Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2004

Warren Allen Smith

Stateside Gossip

by Warren Allen Smith

Marlon Brando was no stranger to sin so sweet. The sole time I saw him in person was in the 1960s at the Bon Soir, a Greenwich Village boîte, 40 West 8th Street, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Seated in a corner to the right of the stage, he was waiting for Wally Cox to perform.

But, first, a word about the allegedly Mafia-owned Bon Soir, which deserves never to be forgotten – it was a major nightclub that succeeded because of its early gay clientele and despite the time’s abhorrence of homosexuality. Over the years it featured acts by Kaye Ballard, Shirley Bassey, Phyllis Diller, Mike Nichols, Felicia Sanders, Barbra Streisand and Ethel Waters.

The club was small. Lines often backed up for those wishing to stand at the bar. Waiters scrambled to serve food to those who had reservations at one of fewer than 25 small tables. At the bottom of the stairs, turn left to the restrooms or turn right to the fenced-off bar, which became so packed that hands touched hands, private parts and wallets, without anyone’s being sure whose. The cognoscenti knew to slide their wallet into a stocking. Straights at the tables, who could not see over the waist-high wall at the bar, were oblivious as to what was going on.

A little sign atop each table told how much you would have to pay whether or not you ordered food or the several-drink minimum. It was wise to arrive early at either the first or second show of the evening, because the place’s capacity was limited. And dark, this den of sophistication was so dark you wondered if the walls were black or just in need of paint! The little light at the bar’s cash register revealed what denomination of paper money standees had pulled out of their pocket. Once, I thought I’d given a ten but received change for a twenty. Once I thought I’d given a twenty but was told it was only a five. The bartender could have made a mint.

After an announcement about a “last call” for food service, the dimly lit room – entertaining mostly straight and extremely well-dressed couples at their tables – abruptly switched to entirely black, then onto the stage arrived MC Jimmy Daniels, a handsome gay black singer-actor who operated the tony club and was said to know, even to have “known”, many of the city’s wealthy and talented blacks and whites, not the least of whom were celebrated photographer Carl Van Vechten, who once had Daniels sit for a nude torso shot, and Richmond Barthé, who sculpted a marble portrait bust of him. Daniels not only performed but also kept the show moving along, usually introducing a comic, then a singer, then a group, another comic, and so forth.

Lighting was phenomenal. When Kaye Ballard or any other singer approached the end of a song, the spotlight was solely on the performer, its circular shape slowly diminishing until at the end note only the lighted head floated in black space – followed by three seconds of complete black, then up with the lights, and deafening applause!

Musical accompaniment usually was by the Three Flames, an all-black bass (Avril Pollard), piano (Roy Testamark), and guitar featuring Tiger Haynes (the Tin Man in the Broadway version of The Wiz). Cruisers who were three-deep at the bar focused on Tiger’s tight pants as the big St Croix-born musician sat on a high stool, his trousers purposely failing to hide the merchandise. His pearly teeth and his consummate musicianship gained him much notoriety. “No, Mary,” explained someone ingenuously at the all-male bar one night, “ ‘Big 10 Harmony’ refers to the size of his LP album.” The gossip was that, when in New Faces of 1956 with drag queen T. C. Jones, Tiger had a white wife and, alas, was not bisexual.

The band became a key part of almost all the acts. When the full-bosomed five-by-five Mae “(I Ain’t Gonna Be No) Topsy” Barnes attempted to slide up onto the grand piano’s top but was far too overweight to manage, she’d exclaim, apologetically, “Damned Johnson Wax!” And Tiger would follow up with, “Sell it, Mae, don’t give it away!”

Repartee between Tiger and Phyllis Diller seemed unrehearsed but was not. Her showbiz routine was to crab about her husband, cackle a loud laugh, then move to something timely. Notables were present every weekend, and one night there at a table and enjoying the many risqué jokes was California Senator Richard M. Nixon.

Unknown at the time, a young gal by the name of Barbra Streisand was paid $125 a week. She sang “Cry Me a River”, and had everyone begging for encores. Another of her hits was “I Want to Be Bad”, the words of which are quite tame by today’s standards: “If it’s naughty to rouge your lips, shake your shoulders and swing your hips, let the lady confess, I want to be bad!”

Back to Brando. The night I saw him he was greatly enjoying himself and madly applauding after the Three Flames ended a tune and Daniels announced the next act. Out came Wally Cox, known as the bashful star of Mr Peepers, the 1952-5 television series. Wally’s sad face evoked laughter, and his jokes came slowly, as if he had just thought them up. When the audience roared with laughter, gays at the bar always leading the group, Cox looked as if he were surprised he had been found to be so funny. And this made him seem even more lovingly wimpish.

At City College in New York, he had majored in botany and had become an actor only by accident. Whenever he uttered some kind of sarcastic comment, it seemed so out of place that even that was funny. Brando clapped loudly at all the right places, and the horned-rim-spectacle-wearing high-voiced Wally caught his eye several times. The two had been “roommates” at one point, Cox moving out allegedly because he couldn’t put up with Marlon’s pet raccoon. Gossips predicated other reasons, of course, and dozens of nocturnal carnivore-lovers were more than willing to move in with a newly lonesome, sexy Brando.

When Cox in 1973 died of a heart attack, Brando rushed from his Tahitian hideaway to arrange the cremation. Neither was a theist and in a 1976 biography Brando was quoted as saying, “Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.”

Overweight and at the end of his life wearing size-52 underwear, Brando died of lung failure on July 2, 2004. No public religious ceremony was performed for the acting giant who once refused to swear with an oath at his son’s trial. “I will not swear on God because I don’t believe in the conceptional sense and in this nonsense. What I will swear on is my children and my grandchildren.”

Gossip on the street, announced July 17 by Ben Widdicombe in New York’s Daily News, is that a “gay Brando photo” is for sale, one showing Marlon on his knees “performing a sex act”, allegedly on Mr Peepers. Possibly posed, but provocative to say the least, as was so much of Brando’s dramatically rebellious life!

Ron Reagan Jr has told the press he is an atheist, not just a non-believer. The son of a US president, in a sharp dig at another son of a US president, is quoted as writing, “People who believe they are acting with the mandate of God, who see others who don’t share their beliefs as inferior in the eyes of God, make dangerous leaders. Just ask Osama Bin Laden.”

A member of the Democratic, not his father’s Republican, Party, Ron spoke at the July Democratic National Convention against President George W. Bush and for embryonic-stem-cell research. Gays speculate as to when and where Reagan, who only recently mentioned his atheism, will come out of the closet as being bisexual.

Eric Douglas, 46, actor Michael Douglas’s youngest son, was found dead on July 6 after a long history of drug-taking. The press took note of his being Jewish and alarmingly overweight but did not mention he was gay.

Scottish actor and non-believer Alan Cumming claimed in July that if President Bush is re-elected, “I’m totally getting out of this country. I’m not going to want to be a citizen of this place.” Meanwhile, he is modeling Gregory Sovell’s C-In-2 line of briefs, which have a “sling support”, an adjustable microfiber loop that is said to enhance “the male physique”. What you see, as is well known, isn’t always what you get!

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Created : Sunday, 2004-10-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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