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Gay identity elusive for Little Richard and Roy of Siegfried & Roy

Rock pioneer later said he was ‘ex-gay’; Vegas tiger king evaded topic almost entirely

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It was perhaps ironic that Little Richard and Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy) died within hours of each other this month. Though they were from totally separate pop culture factions, seeing their obits side by side in some outlets, such as the May 10 New York Times, was a sobering reminder of how an older generation of gay men — Horn, who died at 75 was on the outer cusp of the Boomers; Richard was 12 years older — dealt with (or didn’t deal with) their sexuality in a pre-Stonewall era when practically nobody was officially out but demeanor, style, stage persona and more “read” gay to middle America the same way sexual innuendo was implied in early jazz and movies long before it was discussed or depicted openly.

Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman was his legal name) was known for a string of ’50s hits like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” whose impact went far beyond their initial chart peaks. Richard has been widely lauded as a rock and roll innovator and the first pop star to integrate black and white audiences in a time of rigid segregation in music and society. He died May 9 from bone cancer at his home in Tullahoma, Tenn., after a two-month illness. He was 87.

Horn came to fame with his nearly life-long professional (and for a time personal) partner Siegfried Fischbacher, who were known for their flashy Las Vegas act in which they made lions and tigers (and each other) vanish and reappear. They came to Vegas in 1967 and had a sellout run at the Mirage Resort and Casino from 1990-2003 that found them performing 500 shows yearly. By 1999, the show had grossed half a billion dollars and they were Vegas’s highest-paid entertainers.

Sadly, their careers ended abruptly on Oct. 3, 2003 (Horn’s birthday) when one of the tigers attacked Horn resulting in serious injury. Suffering a stroke and partial paralysis on his left side, Horn was eventually able to walk with assistance but never performed again. The duo made one final public appearance in 2009 with a tiger at a benefit for the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, the Times reported, before retiring officially in 2010. Horn died of COVID-19.

The duo (both German immigrants) only officially came out in 2007 in a National Enquirer article that announced “We’re gay” on the cover. They gave few interviews (even in their heyday) and could be testy about it when pressed.

Behind the glitz

SIEGFRIED & ROY at their home, The Jungle Palace. (Photo illustration from 1998 program book; courtesy Mirage)

But with their over-the-top costumes (including Roy’s trademark codpiece), ostentatious Vegas home and inseparable public image (and never a hint that either might be involved romantically with anyone else), they didn’t have to state it explicitly. They donned capes and silver space suits, battled a sorceress and a fire-breathing dragon amidst smoke machines, lasers and, of course, lions and tigers, many of which were white, which are uber rare. Their act had a Liberace-esque flair to it, even if neither were ever quite that fey. Siegfried was the magician; Roy the animal trainer. They presented a yin/yang-type persona and lived together at Jungle Palace, an eight-acre Vegas estate (a much larger ranch was just outside the city proper) with, as of 1999, 55 tigers and 16 lions. Horn was the “Tiger King” decades before anybody heard of Joe Exotic (also gay) of the hit Netflix series.

“So you go deeper and say what is going on in my bedroom and in Roy’s bedroom,” Fischbacher said in a 1999 Vanity Fair profile. “I don’t care, I don’t know. I tell you this because this is me and I wouldn’t ask what you do with your dick either.”

Both said they were “very honored” to be considered gay icons but spoke of gay as “other.”

“I have a lot of friends who are gay and I made a lot of friends in show business and I found out that they are always interesting, intelligent and good people and fun to be with,” Fischbacher told Vanity Fair.

“I am flattered to think that people think that I am versatile,” Horn said. “You don’t have to define everything and I don’t want to disillusion people because I’m not a guy who kisses and tells.”

Pal Shirley MacLaine told the magazine they “used to be lovers a long time ago, yeah? In this day and age, who cares?”

Mainstream media only coyly touched on Horn’s sexuality. The Times said Fischbacher and Horn “were domestic as well as professional partners” but left it at that. Journalist Steve Friess, who in The Advocate called them “the world’s most openly closeted celebrities,” said a Mirage spokesperson told him the night of Horn’s attack that “it’s well known that they were lovers at one time.”

They were said to have little presence in Vegas gay life, according to Friess and others, and outside of buying an ad in a program book for an AIDS fundraiser, were not known to have used any of their vast wealth to support LGBTQ rights.

For some, that’s not a problem.

Milt Larsen, founder of The Magic Castle, a private club for magicians and enthusiasts in Hollywood, is 89, straight and knew Siegfried and Roy for many years, initially through his late sister-in-law, Irene Larsen. She and her husband Bill Larsen (Milt’s brother) loved magic and animals and discovered Siegfried & Roy in their early years in Vegas. Larsen later met the duo through his brother and sister-in-law and says Horn was “a dear, great friend.”

“Before Siegfried & Roy, magicians were very seldom anything other than an opening act,” Larsen says. “They came along and went from being an opening act to the headliner with their own huge show because it was so popular. … They were the best.”

Larsen’s friend Dale Hindman also know Siegfried & Roy and says he was at their house several times. He says Roy “fought like crazy” to recover and “they had the best medical people” working with him. He did daily physical therapy, swam and would zip around the grounds on a scooter. He recalls one Vegas convention in which Horn made a rare, post-accident appearance and walked to the podium.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Hindman says. “I saw him a number of times at different places. He was in the scooter, he would talk, he loved people, he had great quality of life and they had the resources to have the best medical care. It’s such a shame that something like this virus came along and killed him.”

Larsen and Hindman say Horn’s sexuality was understood but “never really discussed.”

“I’ve been in show business a long time and sometimes it feels like just about everybody I’ve ever known was gay,” Larsen says with a laugh. “It was a different world then. I just don’t recall anybody ever talking much about it.”

Hindman says it was generational and gradual when more celebrities started coming out officially. Larsen says Fischbacher, especially (whom he calls a “great” businessman), just “never made a big point of it.”

“They were a couple in the sense that they were absolute partners in what they did and that their lives were their business,” he says. “People are people and in the world we live in today, it’s just not questioned as much.”

Larsen remembers “many, many times” being backstage in their Vegas dressing room post-show.

“The Champagne would be flowing and there were lots of wonderful friends,” Larsen says. “[Roy] was very, very gregarious and he and Irene really got to know each other and became wonderful friends.”

“There would be drinks and hors d’oeuvres and plenty of people,” Hindman says. “After awhile, Roy would go play with the animals. Siegfried would say, “I’m tired but you all stay as long as you want.’”

Out magician/actor Michael Carbonaro, 44, of reality show “The Carbonaro Effect,” said in a written comment to the Blade it didn’t matter if Siegfried & Roy were coy about their sexuality.

“I actually don’t know what Siegfried & Roy ever did or didn’t put into words,” he said. “I grew up seeing two gorgeous men living their magic dreams in bedazzled outfits, so they were always an iconic form of queer inspiration.”

It’s complicated

Others, however, aren’t willing to let them off the gay hook so easily. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect everyone to have been a Frank Kameny or Barbara Gittings, but as time went on, many argue prominent gays should have done more for the cause.

Matthew Rettenmund, a gay blogger and pop culture historian/author, says Horn’s approach to being “out” reminds him of singer Barry Manilow who finally came out in 2017 at age 73 after decades of evading the question.

“They’re men who have convinced themselves that being gay in private is the same thing as being out,” he said in an e-mail. “Which is simply not true. I do hope that as the Rip Taylors and Richard Simmonses of the world leave us, as sad as it is to lose their talent, that they won’t be replaced by more of the same. Hiding in plain sight is still hiding and it still sends such a warped message of self-acceptance.”

Long-time gay Vegas resident/historian Dennis McBride says he can see where both sides of the issue were coming from.

“Siegfried and Roy were never involved in the Las Vegas queer community in any public way I’m aware of,” McBride wrote in an e-mail to the Blade. “They were much like Liberace in that respect — they were Las Vegas icons, counted Las Vegas as their personal and professional home, but deeply closeted because they came of age and established their careers during a time when they could have been jailed for being gay and lost those very lucrative careers. I remember there was some resentment in the community because we needed role models — particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s during the worst of the AIDS pandemic — and both Liberace and Sigfried & Roy might have been a great help in our struggle, brought credibility and support to our fight. I don’t think any of us entirely blamed them, though, because we were all in danger then ourselves as queer people.”

And while Richard stated he was gay explicitly on multiple occasions, he was never at peace with it and at multiple times in his career recorded gospel music and even for a time sold Bibles in a repudiation of the rock and roll and gay “devil’s” music and “lifestyle.” For him, being gay was a vexation and something to be overcome, which is, to some, even more troubling than Horn’s avoiding the issue.

“The problem is his religiosity and self doubt forced him back in the closet just as many times, “Rettenmund wrote. “And though he camped it up to earn a living in his final decades, it was homophobia that won. He died an ‘ex-gay,’ a sad loss.”

Richard was married to a woman from 1957-1964. They had one adopted son. As recently as 2017, he was condemning gay sex. “God, Jesus, he made men, men, he made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live,” Richard told the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a religious channel, reported by The Advocate.

LITTLE RICHARD in the 1950s when he first achieved fame. (Photo courtesy Atlantic Records)

Gay author/actor Michael Kearns (who’s been on “Cheers,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Waltons,” “Knots Landing” et. al. and has said in interviews and books he had sex with Rock Hudson and Barry Manilow) says Richard deserves a more compassionate assessment.

“I don’t know how much gay sex he was having, but for me it was all about him having such a gay persona,” Kearns says. “I think what young men like me found so stirring and exciting is that it gave us something to grasp onto. Here was this sissy, this exciting, flamboyant, theatrical, wild persona and yeah, he later had the doubts and went back into the closet as a religious fanatic, well, of course he did. He was a black man from the South dealing with all that church stuff. I mean that’s a big struggle and I think people just don’t give him enough human credit for battling that publicly.”

McBride says after their performing years, Sigfried & Roy were occasioally seen in Vegas’s gay spots. They separated romantically in 1996, he says, when Fischbacher got his own house in Spanish Trails. In more recent years, after Horn’s accident, speaking out for gay causes wouldn’t have carried as much weight, he says.

“No one really cared by then,” McBride says. “The moment when their honesty mght have made a positive difference to the Las Vegas queer community had long passed and so had the careers they might have lost if they’d come out earlier.”

He says they were “largely circumspect” but “we still saw them discreetly out and about.”

“Even before (they broke up), when we saw them in the community, it was usually separately,” he says. “The two of them would visit the Le Cafe nightclub in the 1970s which then stood on the northwest corner of Tropicana Avenue and Paradise Road. The club’s lesbian owner, Marge Jacques, counted them as friends. In the 1980s, separately or together, they’d come to Gipsy, which then was an upscale dance club on Paradise Road and Naples Drive.”

They were also spotted occasionally at seedier gay spots, McBride says.

“Roy seemed to enjoy the Talk of the Town adult bookstore when it was in the Crestwood Shopping Center on East Charleston Boulevard and one or the other was occasionally seen at the Camp David bath house on Industrial Road,” he says. “But mostly, they and their circle of gay friends — which included Liberace and Hans Klok, who came out about the same time Sigfried & Roy did in 2007, and their protege, Darren Romeo, who just came out during his run in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., — kept themselves pretty much sequestered at Little Bavaria back in the day. I think the idea of a queer community was alien to them, outside their experience, maybe even distracting and a bit threatening.”

Religious hangups

Gospel music producer/historian Anthony Heilbut has written at length about how black Christian denominations have shamed or welcomed queer musicians to varying degrees in the ‘50s, ‘60s and prior. He knew Little Richard — not well, but they’d met on several occasions — and says one must consider the era when deciding how much blame to assign him. He wanders into another room of his New York apartment during a phone interview last week and puts on a recording of gospel singer Marion Williams (1927-1994), who for a time was in The Famous Ward Singers, helmed by Clara Ward (one of Aretha Franklin’s major influences) and who also had a significant solo career. He holds the phone up to a recording of her whooping and hollering and it’s easy to see where Little Richard got some of his inspiration. Richard appeared at the Kennedy Center Honors when Williams was inducted.

“His phrasings and his timbre and even his ballad singing, and he was a great ballad singer although we typically think of him as this sort of rock and roll clown, all that came from Marion Williams,” Heilbut, who’s gay, says. “You can’t copyright phrasings. That’s what singers could take from each other.”

Heilbut also says Richard, whom he first met in 1961 and says he’s “one of the very few people who ever saw him sing on a gospel program,” says Richard’s gospel singing career was never terribly convincing or memorable partially because he came from a staid denomination (Seventh Day Adventist, not nearly as musically rowdy as black Baptists and those in the Sanctified Church) and the fact that it was performed more dutifully than his rock and roll material.

“He was singing, ‘I quit show business and I wanna go straight/I wanna serve the Lord before it’s too late,’” Heilbut says. “His singing was very bland. There was more of the real gospel drama in his R&B and rock music.”

Heilbut also says Richard admired Williams in the traditional way gay men have worshiped show-stopping divas. He remembers seeing Richard at a Nashville studio when Heilbut was producing one of Williams’ later recordings. He mimics Richard’s speech patterns, recalling the conversation: “‘Is she still fabulous? Do she still make notes? I makes notes. I heard she preaching. I preaching too. … She always war my heart, she know, she know. I’ve been singing like her down through the years. Mahalia good, but Marion always were my singer.’”

Heilbut also says Richard’s various stints in gospel music robbed his career of momentum in rock. As respected as he was among rock pioneers, he’s almost wholly associated with his ‘50s heyday. Attempts at secular music comebacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s could not come close to matching his peak period.

“He made some very lovely records later and he could be a wonderful singer, but by then the audience had changed,” Heilbut says. “The train had passed.”

Later in life, Heilbut says, Richard was seen socializing in gay bars. He never personally saw him but says friends reported him being “the belle of the ball” at St. Louis gay bars on various occasions.

Richard, whom Heilbut says “always struck me as very goofy,” was ultimately “just incredibly confused.”

Roy, Richard ‘lacked courage’

Gay activist/entrepreneur Mitchell Gold, who like Siegfried & Roy, knows something about being linked for life to a former partner — he and business partner/former domestic partner Bob Williams formed their eponymous furniture company Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams in 1989, which they continue to run jointly. He says celebrities holding onto or returning to the closet are a reminder of “how horrible these religious teachings are, how toxic.”

“I don’t even know what it’s like to live like that,” Gold says. “I was tortured about it until I was 24, 25 but then that was the end of it. These guys who live their whole lives having to be careful about that they said, it’s just horrible. I don’t know as much about Siegfried & Roy except that after awhile it just gets to be ridiculous, like the Barry Manilow thing was for so many years.”

Gold understands Richard not being out in the ‘50s or Siegfried & Roy at the advent of their careers but later in life, once they were financially secure, he says they “lacked courage.”

“I never cared if we lost money for being out,” Gold says. “I don’t have to be a gazillionnaire. If I make less, I make less and it’s the same for Siegfried & Roy. At some point they had plenty of money and so why wouldn’t they speak out for people who aren’t being sheltered the way they are and are forced to live a closeted, unhealthy life. The only thing I can say is I don’t think these folks even know what a healthy life looks like.”

Gay journalist/author Michael Musto agrees.

“It’s partly generational, though many of their generation ended up being belatedly but wonderfully out and proud — Richard Chamberlain, Joel Grey, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s more of a sort of self-loathing-tinged caution based on a lifelong fear of an image adjustment or career damage. Roy played to Middle American high rollers, but obviously didn’t want to gamble on his own career. One of his magic tricks was being cagey about his sexuality.”

Musto says the music business has been especially troubling for non-straight black entertainers.

“Little Richard renounced his queerness when he should have just been at peace with it and allowed himself to celebrate and be celebrated by our community,” Musto says. “Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and many others were unwilling to step out of the shadows because the people around them (and sometimes their own inner voices) told them not to. Little Richard was so queer that it seems like a ‘duh’ that he should have just gone there. But with Adam Lambert, Sam Smith and many others (and Elton John, Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang having led the way), things have inalterably changed.”

Although Fischbacher and Horn never spoke of their religious influences — their decor reflected influences of Eastern religion and Horn would sound a large gong in his bedroom to let the tigers know he was awake — for Richard, Kearns says, it was tragic.

“I’m not saying there aren’t some fabulously evolved people who are religious but we’ve seen time and time again how religion gets its hold on gay people at a very early age and just does not let go and the result can be horrific,” Kearns says. “Richard is a fascinating creature to me. In a way, it’s amazing he lived as long as he did with this struggle. He deserves a lot of credit. He didn’t have an easy time of it.”

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D.C. summer ablaze with events, concerts, art

A plethora of activity in wake of COVID restrictions loosening up

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After a year of public events being cancelled and residents staying cooped up in their homes due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the “outside” is finally open and D.C. is effervescing with events. Check out ways to make up for lost time during the remaining months of this year’s summer season:

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest, an exhibition dedicated to the women who rebelled on Sunday, July 18. The exhibition combines prints, photographs, and books to tell the stories of past heroines and modern trailblazers, celebrating women throughout history who broke rules, transgressed boundaries, and insisted upon recognition of their human rights. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

Tschabalala Self: By My Self is on view at the BMA through Sept. 19, 2021. Explore 13 paintings and two related sculptures curated by Cecilia Wichmann that reveal artist Tschabalala Self’s depth, intricacy, and singularity. The exhibition explores how the compositional process generates meaning in Self’s work, reflecting her theory of selfhood as a consciousness that is at once produced by external images and by an ongoing reworking and evolving of forms into a new whole. Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990 and is based in New Haven, Conn. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

The 1455 Summer Festival will begin on Thursday, July 15 at 4 p.m., featuring a stellar lineup of literary leaders and creatives (many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community) who will share their insights into the art of storytelling. The lineup will include literary superstar Brian Broome, author of “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” and Booker-Prize-winning author “Shuggie Bain” and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, among others. Some of the festival’s events include “What Makes a Successful (Queer) Narrative?” a panel that’ll dissect queer storytelling throughout the years. There will also be a teen poetry contest with a $5,000 grand prize. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

The National Museum of Asian Art will open Hokusai: Mad about Painting on Saturday, Aug. 28. The exhibition will feature work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) best known for his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” and a breathtaking painting titled “Breaking Waves” that was created 15 years after Great Wave at the height of Hokusai’s career. Drawing on the museum’s impressive Hokusai collection, visitors have the opportunity to see a new presentation, with artworks being added throughout the summer. In addition to Breaking Waves, the exhibition includes works large and small, from folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. For more information, visit the NMAA’s website.

Awesome Con will be from Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The event is D.C.’s own Comic Con, a celebration of geek culture, bringing more than 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, television, toys, games, and more. Awesome Con is home to Science Fair, Book Fair, Awesome Con Jr, Pride Alley, a celebration of queer creators and fans curated by GeeksOUT, and Destination Cosplay. For more information, visit awesomecon.com. 

A scene from 2019’s Awesome Con. This year’s event is slated for the weekend of Aug. 20. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Maryland Renaissance Festival will begin on Saturday, Aug. 28 and runs Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Sunday, Oct. 24 for nine weekends of thrills, feasting, handmade crafts, entertainment and merriment in Crownsville, near Annapolis, Md. The 27-acre Village of Revel Grove comes to life each autumn with more than 200 professional performers on 10 stages, a 3,000 seat arena with armored jousting on magnificent steeds and streets filled with village characters. For more information, visit rennfest.com. 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be open for special evening hours from Thursday, Aug. 5 to Friday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The featured exhibitions are Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which presents images photographer Mary Ellen Mark made throughout her career depicting girls and young women, and Selections from the Collection, which highlights historical and contemporary art by women around the world. Free timed tickets are required so that the museum can ensure the safety of patrons and their staff. Visit their website for more information. 

The 13th Annual Ukefest will begin on Friday, Aug. 13. Celebrating a decade dedicated to this small but mighty music maker, UkeFest Artistic Directors Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer return alongside extraordinary instructors like Peter Luongo, Kevin Carroll, Ginger Johnson and more. The program orientation will kick off on Friday night, followed by four days of classes and evening events. For those looking for more intensive skill development, Strathmore’s UkeFest is the only program of its kind that offers an advanced track. Admission is $225 and more information is available at Strathmore.org.

The Drive-In at Union Market will start at 7:30 p.m. every first Friday of the month through October. While watching films under the stars, enjoy dozens of local, regional, and international foods: Egyptian favorites by Fava Pot, night market noodles from Som Tam, ice cream locally churned by The Creamery, tasty takeout burgers from Lucky Buns and more. Movie audio will be transmitted through an FM transmitter on the radio and through speakers placed on Neal Place. All movies are shown with open captioning, and the movie plays rain or shine. Each showing costs $20 per car. For more information, visit unionmarketdc.com. 

Unwind with an hour-long vinyasa outdoor yoga session taught by District Flow Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday on District Pier and every Sunday morning on Recreation Pier at The Wharf. Enjoy waterfront views and fresh air as you shed the stress of the day or greet the new one. The outdoor yoga class on Sunday, July 25 is hosted on Recreation Pier from 9-10 a.m. and costs $10. Tickets must be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit wharfdc.com. 

FUTURES, the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall, will open in the late summer and run through summer 2022. This exhibition is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from the air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. Patrons are encouraged to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. Visit the Arts and Industries Building’s website for more information. 

The National Portrait Gallery will open “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” on Friday, Aug. 27. Hung Liu (b. 1948) is a contemporary Chinese American artist, whose multilayered paintings have established new frameworks for understanding portraiture in relation to time, memory, and history. Often sourcing her subjects from photographs, Liu elevates overlooked individuals by amplifying the stories of those who have historically been invisible or unheard. More information is available at the gallery’s website.

 After a long COVID drought, music is back! The 9:30 Club has a schedule of shows starting in September, notably the return of the Bob Mould Band on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. (tickets are $25 and still available). Tinashe performs her “333Tour” on Oct. 3 (tickets on sale July 16). Visit 930.com for the full schedule and hurry, because many shows are already selling out. 

Bob Mould, gay news, Washington Blade
The Bob Mould Band plays 9:30 Club on Sept. 18.

Meanwhile, at I.M.P.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, more shows are headed our way, including James Taylor and his All-Star Band on Aug. 10. Wilco and Sleater-Kinney perform Aug. 20. For more throwback fixes, New Kids on the Block are slated for Aug. 4 and Alanis Morissette with Garbage and Liz Phair play on Aug. 31. Visit merriweathermusic.com for the full lineup. 

Wolf Trap has a full schedule of events planned this summer as well. Highlights include Renee Fleming on Aug. 6, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 12, and ABBA the Concert on Aug. 15. Visit wolftrap.org for the full schedule.

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Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective

Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals

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Members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington gather in front of the Supreme Court on Sept. 3, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Tickets: $25
gmcw.org

Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.

“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”

Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.

A Gay Men’s Chorus performance in 1983. (Washington Blade archive photo by Leigh Mosley)

Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”

“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.

The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.

Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.

Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.

Thea Kano, center, joins members of the Chorus at the United States Supreme Court on the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in June of 2015.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).

Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.

GenOUT Youth Chorus. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.

“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”

Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”

The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.

“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”

The Chorus performs at the popular gay nightclub Tracks in 1984. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.

Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.

“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”

Click here for more about the history of the group. A bio/history is also available at gmcw.org.

COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.

The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.

“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”

A GMCW rehearsal in 2007. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.

Featured soloists perform in ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.

But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?

As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.

“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”

Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.

“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.

The holiday shows for the Chorus often involve elaborate costumes, as in this scene in 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.

“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”

Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”

“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.

The Chorus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in a performance at Lincoln Theatre in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.

The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.

Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.

“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”

Craig Cipollini leads the ‘Grease’ dance auditions in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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Billy Porter talks about his HIV diagnosis and keeping secrets

The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years in the Hollywood Reporter Wednesday

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Billy Porter appearing on Tamron Hall's show Wednesday (Screenshot via YouTube)

NEW YORK – Daytime talk show host Tamron Hall welcomed Broadway icon and star of the hit tv show “Pose,” Billy Porter on her show that aired Wednesday. The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years that was made public in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.

Porter discusses his HIV diagnosis from over a decade ago which the actor said he felt a sense of shame that compelled him to hide his condition from his castmates, collaborators and even his mother, and the responsibility that now has him speaking out. “The truth is the healing,” Porter said.

“I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive,” he wrote. “The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” the actor wrote.

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