Sunday, July 03, 2022

THE FALL OF ’55—Q&A With Seth Randal for TCC Benefit Screening

Seth Randal (2022).  Photo: Michael Guillén.
The Show On the Roof (2022), the musical adaptation of Seth Randal’s documentary The Fall of ’55 (2006), boasted its world premiere at the Boise Contemporary Theater on April 13, 2022 and ran through May 7, 2022. This anticipated, well-received adaptation afforded the welcome opportunity of a one-off revival screening of The Fall of ’55 to benefit The Community Center ("TCC") in Boise, Idaho, with director Seth Randal in attendance and yours truly to moderate a post-screening Q&A. 

Seth Randal started his audience out with a synopsis of the making of The Fall of ’55, outlining that work began on the documentary in 2000 and finished up in 2006. He worked extensively with Alan Virta, former archivist at Boise State University, conducting research in Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington D.C., among other places. They dug through historical archives to find material because there weren’t a lot of people who were willing to talk about these events. So, unfortunately, they had to fill in those blanks by finding what people were saying at the time, using archival letters, and obscure newspapers that no longer exist—things like that. Seth completed the documentary in 2006. He apologized for its being “a little grainy-looking” but he shot for five years on standard definition video (because HD was very expensive).  

The Fall of ’55 had its world premiere at Newfest in New York City, and then went to a number of other festivals around the country. In the intervening years The Fall of ’55 has been used as an educational tool by universities around the world, including the University of Tokyo, Duke, Northwestern, the list is long. 

Seth grew up in Nampa, Idaho and learned about Boise’s homosexuality scandal when he was a teenager. His cousin’s girlfriend mentioned that the scandal was so big in the ‘50s that a book had been written on the incident—John Gerassi’s The Boys of Boise: Furor, Vice and Folly in an American City (1966). He went to the library and—first, looking around to make sure nobody would know which section he was in—Seth pulled the book off the shelf and tried to read it but realized it was dense reading and he wasn’t going to get through it. Instead, he researched old newspapers on microfilm and started looking at old articles. Even at the age of 17 Seth had in the back of his mind the notion that he would someday do something with his initial research into the scandal. Originally, he considered writing a play or a screenplay. 

As time went on—he was at college studying journalism—Seth came home in October 1995 for his beloved great aunt’s funeral. This proved fortuitous because he discovered in his cousin’s recycling bin an extensive front-page article, which was centerspread for the Idaho Statesman for the 40th anniversary of the Boys of Boise scandal. That article contained the story of Frank Jones and how his life had been destroyed by these events. That’s when Seth recognized the real persons’ angle of this incident. He felt for the lives and families that had been torn apart. That human angle was absent in Gerassi’s book where, instead, much detail was given to pages and pages of dry deposition hearings. But discovering the Statesman’s commemorative article on the scandal told him that there were human stories to be told. Later, continuing with his work in journalism, Seth started working on The Fall of ’55 when he was a producer at Channel 6, and finished it when he was a producer at Channel 7. Realizing that writing a play would entail extensive research about what life was like in the 1950s, Seth decided that—if he was going to undergo all that—he might as well make a documentary. That’s how it all came together on a shoestring budget. 

For several years while doing the research, he and Virta kept the project hush hush because they were aware that John Gerassi had received threats for writing The Boys of Boise. His hotel room had been invaded and his records searched through. Fortunately, he had locked his records up in a bus depot locker so they were saved; but, being aware of this incident, Seth also knew there had been a lot of resistance from the community to the 1995 article he had found in the recycling bin, which quoted real people. The Fall of ’55 shows people protesting that the subject was being dredged up again.  Randal and Virta encountered similar resistance. A lot of people wouldn’t talk, let alone on camera, so Seth had to fill in the blanks accordingly with the words of actual people in an effort to make it as true to the events as possible. 

How the Howdy Pardner looks today.  Photo: Michael Guillén
With regard to how working on this story through this film has affected him over the years, Seth admitted to an audience member that it was affecting him more now than at any other point. Partly because a musical play—The Show On the Roof—was inspired by The Fall of ’55 and recently staged their premiere at the Boise Contemporary Theater (“BCT”). The Show on the Roof took the story of the Travelsteads and their Howdy Pardner drive-in. 

Though Fall of ‘55 does incorporate archival interview footage, most of the interviews in the film Seth shot himself, which afforded him the opportunity to fully flex his compassion. Sitting directly across from Alty Travelstead when he talked about the impact this scandal had on his family made his testimonial even more moving. 

Coming from a news background, Randal was trained to keep a journalistic distance and not get too close to the subjects of his story; but June Schmidt, the lounge singer, ended up becoming a dear friend, which he wouldn’t have imagined at first. A lot of the home movie footage used in The Fall of ’55 of Boise in the 1950s, of driving down Capitol Boulevard, of San Francisco and of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, came from June. 

Seth Randal at the site of the Howdy Pardner.  Photo: Michael Guillén
The documentary has given him opportunities he might not otherwise have had to work on other projects. The Fall of ’55 is still a relatively obscure film. At the most, maybe 10-20,000 people have seen it. At the same time, it has given him a measure of credibility. 

As for the BCT production, Randal admits that it’s strange to see stories that he has been close to all his adult life—nearly 20 years—being enacted; and to see characters based on people that he knew personally in some cases. For example, The Show on the Roof finishes up with a portrait of the piano player depicting Jimmy Sayles, one of the men prosecuted in the Boys of Boise cases. Randal located and contacted Sayles in New York. Sayles’ accuser recognized him because Jimmy used to play the piano on a childrens show on Channel 7. Seth’s conversation with Sayles lasted several hours. He asked if they could fly him out to Boise to conduct an interview? Seth explained that it would allow Jimmy to see his family and was cheaper than flying himself and a photographer to New York City, plus staying in a hotel there. Sayles answered, “Well, let me think about it.” The next day Seth got a call from Sayles’ sister, angrily insisting, “Don’t you ever call my brother again! Leave him alone!” That demonstrated for Seth that these men who were involved in these cases had time to process what had happened to them, but for the families there was still a lot of residual emotion. Nonetheless, Sayles ended up coming to the world premiere in New York City and was the guest of honor at dinner afterwards. 

Seeing him brought to life as a character in The Show On the Roof, caused Seth to remember what Sayles had told he and Virta about how he forgave the people who had prosecuted him because they were “just doing their job”. To see his spirit of forgiveness and hope being brought to life in the stage play was undeniably emotional and a little surreal. For Seth, some of these people are more alive today than during the time when he was working on the cases and doing the research. Of course, the play took licenses and departed from the documentary. It was a musical with song and dance, after all, and—obviously—those songs weren’t being sung in the 1950s. There were some minor factual details that were changed, but—on the whole—Randal felt The Show On the Roof was fairly true to the people he knew. 

At this juncture Seth shifted to introducing me as the person who would be asking him a few more questions. He read my boilerplate bio: “Michael Guillén is the founding editor of The Evening Class and a former member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and a contributing journalist to several print and online venues.” But then with a glint in his eye added: “Known for his insightful questions, he has interviewed many notable directors, including Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufmann, Eli Roth, Ang Lee, and David Cronenberg. He’s also interviewed many actors, including the following Oscar® winners: Viola Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Shirley Jones, Forrest Whittaker and Marisa Tomei. As well, he’s interviewed a number of queer filmmakers, including John Waters, Peaches Christ, Jenni Olsen, Alan Cumming, Mink Stole and Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. “In 2007 in San Francisco at Frameline, he had an opportunity to interview a young Idaho filmmaker named Seth Randal and today we’re having an opportunity to continue that conversation.”

 * * *  

Michael Guillén: This is very exciting for me as a film journalist to have the opportunity to do something like this. 15 years ago I got to talk to Seth about this film. It has had a profound influence on me in 15 years. I look at it differently now. Every time I look at this film, I look at it differently. What I want you all to acknowledge here is what Seth has done. The Fall of ’55 is a significant contribution to gay history. It’s the individual efforts that people make—as Seth has done with this story—that has contributed to our history, which is a lasting history. This document is the definitive document on the scandal of 1955 and I have to applaud him. 


Seth Randal: Very quickly, let me give you a little bit of Michael’s background. He was born in Nampa, moved to Twin Falls as a child, and while he was young he learned about the Boys of Boise cases from Gerassi’s book. Tell me about finding the book and what that was like.  

Guillén: Well, I was an avid reader in Twin Falls. I loved the library—y’know, that fount of socialism—and I was allowed to go into the adult stacks a little bit earlier than most of the other children. I don’t remember exactly why—it might have been the amount of books I read—but, they allowed me to go into adult stacks. Like Seth, I found these areas in the library that I probably shouldn’t have been in and found The Boys of Boise. I wasn’t old enough to check it out—I was only about 10 or 11 years old—but, I read it. Or I tried to read it, I should be honest. It was very difficult for me to read. The thing that came out of reading it was the word “blackmail.” Blackmail. What does blackmail do

Another thing I must commend Seth for is his truly empathic and compassionate grasp of what this scandal did to people, to real live human people. What I also got out of reading the book is that no one was ever going to blackmail me. Right? Because I was seeing it happening to people around me in Twin Falls. You’ve got to understand that when the book came out, when I was a senior in high school in 1971, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. I had to be careful of looking sideways at anyone for fear that some adult who didn’t like me was going to yank me into his office, then send me off for electroshock therapy. That’s what I lived with. And I resented that my classmates did not have to think about this. That really bothered me. But I told myself, “You will not be blackmailed. And how can you not be blackmailed?” 

It was the gestalt of the time. In The Show On the Roof, the character of Jimmy Sales ends the musical with an upbeat number, saying, “We will survive. I will survive.” Which was the gestalt of my generation. We were just about to move into the modern gay liberation movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Idaho of The Boys of Boise. I didn’t want to have happen to me what had happened to these men. So I left Idaho. I wasn’t going to let it happen to me. I went off to San Francisco to take part. To be history. We, as a people, have had to be history. We have had to find it—as Seth did so brilliantly. 

I don’t like it when you say you “filled in the blanks”. I don’t think that’s the right way to say it or think about it. Seth took a core, factual narrative and built this gorgeous thing around it that amplifies how the scandal had affected the lives of people. This is not just filling in the blanks. This is a visionary look at the emotional effect of this scandal. So I don’t want you to say that anymore. [Laughter.] You have to give yourself credit for what you actually did. You may not have known that was what you were doing; but, that’s what you did. 

All these years later I’m struck by the fact that—in taking on this Boys of Boise project—you didn’t do what Gerassi did. You didn’t talk about “The Queen”. [Addressing the audience.] Do any of you know the background on this? Allegedly, there was a Queen from one of the major families here in Boise, and a feud with another family was what really got the whole scandal mobilized. 

Randal: Allegedly….  

Guillén: Allegedly. We always have to qualify that version. But the story was that there was a warring competition between families and one family wanted power over the other family so they were trying to get “the Queen” to discredit that family. Instead, “the Queen” was never exposed and many innocent people were hurt by the scandal that ensued. Why did you choose not to take that angle from Gerassi’s book? 

Randal: Well, first off, we were doing independent research. Sure, I had read The Boys of Boise, I had made footnotes, but we wanted to do our own original research by going back to the original court documents, by going back to any record we could find related to that time. The fact is—when you connect the dots—there is just no evidence that there was such a person. I didn’t want the film to be a response to The Boys of Boise except for this one area. There were a lot of people who felt that The Boys of Boise was a sensational version that cast Boise in an unfair light, which some people touch on in the film. 

Seth Randal (2022).  Photo: Michael Guillén
We intentionally restricted ourselves to on-the-record sources. For example, I spoke with Eugene Thomas, the Deputy Prosecutor turned Prosecutor turned President of the American B.A.R. Association at his office in the U.S. Bank Building. But he wouldn’t go on camera and so we couldn’t include any of that. I talked to a number of the men who were the young accusers at the time. I very much wanted to have their stories as part of this and it is a shortcoming of the film that it does not have their perspectives. However, none of them were willing to talk on camera. The guy whose statement had addressed Al Travelstad’s name being crossed off and bank vice-president Joe Moore’s name replacing Al’s, I met him for lunch and we had a long conversation. I asked him to do an interview and he called me the next day and said his attorney told him not to. 

Likewise, if you saw the musical you saw the story of William Baker who—during the course of this investigation—ends up shooting and killing his father, which was an event that actually happened. We found the color crime scene photos. Vivid Kodachrome that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades so they were still vivid color. It was quite unnerving. I found Baker in Texas. I wanted to include his story but, again, he wouldn’t do an interview on camera. William Baker was the one whose charge against the bank vice-president Joe Moore ended up with Moore being prosecuted. Baker told me that he didn’t even know Moore and had to have him pointed out in a line-up so he would know who he was. But guess what? They both ended up in prison at the same time: William Baker for killing his father and the bank vice-president. He said he apologized to Joe Moore while they were behind bars. That’s a detail that I would have loved to have included in the film, but again we were sticking to stories that were verifiable, that we could say, “These were the facts in the matter, these were the people who were willing to come forward and tell their stories,” and not rely on innuendo and speculation. 

With the Big Queen case? There’s just no evidence that there ever was a Big Queen. In fact, Mel Dir touches on it during his interview where he talks about how the investigators told him, “If you don’t tell us all the gay people you know, we’re going to say you’re the ringleader of this sex ring.” I think the idea of the Big Queen was rooted in this investigative tactic. “We’re going to say you’re the big guy if you don’t tell us everybody you know.” They used that to extract knowledge, to wring it out of people. I don’t believe there was a Big Queen. After years of research there’s no evidence there’s a Big Queen. I know the identity of the person that John Gerassi thought was the Big Queen. He was not the member of a prominent Idaho family and apparently didn’t have ties to Idaho.  

Guillén: [Addressing the audience.] Now see? This is why I like interviewing someone 15 years later. [Laughter.] 

Randal: Now I want to ask you another question.  

Guillén: Okay…. 

Randal: You moved from Idaho to San Francisco in 1975. You were already aware of the Boys of Boise book and that had an impact on your decision to leave the state. How was that book—and Boise—perceived by people in San Francisco and abroad?  

Guillén: Nobody knew about it. Nobody knew about this. That’s why I was so pleased when your documentary came to the Bay Area because I thought, “Oh! Finally, some attention.” 

I have to say something here that I think is important: the “Add the Words” movement inspired a very fine documentary on that civil rights movement here in Boise. That movement absolutely wowed me when I moved here: to witness a civil rights movement where the people who were on trial, in effect, couldn’t actually be there because—if they were identified—everything that you would think would happen to them could happen to them. “Add the Words” was a straight-ally-supported civil rights movement, which absolutely wowed me. I couldn’t believe it. I tried so hard to get that “Add the Words” documentary shown in the Bay Area, anywhere I could think of, and nobody wanted to watch it. The Fall of ’55 they wanted to watch because history has the entertainment value of distance. They could think, “Oh well, that happened then and it’s interesting because it happened then.” But when I said, “Wait a minute! This is a documentary that’s showing that our brethren right now are being persecuted in the state of Idaho because of laws that are draconian and you don’t want to show it?” They said, “It’s not sexy enough.” Films of interest at the time either went way back in time to reclaim history or queer civil rights movement happening in other countries. I remember being so disillusioned by this because I pulled in every favor—I have talked to so many people in the queer film community, have helped so many people—but nobody wanted to help me get the “Add the Words” documentary screened. 

So, to answer your question, in urban gay centers Idaho was perceived as a hinterland. To this day. That’s why I’m proud of you that you got your document in Frameline and it had such an effect that Frameline picked it up for distribution. That was a great thing. But I wonder—if you had decided to make The Fall of ‘55 now—would there be an interest? I don’t know for sure that there would be. 

Randal: That’s a good question. If I did it now, there would be fewer original interviews because a number of the people we interviewed for The Fall of ‘55 have since passed away. June Schmitz has passed away.  

Guillén: June was fabulous. 

Randal: She was a character. Let me tell you a quick story about the serendipity of making the film. We had been working on it for a long time. We were contacted out of the blue by a film festival in Los Angeles because my beloved, late executive producer Louise Luster had gotten the film listed in The Hollywood Reporter as a film in production. So we were randomly selected by a film festival and we were like, “Shit! We don’t even have a script. We’re still trying to throw stuff together. After five years of working on it, we need to get this wrapped up.” So I threw together a script and we sent them a cut that still had a lot of black holes in it. I wrote the script based on the information we had from the people who were willing to talk; but, there were a lot of spots where there wasn’t any footage or photos to cover it up. I said, “June, do you have any home movies or photos?” “Home movies?!” she responded, “I’ve got fifty cans of home movies!” So we sat in her basement looking through her silent home movies. Some of them we added sound effects to: driving sounds, or sounds in the grocery store, or—early in the film where June is playing the music in the Club Le Bois—our composer Randy Coryell looked at what the musicians were doing and tried to make something to riff around that. I had written scenes like “June was a lounge singer”, “Fairyland Parade” (since re-named the Holiday Parade), “San Francisco scenes.” So we sat in her basement looking through her color home movies. She carried a camera around her neck the whole time. 

That is the actual 1955 Fairyland Parade that she is talking about where she got the hint that her people were going to be busted. The scene where she’s playing in the Club Les Bois, those are the people she’s talking about. There’s a shot of her husband in front of the door of the Club Les Bois at the Fairyland Parade. June then referred me to a photographer in Boise who had a lot of the black-and-white photos . So we got a bunch of material there. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by the Idaho Historical Society. They knew me. I had been going down to the Historical Society offices for four years digging through every random box I could find, trying to find something, some detail or some morsel we could put in the film. They called me out of the blue and said, “The guys who run the Egyptian Theater found this old black-and-white Chamber of Commerce film that we think might be of interest to you.” I’m like, “Yes, I would love to see it.” So they got it transferred and I started looking at it. There are our shots of downtown Boise and the Capitol Building, film shots of Boise High that we needed, and there’s a shot of the city council member whose son was arrested in the prosecution and the chamber door closing. It felt like we had sent a crew back in time to 1955 because—when I looked at one of the calendars on the wall—that black and white footage was shot in October 1955, the same month the scandal started. It was just unbelievably serendipitous how things came together with this.  

Michael Guillén & Seth Randal.  Photo: Michael Hawley.
Guillén: Serendipitous, yes, but again indicative of the spirit of the time because what we were being asked to do as gay-identified young men—you in your time and me in mine—was to concentrate on history, to find our history, because we had been denied history. It had been covered up. In the ‘70s particularly, we were asked to uncover it, to recover it. We were asked to find it in the margins and in footnotes. We were asked to be history, to create history, to become history. That was the challenge that I remember specifically. I believe your serendipity was very much meant to happen. 

Randal: It felt that way.  

Guillén: The timing of it is really quite unbelievable. I want to ask you another question. I’ve watched The Fall of ‘55 probably about 20 times. Every time I watch it, something different comes up. Like this viewing, that shot of June’s husband standing in front of the Club Les Bois, I never noticed that before. It’s actually a shot of where she went in to use the phone to warn her friends. So there’s always something and [addressing the audience] I recommend you watch this documentary many times because you’ll keep learning something new. 

Randal: We tried to layer it with a lot of information that would reward people who watch it repeatedly so they catch things that maybe were missed the first time.  

Guillén: It’s customary to have talking heads in a documentary. In more recent viewings, the two talking heads that have impacted me most are Jeanette Ross, but also Peter Boag. I’ve been researching Peter’s work lately. Peter has done a lot of work uncovering crossdressing in the Pacific Northwest. He won awards for a volume he published on that subject. It fascinates me—and I don’t know if you know this or not—but, there is a huge crossdressing scene here in Boise. Why? What is this? 

For me, crossdressing is not drag. I have to make a distinction here. Drag is a gay perspective, a gay phenomenon, usually community-building, usually fund-raising, usually comic, whereas crossdressing is something else. Crossdressing is a straight phenomenon. It’s a power play. And I have a lot of issues with it. That’s why I was glad while rewatching The Fall of ‘55 that I turned onto Peter’s work again because I think he might help me ratchet down my animosity a little bit? To understand that there actually is a lineage of crossdressing, in which Boise plays a large part. So my question is: how did you get in touch with Peter and why did you pull him in? I know that he was asked to do a foreword for a reprint of The Boys of Boise, was that the main reason you pulled him in? 

Randal: That was one of the main reasons but, also, Peter Boag had been in the news prior to being a part of this film. He had been working at Idaho State University and—I don’t remember all the details because it’s been 15+ years—but he was supposed to be getting funding for a project involving gay research, or writing a book or something like that, and there was a big ruckus over money being spent on something like that. He was already known as a historian, but then when he was asked to write the foreword to The Boys of Boise, I felt he would be a good person to help put the book in the proper historical context because he was already being tasked with that for the reprint.  

Guillén: And then Jeanette Ross likewise caught my recent attention. Here, I have to once again praise Seth’s capacity for compassion. It exceeds my own. I don’t think I have the depth of compassion he feels for the shame these families suffered from the scandal. I posed to Seth way back 15 years ago that I considered these young male accusers to be like the young accusers in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. These were young people accusing adults of crimes that ruined the lives of those adults. I don’t think of them as innocent at all. I was sexual at 12 so I know the reality of that. I feel sorry for all the teachers I seduced as I was growing up! [Laughter.] I look back now and think, “That was terrible what you did! The jeopardy that you put them into.” 

Randal: And I don’t endorse that. [Laughter.]  

Guillén: I remember when we first discussed this that I called these young male accusers “trade.” [Addressing the audience] I’m presuming you are all familiar with the term “trade”? Well, back then you countered that; you didn’t agree that these young men were trade. You felt they were good kids who were poor and just needed money and this was what they did to get it. Can you expand on that because I still don’t quite agree with you. 

Randal: In some cases they were poor kids who were trying to get money to fix up their car or do whatever they wanted to do with the money. In some cases, the accusers were legitimately young gay kids who were fooling around. Or in the cases of Eldon Halverson and Lloyd Thompson—who were accusers in numerous cases—were young men both of age. Nobody truly knows what’s in anybody’s heart; but, I do believe that in most cases the accusers were not willing accusers, especially starting in the very beginning with Emory Bess. He was a juvenile probation officer. He wanted to know, for example, how William Baker had money to be fixing up his car? Bess would be talking to these kids and eventually they would reveal details. Even in the case of Eldon Halverson (who’s featured in the musical briefly), I don’t think he necessarily wanted to be in the role of being the accuser in three or four cases. What it feels more like was—because he was 20-21 in some of the cases, as opposed to 25—they pressured him to be in the role of being the accuser so that he himself would not end up being prosecuted.  

Guillén: I was struck in the documentary of the threats made to juvenile probation officer Emory Bess and his family, which you wouldn’t have thought would happen. Who was threatening him? 

Randal: That’s a great question. His son did not have an answer of who was threatening Emory Bess.  

Guillén: Only that they were driving fancy cars? 

Randal: He stepped on a lot of toes in announcing this investigation, because he basically went over his superiors’ heads to announce this sex ring. So it could have quite possibly been someone in law enforcement or somebody else that he pissed off, some community member who felt threatened. I don’t know that for sure, which is unfortunately why we had to keep it vague. We know that it happened, but we don’t know who or why.  

Guillén: And it is interesting that his son, Ron Bess, elicited some discomfort in our audience. I was monitoring the reception here where it felt like the audience was reacting “how can you say that?” when Ron insinuated that homosexuality was immoral. 

Randal: Because we had limited witnesses who were there at the time, I wanted to make sure that the people we interviewed were given a fair seat at the table to share their perspective. There were some times when interviewing certain people, or when transcribing their interviews, or cutting their interviews and watching clips again and again, where it would make my skin crawl a little bit because they were espousing an opinion that I didn’t agree with. However, the fact that I didn’t agree with the opinion didn’t mean that it was something that shouldn’t be stated. In some cases, it was the prevailing opinions at that time so I had to put the journalist hat back on and be like, “Alright, I’m going to treat this person as fairly as I can, even though I might not agree with what they’re espousing.”  

Guillén: I recently interviewed the composer and the author of The Show On the Roof, the musical adaptation of The Fall of ’55 and the writer Tom Ford mentioned to me that the interruption of the COVID pandemic has psychologically fractured us so that our understanding of any reality is now fractured. Particularly with this story, this narrative, there’s no way that we can have a “truth” about it; there will always be multiple truths. The play was structured that way to allow the audience to have two or three different takes on each scene so that you, as the audience member, could ask yourself: “Was the homosexual the creepy guy? Was the young person the creepy guy? Was nobody the creepy guy? Was the situation the creepy guy?” I think that’s a healthy response. 

With regard to Emory Bess, I feel for him because I have concerns about this now. I have concerns now that young gay people are under threat by forces here in Boise. It bothers me very much because nobody talks about it. 

You asked me how The Boys of Boise had affected me in leaving Idaho and what it was like going to California—what that meant for me was that I was given an opportunity to say, “Who am I?” I didn’t think of myself as “gay”; that was a label I chose later. I don’t say I’m gay anymore because the label “gay” isn’t what it was in the 1970s. When you were gay in the 1970s, it was a political act. We were coming out against Anita Bryant. We were coming out against the Briggs Initiative. We were “coming out” as a political act. Then sometime in the ‘90s the term “gay” got appropriated and turned into a lifestyle choice, which really upset me. I don’t care if my curtains match my carpet! [Laughter.] Well, I do! [More laughter.] But it bothered me. So I don’t like to say that I’m gay anymore. People I have met here in Boise’s multi-faceted “scene” will say, “Well, you’re gay, right?” and I go, “Well, I used to be.” Then they ask, “What do you mean by that?” And I will explain to them. Because some of these guys are very concerned about the labels. They’ll assert, “Well, you know that I’m straight, right?” I respond, “I’ll accept who you say you are. But I don’t think the labels work anymore.” 

But what especially doesn’t work for me is when a “straight” man takes a young “gay” man and convinces him that he must be a woman in order to earn love. In my youth, I was given a choice. If that’s what a young gay in Boise wants to do, fine; but, I sometimes feel that he isn’t really being given a choice. 

Randal: That’s the premise of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  

Guillén: Exactly. 

Randal: Which you interviewed the director of that film as well.  

Guillén: John Cameron Mitchell, that’s right. 

Why The Fall of ’55 is a serious document is because you see how a scandal is manufactured. Bess’ impulse to correct something that he thought was going on with young people is valid, and that’s why I can accept the attitude that’s represented there because I actually have that attitude right now. 

Randal: Bess’ error, I think, was in announcing that there was a sex ring of 100 boys, which automatically got the fires burning and people were instantaneously in a panic over these allegations. Boise’s population at the time was 35,000 people so—by the time you look at the number of teenage boys who would have been in that age range—you’re getting into a lot of them. So it was enormously scandalous.  

Guillén: And the irony is in retrospect there’s a kind of joke. The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that just won’t shut up. [Laughter.] 

The concern that we as queer people need to concentrate on is: are the victories and the rights we have obtained being appropriated? I call it gay tokenism. We just had Treefort, where there was Dragfort, which I think is a great, progressive development. However, I fear that it’s being used as a smokescreen to guise something else that’s going on here in Boise. This is just my personal opinion, okay? But when I watch Ron Bess expressing his concern for the young people in Boise in 1955, I have a lot of concern for young people in Boise now. 15 years ago when I first interviewed you, I asked you if this could happen again. You answered, “No, I don’t’ think so because Americans are becoming educated and smart and their critical thinking has developed….” 

Randal: I think that’s paraphrasing. [Laughter.]  

Guillén: But now, 15 years later, I have to ask you the same question. Have Americans become smarter? Are we becoming more tolerant? 

Randal: Y’know, honestly Michael, I have to say I’m as concerned as I’ve ever been. There’s been a lot of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction with the “don’t say gay” business in Florida and all the trans issues. There’s a lot of threats of prosecution against parents. There’s a lot more push back and it’s gotten stronger and more vocal than maybe I had anticipated when I gave you that answer originally.  

Guillén: We were more hopeful then. 

Randal: Yeah, we were more hopeful that the progress would stick, that it wouldn’t be a constant back and forth of people pushing for their rights and people who oppose them pushing back; but, it’s kind of been a tug of war, which is sad to see. I’m less optimistic than I was 15 years ago about what’s going to happen in the future, which honestly—not to toot my own horn—but that makes the film all the more important because we have to understand what could happen, what did happen, and stand up to prevent that. The lessons of Boise in 1955 and how the scandal tore apart so many lives, how the satellites were shaped and informed and how their lives were impacted as a result of this, if we don’t stand up it just makes it all the more possible.  

Guillén: We have to look at the scandal with a clear-minded sense of what righteous nostalgia is. I feel we have an effort going on right now trying to pull us back into the mindset of this time period. So we have to look at this time period and seriously examine the righteousness. Righteousness can be okay. It can be okay to be righteous about something, this is how causes are won and minorities are emancipated; however, the kind of nostalgic righteousness that tries to pull us back into a time that was before and heralds it as some kind of idealized time is very pernicious and dangerous. I attended the rally downtown today protesting the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade. It shocks me that we have to keep fighting for the rights of women to have authority over their own bodies. I realize that within my lifetime—I’m hitting 70 pretty soon—I’m never going to see this conflict in any way finalized. All that we have is the struggle. All that we have is the constant fight. I’m actually a little bit more optimistic than you and a little more clear-eyed than I used to be. Nothing is in granite and you can’t step into the same river twice. We just keep trying. The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote that for us there is only the trying and the rest is not our business. 

Randal: Now I want to ask you a question that’s kind of a tangent. You’ve spoken about something that happened in the Castro district of San Francisco, which is the gay neighborhood, starting in the late ‘60s into the ‘70s when you moved there that you call the “fluorescence”. Can you explain what that is? And the role that Idaho refugees played in the transformation of San Francisco?  

Guillén: Thank you for asking! [Addressing the audience] This is so important for you guys to know. Along with Seth’s amazing contribution to gay history through this document, most people here in Boise do not understand that what happened in San Francisco in the 1970s was a political strategy. We all said to ourselves, “I’m not going to be blackmailed.” So we moved somewhere where we wouldn’t be blackmailed. We said, “We’re going to have our own restaurants where we can go with our boyfriends and sit there and have dinner and look over and see other boys with their boyfriends (or girls with their girlfriends) and it’s not going to be a problem. We can have our own banks, our own hardware stores.” 

Seth Randal (2022).  Photo: Michael Guillén
This was the beginning of community centers, which were based on the idea of being able to gather somewhere as brethren and become ourselves. In San Francisco, this was largely effected through a pot roast recipe that was brought from Twin Falls, Idaho by a man named Scotty Williams who worked in all the first gay restaurants in San Francisco: Fannys, Burtons, Ivys, the Café Flore. These were the original gathering places for gay people during the Castro Florescence. I call it a “florescence” because for me it was a shining thing when light was starting to come out of us. Visibility was the theme. “We’re not hiding anymore and look at us. We’re beautiful.” That’s what it was. These restaurants—Fannys, Burtons, Ivys, The Café Flore—were all kickstarted by a group of gay men from Twin Falls, Idaho. This is gay history that nobody knows about. I keep telling people about this because—this is the weird thing—Idaho kind of doesn’t want homosexuality, yet it has everything to do with homosexuality. [Laughter.] It’s been going on like this for a long time. 

That’s why Peter Boag’s work is so interesting to me right now because this has been a tension—I call it a “hinged” tension (like a swinging door)—that’s been going on here in the Pacific Northwest, but specifically in Idaho, for hundreds of years. Alan Virta, who is just a remarkable individual—Seth introduced me to him—was the historical consultant for The Fall of ’55. He’s done a wonderful analysis and purview of gay history in Idaho. 

Randal: It’s very important work that he’s done going back to the 1800s.  

Guillén: Going back to the Native Americans, to the First People! This is a lineage, this is a tradition, which we should take pride in. There should be no shame here. This is why I keep going on about my concern over young gay men being ashamed of who they are and succumbing to requests to be something other than who they are; it bothers me deeply. My generation worked so hard to not be ashamed, to be proud, and I’m seeing it being dismantled in the Treasure Valley through a kind of righteous nostalgia. 

Randal: Ozzie and Harriet.  

Guillén: Ozzie and Harriet. I mean, who lived those lives really? We know now that even they weren’t living those lives. 

Randal: Do you have any other questions for me?  

Seth Randal & Louise Luster (n.d.).  Photo: Unknown.
Guillén: I want to talk a little bit about Louise. I didn’t really ask you much about Louise Luster 15 years ago and her production of the film and what you two were doing. There’s that wonderful photo of the two of you where your hair is down to here. I just love that photo. Talk about archival footage!! [Laughter.] Can you talk more about how you got involved with Louise and why she was willing to help you with this document? 

Randal: Louise Luster, who was the executive producer of this film, was one of two or three people without whom this film could not have been made. It was probably in early 2001 when I was living with my boyfriend and we had money in the bank. He had written a horror movie script and I said, “I’m going to buy us some cameras and we’ll make this horror movie script and turn it into a low budget horror.” We were looking for actors, doing a casting, and we went to this theater company Prairie Dog Productions—which no longer exists but they had office space on Cassia—and they allowed me to crash one of their castings so that I could announce that we were casting for our horror film. 

Louise was one of the people who showed up for this low budget horror. We did an audition with her and—when I looked at her resume—I saw that she had been the executive assistant to the vice-president of a railroad and she had been an Ada County planning commissioner and I thought she had the kind of experience that could benefit us above the line, so to speak. She agreed to be the production manager on this horror film because she had this great experience. I knew that—because she had worked with the vice-president of a railroad—she would be fearless in dealing with people in power and authority. To be in a position like that, I knew she had to be organized and on top of things. Long story short, the low budget horror film didn’t get completed. My boyfriend and I broke up. I later re-approached Louise and asked if she would be willing to help with this film. I showed her some of the material that had already been shot and told her what it was about. We met originally because she wanted to be an actress but she had gotten excited about the film industry so that on her own she was wanting to do production management on local film projects. I brought her on board as a producer. Louise—who passed away a year and a half ago—was married with children who were very young at the time. At the end of the day, I don’t know why she said yes.  

Guillén: I think I know. 

Randal: I think it was because she believed in me.  

Guillén: Yeah. 

Randal: She believed in me before almost anybody else did and she’ll always have a place in my heart. It wouldn’t have been possible to make the film without her. We wouldn’t have gotten the recognition and gotten into festivals without her. She would travel to the American Film Market in Santa Monica. She got us into The Hollywood Reporter. She became fully invested in wanting to run her own production business to help other Idaho producers to get their projects off the ground. She left behind a lot of unproduced Idaho-made scripts, so—if you know any producers—I have a stack of potential scripts and projects. She invested so much time and effort that we gave her the title of Executive Producer because she earned it. Normally, an Executive Producer would be somebody who threw a lot of money at a project to bankroll stuff. She did it, not directly to the film, but through traveling and through her time. She and I would talk at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning sometimes, going over ideas. I’d bounce stuff off of her. 

September will be two years ago when she and her husband retired to Ecuador. A year and a half ago in September I said good-bye to Louise. She left to Ecuador. I looked at her and I thought, “She doesn’t have the same vibrancy, the same fire, that she did when we were working together.” I was concerned that it would be the last time I ever saw her. In April of last year she went to the doctor after several visits. They couldn’t figure out why she was so low energy and why she was having trouble remembering things. That day they did—I don’t know if it was an x-ray or a ct scan or what—but they discovered that her chest, her pelvis and her liver all had little puffs on them, nodes of cancer, and she died that night in a hospital in Ecuador. 

Guillén: I’m sorry to bring up that sad memory for you…. 

Randal: No, no, I wouldn’t be sitting here and talking with you if it weren’t for Louise because this film probably never would have been done. Because Alan and I were doing the research, but ultimately I was shooting the video and paying for the trips to do some of the research. There was a time period when a lot of people didn’t even know this was in the works. There were times where I could have just given up and said, “Fuck it. I’ve already invested $15,000 into this. I don’t have any more. I could have bought a boat. My retirement plan would be in much better shape.” But, the more people became involved and the more we let others know we were working on it to try to get more stories and to try to find support, Louise had helped to organize house parties. She would go door to door to businesses looking for fundraisers for silent auctions., things like that. It wouldn’t have been completed without her and I wouldn’t have the documentary filmmaker. title if it were not for her support and her believing in me.  

Guillén: As we conclude here, I think it’s clear to us all why she believed in you. As a film critic, I have to say once again this is a remarkable document and it’s going to last for a long time. It may be the one thing you really do. Hopefully not; but, even if it is, you have made a major contribution. I’m grateful for it. I’m sure your audience is grateful for it. Thank you so much.  

The Fall of ’55 is available for streaming rental on Amazon Prime and on Kanopy.

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