40 Years Ago: How “Boys in the Band” saved my life

I didn’t know there WAS a gay bar in Binghamton.

boys in the bandWhen I was a janitor in Binghamton City Hall, cleaning up after the cops, and living in my Grandma Williams’ shack of a house, there was very little to look forward to. I’d see my friend Carol a few times a week, and a good thing too, because I would have been totally crazy otherwise.

My sister Leslie was in town, but she was busy in college and spending time with her boyfriend Eric, whom she would marry on Halloween of that year, 1975.

She was also in a few productions, including “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” at the Civic Theater. The lead in this play was a guy named Charlie.

Charlie’s next theatrical gig would be directing a play called Boys in the Band. It was first performed in New York City in 1968, and made into a movie in 1970. The storyline was about a birthday party one gay man named “Michael,” was throwing for a friend of his, “Donald.” One of the characters, “Bernard,” was specifically black.

When I met Charlie after a performance of “Forum,” he wondered if I were a thespian, like my sister, and asked me to audition. I hadn’t acted since high school, five years earlier, but I got the part; I suspect there was little or no competition for the role.

The six weeks of rehearsal were great. I had time to memorize my lines; because I really had little else going on in my life, the play became the primary focus. The cast hung out a few times, once at someone’s house, where a debate of the strength of Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon album raged; I probably should have played side two first.

We went to a gay bar in Binghamton, only a couple blocks from where I went to high school. I didn’t know there WAS a gay bar in Binghamton; it might have been established while I was away in college. In any case, a few guys there seemed interested in me, and I was oddly pleased.

The lead character “Michael” was played by a guy named Bill, one of the straight men in the cast. He usually gave me a ride home after rehearsal, and we often talked about the nascent sociopolitical gay rights movement, which in its own small way, the play was part of; and stereotypes.

We probably discussed the fact that “Bernard” was supposed to greet “Emory” with a kiss. I acknowledge that I resisted this the first four weeks of rehearsal, but not the last two, or the two or three presentations, by which point it was no big deal. I’m sure it helped that I had gotten to know the other actor, a guy named Mickey.

There’s a lengthy scene between “Michael” and his old friend “Alan”, while “Bernard” was passed out, drunk. I would feed Bill lines during rehearsal from memory because I was just lying on the stage. At one point, director Charlie, perhaps flattering me, or annoyed with Bill, said he wished I could have played the lead but couldn’t because he needed that black supporting character. I was perfectly happy with my relatively small part.

As I recall, the review in the local paper was less about the play or the performance, and more about the “cultural phenomenon of gay life” writ large on stage. One of my high school friends told the aforementioned friend Carol that it was “too bad” I was gay; Carol retorted, “He’s not gay!” But this perception was pretty widespread, as there was a black minister I met subsequently who expressed an unrequited interest in me.

There were guys I knew in high school who were gay, but only one who I knew was out. Performing in “Boys in the Band” was not only a great way to spend a few weeks but was a tremendous learning experience for me.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

3 thoughts on “40 Years Ago: How “Boys in the Band” saved my life”

  1. That’s pretty amazing Roger, that you could pretend to be gay on stage in your hometown – in the 1970s no less! – and not worry about the consequences to your reputation.

  2. Not only was I proud of that production at the time (and still am), but now more proud of your participation, Roger, not really knowing your particular back-story. We were all courageous doing that play in a small city of upstate New York in 1975. Thanks for writing about it.

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