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A 50th anniversary production of Mort Crowley’s groundbreaking play “The Boys in the Band” closed on Broadway Aug. 12 of this year, with big-name stars Jim Parsons (who has said goodbye to TV’s “Big Bang Theory”), Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto.
“Boys” was — what else? — a complete, nostalgic, box-office hit. A frank, honest look at gay life as lived pre-AIDS. An on-stage wake up call to a frightening devastation yet to come.
Mort Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” opened Off-Broadway in 1968. I bought a copy of the play while visiting in Chicago 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, movie house turned legitimate 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, lotsa line dancing to the sweet turn-on sounds of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.” A play about us.
The play’s opening was 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 putdown, 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 in 1966 in 18-year-old British playwright Shelagh Delaney’s international hit, and later movie, “A Taste of Honey” at the Fisher Theatre. He played Geoffrey, a gay artist. It was his big break. The cast included legendary Uta Hagan and 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 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 him to Chicago 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 “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” — “Boys” remains entertaining, well-crafted and compelling, if gay self-loathing.
It’s 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 plays dealing with homosexuality preceding it, 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.
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 LA. He then 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. His acting talent, face — and rather memorable backside anatomy — 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.