. “Everybody goes there. There’s gay life!”
The next weekend, they crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and drove to Paradise. Rehoboth was mostly shuttered. But the Renegade bar was open at the fringe of town as was the Blue Moon along the gaying Baltimore Avenue. Driving one street over, they arrived at 40 Maryland Ave.
John, the Realtor, whose lover “Dolly” performed at the Moon, met the couple at the 19th-century house. “It was pretty awful,” remembers Bill. The fatigued Paradise Guest House sign was washed-out and the wide front porch with its handcrafted trellis lusted for paint. The pipes were drained. There was no heat or electricity. There were slivers of mirrors glued on living room walls, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, 1930s over-stuffed maroon chairs, and yard sale grade furniture facing an old TV. The scent of stale cigarette smoke lingered in the ceilings and walls.
As they wandered through the 28 rooms — most barely wide enough for a floor mattress with a thin plastic sheet and an occasional odd-fitting dresser — they eyed stacks of men’s magazines (Honcho, Mandate, Bound & Gagged), iconic videos like “Boys in the Sand,” “Stryker Force,” and “Pacific Coast Highway,” along with chests of dildos in every imaginable size. Off the living room, a narrow passageway at a left angle to the main corridor led to the first-floor bedrooms. At the end was a trap door. They didn’t venture down. “Seasonal resorts like the Paradise were kind of like bars,” Bill explains. “They look great at night but don’t look at them during the day.”
On their drive back, the couple chatted about the venture. “I told Bill that if we were going to invest, he needed to run it so we could learn the business.” Bob knew his income would cover their personal expenses as long as Bill was willing to do the day-to-day management. “We were youngish. I don’t think we thought about what a massive undertaking it was…. But it seemed right.”
After purchasing the property, they along with some friends had just a few months before the 10-week season began on Memorial Day weekend. “We’d drag them down there and make them work, saying, ‘Oh, you can go to the beach.’ But, of course they never did go as it was always cold and rainy.” Bill wondered, “Does the sun ever shine here?”
Those next weeks were frantic: discarding discolored mattresses and sex toys; tearing out faux bedroom walls to restore the original 14 rooms; buying new white wicker furniture; upgrading the bathrooms, deck, and kitchen. Everything was thoroughly cleaned. Fresh white paint glistened on the walls and gray-painted floors replaced piles of tattered, sandy rugs. A local lesbian contractor built sturdy outside showers replacing a rickety wooden stall connected by a water hose and lined with reflective aluminum foil — designed more for strutting than showering.
“It was a huge undertaking,” admits Bill. “Everything we had was sunk into it. It had to be open!” He remembers one man calling a few days before asking if he could change check-in to Wednesday. “No, you can’t,” Bill said flatly. “You can come Friday at 2 o’clock, but not one minute sooner!”
With little time to advertise in this pre-Internet era, they did their best to explain the changes to former guests, beginning with its new name: The Rehoboth Guest House. More importantly, it now was open to lesbians as well as straights and there was no smoking. “We had a mix of friends,” says Bill. “So it would be gay-owned and operated but pretty much open to whoever wanted to come…. We had been discriminated against for most of our lives. If you don’t want to come you don’t have to.”
Reactions from Paradise veterans varied when Bill and Bob discarded the blue, white, and yellow “Paradise Guest House” sign and, more importantly, its ethos of male eros. One of the new owners’ early supporters was Charlie Allen, who worked in the Baltimore schools but summered in Rehoboth. “He was writing a book,” Bill reveals, “called ‘Summer Sisters’… they were sisters for the summer.” Bob interjects, “The other part of the title was ‘Some Are Not.’ So, it was ‘Summer Sisters [pronounced Some Are Sisters]: Some Are Not.’Charlie died before publishing his book—which has never been found.
Unlike Charlie, “some hardcore folks were upset,” Bob recalls. “This used to be a gay male oasis” where men could “be themselves: wearing dresses; walking around naked; having piercings everywhere. They could get out of their suits and live the lives they wanted with people like them.” In an understanding tone, Bob adds: “That’s hard to take away.” The Paradise was a safe spot not only for Philadelphia accountants, D.C. staffers, and Baltimore teachers, but college kids enjoying summer break, career embarking twinks, and closeted locals seeking safe harbor.
Charlie was best friends with the German-accented Paradise owner Herbert Koerber and his boyfriend, Alvarado Ortiz-Benavides, whom everyone called “Mami”— colloquial Spanish for sweetheart. A gregarious man with fading hair and a reddish beard, Charlie often helped Mami with housekeeping and other chores. Mostly, though, he just enjoyed the sexual freedom of Paradise and the camaraderie among male guests. Some returned each year for a week, others visited more frequently for long weekends, and a few stayed the entire summer. Most guests were younger than Charlie’s 40 odd years, but everyone seemed to get along.
Most of Koerber’s clientele came from word-of-mouth advertising, although there was a classified ad in summer issues of the Washington Blade: “friendly guesthouse, close to beaches and bars.” One of the very first media stories about gay Rehoboth appeared in the May 1980 issue of this iconic paper. It described Paradise as “utterly comfortable” and quoted 38-year-old Herbert: “Tell people I can put them up — maybe even give them a discount during the week — but on weekends, after the bars close, my lobby will be packed.”
Before Herbert opened Paradise, in 1979, there were no openly gay-owned or gay-friendly advertised guest houses in Rehoboth. The Sandcastle, a decrepit speakeasy-like rooming house owned briefly by several gay men, had burnt to the ground four years earlier. The grand Pleasant Inn Lodge, hosted by the reclusive, debonair bachelor Peck Pleasanton and his octogenarian mother, Bessie, welcomed an occasional well-behaved “single” gentleman.
During eight seasons, Paradise evolved as did Herbert and Mami. The two were an odd pair. Herbert, a “fussy queen” who swore like a sailor, was tall and thin with longish hair and a handlebar mustache. He was always tanned even though his forehead would get beet red given his German complexion. The much shorter Mami, whose family was from South America, was soft-spoken and very sweet. Compared to the larger-than-life Herbert, he was less memorable to guests. Bob describes Herbert as “the German businessman. Mami was the onetime boy-toy.” They wintered in Key West, operating a gift shop and hawking kitsch souvenirs like black velvet paintings and seashell coasters.
Herbert monetized every aspect of Paradise, creating a sexual Disneyland. With 28 “teensy rooms the size of bathhouse cubicles,” there could be upwards of 50 men checked-in along with their friends and friends of their friends, wandering in during the night. However, the number of bathrooms — two full baths and two halves — did not expand. “It was shabby and crowded, but we were young and didn’t care,” one Paradise regular muses. “It had a reputation. It was our party house.”
The second floor became clothing optional with men often walking around with towels during midnight hours. Plywood partitions were set between rooms with guests on one side having a window and the other windowless. Herbert’s “summer curtains” served instead of doors, which allowed air (and guests) to circulate. Those with bedroom windows overlooking the sundeck could easily extend an invitation to a coconut-lotioned twink or a weightlifting hunk. “Everything went on at the deck and in the windows and rooms behind it,” recalls a frequent guest. There were late Saturday afternoon happy hours and skit contests. Staging was festive, if not overly decorative, with a jerry-rigged backstage area for costume changing. A raucous backyard crowd cheered contestants.
Originally, there was a huge gabled attic bedroom that required ascending a steep stairway. Herbert slashed it into a tiny single air-conditioned room with the remaining space transformed into an after dark playground full of mattresses with an aroma of poppers and pot. “Herbert turned every square inch of that attic into a bed sleeping sex area. It was masterful,” Bob says in a praiseworthy tone. “Every inch was geared toward pleasure” And, as he and Bill later discovered, There was a leather sling in the “dungeon,” a 10 x 12 cinder block walled room accessed only from the first floor trap door.
Room rates were low and backyard camping was just $5 for those bringing tents. Campers, though, had to be late night partiers. Before dawn, visitors often entered from the alley along a little path leading to the unlocked side gate. Nocturnal grunts, gasps, and groans harmonized to sounds of crashing waves. Back then, as one Paradise regular stresses, “Sex wasn’t a taboo thing. It was like going to lunch! It was as common as going for a cocktail.”
During the day, Herbert was often found in his flip-flops, T-shirt, and khaki shorts, puttering in the garden or tending to his beloved lacecap hydrangeas gracing the front yard. Herbert was estranged from his German-speaking family so Paradise regulars became his family. Friendly, he knew everyone by their first name but don’t ask to reserve a specific room. One returning guest remembers phoning Herbert for a reservation and requesting a first-floor room with a door: “Oh, honey!” Herbert laughed. “It’s just first come, first served.”
Herbert did repairs only when absolutely necessary. But he’d always be painting, using just one color: white. The exception was the wrap-around front porch, lined with rocking chairs, which had a gray floor and ceiling along with knob and tube wiring. Throughout the house, guests used it to hang clothes since there were no closets.
In the early to mid 1980s, Paradise thrived as a money making machine — a bathhouse on the beach. As the number of gay-owned restaurants and bars multiplied along with accompanying media attention, more gay men vacationed at Rehoboth and visited Paradise. “There was a routine,” one recounts. “You’d get up late. Get yourself down to the gay beach. Do a day at the ocean, getting too much sun. Then there was happy hour at the Moon. You had to be there and have a nice look. Then you’d go back, take a nap, and then go to dinner. Then, onto the Renegade!”
Herbert provided a weekend shuttle to the Renegade. About 10 o’clock, he’d drive up in his light colored blue and white ’60s VW van, hop out and, as a regular recollects, “Scream down the hallways: ’Get your asses down here!’” He shuttled guests back-and-forth, with the last pick-up at 1. ”I remember Herbert telling people in his heavy accent, ‘If you miss the last bus, you have to walk the fuck home!” But his gruffness masked protectiveness. ”He’d warn them he was going and he would even count!” Another frequent visitor remembers Herbert “as the kind of guy you’d call at 3 o’clock in the morning to say, ‘I’m in jail.’ And he’d be there.”
In 1980, reports surfaced about clusters of young gay men contacting Pneumocystis pneumonia. Granted the majority of infections and deaths from this “gay cancer” were in New York City and San Francisco, but the Washington Blade published a landmark front-page story, “Rare, Fatal Pneumonia Hits Gay Men,” inJuly 1981.
Herbert began to worry. One guest, living in New York City and volunteering as an AIDS buddy, remembers porch conversations with Herbert. ”He was talking about buying a second one. Then he said, ’I’m concerned since so many people are getting AIDS, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll have a clientele.’”
For many gays, Paradise was a rare time to be themselves and to enjoy the camaraderie and support from other men at a beach resort. Sadly, for some, it was also a death sentence. Sexual desire and psychological denial coupled with governmental inaction and public apathy fueled the AIDS pandemic.
After the 1986 summer season, Herbert and Mami sojourned, as usual, to Key West; Herbert never returned. ”I can remember being surprised to hear that he was ill,” laments a longtime patron. ”He went quickly; we had no indications he was ill.”
Herbert died a week before Bill and Bob opened on Memorial Day weekend. Mami was with him until the end. Like Paradise, he disappeared into history and, along with Herbert and many of his guests, would be remembered by few.
James Sears’ latest book, “Behind the Boardwalk: Queering the History of Rehoboth Beach” will be published next year. Tom Kelch, manger of the Rehoboth Beach Guest House, contributed research to this article.
Lesbian Bar Project to the rescue
Founders complete second year fundraising campaign to save businesses
The Lesbian Bar Project, a New York-based group founded by lesbian filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street, raised $117,000 last year to help the nation’s lesbian bars stay in business during the height of the COVID pandemic.
Among the bars receiving financial assistance from the project was D.C.’s A League of Her Own, the Adams Morgan lesbian bar. Owner Dave Perruzza said he and his staff were grateful to receive a $7,000 check from the Lesbian Bar Project early this year when the bar was closed under the city’s COVID shutdown order.
The two women say their 2021 fundraising campaign for the project will raise well over $100,000 as part of their continuing effort to support the nation’s remaining 21 lesbian bars, including A League of Her Own.
“Like a lot of things during COVID, we took a lot for granted,” Street told the Blade in describing how she and Rose reacted when their city’s three remaining lesbian bars – two in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn – shut down like most other bars and restaurants during the peak of the COVID public health restrictions in 2020.
“Erica and I felt very connected to the bars there,” Street said. “And we started these discussions of, we miss our cherished spaces. And now they’re closed. Where do we go?”
With their filmmaking skills as a backdrop, and with the knowledge that the already diminishing number of lesbian bars across the country were struggling to survive under COVID, the two started a fundraising campaign for those bars called the Lesbian Bar Project. Among other things, they produced a video Public Service Announcement with archival scenes of lesbian bars and the women who patronized them.
With financial support from the Jagermeister liquor company’s Save the Night campaign, which was launched to provide financial support for nightlife businesses such as bars and restaurants, Rose and Street arranged for the production of a separate 20-minute documentary film about the role lesbian bars play in the lives of those who patronize them. Rose and Street are listed as the film’s directors.
Among those serving as executive producer and appearing in the documentary is Lea DeLaria, the lesbian comedian, actress and internationally acclaimed star of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”
Also appearing in the documentary is Jo McDaniel, longtime D.C. lesbian activist and bartender and manager at several D.C. gay bars who helped Perruzza open A League of Her Own as the city’s first full-time lesbian bar since the closing of the famed D.C. lesbian bar Phase One nearly a decade ago.
McDaniel says she left her job as A League of Her Own’s manager last year to undertake, along with her life partner Rachel Pike, the start of a new D.C. LGBTQ welcoming bar called As You Are, which began operating online. McDaniel says she and Pike are actively looking for a storefront building in which to open As You Are as an in-person café and bar with a dance floor that will be welcoming to lesbians and the LGBTQ community in general.
The documentary, which helped generate support for the project’s fundraising efforts, can be viewed on the group’s website free of charge at lesbianbarproject.com.
Earlier this month, the national dating app called Hinge announced it was entering into a partnership with the Lesbian Bar Project and would make an initial donation in August of $50,000 to help the project support lesbian bars in need of financial aid.
The announcement said Hinge would educate all its U.S. users about the “importance of LGBTQIA+ establishments” and encourage its LGBTQ members to visit one of the bars for a date.
“The bars that comprise the Lesbian Bar Project are not only a safe space but an essential part of LGBTQIA+ culture,” said Justin McLeod, founder and CEO of Hinge. “Our hope is that this support will help these sacred spaces to stay open through this summer and beyond,” he said in the company’s statement.
The Lesbian Bar Project website provides a list of the 21 lesbian bars that the project has supported. In a notice on the website, Rose and Street note that their initial fundraising campaign for 2021 has been completed, and a financial statement with information on how much has been raised will be released around the time of Labor Day weekend.
Rose told the Blade that until she and Street decide the project’s next plan of action, they are calling on people to donate directly to one or more of the 21 lesbian bars listed on the website.
However, a notice on the website says three of the bars – Cubbyhole of New York City; Sue Ellen’s of Dallas; and Wildside West of San Francisco, “have graciously decided to opt out” of the 2021 pool of funds raised to allow for more contributions to the other bars in greater need.
“In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 200 Lesbian Bars across the country,” a statement posted on the Lesbian Bar Project website says. “These bars are disappearing at a staggering rate, and we cannot afford to lose more of these vital establishments to the fallout of COVID-19,” the statement says.
Rose and Street said the decline in the number of lesbian bars, which began long before the onset of the COVID pandemic, is due to a number of factors, including the overall success of the LGBTQ rights movement. The two said nondiscrimination protections in state and local laws and the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, opened the way for lesbians and LGBTQ people in general to feel comfortable patronizing bars that were not specifically catering to lesbians.
They said that like its impact on gay bars in general, the rise of the Internet and online meet-up sites has also had the effect of enabling lesbians to meet each other outside of bars and other “brick and mortar” establishments.
“So, it’s like all of these factors combined with the pandemic are why many of these places are disappearing,” Rose said. “And that’s why Elina and I jumped into action. Our goal is always to raise awareness. The money raised is definitely a bonus,” she said. “We wanted to raise awareness and tell the stories of these bars. That’s going to make sure we remain indelible in our culture and ensuring our survival.”
Rose was referring to one of the themes of her and Street’s 20-minute documentary – that the in-person interaction offered by lesbian bars and LGBTQ bars in general provides, among other things, an important part of LGBTQ culture and the diversity of LGBTQ people that online and virtual venues cannot provide.
“We believe what makes a bar uniquely Lesbian is its prioritization of creating space for people of marginalized genders; including women, non-binary folks, and trans men,” according to the statement posted on the Lesbian Bar Project website. “As these spaces aim to be inclusive of all individuals across the diverse LGBTQIA+ community, the label Lesbian belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them,” the statement says.
“Without space, we lose power, validity, communal safety and access to intergenerational dialogue,” the statement adds. “With the support of our community, we can make sure these bars receive not only the financial assistance they need but the reference they deserve. When our history isn’t protected, we must protect it ourselves.”
Following is a list of the 21 remaining lesbian bars in the United States released by the Lesbian Bar Project:
A League of Her Own — Washington, D.C.
Alibi’s — Oklahoma City, Okla.
Babes of Carytown — Richmond, Va.
Blush & Blu — Denver
Boycott Bar — Phoenix
Cubbyhole — New York City
Frankie’s — Oklahoma City, Okla.
Ginger’s — Brooklyn, N.Y.
Gossip Grill — San Diego, Calif.
Henrietta Hudson — New York City
Herz — Mobile, Ala.
My Sister’s Room MSR — Atlanta
Pearl Bar — Houston
Slammers — Columbus, Ohio
Sue Ellen’s — Dallas
The Backdoor — Bloomington, Ind.
The Lipstick Lounge — Nashville, Tenn.
Walker’s Pint — Milwaukee, Wisc.
Wildrose — Seattle
Wildside West — San Francisco
Yellow Brick Road Pub — Tulsa, Okla.
Adopting an older child from overseas — one couple’s story
‘He really wanted a forever family, it didn’t matter that we’re gay’
Jim Walker and Ethan Taylor had talked about adoption but weren’t sure how to go about it. Ethan himself was adopted and the biological father of a 13-year-old daughter (Bella) from a previous relationship.
Then, one evening in 2018, a Rainbow Families Facebook post caught their attention. “It mentioned Kidsave,” Ethan said, “a non-profit organization that brings older Colombian orphans to stay with host families for five weeks to experience life here with an American family. They’re unadoptable in their own country because they are over eight years old.”
Jim and Ethan had been together five-plus years by then and known each other for 18. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this!’ Next thing we know, we’re signed up to host Juan Carlos,” reminisced Jim.
After a five-week visit, many families decide to adopt the children. In fact, 80% of the children who participate in Kidsave’s “Summer Miracles” program are eventually adopted, and those who are not, often come back for a second visit and are adopted later.
During those five weeks, Kidsave and the host families help the children meet potential adoptive families. The children may or may not know adoption is a possibility, but host families aren’t allowed to talk openly about it during the visit.
Jim and Ethan plowed through the paperwork at warp speed and were approved to host. They attended orientations and training with other host families. Soon they were at Dulles Airport, wearing their yellow Kidsave T-shirts so the kids could easily identify them.
When Juan Carlos came through the customs doors, “He ran up to us, gave us big hugs, and then presented each of us with a braided bracelet from his home country,” recalled Jim. “Right then and there, we fell in love with him and knew we were going to adopt him.”
Juan Carlos didn’t care that a same-sex couple hosted his visit. “Since he never had a father figure in his life, he was thrilled to have TWO dads — and a sister,” said Ethan. “Juan Carlos just really, really wanted a forever family that would love and protect him. It didn’t matter that we happened to be gay.”
“The most surprising thing was how happy, resilient, and adaptable he was — and continues to be,” said Jim. “He had spent more than half his life in an orphanage but he never complained about his circumstances,” said Jim.
After hosting, the process of adoption includes many additional steps and hurdles, and unexpected things can and do happen so an effort is made not to get the children’s hopes up. After a two-week “quiet” period people can apply to adopt. The interest must be two-way – the children must want to be adopted by that family.
“When we did bring him home for good,” recollected Ethan, “he immediately ran upstairs to his bedroom and pulled out a bag of quarters that he had hidden and declared, ‘I always knew that I would be coming back!’”
“We learned about that we have a lot of love and patience to give to a child. Being a parent, especially to two device-obsessed teenagers, can be stressful on any relationship but we have learned effective communication and the value of doing things with each other that don’t always involve the kids.”
Jim and Ethan were married in 2019, and both Juan Carlos and Isabelle participated in the wedding.
“Kidsave is very welcoming for people of various backgrounds and sexual orientations,” said Ethan. “There is a great and growing community of Kidsave families in the D.C. area, including several same-sex and single-parent families. We have made some wonderful friends though Kidsave. We strongly encourage others to consider hosting through Kidsave’s ‘Summer Miracles’ program!”
Summer Miracles kids are here until Aug. 14, and desperately need forever families. Visit Kidsave.org to learn more.
Now 16 years old, Juan Carlos is adjusting well to life as an American teenager. “Every night, when I tuck him into bed, the smile on his face says everything. Being his dad,” noted an equally smiley Jim, “is a dream come true.”
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