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The Temperamentals Take the Stage

The cast of The Temperamentals, which opens Friday at BUA.

BUA presents a history of gay activism, nationally and locally

This week, Buffalo adds a chapter to its gay history when Jon Marans’ play, The Temperamentals, opens at the BUA theater. This will be the first production of the award-winning play since its New York triumph earlier this year.

As the press for the original production explained, “‘Temperamental’ was code for ‘homosexual’ in the early 1950s, part of a created language of secret words that gay men used to communicate. The Temperamentals tells the story of two men—the communist Harry Hay and the Viennese refugee and designer Rudi Gernreich—as they fall in love while building the first gay rights organization in the pre-Stonewall United States.”

That organization was the Mattachine Society, founded in Los Angeles, California in 1950.

The Temperamentals was praised for its engaging story, for the complexity of its characters, and for an astonishingly good ensemble cast that included Michael Urie, concurrent with his success on the Ugly Betty television show. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it “intellectual, emotional, and sexual,” and enthused that “Jon Marans’s eminently likable docudrama about gay identity in the age of Eisenhower…doesn’t avoid the boilerplate devices or the simplifying shortcuts of feel-good scripts about brave social pioneers. Yet it doesn’t make the mistake of letting its characters exchange one set of stereotypical traits (timid, oppressed, self-loathing) for another (confident, assertive, proud). The diversity that’s celebrated here is within each of the individuals portrayed.”

My own reaction was similar, but at the same time I recognized that the minimalist style of the piece, and its dependence on a strong acting ensemble, along with Buffalo’s own history of gay rights activism, made The Temperamentals perfect for this city. Under the direction of Chris Kelly, the ensemble includes some of Buffalo’s most highly regarded young leading men: Ryan Cupello, Chris LaBanca, Adam Rath, Marc Sacco, and Mike Seitz.

Playwright Jon Marans, who is also the author of Old Wicked Songs, a 1996 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Drama, was impressed by the speed with which BUA acquired the rights and announced their production. Naturally, he hopes that this bodes well for interest in the piece across the nation, which seems entirely likely.

Reached by telephone, Marans explained that he first became interested in the founding of the Mattachine Society 10 years ago.

“I was hired by San Jose Rep in California to write a stage version of Studs Terkel’s book, Coming of Age,” he explained. “The book was a collection of interviews of people, all over the age of 70, who had been activists of various kinds. One of them was Harry Hay. I was intrigued that the audience, a predominantly heterosexual, middle-class audience, responded most powerfully to the Harry Hay character. The character only came on three or four times, but every time, he stole the show. The straight audience was fascinated with him.”

“Harry Hay saw the world differently,” Marans said. “He viewed his homosexuality joyously and unapologetically. I started reading up on him…I decided that I didn’t want to write about him in old age again. I was really interested in the period when he co-founded Mattachine. And then, when I hit upon the character of Rudy, I got very excited. I realized that these two men falling in love was the impetus for the founding of the Mattachine Society. That was my starting point.”

Marans’ play is populated with fascinating characters, beginning with Hays and Gernreich (best remembered today for designing the topless bathing suit), but also such intriguing figures as sexually ambiguous Vincent Minnelli, husband of Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli. And always, there is an air of threat and danger, as Marans navigates a gay world that was far more secretive than the world we know today.

To connect the history depicted in Marans’ play, BUA has arranged an exhibit of materials from the Madeline Davis Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Archives of Western New York. This unique collection documents GLBT life in this region as far back as the 1920s. It includes documents related to the founding a Western New York Mattachine Society.

Madeline Davis herself is a noted gay rights activist who lives in Western New York. In 1972, when she addressed the Democratic National Convention in Miami, Florida in support of the inclusion of gay rights in the party platform, she was the first openly lesbian delegate ever elected to a major political convention. She is co-author (with Elizabeth Kennedy) of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, a groundbreaking work first published in 1993. In 1972, she co-taught the first course on lesbianism in the United States.

And, in 1970 she was a founding member of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, the first gay rights organization in this region.

“Gay activism began in this community,” recalls Davis, “with a group of friends who were just becoming interested in police harassment and people being beat up on the street.”

Davis describes how, to amuse themselves, groups of young men used to drive their cars past gay bars in the downtown Buffalo area, and when they saw someone come out alone, they’d stop the car, rush out, and beat the person up, male or female. “This would happen outside places like the Eagle Inn at foot of Washington Avenue, or Dante’s Inferno, an after-hours spaghetti restaurant. It was quite common.”

Davis also recalls that when Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York, pledging to clean up corruption in the Buffalo police department, it was a mixed legacy for the Buffalo gay community. Previous to this, it was common practice for police officers to go into a gay bar, saddle up to the bar for a while, and leave with an envelope or a bottle. In exchange for this friendly extortion, gay bars could operate unmolested. “We were not raided then,” says Davis.

After the cleanup, gay bars fell prey to unrelenting police raids and harassment.

“A cohesive group began talking about organizing and taking action in late 1969,” explains Davis. “The Stonewall riots happened in June of that year, and people were aware of that, but it didn’t have much impact here. Rising up like that was something that could happen in New York or San Francisco, but we didn’t see ourselves as being empowered in that way.”

That would change rapidly.

“There was a guy named Jim Garrow who owned a bar called the Tiki Club on Delaware Avenue where the Federal courthouse is now. The club got raided, and Jim got to thinking. He was not originally from Buffalo, and he had a friend named Frank Kameny.”

Dr. Franklin E. Kameny was one of the most influential figures of the early gay rights movement in the United States. In 1957 he had been fired from his position as an astronomer with the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C., exclusively because he was discovered to be gay.

“Frank is still living,” says Davis. “At that time, he had already been very active in New York and in Washington, D.C. He came to Buffalo. Buffalonians said they couldn’t effect change. Kameny told us, ‘You can do something about this!’ He really stirred up the pot.”

The call to activism was immediately powerful in Buffalo, Davis recalls. By January 1970, the ball was rolling and a Buffalo Mattachine Society was founded.

“We were not affiliated with any national organization,” explains Davis. “We were simply aware that gay rights organizations in other cities called themselves ‘Mattachine Societies.’”

The term had, in fact, been invented by Harry Hay, a reference to a form of medieval theater. Davis recalls that early members of the Buffalo group used false names—a practice they would abandon quickly.

Other cities tended to begin with longstanding “homophile” organizations that lived by the philosophy that gay people are just like everybody else and should be respected. Gay men in business suits and lesbians in skirts and high heels would protest peacefully. By contrast, Buffalo quickly shifted to militant activism. Buffalo’s activists immediately demanded to meet with police to discuss harassment and entrapment. They demanded a stop to the practice of taking names and printing them in newspapers after raids.

“We began picketing immediately,” says Davis.

Other cities tended to see men’s organization and women’s organizations. In Buffalo, says Davis, “Men and women joined forces and worked together in equal numbers.”

The Madeline Davis GLBT Archives, which documents this history, will soon be housed as a special collection in its own room in Butler Library at Buffalo State College. Forty boxes of materials have already been delivered. Among the artifacts is a letter from Harry Hay, who had visited Buffalo in support of Native American rights, and had met Madeline Davis at that time. In the letter he expresses happiness in learning that Davis is teaching guitar lessons, thereby “expanding our culture.”

Our culture continues to expand with the opening of The Temperamentals, this Friday at BUA theater. There will be a special performance to benefit the Madeline Davis GLBT Archives, at which Davis will briefly address the audience on Friday, November 19. The production runs through December 4. For tickets, call 886-9239.