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Mart Crowley’s “Boys In the Band” opened off-Broadway 50 years ago. I bought a copy of the play in Chicago in 1968 and read dialog 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 — a movie house turned legit stage — starring Wayne State University theater major Paul Pentecost.
Seeing gay life as we sometimes found ourselves living it proved fascinating: a big city birthday party turned “truth game,” with much drinking and 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.
“Boys” was exciting on two counts. It was gay from start to finish, with camp humor putdowns. And, score one up for me, I had spent a romantic summer week with one of its off-Broadway production actors: Frederick Combs.
I met “Honey Combs” in a gay bar. He was appearing about 1966 in 18-year-old British playwright Shelagh Delaney’s international hit, later movie, “A Taste of Honey” at the Fisher Theater. He played Geoffrey, a gay artist. It was his big break. The cast included legendary Uta Hagen. The start of a promising career.
Freddy was staying at the Wardell Sheraton transients 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. They 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 him to Chicago during New Year’s week, but was gently told our final curtain had rung down in Detroit. I never saw him again in person, but in 1970 had the pleasure of seeing him playing Donald when “The Boys in the Band” was made into a movie. (His thespian buns are glimpsingly preserved for posterity.)
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, “Brokeback Mountain,” “Angels in America” — “The Boys in the Band” remains entertaining, well-crafted and compelling — if gay self-loathing.
Its characters are guys of another time and place who have yet to shake off the constricting onus placed upon them by religion, psychiatry, police, politics and even the Mafia! You name it. Just about everyone and everything straightjacketing.
Given as much, today we either like the play for its moments of history replayed, or loath it for its internalized homophobia; nonetheless, it’s courageous, especially compared to cautious to the plays dealing with homosexuality preceding it, like “The Children’s Hour” (1961) and “Tea and Sympathy” (1956).
The boys in “Boys” are who they are in spite of a culture that demonizes them.
Frederick Combs’ later career included writing, producing and directing an off-Broadway mystery play that got soundly panned, prompting him to leave New York for Los Angeles. He then appeared in TV soaps and miniseries, and, for a time, ran his own drama school. He died from AIDS-related causes in 1992. He was 57.
His acting talent, face — and rather memorable backside understudying — are available for repeated viewing on DVD. I watched the movie this week and remembered when…
And, as one of the old boys in an old band, I’m still grateful to be tootin’ my horn. On or off-key. On and off stage. Front row or last row, balcony.