Seth Randal was thoroughly enthused when we met. He had been putting up announcements of the added screening of The Fall of '55, necessitated by the rapid sellout of his first screening at the Roxie Film Center. Amiable, articulate and earnestly invested in his own project, we retreated to Harvey Milk Plaza away from the noisy festival throngs to conduct our interview in sunlight and fresh air. Coincidentally enough, both of us were both born in Mercy Hospital in Nampa, Idaho.
As Randal has synopsized at the film's website: In late 1955 and early 1956, the citizens of Boise, Idaho believed there was a menace in their midst. On Halloween, investigators arrested three men on charges of having sex with teenage boys. The investigation claimed the arrests were just the tip of the iceberg—they said hundreds of boys were being abused as part of a child sex ring. There was no such ring, but the result was a widespread investigation which some people consider a witch hunt.
By the time the investigation ended, 16 men were charged. Countless other lives were also touched. In some cases, men implicated fled the area. At least one actually left the country. The investigation attracted attention in newspapers across the nation, including Time Magazine. In 1966, author John Gerassi wrote a book on the investigation, The Boys of Boise. The "Morals Drive" left scars which remain to this day.
Admirably influenced by the work of documentarian Ken Burns, The Fall of '55 likewise pays homage to the graphic design of Saul Bass (Advise and Consent, 1962) via Matt Johnson's art campaign, highlighting the double entendre of the film's title. A torn cottonwood leaf becomes the icon of hearts torn by this scandal.
For those who didn't have the opportunity to catch The Fall of '55 at Frameline31, it's being screened as part of the admission-free Frameline at the Center screenings on Thursday, July 12, 2007, at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center located at 1800 Market Street.
* * *
Seth Randal: It's tremendously exciting to be here in San Francisco and to have the first showing sell out. It's just overwhelming. It's remarkable to see the interest that people have in this story.
Michael Guillén: Audiences in San Francisco have been trained to appreciate queer history. As someone who came here in 1975 in the midst of the Castro Florescence and has watched Frameline develop all these years, the quality of the documentaries that have made it into the program line-up has increased each year. I was excited by your entry—The Fall of '55—because, as I mentioned, I'm from Idaho, born in Nampa, raised in Twin Falls, and was aware of John Gerassi's book The Boys of Boise that examined the events that scandalized the capitol in the mid-50's, though not aware of all the details included in your documentary. What motivated you to focus on this story? Why did you feel it was a story that was important to tell now?
Randal: I had learned about these cases back when I was in high school going to Nampa High and my cousin's girlfriend had told me that there had been this scandal and a book had been written and I was blown away. So I went to the Nampa Library and I went to "that section" where they had these types of books and looked it up and I picked up the book and I thought, "Y'know, there are some great stories here but there's a lot to read and I'm not in that place in my life where I can do it."
The thing that interested me most was I wanted to know what happened after the book. I wanted to know what happened to the people whose lives had been destroyed by this and find out if they were able to recover? Were there any ongoing consequences or impact? And understand how the scandal changed the lives of the individuals who were involved; but, also their families and the community as a whole. That's really what interested me in following this story: trying to find out the consequences and what happened to these people, which is why it took us such a long time to make the film because it was an incredibly intensive research process trying to find everyone that was connected to the case. We actually found and determined the outcomes of all of the men who were prosecuted as well as most of the young accusers. We found out what happened to them and their families.
We also tracked people not just through time, through 50 years, but many of them had moved away, scattered, so we had to find out what happened to them, approach them, and ask them to talk. The thing that got me most was the idea of the injustice, that people were prosecuted over something that was really out of their control. They were prosecuted for being gay and that—as a gay man—was something that I found really frightening. I wanted to know more about the cases. Originally, it wasn't going to be a documentary. I thought maybe I'd write a play or a screenplay and I got to thinking, "If I'm going to write a screenplay or if I'm going to write a play, I'm going to want to do the research to make it as accurate as possible." Because I wasn't living in the 1950s, I would want it to be as accurate and fair as possible. Then I got to thinking, "If I'm going to do all this research, hell, I work in TV news, maybe I should make a documentary about it." The reason why I did it when I did was because I knew at that point the 45-year anniversary was approaching. I knew that many of these people were maybe already dead and—if they weren't dead—I wanted to get them to talk as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. Having watched the film, you can appreciate that one of the people interviewed in the film passed away during the process of making the film.
Guillén: That underscores the importance of recording these testimonials. One of the film's true highlights are the absolutely fascinating audio tapes of Mel Dir.
Randal: Thank you Jonathan Ned Katz!
Guillén: I was impressed. There's an effective juxtaposition that goes on in your documentary, in that you have staged many of the comments—envoicing journalistic sources—but you've mixed this recreated material with verbatim recordings of an interview with Mel Dir.
Randal: I think that interview was conducted here in San Francisco. Mel Dir was the man who was arrested here in San Francisco. Even though the cases are called The Boys of Boise, the scandal ended in San Francisco with Mel Dir's arrest. The Sheriff came from Boise all the way to San Francisco to arrest Mel Dir. Mel Dir was taken back and you heard the quote Mel Dir makes in the film where the San Francisco police officer said, "We wouldn't go to Oakland to make an arrest like this." Thank you Jonathan Ned Katz for sharing the interview with us and letting us use it, letting me know about it, but also for the work that he's done. It's a tremendous contribution to our history as GLBT people. The remarkable thing was Mel Dir was one of the easiest people to track down and find. He was one of the first people [to pop up] just searching online. However, he passed away right after I started work on the film. He had passed away right after we found the address; just a couple of months earlier he had passed away. Because of the work of Jonathan Ned Katz, we now have this vivid, historical document and Mel Dir tells it like it is. He describes the experience of being in the Number One cell house and to hear the story of being brought back to Boise and appearing in court.
Guillén: The Fall of '55 is also an insightful glimpse into the Cold War rhetoric that determined public attitudes regarding gender at the time. Peter Boag, who provides commentary in your film and wrote a contextual foreward for the reprint of The Boys of Boise, describes how this cold war rhetoric influenced the way homosexuals thought of themselves or how they were thought of by mainstream culture. Blackmail was one of the most effective tools to maintain normativity at that time. I can recall as a teen growing up in Twin Falls the sniggering that went on regarding any mention of The Boys of Boise and becoming aware of how blackmail was the modus operandi by which so many gay men's lives were ruined. I remember making the conscious connection then—really before coming out became the political act in did in the mid-70's—that I would not be put in a position where I could be blackmailed and that the only way to do that would be to be honest about my sexuality. You can't be blackmailed if you're out. That Cold War mentality that was so strong in Southern Idaho—perhaps throughout the whole country but very much so in Southern Idaho—is it still somewhat like that in Idaho? Some of your interviewees—Ron Bess comes to mind—made comments suggesting attitudes towards gays haven't budged much. Did you meet resistance filming this documentary?
Randal: In the process of trying to research the film, we actually met with a lot of resistance. The prosecutor of these cases [Blaine Evans] hung up the phone when I called him the first time, which was just shocking to me; he was involved in these cases. That was just one example of the resistance we faced. A lot of people—when we were doing the research—still didn't want to talk about it. It may be different now. I hope it's different now. I really hope that the film can be used as a springboard for a dialog about what happened. That's why we tried to go with an extremely fair approach to the film. We faced a lot of resistance trying to get the people connected to the case to talk. It was really quite frustrating a lot of times. With [regard] to the Cold War mentality, Boise per se isn't necessarily as conservative but the greater Boise area is still very conservative and these cases—which, as you said, were snickered at—were still being snickered at 50 years later, although people didn't know as much about it because so much time had passed, so much rumor and innuendo.
Guillén: One of the things that struck me about your film is its Crucible-like atmosphere with young people pointing fingers and ruining the lives of adults; but also, the politicized usage of children by conservatives to advocate and further homophobic agendas.
Randal: That's exactly how I see it. Let me tell you a story that I think is appropriate to this. For the latter part of making the film, I worked at a TV station in Boise for three years, which is an extremely conservative TV station. When I was working at the station, there had been a number of alleged enticements of children and the station was gung-ho going at it gangbusters, not using any critical judgment, because that was what was pushing the hot buttons: keeping your children safe; protecting the community; keeping our nice wholesome community safe. There is still a little bit of that there; but, I don't think that's necessarily a Boise thing. It just comes with conservatism in general; the idea of trying to exploit these moral causes in order to push some sort of agenda. That continues to go on. When I was young growing up in Nampa, I was a Republican. In junior high, my ninth grade year, I went and volunteered at the local Republican office making phone calls and hammering yard signs, so I've been there.
Guillén: For me, what's problematic about the Boise story is that, yes, the "keeping children safe" rhetoric was being used to further certain political agendas, but the reality is—and your documentary implies—these selfsame "children" were baiting gay guys for money. We might call these kids "trade" today.
Randal: I don't know that they would have necessarily seen themselves that way. They were a [few] poor kids who found a way to make money. The teenagers who were involved with the initial arrests had previous criminal records. One of them killed his father. These were kids who had tough lives and they found a way to make some money. I know that one of them, it impacted his life forever. I don't want to get into a lot of detail in order to protect him, but, his name was mentioned in the book—Gerassi didn't use a pseudonym—he was married when the book came out; his in-laws didn't know that he had been part of this scandal until the book came out; and he said it led to his divorce. He has since remarried and has led a straight life. It was an opportunity for him to make some money and—you're right—it was a lot like The Crucible. Some young people made some accusations and it just got out of control.
Guillén: That quality of the witchhunt was emphasized in your documentary. Could this happen again? Have we evolved as a subculture so that we can't be blackmailed by guilt?
Randal: Shame. Shame is the word I use. And the shame was not just for the people directly connected to the cases. Let me share a story about another man who was living in San Francisco [during the investigation]. I found him and talked to him on the phone and we had a very nice conversation. I approached him about the idea of coming back to Boise. We would pay for his transportation to come back to Boise to do an interview for the film. He seemed like he might be interested. We had a nice enough conversation that I was willing to ask him that. The next day I get a phone call from his sister saying, "Don't ever call my brother again. Leave him alone." Because for her it was still an extraordinarily painful thing. So the shame goes well beyond just the people who were directly connected to the families. Also, there are still many people in the community who feel a sense of shame over how the community reacted.
Guillén: The thing about shame that I've long noted is that it's the flipside of pride. That's why I ask you whether or not this could happen again now because—in the midst of the queer community celebrating Pride Week—we define and defend ourselves by pride. I suspect it would be much more difficult to capitalize upon shame as was done in the mid-50's.
Randal: It would completely be possible for something like this to get going, but it would never reach the scale of the Boys of Boise. And the reason for that is that in 1955 there were two TV stations in Boise, there was the one newspaper, there were no free papers or anything like that, and everybody read the newspaper. The newspaper had a lot of influence. They had these fiery, emotional editorials getting the community riled up. Something like that couldn't happen again. Also, positively, humanity has evolved and we now have greater critical thinking skills. Americans tend to understand that, yes, there are homosexuals and there are a lot of other people who aren't like them and you may like them, you may not like them, but it seems like things are improving. I would absolutely hope that nothing like this could ever happen again and I certainly don't think it would happen to this extent.
Guillén: Let's talk about how you've structured this documentary. You employed voiceovers, conducted one-on-one interviews, and incorporated archival footage; it's textured with multiple levels of information. How did you go about shaping all this material?
Randal: I would have loved it to be the kind of documentary where we didn't have to have narration. We had to structure it the way we did partially out of necessity. We had to use the resources we had. In telling the story, I didn't want it to jump around chronologically. I wanted the scandal to unfold the way it actually happened to try to give the viewers as much of a sense of living the scandal as possible, where it starts with the arrests and then it continues to build and gets more intense and then the consequences of it. I wanted—as well as I could—to recreate [the scandal] and give people the feeling of what the tension was like in the community and the constant editorials. So we hit the newspapers frequently with these editorials and headlines because that's what the people of Boise were experiencing. They were having it hammered at them twice a day because at the time the Idaho Statesman had two versions. In constructing [the documentary], I wanted to do it in a way where it would build up; where—as June Schmitz in the documentary describes it—it would be "an avalanche."
We also made the choice early on that we would be as fair as possible with this. I recognize that lives were destroyed by this. I understand how painful it was for these people who lived through this, who had to endure it. The woman who called and said, "Leave my brother alone", I felt great empathy for her because I understand how painful it was for her. Because of that, we didn't include his story in the film. We chose carefully what stories we had based largely on people's willingness to cooperate. There are even more incredible stories of this scandal that could be told but we chose to focus on primarily the ones where we had involvement or where we had to dovetail off of another story. For instance, the West Point cadet—
Guillén: Frank Jones. A sad story.
Randal: A very sad story. I find it deeply moving. Very painful.
Guillén: I found his story moving because, admittedly, towards the beginning of the documentary I didn't much like him. I saw him as one of the Crucible-like informers; but, by the end of the film, you had humanized him and—as audience—I was stunned by how the scandal destroyed his life. He was a true victim of consequences.
Randal: We had to include his story because we had the interview with Mel Dir and it dovetailed off the Mel Dir story. I would have loved to have expanded on his story. There were a lot of painful details about it that we just couldn't include [out of respect to his family].
Guillén: The other victim of guilt by association was Jack Butler, the psychiatrist who was brought in to Boise to assess these cases.
Randal: And was booted out of the Mormon Church.
Guillén: That was amazing to me; that the taint of this scandal was so pervasive it could damage the lives of those conducting the investigation.
Randal: This was a long process and it was difficult at times to soldier on, to continue to do this, because this was something I basically devoted essentially my life savings to and my weekends and evenings, my vacation time (which was when I came to San Francisco to do research for the film or when we went to Southern California to do research and interviews). I was working the TV news business at the time. During the final editing process of the film, I was working at my day job at least 50 hours a week and then coming back to do this. What motivated me to keep going was the power of the stories, particularly the Alty Travelstead story, which had never been told before. That story is so moving in and of itself, it just needed to be told, and then to know that he had passed away, I knew then that I had to continue to soldier on and make the film; it had to be done. These stories had to be told. They can't be forgotten and I hope the film can be used as a learning tool. I also hope that this scandal can be revisited by future filmmakers, playwrights or authors.
[Of interest is that Variety's Ronnie Scheib did not share Randal's commitment to these individuals. Scheib states Randal's interviews with Alty Travelstead solicited commentary that was "peripheral to the chronicled events" and "somewhat insipid." For my money, Scheib completely missed the point about the consequential ramifications of the scandal and how it damaged the lives of those "peripheral to the chronicled events."]
Guillén: Was it in your capacity as a TV journalist that you were able to access the archival footage? How did you secure that footage?
Randal: In the process of putting this all together, there's a lot of serendipity. The puzzle pieces were being handed as if it were predestined that they be there. All the black and white footage of Boise was a 1955 Chamber of Commerce film. Some filmmakers had apparently gone from city to city around the country doing these Chamber of Commerce films and they had been in Boise in October of 1955. That footage of Boise in 1955 of the Ada Theater, of the police officers standing in front of the Police Department, that moves down and plants squarely on the city councilman whose son was involved in the scandal was all shot the month the scandal happened. All of that black and white footage came from the same source. That Chamber of Commerce film was discovered in the Egyptian Theater [formerly the Ada Theater] by two gay men who run the theater. They found this film and donated it to the historical society right when we were in the process of editing the film. When I looked at it, I about fell out of my seat! [It] was completely relevant: the police department, these shots of [Boiseans] throughout town. That this film existed was just remarkable.
We were working on this film with a very tight budget. I invested between $30-$40,000 of my own money and we solicited donations from the community; the Friends of The Fall of '55—approximately 100 people from Boise and throughout the country—donated about $10,000 to help finish the film. They held house parties, did silent auctions and put together a premiere celebration at one of Boise's LGBT bars. I am deeply in their debt and humbled by their belief in me and our film. But it was still a very tight budget. That's why—later in the film [when] we talk about Mike Wallace of CBS News coming to town—we don't have shots of it because we couldn't afford to license them. If we did, I would have loved it. Most of the color [archival] footage that we have in the film, I [secured from] June Schmitz ("It starts with a 'Q' "). I had written out the script and I was racking my brain about where we could find footage, how we could cover this, what were we going to do? I went to June Schmitz and I said, "June, do you have any photographs? Do you have any home movies or anything?" She said, "Home movies? I got 100 cans of home movies." And she did! She had a 100 cans of home movies because in the 1950's she was going around constantly with her Super8 camera around her neck. She shot [these home movies] in film and the color is so rich and vibrant. The shots looking down Capitol Boulevard to the Capitol Building or her performing in the club, again, I had written about her being a lounge singer and here she had footage from the era of her doing it! She actually had the 1955 Fairyland Parade. I about fell out of my chair. I was just stunned. Again, it was like God had opened up the puzzle bag and all the pieces were falling out. This goes here and this goes here and this goes here. It was like it was meant to be. Most of the color footage we got from June Schmitz, including most of the shots of San Francisco, like driving over the Golden Gate Bridge; she had shot it. The cable car going down the hill? June Schmitz shot it. Shots from Mexico? Thank you, June!
Guillén: So now that The Fall of '55 is starting to make its festival rounds, what are your hopes for the film? Do you have distribution?
Randal: We actually have distribution through Frameline.
Randal: We still have to sign the paperwork but I'm comfortable with Frameline. They have a tremendous mission. Frameline knows what they're doing. This is the kind of film that's right up Frameline's alley. They understand how to market a film like this because it's sort of a niche film. Well, most people would perceive it to be a niche film, though I personally believe it has a much broader appeal because this could have happened anywhere.
Guillén: I agree. As we were discussing earlier, the Cold War mentality, the Crucible-like theatrics, lift The Fall of '55 above mere queer history.
Randal: The '50s were not a good time for LGBT people. Everyone thinks of the '50s as being Ozzie & Harriet time and for LGBT people it was a very difficult time. Young people need to know that, understand that and respect that. With Frameline being the premiere Lesbian and Gay festival, it has tremendous contacts within the festival industry. We showed at Newfest in New York City and Reeling in Chicago, plus some regional festivals.
Guillén: How have audiences reacted?
Randal: People have had different responses. In New York City, for instance, when we had the shot of Idaho's tallest building towards the end of the film, people laughed.
Guillén: I laughed when Byron Johnson said people always thought he was from the Midwest because they didn't know the difference between Iowa and Idaho. That used to drive me crazy when I was an Idahoan.
Randal: Boise—especially in the 1950's—was a tremendously isolated place. The Interstate Highway system didn't exist. If you wanted to fly out of Boise, you'd be flying on a propeller-driven DC5. It would take 2-2½ hours to fly anywhere, let alone to drive anywhere. A community that's as isolated as that being thrust into the national spotlight in newspapers around the country, in Time magazine, you can imagine how difficult it would be for those people to be in the spotlight for this embarrassing shameful investigation.
Guillén: Tell me a little bit about Alan Virta, the historical adviser on the project.
Randal: The way I got involved with an historian—Alan Virta—was because Alan met Jonathan Ned Katz at a history conference a number of years before I met him and Alan started thinking, "Well, I can do something with gay history too." So Alan actually began researching. When I met him he had done gay research for a slideshow that he does. He's taken it throughout the state, [received] an award from the ACLU, it's tremendous work, so I actually called in sick to work one day when I saw in the newspaper that his slideshow was going to be coming to town. This was when I was thinking about doing a film and here was somebody who had done a project on gay history in Idaho. I thought, "This is someone I need to meet."
Guillén: Interesting. I would love to see his slideshow on gay history in Idaho. Not too many people know that the Castro Florescence in the '70s received a tremendous boost of energy from Idaho queers—namely Scotty Williams—who had moved here from Twin Falls. He helped start some of the main businesses here in the Castro and elsewhere in San Francisco—Fanny's, Burton's, Ivy's—all these places that were hubs for the gay urban populace in the mid-'70s. I got my start in San Francisco because Scotty hired me as a dishwasher (for one night!) at Fanny's. I was such a lousy dishwasher that he instantly promoted me to busboy. His contribution to what was "gay" at that time was indispensable and marks him as an unsung hero in my book.
Randal: During the midst of the scandal [in the mid-'50s] there were a lot of former Boiseans living in San Francisco, people who moved here. There was a gay couple who moved away who had been together over 50 years. I went to the funeral for one of them. I wish they would have talked. They essentially ran what I would call a home for refugees. Their friends who had fled Boise, they let a number of them stay with them.
There's a man who I talked to who was living here at the time, he had an emotional story that I wish I could have included in the film. He was a Latino. One of the few in his community [who was gay]. He opened the newspaper one day and saw that there had been more arrests. I think this was after [Joe Moore] the banker had been arrested. He ended up not going to work that day because he was frightened. Well, there's a knock at the door. He lived upstairs in a rooming house and the landlady opened the door and there were two men in suits there wanting to talk to him. She knew he was there home from work but she lied and said she didn't know where he was and she thought he was at work. That gave him a chance to hide out in town. He hid out at a movie theater and he hid out at the post office for a while, waiting for his family to pick him up. His family picked him up and they were driving back home and the father said to the mother in Spanish—because it looked like their son was asleep—"What's 'gay'?" They got back to the house and they ended up all three of them holding each other and crying because he's now become a fugitive from justice. They drove him via back roads to Ontario because the Boise bus station and the train station were under surveillance. He got on a bus and came down to San Francisco. When the Sheriff came to San Francisco to arrest Mel Dir, he also questioned this man, but he didn't bring him back to Boise because he knew the man's father. So the Sheriff let him go. This man then lived in San Francisco for 30 years before moving back to Boise. But talking about this story, he still is overcome with emotion thinking about it. I wish he would have talked but he lives in a small town again with shame. He left San Francisco and went back to living with a sense of shame and what will people think and rumors and innuendo. It's still happening in small towns.
Guillén: It saddens me to know that's still happening. I had a gay friend from high school who died of AIDS and—when I phoned home to express my condolences to his mother—she begged me not to tell anyone for fear that it would make it difficult for her grandchildren. It broke my heart that he was buried under six feet of shame.
Randal: I approached the scandal [the way I did] because I understand that sense of shame in a different way. My father died of AIDS 20 years ago. May was the anniversary of his death. We lived with that sense of shame for a long time, and carried it around, because when he died back in 1987 it was still very [stigmatized]; Ronald Reagan had just gotten around to saying the word. It was early on and my family lived with this sense of shame for a long time. So—in telling this story—I wanted to make sure that I was fair to these people because I understand what it's like to have this sense of shame about something that's happened in your past, about something that somebody else has done that you can't control. I understand why it's so painful for them and I have tremendous empathy for them. That is why I created the film I did. That is why I created The Fall of '55. I wanted to make sure it was not going to exploit these people or these cases in any way but still not pull any punches in telling what really happened, thoroughly researching, going through the newspapers, using the letters from people—especially those prison letters, which were so moving—and because of my own background it was important to me to tell this story in a fair way. Dealing with the sense of shame was something that I buried and repressed. Even though I'm gay myself, it was something that took me a long time to get past.