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.