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Mart Crowley’s “Boys In the Band” opened Off-Broadway 47 years ago. I bought a copy of the play in Chicago in 1968 and read dialogue aloud while driving back to Detroit with my then partner Larry.
(We saw a local production a few years later at the long-vanished Rivera Movie Theater turned legit stage, starring Wayne State University theater major Paul Pentecost.)
Seeing gay life as I sometimes found myself living it proved fascinating: a big city birthday party turned “truth game,” with much drinking, lotsa line dancing to the sweet turn-on sounds of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.” A play about us.
“Boys” opened — timely — one year before New York City’s liberating Stonewall Riots. (The same year Rev. Troy Perry started the first gay lib church in Los Angeles.) Change was in the air.
“After gays saw ‘The Boys in the Band,'” writes theater historian Peter Filichia, “they no longer would settle for thinking of themselves as pathetic and wouldn’t be perceived as such any longer. Now that the play’s characters had brought their feelings out of the closet, this new generation would dare to be different.”
Mart Crowley’s play was exciting on two counts. It was gay from start to finish, with camp humor putdown. And — score one up for me — I spent a romantic summer week with one of its Off-Broadway production actors: Frederick Combs.
I met “Honey Combs” in Detroit’s Woodward Bar in 1966. He was appearing in 18-year-old British playwright Shelagh Delaney’s international hit (later movie), “A Taste of Honey,” at the Fisher Theater. Combs played Geoffrey, a gay artist. The cast included legendary actor Uta Hagen. It was a big break for the 30-year-old actor.
Freddy was staying at the Wardell Sheraton hotel, later Park Shelton Apartments. (I later lived there for 24 years. The property was once owned by comic Gilda Radner, of “Saturday Night Live” fame.)
Freddy said his two high school drama teachers believed he had talent and much promise and paid for his ticket to New York to study acting. (He also said he had been brought out by an Army sergeant when he was 16.)
I followed Freddy to Chicago New Year’s week, but was gently told our final curtain had rung down in Detroit. I never saw him again, but in 1970 had the pleasure of seeing him playing Donald when “Boys In the Band” was released as a movie.
Looking back at Crowley’s pre-Stonewall play, given all that’s happened — Gay Liberation, the AIDS crisis, Clinton’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, Ellen Degeneres, “Angels in America,” same-sex marriage — “Boys” remains entertaining, well-crafted, compelling. If gay self-loathing.
Today we either like the play for its moments of authenticity replayed or loathe it for its internalized homophobia; nonetheless, it’s courageous, especially compared to earlier, cautious, gay-themed plays like “The Children’s Hour” and “Tea and Sympathy.”
The boys in “Boys” are who they are in spite of a culture that demonizes them. Sample line: “Oh, Mary! It takes a fairy to make something pretty.”
Frederick Combs’ career included writing, producing, directing an Off-Broadway mystery play that got panned, prompting him to leave New York for Los Angeles. He appeared in TV soaps and miniseries, and for a time ran his own drama school. He died from AIDS-related causes on Sept. 19, 1992. He was 57.
I watched the DVD movie on Labor Day. And as an old boy in an old band, I’m grateful to be tootin’ my horn. On or off key. (By the way, Mart Crowley is 80.)