Friday, May 13, 2022

BOISE CONTEMPORARY THEATER: THE SHOW ON THE ROOFThe Evening Class Interview With Tom Ford, Alex Syiek and Alan Virta

As a young homosexual growing up in southern Idaho in the 1960s and 1970s, it was impossible to not be aware of what was variously referred to as the “Boise homosexuality scandal”, the “Morals Drive”, or—as popularized by the 1966 publication of John Gerassi’s summation of events—The Boys of Boise (who can resist alliteration?). By the time I graduated to the adult stacks of the Twin Falls Public Library, Gerassi’s volume had been on the shelves for only a few years and reading Gerassi’s tract (allegiant to the perspectives of the time) was a trudge and a half that only served to depress me, convincing me that I had to get out of Idaho as soon as possible. All through high school, until I graduated in 1971, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); a classification that wasn’t changed until 1973. While studying for exams and maneuvering the hallways of Twin Falls High School, I lived in fear of being sent off for electroshock therapy to cure my mental illness. It irritated me that a majority of my classmates did not have to be distracted by such concerns.  

The Boys of Boise (full title: The Boys of Boise—Furor, Vice and Folly in an American City) related the sordid events of October 1955 when three men were arrested and accused of having sex with teenage boys, kickstarting a moral panic among Boiseans that was fueled by the editorial histrionics of the Idaho Statesman who promoted a “Crush the Monster” campaign. A “homosexual underground” was conjured out of thin air and investigated strenuously until January 1957, by which time some 1,500 people had been questioned, sixteen men faced charges, and fifteen of them were sentenced to terms ranging from probation to life in prison. It was a proverbial witch hunt that ruined the lives of several individuals and their families. 

Fast forward to my successful escape from Idaho to one of the urban bastions of gay liberation, San Francisco, where as a film journalist I was covering the 31st edition of the Frameline Film Festival (2007) where, lo and behold, Seth Randal’s documentary The Fall of ’55 (2006) was poised to reacquaint San Franciscans with Idaho’s infamous witch hunt. As a fellow Idahomo, I had to seek him out for interview

A mere few weeks later while visiting Boise, I met up with Seth Randal once more and he introduced me to the film’s historical consultant Alan Virta and the two of them provided a personal tour of downtown Boise, pointing out the locations where events in their documentary subject had unfolded. 

Fast forward to the Spring of 2020 when Virta invited me to attend a reading workshop at the Boise Contemporary Theater (BCT) of a work-in-progress, The Show On the Roof, a musical based on the Boys of Boise scandal, written by Tom Ford, with original music and lyrics by Alex Syiek. Seth was an invited guest as well and Alan made a point of introducing me to Tom Ford, who agreed to be interviewed for The Evening Class. Just as I was getting ready to have him over for a pancake brunch, however, The Show On the Roof was necessarily put on hold due to the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Fast forward to the Spring of 2022 when BCT—taking full advantage of a clearing between outbreaks in the pandemic—kicked back into gear, and kicked off with where they left off: The Show On the Roof, winner of their River Prize. They had promised when they announced the postponement that “this show will go on; it truly must go on. Such a vital piece of Boise’s history, and the way that Tom Ford and Alex Syiek have handled it in this musical, deserves to be seen by this community and we are working hard to make sure that we can bring it to you.” To pull audiences back into the theater with a gay musical about the Boys of Boise scandal is perhaps one of the bravest programming launches ever!! Kudos to BCT!! I’m eyeing the rest of their season! 

Too busy to meet for pancakes, let alone too stressed about the play’s opening, Ford nonetheless generously took the time to meet me at BCT a week before the show opened to have a chat about what could arguably be the gayest play Boise has ever seen. He invited composer / lyricist Syiek to participate and I invited Alan Virta, historical consultant for The Fall of ‘55. We sat outside to avoid wearing masks. 

The world premiere of The Show On the Roof ran at BCT from April 13—May 7, 2022. I caught a performance about midway through the run and—due to notable differences in the script from the workshop reading I attended in 2020 and the world premiere—I decided to hold off on publishing the following conversation with Tom, Alex and Alan until after the show’s run to avoid the necessity of editing out spoilers, which proved to be some of the most interesting aspects of the script’s development towards the BCT production. That being said:  

SPOILER ALERT: Narrative details are spilled here in order to pursue idiosyncratic themes. I still have some idiosyncrasy credits left and, goshdangit, I’m going to use them!! 

 I wanted to talk to Tom Ford about history, first of all, or actually more about historicity and the writing of history. Although I was born in Nampa, Idaho, and raised in Twin Falls, Idaho, I moved away as a young man to San Francisco where history became the presiding theme while I was growing up “gay”. We were challenged to discover and uncover our history (from where it had been purposely covered up and hidden), to find our history (often in margins, footnotes, side glances while hiding in plain sight), let alone create our history, to be history in the making. 

That impulse had already found traction long before l moved away from Idaho and chose to identify as “gay” in San Francisco. I had already been trying to find myself (“be” myself?) through hunting for history, if not simply precedence, when I discovered John DeGerassi’s Boys of Boise (1966) in the adult stacks of the Twin Falls Public Library; a volume that titillated my “tween” (though we didn’t have that term yet) interests at the time. I wasn’t old enough to actually check the book out to take home, so I would read a chapter at a time among the stacks, day after day. I have to say it was a somewhat miserable read. Like so many books written about homosexuality at the time, it was written from the presumption that homosexuality was an undesirable illness that could only lead to unhappy and unfortunate circumstances. I had already decided that was not the kind of homosexual I was going to be nor wanted to be. I promised myself I would never hide who I was and, thereby, make myself susceptible to potential blackmail. 

Superman #30 (1944).  Artist: Jack Burnley

So, with regard to history, I asked Ford to weigh its importance in the development of his script and why it was decided to stage the narrative as a musical? More importantly, did the musical genre owe any obligation to articulating, or furthering, gay history? And I say “gay history” because this particular narrative primarily involves men and their sexual relations with other men; though I’m fully aware that gay history is ultimately, if necessarily, a subset of queer history. And, again, I use “queer” as a blanket term because the alphabetics of LGBTQ+ nomenclature gets on my last gay nerve and reminds me a little too much of Superman’s impish enemy Mister Mxyzptlk

Ford admitted mine was a big and complicated question. “My obligation has become smaller than you might think,” he answered, “in terms of the obligation.” He asked to rephrase his answer. “I think we take the history of the events deadly seriously. But first of all, ours is a musical and no one was singing and dancing about it at the time, so right away you put it into a realm of unreality.” At the show’s website, Ford reiterates: “Enter into this show I’ve created. It may not be real, but real’s overrated.” 

Distinguishing the workshop I had seen from the production I was about to see, Ford said that earlier on he was “fairly slavish” about the historical details—names, dates—of the scandal. “That event took place here, this was followed by that.” He wanted to offer a specific example of how all that started “to shift.” 

The original postponed pre-COVID production shared the eponymous opening number, “The Show On the Roof”, inspired by a scene from Seth Randal’s documentary The Fall Of ’55, which offered vintage footage of young women dancing on the roof of the Howdy Pardner drive-in, owned and operated by Al Travelstead, a key figure in the early months of the scandal. That was followed by a song about the Idaho Statesman, and in turn a scene in the Mode where the script’s Everyman character was introduced. In the 1950s the Mode had a reputation as “an impressive, high class department store unique to the area” with a second floor Mode Tea Room that had delighted customers since 1895. 

Taking advantage of the production’s postponement, Ford continued burnishing the script back in Massachusettes with input from director Rory Pelsue who was helping him with the order of the scenes. As a character, William Baker had been introduced in a park picking up an older gentleman who they decided would be more useful if he was actually somebody who had been involved in the scandal and so they made him Vernon “Benny” Cassel, one of the first three men to be arrested. Their scene, situated in a men’s urinal, was shifted into second place right after the opening number and even with BCT’s prudent and conciliatory “Content and Stage Effects Advisory” in place, Ford joked that—if an audience member was going to walk out—they were going to be walking out quick. “No beating around the bush, so to speak.” 

That opportunity to walk out of the show’s “sensitive” subject matter, then gave way to “Crush the Monster”, a rousing number recounting how the Idaho Statesman fanned the homosexual panic with its first gossiped lyric: “Did you hear that a clerk in a clothing store gave a minor a jerk and maybe more?” Cassel worked in retail clothing, which conflicted with the script’s made-up Everyman, Edward, who worked in the men’s department store at the Mode. Suspecting that audiences would think Edward was one of the three men spoken about in the Idaho Statesman account of the first three arrests, Cassel’s employment was shifted to the Candy Kettle and the lyric adjusted to: “Did you hear that a clerk at a candy store gave a minor a jerk and maybe more?” “So then you start down that road,” Ford explained where adjusted history “becomes a piece…” 

So what’s to be made of an adjusted or a recontextualized history? “I think our commitment,” Ford insists, “is to an emotional truth.” He had already isolated moments in the narrative where he had decided he wouldn’t say what he didn’t know about a person. One of the critiques levied by the show’s director Rory Pelsue was that the story of Al Travelstead wasn’t “landing”. Though hoping to use Travelstead and his shows on the roof of the Howdy Pardner as a narrative device, Al’s character, what his journey might have been, was not landing. In the script Al talked about getting to come back to do the show, God letting him come back to do the show, but the problem was that he had nobody to act against. Once the scandal broke out, Al—tipped off by a police informant (who was also a friend he had fooled around with)—fled Boise. His family joined him later; but, very little is known about Al after his personal exodus. Al’s character—who was scripturally being employed as the play’s emcee—had no one to act with; but, since he kept referring to God, Ford decided to utilize a classic deus ex machina. He wrote God into the show and cast God as a voice booming out over the actors. This brought The Show On the Roof into the realm of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), its sequel Down To Earth (1947), and their subsequent remakes Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Down To Earth (2001), respectively. God had let Al come back to Earth to relive the events of the Fall of 1955 and served as Al’s foil, in many ways. This was a major departure from the 2020 script. 

Continuing with his critique, Pelsue likewise felt that the dramatic climax of the show needed to be about Al Travelstead, since he was the main character addressing the audience. Something had to be devised to end his story. Pelsue suggested to Ford that, perhaps, they could show Al’s last evening with his wife Violet at the Howdy Pardner on the eve of his departure from Boise? “Okay,” Ford conceded tentatively, approaching the suggestion, but stumbling because he didn’t actually know what had happened on that last night. No one did. He drafted a first version but wasn’t confident. Was that what happened? Nobody knew and nobody would every really find out. How could they? Ford then wrote another version that was 180 degrees from the first version, in terms of the relationship between Al and Violet. So suddenly he had three versions of what might have happened: 1) what Al wished would have happened; 2) what Al felt should have been said, and 3) whatever really happened that no one would ever really know. Returning then to the concept of history being a possible identification of an emotional truth that presides over a historical narrative, historicity drew into focus as the creative act by which histories are constantly being refashioned and reapplied to current contemporary concerns. 

Collaborating with Syiek on the music, and having already expressed concern about stretching too far away from the emotional truth when fictionalizing facts, I was curious how the two could gauge or feel when they had achieved an emotional truth? Ford was quick to recognize that it was their emotional truth filtered through the stories they were telling. Without question, the stories were told from their points of view. 

“All of my songs are basically me speaking with the mask of the character I’m writing for,” Syiek explained. “I think it helps that we’re both performers as well and we know what feels good to act.” 

Ford concurred: “The only way I was able to write was because I’ve been acting for so long and I read so much that I could tell, for the most part, what could be acted. I’m not saying that the writing was good, but it could be acted. 

Al Travelstead seated at his piano entertaining the crowd.
“One of the things that hit me hard during the pandemic was not being able to perform. What am I if I’m not on stage? Because being on stage for good or ill in my brain is where I feel most me, the most alive. Al lost all of that. At least as far as I know, he did not perform or do shows. He may have been in community theater, I don’t know. As far as I know, when he and his family left Boise that aspect of their lives was over. He had this little empire with the dance school and the drive-in, and they did these shows, and he played piano. I gave a lot of thought to what it meant emotionally to have that part of your life removed?” 

It speaks a lot to the crippling aspect of shame, I suggested, which I understand to be the flip side of pride. But Ford had fortuitously brought up what I refer to as the COVID Interruption. For several artists I’ve spoken to, the COVID Interruption ended up having a potentially positive result, as if they needed to stop their habitual practices to regroup, reassess, and reimagine. Several musicians I knew were forced to retreat from performance into intensified songwriting. The Interruption helped me organize research and gardening projects. The pandemic—as it was first presented to us—was a death bringer: you could kill your mother, you could kill your friends, if you were in the same room with them. There was a shame attached as suddenly everyone you knew became suspect of contagion. Boise—which had always been a no-handshake, bring-in-the-hug, kind of place—suddenly became the opposite where people would cross to the other side of the street as you approached them or wouldn’t look you in the eye as they passed. Such shame, as a characteristic of the pandemic, was numbing. 

“It was very difficult,” Ford agreed, “especially now that I’m getting older. I was 58 when the pandemic started and I’m 60 now.” When quarantine began in earnest, Ford wasn’t ready to pause his career, though he concedes that he feels the show is much better now than if it had been seen two years ago, because he was allowed to hone the script. I considered this a significant admittance, reminding me of Ira Progoff who I once heard lecture on the “wisdom in delay.” Ford felt this enforced period of rewriting fell under the category of pandemic storytelling

Feeling our brains have collectively fractured during the pandemic, Ford is convinced that fracturing is where the idea to tell Travelstead’s story from three different perspectives emerged. “I don’t know what it’s going to feel like in the room when people see it, but it feels like a powerful experience doing it,” Ford shared. 

As for my earlier query regarding an obligation to history, Ford explained, “Your responsibility in telling a story is like when you’re reading a book. That book is your version of that book. You’re dancing with the book. When people say, ‘They didn’t tell the story in this version of this play’, I want to say, ‘They didn’t tell your version of the story. That could totally be somebody else’s version of the story.’ That became very interesting to me. 

“With Show, we offer different versions several times. At the beginning right up to the William Baker scene, we do a pantomime of ‘Boys Beware PSA’ with William and Benny Cassel where Benny is the creepy, leering homosexual and then we do it again as a fully-fleshed scene in which William is the predator. It’s not quite that black and white in the fleshed-out version, but it’s not a cartoonish version. So early on we have that flip-flop of ‘what’s the story?’ We do it again in the Mel Der / Frank Jones sequence where we see the scene twice, where the first one is a mutual, interested, flirting sex hook-up and the second one is where Mel pulls a gun; but, the staging of it is the same.” 

This Rashomon effect reaches its culmination in the triplicate versions of Al Travelstead’s final evening with his wife Violet at the Howdy Pardner. This strategic technique of using a Rashomon effect to question perspectives on any given event I find important because the “culture wars”—as frequently referenced in the States—have exactly to do with the clash between impassioned perspectives. I remember when Trump was running for the presidency and all my friends were saying, “Oh, he doesn’t have a chance.” I countered, “No, he’s going to be elected. I’m telling you. He’s going to be elected.” And they asked, “How can you say that?” “Because,” I answered, “the people who are going to elect him believe in him. This isn’t some game about who’s right or who’s wrong. Trump embodies their version of the truth and they’re going to go with that version just like we go with our versions of the truth.” 

 I’ve come to believe that the only way the American people can come to any kind of bridging between these constituencies is to accept that there are different versions of the truth. Show On the Roof approaches this theme by breaking up an event in history into competing perspectives to demonstrate that history can be—and probably always is—seen through a prismatic lens. “Our intent—whether it’s successful or not—is to make the audience think,” Ford said. “Who is the victim? Are they both victims? Is it just the older guy? We’re trying as hard as we can to not moralize about it—mainly because it’s not interesting dramatically—but, we definitely have a point of view. Al has a line now at the end of his talking to God where he asks, ‘How do you know where the line is when everything you do and think and want is wrong?’ ” 

As social issues in the script were being hammered out, the theme of consent reared its head several times until Ford had to insist, “Stop. There is no age of consent because it’s all illegal.” Within a certain construct there’s definitely an age of consent and—not to go down a slippery slope—but, Ford was fascinated when he discovered while researching that the age of consent in the United States in the 1880s was 10-12, with the exception of Delaware where it was 7!! Mind-bogglingly low!! 

By 1920, 26 states set the age of consent at 16, 21 states had an age of consent at 18, and one state (Georgia) had an age of consent at 14. The last two states to raise their age of general consent from under 16 to 16 or higher were Georgia, which raised the age of consent from 14 to 16 in 1995, and Hawaii, which changed it from 14 to 16 in 2001. Ford made up a line in the unhappy version of Al’s marriage where Violet asks him, “Did you do it with boys?” And he answers, “Well, Wayne was 17 when I sucked his dick and the next day when he fucked me on his birthday he was 18, so yes and no.” Ford concludes that there are some people who should never be allowed to have sex because of their emotional immaturity. “All of us, to a certain extent,” he suggests. “It’s a thorny subject and I don’t think we shy away from it.” 

Artist: © Jeremy Lanningham
At this juncture I wanted to engage Alan Virta, who—as Idaho’s eminent LGBTQ+ historian—served as the historical consultant for The Fall of ’55. Wryly qualifying that such a credit implied “a category of one”, I encouraged him to grab the honor while he could. As a historian, I wanted to know his thoughts about adaptations such as the BCT premiere where, perhaps, the emotional truths were valid but the factual information slightly askew. Did that concern him as a historian? 

“You walk into things,” Virta described, “and—if it’s being presented as history but it’s an adaptation of history—it would bother me. But The Show On the Roof is not being presented as history.” I asked how he would describe its presentation then? Historical re-enactment? Historical entertainment? Ford suggested historical fiction and Virta agreed. 

“Historical fiction, as opposed to footnoted, peer-reviewed history. I realize characters have to be composited. Time has to be shrunk….” 

“Footnotes have to be omitted,” I offered to his list of exceptions. 

“The only thing that would bother me,” Virta said, “is if a main character was somehow besmirched and they should not be. For example, if you wrote a play and Adolph Hitler was suddenly the good guy or all of a sudden Abraham Lincoln was a bad guy.” 

Ford admitted to being very concerned about that aspect. By way of example, the line he just quoted regarding the age of legal consent, he had a lot of trouble putting it in the mouth of Al Travelstead, who he had never met and didn’t know and would never know “unless you believe we’re all going someplace where we’re all hanging out.” That reminded me of the Nahuatl conception that when people die they go to that place “where-in-some-way-they-still-exist”. 

“My escape hatch as a writer,” Ford explained, “was that this isn’t the real version of the scene that you’re seeing.” In the real scene they don’t even talk about the age of consent. Instead, Violet makes cheese sandwiches for Al to eat on the bus. “I say real,” Ford qualifies, “because I made it up.” Again, referencing his quote in the program about reality being overrated. 

As a younger writer, I kept journals of who I met, what we talked about and the impression they made on me. Once I shared journal entries with the person I had written about and he complained, “I didn’t say this.” I said, “Yes, you did!” He argued, “No, I did not.” I protested, “Yes, you did!” “If I did,” he countered, “I don’t want you placing it in quotation marks.” 

 His reaction, and suggestion, was interesting to me because I suddenly realized that, by paraphrasing, I could place into people’s mouths whatever I believed they had said as long as I didn’t use quotation marks because then it fell within the province of the narrative unreliability of memory. Quotation marks, on the other hand, predicated factual validity. “All historians take creative license, don’t you think?” I posed to Ford. “That’s why, for me, historicity is more compelling than history.” 

As a further example, Ford copped to being “a crazy The Crown fan”, which he squarely identified as fiction. “I mean, there are a lot of factual events in it. But any time those royals are in a room talking about themselves, that’s fiction. Their point of view, everything they’re saying, their relationships, it’s all made up. This may be based on the fact that they have strong relationships or whatever, but it’s fiction.” So I wanted to know if there was a danger in fictionalizing history? Irregardless of whether one sticks to the emotional truths? “Most people think of history as a granite monument,” I said, “but I don’t believe it is. I think it’s more like a flowing creek that you can never step into twice.” 

“A historian is simply choosing what facts to tell you,” Ford relayed. “I always go back to that. If they’re good, a historian will have researched the subject and vetted the facts, but they’re still making choices as to what story they’re telling. With regard to this story, no one will talk, so to a certain extent you have to make up a lot of it. Seth and Alan did an extraordinary job of getting people to speak for their documentary The Fall of ’55 and one of the things that’s beautiful about it is that there is the factual center of the story but then there are these satellites, these gorgeous viewpoints, that have relationships to these direct events, but aren’t necessarily the events.” 

Aware that Boise’s homosexuality scandal was something of an embarrassment to Boise’s citizenry, notwithstanding The Idaho Stateman’s culpability, and with subsequent interest in the scandal inducing lawsuits and tightlipped reactions—Seth Randal had a difficult time getting the key players of the scandal to speak on camera for his documentary—I was curious if Ford was aware of any mounting resistance to the BCT premiere? Diplomatically asserting that BCT “does not proactively offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person”, BCT nonetheless felt compelled to issue a Content and Stage Effects Advisory that Show On the Roof was intended for mature audiences only and that it contained strong sexual language and implied sexual acts. Ford was not aware of any resistance, if any, even as I suggested that controversy is often good publicity and might earn the play a shot at an off-Broadway extension. 

My reason for asking was purposeful. Though Boise’s homosexuality scandal, Randal’s documentary treatment of same, and the BCT musical all approach the scandal’s manufacture and its admitted non-existence, I could argue that there’s a more pervasive homosexuality scandal going on today in Boise. Since moving to Boise about 11 years ago, I’ve been conducting a semi-sociological research project through the monitoring of ads placed on Craigslist, Doublelist, Grindr, Scruff, Adam4Adam, among various other online dating forums, and how those ads are shifting in their wording and trends. Though I lived my adulthood in San Francisco and thought I had seen just about everything, I was shocked to discover that Boise had a significantly diverse queer community, not only with its visible gay scene and its now-customary drag court; but, also its attendant discretion-bound scene, the other scene, the one I would categorize as Boise’s real gay scene—if one can fairly call it that—which is the rampant, closeted, straight-curious, bi-married male scene with its huge crossdressing undercurrent. Admittedly, this predominantly straight activity (drag = gay; crossdressing = straight) disturbs me for being essentially conservative, emulating if not ardently mimicking the values, concerns and hypocrisies of the time period that contextualizes the Boys of Boise scandal; i.e., the 1950s into the ‘60s. It’s as if the mindset of that period of Boise’s history insists upon maintaining a governing presence right to the current moment. 

Would a musical shining an effervescent spotlight on Boise’s 1955 homosexuality scandal threaten and/or risk exposing the straight-curious bi-married male scene currently in full swing? Could one portray this current scene as the scandal’s lasting conservative legacy? I imagine no bird hiding in plain sight appreciates having their plumage ruffled. Would that induce a negative reaction to The Show On the Roof? Or—since most Boiseans are disinterested and unaware of this underground scene—is the threat obviated? Is there really even a threat? Wouldn’t most Boiseans open-minded enough to take a look at the BCT premiere of The Show On the Roof view it as a near-nostalgic overview of another era, not their own, and thus find it safe and entertaining? 

Ford can’t say. He could recount the performance of the opening number (the title song “Show On the Roof”) the evening before for BCT’s donors. Just before breaking into the song, the show’s narrator, Al Travelstead (winningly and energetically portrayed by Ford himself) tosses off a scriptural bit about Al dressing up as a fountain girl. This comes up because God keeps calling Al “Gertrude”, which Al explains to the audience, “Okay, so real quick, the ‘Gertrude’ thing: back in 1955, I would occasionally dress up as a fountain girl, wear a red wig, and go by the name of Gertrude, as you do….” Ford said he could see people in the audience go, “Whaaaaat? He’s going to dress up as a girl? Whaaaat?” 

That’s exactly the reaction I’d expect from an open-minded audience swinging at a cross-dressed curve ball. There’s no harm in it, really. Unless—because it’s anticipated—it hazards being a guised reaction that distracts from and hides a more genuine reaction. It’s easy to act puzzled and clueless when all the clues are up your cut sleeve. Or as W.C. Fields might quip, “This ain’t a game of chance, not the way you play.” 

Dancers on the roof of the Howdy Pardner.  Photo: Unknown
The framework of The Show On the Roof is Al Travelstead returning to the Howdy Pardner to stage a show on the roof—as had been done in the past—only this time to tell the story of the homosexuality scandal. Ford confirmed that Travelstead became such a key character to the play precisely because of Ford’s fascination with the vintage home movie footage Seth Randal provided in The Fall of ‘55 where fountain girls are shown dancing on the roof of the Howdy Pardner. “Had I not seen Seth’s documentary,” Ford asserts, “we wouldn’t be sitting here, story-wise that is. There was that photo in the documentary of the girls on the roof and I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ It fascinated me endlessly!” When he later learned that Al had dressed up to join the girls on the roof, Ford was hooked. 

But it was actually composer / lyricist Alex Syiek who brought the idea of adapting The Boys of Boise into a musical to Ford and asked for his help in writing the script. Initially, Ford declined. He’d never written anything before and, besides, he found the story too sad. “It’s still sad,” Ford says, “Show On the Roof is the happiest version of a really really sad story that you could tell.” I remembered leaving the workshop humming and dancing. “Well,” Ford warns, “it’s gotten sadder, I think, especially lately.” 

Something needed to be said, I felt, about a homosexual scandal being transformed into musical theater and the given, almost archetypal ascription of song and dance to gays. When I ran into a friend at Edwards Nursery and told him about the BCT premiere, he clicked his tongue and laughed, “Of course they would turn that scandal into a musical.” I couldn’t tell if he was happy about that or not. Perhaps he was commenting more on the fact that it was surprising it hadn’t already been done? 

“I don’t know if this is fair to say,” Ford offers, “because I haven’t gotten to see much of what other theater companies have been presenting to Boise in recent years, but I’m going to place a bet that this is going to be the queerest show that Boise has ever seen.” I brought up that BCT did bring Boiseans Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Ford and Syiek looked at each other and without missing a beat Syiek asserted that The Show On the Roof was queerer. Ford agreed. Now having seen the performance, I too would agree. 

Adapting Boise’s homosexuality scandal into a musical makes its subject arguably more accessible. Aware that Syiek brought the idea to Ford, I enquired how the idea had come to him? Four years back, while he was staying with a host family working on a musical he had been commissioned to write for the Idaho Shakespeare Theater’s youth program—he was writing a modern adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days”—Siyek entered a conversation with the father of the family who said that a story he had always wanted to see written for the stage was the story of the Boys of Boise. “What’s that?” Siyek queried, “l’ve never heard of it.” The father loaned him his copy of the book, which Siyek read but put aside, admitting it was a difficult, dated read. When he came back the following Spring he had dinner with the host family again and the father pressed the issue about the Boys of Boise so Siyek gave it another read, which was when he approached Ford about collaborating on an adaptation. He hadn’t written any songs for it, didn’t really even have an outline or anything to show Ford, but he knew that if it was going to happen he would need to have a collaborator willing to tackle the script while he focused on writing the music. 

Having sidetracked off to the characterization of Al Travelstead and the musicalization of the scandal, I wanted to circle back to the potential relevance of the play to our contemporary moment. The problem as I see it is the potential harm of what I can only term “gay tokenism”. A certain amount of gay tokenism towards gay liberation has come into full effect in Boise—we’ve just had Treefort, which included Dragfort, etc., by way of example—but, as progressive a representation as that might be, as noteworthy an achievement as that might be, it remains a separate activity, a separate entity that—unbeknownst to itself, perhaps—provides a smoke screen for what disturbs me about Boise’s underground male sex scene. The tokenism—the attitude that gays are being represented and accounted for and therefore no one should complain to the contrary—allows the conservative disposition of the sexual underground to gain force. What I’m witnessing are young men who are just beginning to realize that they’re gay being convinced by straight married men to dress up as women substitutes for them. This disturbs me deeply. These young men are not being offered the opportunity I had as a young man to make decisions about who I was and who I could be. Instead, they are being told that they will not have the love they want unless they forfeit their masculinity and enhance their femininity for the benefit of straight men who seek to deny that they are having sex with men. Already facing multiple challenges and hardships, the choices made by some transgendered youth are being influenced if not co-opted by straight men hoping to sexually fetishize them. 

“But this is our show!” Ford opines. “It’s the same theme. When you’re being told you can’t be someone, then you go and pick up a boy in the park. Or go to something that’s available, which is how a scene like this perpetuates itself.” 

Which reminded me, after moving to Boise, when a friend told me she was glad I had moved from the Great Big Gay City so that she could ask me some Great Big Gay questions. Over dinner one night, she relayed something that had happened to her at the Shakespeare Festival when she went into the women’s restroom. There was a woman in the adjoining stall who kept tapping her foot to catch her attention. I exclaimed, “She was doing a female Larry Craig?!!” and my friend said, yeah, the woman was definitely trying to catch her attention. When she emerged from her stall, the woman exited hers at the same time, eschewing all subtlety about her intent. My friend said she wasn’t necessarily bothered by the situation. She didn’t feel threatened or anything like that. If anything, she thought it was kind of funny. “But I didn’t know if I should report her to the authorities for that?” she asked. I felt a sad chill go down my spine. “Why would you do that?” I challenged. “Don’t you think this woman is miserable enough that she has to be tapping her feet in a restroom? Why would you want to drive her into the bushes? Because that’s what would happen. You would drive her from someplace relatively safe to someplace without any safety whatsoever. You have to think larger than that. You have to think about whose lives you’re impacting when you do what is sometimes promoted as morally correct or politically correct, which might truthfully be a misguided consensual view.” 

“When we started to write this,” Ford confided, “my feeling was drawing on a lot of certain current emotions I was having being here, having lived in New York; but, it seemed somewhat distant as an event and a subject.” Ford adds, “I would say right now it seems like there is no distance at all.” 

His comment intrigued me because I would agree that the events of 1955 seem strikingly familiar and comparable to today’s underground scene. Is it possible to learn from history? Are we doomed to repeat it? Especially, when there seems to be a strenuous effort to pull back into the 1950s? Ford understood. To pull back, “to yank and rip”, and he brought up the recently-passed Florida bill that limits how schools and workplaces can teach about race and identity. My concern—at the moment of my posting this entry on The Evening Class—is yesterday’s announcement that a school board in Nampa, Idaho has taken it upon themselves to forcibly remove 25 books from Nampa School District libraries. 

“The list goes on and on,” Ford commiserates. 

Moralistic assaults such as Nampa’s (let alone ongoing insults by the Idaho legislature), underscore the entrenched hypocrisy of Boise’s sexual underground. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to discover that conservative members of these school boards, or their straying spouses, are participants in this underground. Denial, coupled to discretion, are the law of the land. It’s easy to assert there is no conservative agenda in this underground—“No, that’s not being done because, look, we just had Dragfort. How you can say there’s a conservative agenda?”—but, I have solid concerns that the gains and advancements of gay liberation are being appropriated, supplanted and used as a foil to justify or excuse the strenuous efforts to allow sex between men to carry on only as long as it comports to the discretionary (hypocritical?) practices of the ‘50s. I’ve long felt that—in order to participate in the straight-curious, bi-married male scene—a gay man has to step halfway back into the closet because the fantasies of these men are being projected onto the ceiling of the closet. 

One of the narrative elements of the Boys of Boise scandal that most intrigued me was the extent to which Idaho law enforcement (namely, Sheriff “Doc” House) was determined to “crush the monster”. House crossed state lines, entered California, entered San Francisco, arrested Mel Dir, drove him back to Idaho, and put him on trial, where he was sentenced to prison for lewd conduct with a minor. Mention was made in Randal’s documentary that a San Francisco police officer accompanied Sheriff House when he arrested Dir, though the officer was flabbergasted that such efforts had been made when San Francisco police would be hard-pressed to travel as far as Oakland to make an arrest on such charges. 

Photo: © Michael Guillén
This bold act of exaggerated extradition melds neatly with research I have conducted on the longstanding cultural axis between Boise and San Francisco, which has historical precedent going back as far as the gold rush days when prospectors—coming by way of Silver City into the Treasure Valley—emptied into Boise, a city being built to accommodate them. 

For that matter, with regard to precedence and continuity, I may have to adjust my attitudes regarding Boise’s crossdressing underground now that Peter Boag’s ongoing investigations into same-sex behavior in the Pacific Northwest have unveiled a transgendered frontier where cross-dressing—for both men and women—was pervasive, as detailed in his award-winning volume Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past (2011)

Something I have tried to address—though I haven’t quite been able to formulate it to my satisfaction—is the continuity between the sexual scandals of Idaho. There’s a kind of hinged lineage in fact, connecting the seeming homophobia of Idaho and the blatant homosexuality of San Francisco. Mel Dir’s extradition, his San Franciscan arrest, adheres to this continuity. Idaho’s law enforcement could only have enforced the law as insistently as they did because they felt morally superior and compelled to do so. As a young man growing up in the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, it was exactly this morally-sanctioned heterosexual hegemony that became one of the main targets of my political activism. Who the hell did these righteous sexists think they were trying to dictate to me what I could or could not do in the consensual privacy of my own bedroom?!! All these decades later, I hardly flinch now when considering that Roe v. Wade is being led to the guillotine on the muscled arm of such moral superiority. Within my lifetime it appears these battles will never be fully won as much as they are constantly fought. 

Mel Dir.  Photo: Unknown.
Ford confided that it was “much fun” to play with the Dir sequence in the musical, where they play it “very filthy.” There are such strange, comic overtones to the scene with Sheriff House’s wife accompanying him on his mission, and driving back to Idaho as if they were on a family road trip. 

In re-watching The Fall of ’55 to refresh my memory for our conversation, what struck me this viewing—among my many viewings of the documentary—was the commentary by the counselor / social worker Jeanette Ross who opined that—long after the scandal—this sorry phenomenon is still going on. She’s counseling young men who continue to solicit older gay men with the aim of blackmailing them to stop doing so. Because gay men are not protected under Idaho law, such exploitation is made all the easier, if not indirectly encouraged. 

I’ve even had that experience here in Boise. A young man I met online thought he could blackmail me. “You think you can blackmail me?” I laughed, “Everybody knows I’m gay and nobody cares!” “Well, we’ll see about that,” he snapped back disgruntled because he really thought he had something on me that he could exploit for profit. I was stunned by the lengths he had gone to in hopes of exposing and fleecing me. 

What I considered brilliant in Ross’ commentary was her opinion that law enforcement should not have been going after the men; but, should have been working with the young trade and teaching them not to target these older men. In Show On the Roof, the impact of such behavior on the younger men is shown through the story of William Baker, who ends up shooting his father who bullies him about his involvement with the scandal. Having come from a troubled upbringing, Baker didn’t have a support network who could guide him towards a brighter path and, as a consequence, his life came crumbling down and he ended up in jail. In the ‘50s more focus was placed on developing the newly-constructed concept of the juvenile delinquent than funding or offering social services to help them. “Mental health”, in fact, was considered a Communist concern. 

To conclude, I expressed my pleasure that Ford and Syiek had brought this story to the Treasure Valley, rendered in their own way through their own perspectives. “It’s a gift you’re giving your queer brethren,” I said. “It’s a gift of history. It’s a gift of memory. It’s a gift of interpretation. It’s a gift of historicity. I hope it will be received with the attention and respect with which it should be received.” 

 Of related interest: George Prentice interviewed Ford and Syiek for Boise State Public Radio.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

THROWBACK THURSDAY / 2007 FRAMELINE31 / THE FALL OF '55The Evening Class Interview With Seth Randal

In anticipation of a free screening of The Fall of ’55 scheduled for Saturday, May 14, 2022, 6:00PM at The Community Center, 1088 N. Orchard St. in Boise, Idaho, to be followed by an onstage discussion between Seth Randal and yours truly, I felt it might be helpful to revisit our earlier conversation when his documentary screened at the 31st edition of Frameline, San Francisco, California. 

Seth Randal was thoroughly enthused when we met. He had been putting up announcements of an added screening of The Fall of '55 [Wikipedia / IMDb], 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 Boise’s homosexuality scandal.

  * * * 

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 LGBT 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 it 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 dialogue 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 here in San Francisco—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.  

Guillén: Excellent! 

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.  

Artist: © Jeremy Lanningham

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. 

[Originally published June 28, 2007.]