Monday, March 14, 2011

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Go See “Making the Boys”

                                                                                 Original cast picture from The Boys in the Band

Last Friday night was I lucky enough to attend a special showing at the Quad Theatre on W. 13th Street in the Village, of Making the Boys, Crayton Robey’s documentary about the creation of The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's famous play about a gay birthday party where almost everything hangs out. 

This was really Lost Gay New York, and a keyhole into a world I knew only too well. It’s a wonderful movie, very moving at times, a bit over-long (Robey tries to attach everything gay, cultural, New York, American, queerish, etc. to The Boys in the Band; sometimes it sticks and sometimes it just doesn’t.), but ultimately very rewarding whether you were a life-time fan of the play, or like me, someone for whom the play with its bitchiness and bitterness, held a lot of repulsion and embarrassment, because afterall, aren’t we embarrassed by the truth? And The Boys in the Band is the truth. It’s not the only truth by a long shot, but all of us—OK, I know who you are out there—have been to a party at some time in our lives that ends up with drinking too much, saying too much, and hurting others too much, and we’ve lived to tell the tale. Mart Crowley did live, and told us some things that have taken me a lifetime to understand.

Making the Boys does something that is really important, although it doesn’t always get the message right, at least by me. It sees the most important aspect of the play being that moment when Michael, the host of the party (and I hope I have this speaker right) makes what was, in 1968, a truly life-changing statement: “You are a homosexual, and nothing you do will change that. You were born a homosexual and you will die one.”

In 1968, when hundreds of American shrinks were sending their kids to private schools by charging thousands of American gays and lesbians up the ass to “change” them, by any means possible; when the Catholic church was out there saying we’d burn in hell unless we lived totally celibate lives (OK, the shitheads haven’t strayed much from that line); when God-knows how many state mental hospitals were filled with incarcerated men who were being tortured as a means of “straightening them” (and I personally knew at least six men who’d been through that)—for Mart Crowley to write this speech was was hugely important.

It was a signal to a whole generation that being gay was not an option, or something you picked up like a disease and then could just let go of, or even (my worst of these three) a “lifestyle” you could go back into your closet and change. That speech hit a lot of people square behind the eyes and right down into the heart.

But I feel that, at this point in my life, the most important statement in The Boys in the Band is the simple question asked at the end of the birthday party: “Why can’t we love each other?”

It is a startling question, filled with tears and shudders because it opens up even more than the idea that being gay is not something you can change. The real question is: If we are this way, WHY can't we love one another?

It has taken me about 40 years to answer that question.

Because we do have such a hard time, such an impossible time, feeling loved. Homophobia is still killing us. And anyone who can’t see that doesn’t have the imagination necessary to envision a world where same-sex intimacy will be taken as casually, as unimportantly, and considered as valuable, as opposite-sex intimacy. Where the most simple, regular, spontaneous shows of affection, caring, and emotion towards members of your own sex are looked upon and smiled at. I’m waiting for that to happen, but until it does, Crowley’s question is still incredibly operative and important.

So, did I really like the play The Boys in the Band? Like Edward Albee, who has one of the most riveting voices in Making the Boys, said, “I didn’t like it at all.” Albee loathed the play, because it also embarrassed him, and he wanted something that “showed us in a better light.” (He also regrets the fact that he didn’t stick his own money into it: the play payed off like wildfire, and is, still, I’m sure, paying off.)

Like the poet Steve Turtell told me, “When I was 18, I left home [Queens, NY] and joined the circus.” The circus in Steve’s case being gay life and gay culture in Greenwich Village. In my case, the circus was San Francisco, then New York, and I left home by hitchhiking from Savannah, Georgia, to San Francisco at the tender age of 17 because I had been told that San Francisco was “crawling with queers,” and I had to leave the constantly violent nightmare of my childhood and adolescence in the South.

So for me, the Gay World was fantastic: it was real, exciting, and beautiful—even with the lies, the hiding, the pain of keeping so much of yourself out of the picture—all of that was better than my growing up in the homophobic South. I was sneaking into gay bars at 17, and loving them. By 18, they were pure NeverNeverLand. Being young, good-looking, and smart, I was given a ticket to the ball, even though I knew that this ticket had a definite expiration date: probably when I turned 25, and was no longer, by any definition either Chicken or Twinkie. (Chicken was fun; but I never thought I fit the Twink model—Twinkie was always something someone else was.)

So, The Boys in the Band was not my fav piece of queer literature—that was more in the suit of A Single Man, Another Country, The City and the Pillar, City of Night, and delectable pulp like The Sand Structure. But Boys was a real, touchable moment: it was line-dancing at Fire Island, dressing up to go to gay bars (and I mean real dressing, as in you had your queer bar schmattas that you got from shops in the Village), all sorts of parties with all sorts of people who looked like they came right out of the old After Dark magazine (and many did), and a sense of immediate closeness with many, many other men, strung together by our own outcastness.

In Making the Boys, Crowley talks about that sense of outcastness a lot. He comes off as an amazingly wounded and sweet person; he was for years Natalie Wood’s assistant, worked for Elia Kazan, wrote TV scripts (including one for a comedy pilot starring Bette Davis as an interior decorator: what were her favorite colors, blood red and mourning black?); then finally he made it BIG with Boys. Like overnight success made-it. This in itself is a phenomenon of a time—that the play, running in previews at what is now the Vandam Theater (which sat 70 butts) after it’s first night sold out for the next month to the gills.

It exploded. With no million-dollar P.R. campaign. No Twitter. No FaceBook. (OK, it probably had a lot of BedBook: guys went to their address books and called every man they’d ever slept with, but, hey, we did that in those days.) It went from Off-Broadway to Broadway in a flash. It also went from Broadway to London, from London to productions in dozens of languages, and everywhere people went crazy over it. I’m jealous as hell. What writer wouldn’t want that?

I think the real mark of how good The Boys in the Band is as a play is that I’ve seen it twice in amateur productions, and it was terrific. Great plays hold together even with less-than-great casts. You could have done the play with finger puppets and even trained dogs and it would still be hysterical at one moment (“Your lips are so blue it looks like you’ve been rimming a snow man.” Come on!), and moving the next.

So, I think you should go down to the Quad Theater on West 13th Street and see Making the Boys. It’ll be there for the next week or so, but hurry. Call for information, just to make sure it’s there. (212) 255-8800

You can learn more about 3-time IPPY Award winner and gay activist Perry Brass at his website, . You can order his new book The Manly Art of Seduction from Amazon in regular paper format or on Kindle . You can also learn more about his books at SmashWords , the complete Internet marketplace for all things EBooks and otherwise, and on his Author Page at Amazon. Books by Perry Brass are now also available on Diesel Books. The Manly Art of Seduction was recently named a gold-medal winner of an IPPY Award for 2010, from Independent Publisher. You can reach him at if you have questions or comments you want to personally direct to him.


  1. It was Harold, not Michael who said: “You are a homosexual, and nothing you do will change that. You were born a homosexual and you will die one.”
    I saw Boys in the Band (the movie) just after coming out, and it remains one of my favorites. GAA at the time picketed it because it was supposedly too stereotypical, but it helped me feel good about coming out. I never thought I had to be an Upper East Side queen just because these guys were. Does any other movie have such fabulous lines as Harold's speech as he arrives, late and stoned, at his birthday party? Or Emory's "Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty!" Or Emory again: "What's the matter? Your wife got lockjaw?" Viva Mart Crowley! A movie like this couldn't be made today: the assimilationist and politically correct "LGBT"-branded same-sexers wouldn't allow it. Oh, for the days when gay lib was still fun and camp enjoyed an elevated perch.
    David Thorstad

  2. I remember hating it too when it first came out and I think it was like you said, it was because I wanted a play that showed us in a perfect light instead of being alcoholics and mean to each other. We did do that though, often back then and the next morning, we woke up hung over, thinking, "God, what did I do or say last night?" I saw the movie again about a week ago and was surprised that I viewed it in a more favorable light. This article made me have a better understanding of why I liked it better. Good plays, movies, or books should at times make us have a sharp pang in the pit of our stomachs. "Boys in the Band" does that.

  3. Perry,
    A lovely article.
    Matt Crowley wrote a piece in The Archive: The Journal of the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, 'Working with Designers', Issue 25, Page 10. The issue accompanying the Foundation's exhibition Stage Stuck—The Magic of Theatre Design and gives well deserved praise to Peter Harvey the original 'Boys' set designer and curator of Stage Struck.
    The issue can be downloaded at
    Tom Saettel

  4. When this movie -- and around the same time, Midnight Cowboy -- came out -- they changed the direction of my life. I became obsessed with being gay and coming out and changing society (and I'll expand on that in my autobiography .)

  5. Perry,
    I always defended THE BOYS IN THE BAND, even back when it was fashionable to say it had stereotypes. It has archetypes. I believe it is Harold who tells the host he is a homosexual and will always be one. And I remember one of the final lines, the one that resonated the most for me, as "If we just didn't hate ourselves so much!" We have certainly come a long way in that area. Dan Curzon

  6. It's quite a fascinating documentary if I do say so myself -- and I'm in it.
    "The Boys and the Band" is an interesting play of its time. But the real story, which the film goes into, is the pivotal moment in LGBT history that surrounds it. It premiered the eyar befroe Stoinewall. Most of the cast members were gay and died of AIDS. Plus it has continuing resonance as its about a Gay Family. Back in the day gay men would congregate like this for help and protection. Being a disfunctional gay family the Boys in "The Boys in the band" sometimes tunr on one another. It's to be hoped we're better than that today -- though sometimes I wonder.

  7. I want to thank everyone for these wonderful comments. And David Ehrenstein is right: he is in the movie, and it was great to see him in it. I knew David when he lived in NY in the 1970s: he was the brightest, most delightful young man. Just incredibly, indelibly smart. We met sometimes in the Rambles in Central Park, which, when you weren't busy in the lovely groves of bushes, was one of NY's great mixing and schmoozing areas, with no cover charge, no $12 martinis, just fine guys who liked being with each other. I am glad that he has fulfilled his earlier promise of talent. Perry.

  8. Merci Perry! Ah -- the Good Old Days.

  9. I borrowed the movie from the library a few weeks ago for an assignment. I agree with Tim Elliott; when I first saw it all those years ago, I hated if for the stereotypes. But for better or worse they were based on a reality that, in many ways, has changed less (and in other ways, more) than any of us could have dreamed.
    When "Glee"s Kurt tried to manipulate Finn into doing something I didn't see a 'negative image of a homosexual' - I saw a reasonably typical horny teenager. And other characters are just as confused, bitchy and selfish (at times).

  10. Perry,

    The play never moved to Broadway or played in a Broadway theater. Its entire run was in two off-Broadway theaters.

    The first performances were in January 1968 at the Village South Theater, on Vandam St. (the theater changed its name to the Vandam Theater in the early 70s and is now called the SoHo Playhouse). These were intended to be five performances of a fully staged workshop production, under the auspices of the Playwrights Unit, which had been established by Edward Albee and his producers, Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder, as a platform for untested young American playwrights.

    Tickets were sold for the workshop, as well as subscriptions to each year's Playwrights Unit's schedule of workshopped plays. Reviews were not encouraged or allowed. Nevertheless, word of mouth about "Boys" was so strong and pervasive and immediate that by the second night the line for tickets went down the block. The box-office lobby was so small, the size of a walk-in closet, and the passion to see the play so strong that there were several incidences of near-riot proportions, which I was privileged to witness!

    Additional performances beyond the originally planned five were added, but the theater was needed for the rest of the Playwrights Unit's scheduled workshops, and "Boys" moved to Theater Four, on West 55th Street, another off-Broadway theater, for an open-ended run. It opened there on April 14, 1968, when it received its first published reviews, and closed there on September 6, 1970, after 1,002 performances.