- Michael Feingold, The Village Voice (NYC)
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Doric Wilson on The West Street Gang
Gay male history is last week but only if it was longer than eight inches. The past is an ex-lover, to be avoided at all cost. We have no oral tradition (at least not in the "traditional" sense), we have no memory of what went before, and little respect for the brave few that fought to give us our present. There is a gentleman among us, who (writing under a nom de closet) has made his journalistic career outing celebrities, but who, like most of our community, totally disdains (often with hostility) those individuals who openly and publicly contribute to our culture.
In the mid-1970s I was standing in the Spike Bar, conversing with a bottle of Budweiser when a buddy walked in, his face bruised and bandaged. Seems he had been fag bashed by a street gang (a common neighborhood occurrence) and had staggered to the Eagle’s Nest bar which was holding a tea dance benefit for a national gay organization. Beaten and bloodied he explained to the female co-chair guarding the door that he had been attacked and needed to use the phone to call the police, she refused to allow him into the bar until he paid the contribution. The West Street Gang began to write itself in my mind.
When the Spike first opened as a bar, I had been bartender/manager so there was no problem convincing the owners to let me stage the play there. We created a "bar set" where the DJ booth was later located, moved the pool table to make rooms for 100 seats and used the corner doors so the actors could actually enter stage from West Street. The night before the play’s first performance, I stood in the Spike, cruising the crowd when to my horror it occurred to me I was about to let my "art" invade the sanctum of my "sexuality" (surely Freud says the reverse is the preferred position).
The play opened, and imagine my surprise when my innocent effort caused a great big brouhaha among the political guardians of gay thought. The review in Christopher Street magazine complained that I had maligned the poor policepersons. The National Gay Task Force dropped me from it’s membership list. Jack Modica (champion of liberal causes) instituted a boycott (which the cast gleefully joined, hanging a poster behind the bar in the play reading: The West Street Gang supports the Eagle’s Nest boycott). And then there was the performance when Arthur Bell showed up, and the audience watched him watch the play. Leslie Magerman (who played Arthur Klang) was later overheard explaining to Arthur Bell:
"I feel, as an actor, when I play a 'villain'... "
The West Street Gang was a success and ran for 6 months (A year later the Glines revived it in repertory with A Perfect Relationship). There was even a night in it’s honor at Studio 54 (the doorman almost didn’t let me in). It’s effect as environmental theater was proved the afternoon a street gang intending to trash the Spike, opened the door only to be confronted by the cops from the play. My depiction of Arthur Bell made it to Liz Smith’s column and Anne Miller sent me a dozen roses in gratitude.
Anyone who saw the Spike production will always remember my beloved Billy Blackwell (Shanghai Lil) exiting from the men’s room in splendiferous scarlet drag, or the excellent Ivan Smith (Bill Bender) targeting his laugh lines with the ease of William Tell, or the incredibly talented Caroline Yeager (Bnita Aryant) entering from West Street with her bag of oranges. We don’t need Tom Cruise (in or out), we have our own celebrities. We just forget to remember them.
New York City, June 16, 2000