I must confess now that I was a rather serious child. I was serious about minding my parents, serious about looking both ways before crossing the street, serious about mittens and mufflers and galoshes and raincoats in inclement weather. I was serious about keeping my hair combed, my fingernails cleaned, my clothes off the floor and my bed made every morning. I was also a serious student, my head stuck in an encyclopedia or locked in my room reading Dr. Doolittle or Treasure Island, turning in perfect penmanship papers and math homework without eraser smudges.
From the moment I learned about Broadway musicals, however, my world changed. The summer I was eight years old my father took our family to see The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the outdoor amphitheater in Atlanta. The production was one of those rickety semi-professional touring summer stock let’s-throw-together-a-moneymaker shows which starred an actress whose biggest credits to date included cameo appearances on Gunsmoke, The Flying Nun, and Gilligan’s Island. Still, it was the most inspirational thing I had ever seen; it was as if I had personally discovered the face of Jesus on the side of a potato. There it was, right in front of me, the miracle of the live theater experience for the first time: rich, glorious sounds of an orchestra spilling out of a hole in the ground, grown men and women dressed in strange costumes with raccoon-lined eyes and clown-red cheeks acting out a story communicated by overly enunciated words and dramatic hand gestures, so effervescently that it prompted applause from everyone watching. Applause. Imagine that!
When I got home that night it was like I had been infused with a silliness drug, as if someone had slipped LSD into my glass of vitamin-enriched chocolate milk. I couldn’t shake the images and sounds off of me for days—I pranced around the house, goose-stepping down the stairs and slapping my knees with the palm of my hand singing, “Belly up to the bar, boys! Belly up!” Show tunes were ringing inside my ears. Molly Brown was only a start, of course. That season they were also doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I never imagined that, well, people could go through life singing and dancing (and get paid for doing it, too).
By the end of the summer the musical comedy desire had welled up in me so much that I was practicing choreography as I brushed my teeth. “I believe in yooooooouuuuu,” I sang to the skinny little image of myself in the mirror. “Eeeeeyyyyeeee beee-leeve innnnn yooooouuuuu.” It wasn’t that music had never moved me before—I had been cognizant even by then of the power of Judy Garland to realign my DNA structure even though I couldn’t give a name to what it was that was happening. Whenever I heard “Over the Rainbow” I was frozen into place, unable to do anything but listen, and, well, worship. But suddenly, with Molly Brown, I had been bequeathed with the knowledge that there was a whole new live medium I had never known existed before—one with a heritage and a structure and an endless supply of Original Cast Albums, as if some pious pilgrim had said to his boyfriend while stepping off the Mayflower, “Let’s invent a new art form that will drive little sissy boys crazy.”
The image of those early days of becoming, well, serious about Broadway musicals and show tunes was so vivid and gratifying to me that several times a day I imagined myself sweeping onto a Broadway stage and throwing kisses to a grateful and admiring audience. “Thank you,” I’d say, as though nothing were out of the ordinary about an eight year-old having just performed every role of Camelot by himself to himself in the privacy of his bedroom mirror. “Thank you sooooooo much.” In retrospect, however, I can’t help but see this new-found obsession as a product of my remoteness. My life growing up in suburbia had been normal and serious and, well, just a bit too solitary. My mother was busy with her house chores, cooking and cleaning for four children in a too-small-but-with-more-stairs-than-you-can-want split level home; my father was off-site making an income designing airplanes that could drop atomic bombs; my brother and sisters were either too old or too young or wanted nothing to do with me. I had been a too serious sibling, really, and then, well, I became a silly one. And most of the neighborhood kids were on little league baseball teams or mini-football squads or out riding bikes and playing Frisbee with their dogs, all of which I had no talent for—especially trying to learn to catch a Frisbee with my teeth. Left to my own devices, it’s only reasonable that I emerged as Mr. Wanna-Make-It-Big-In-Show-Biz.
On one of the shelves of my bedroom bookshelf, I kept all of the programs and playbills and ticket stubs of the shows that I had seen, that my father or mother had, at first, willingly, and then later, suspiciously, taken me to thus far, from the church production of Annie Get Your Gun to the junior college presentation of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I treated these souvenirs like reference tools. Didn’t the composer who wrote Hello, Dolly! also write Mame? Wasn’t the woman who did Once Upon A Mattress related to the man who did Carousel? Didn’t Ethel Merman have a loud voice? Why did I know the lyrics of “People” before I ever heard the song? And why did I listen to that cast album over and over and over again? On my bottom bookshelf I stored the cast albums I had acquired, shows like Sweet Charity and Bye, Bye Birdie and the television version of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan; a few I had appropriated from the back of my mother’s closet, those standard mainstream all-stars such as the soundtracks to the movie versions of West Side Story, Gypsy, and King and I. They were all neatly alphabetized and stacked upright so that the records inside wouldn’t warp.
Many of the albums were soon scratchy from overuse, however; I spent hours and hours memorizing the lyrics of every new album I got, moving the needle back across the record in search of a previous groove. There was one album, a musical called Wish You Were Here, which I always kept out of order, however, the album cover sitting on top of my record player. The cover featured a black and white picture of a shirtless man carrying a yellow bathing-suit clad woman in his arms. I spent more hours studying that picture than I ever did trying to learn those inane Harold Rome lyrics, trying to imagine the width and bulk of the man’s arms and shoulders or how much hair was growing on his chest—that chest beneath that silly woman who dangled where I wanted to be dangling. The man wasn’t exactly a title holder in the brawn department, though to a young boy what he did exhibit was a wide berth of photographed skin. Something moved inside me when I saw that man in the photograph, the same sort of feeling, really, that I had felt when I had watched, mesmerized, the old Steve Reeves Hercules movies on television.
This obsession with bodybuilders didn’t really begin to haunt me till years later, however, somewhere around that inexplicable age of thirteen, the same year I kept lifting my arms up over my head wondering when I was going to begin sprouting hair beneath my underarms. Everyone I knew was going through puberty before I was. Girls were even going through puberty before I was. My dog was going through puberty before I was. Every day I would run home and lock myself in my bedroom and examine my armpit for hair follicles. In the gym class that I had been forced to take that year there were boys who already had dark, coarse hair on their chest and arms and legs and underneath their arms. I had nothing but the fine silky brushings I had always had on my forearms. When I stood in the mirror and flexed my biceps nothing in my arm moved or hardened. I had neither muscle tone nor bulky fat nor even shape in those days—only the skin and bones of a worried what’s-to-become-of-me youth.
On the days when I wasn’t so eager to examine my armpits I would ride my bike to the twenty-four hour convenience store which had opened about two miles away and order one of those icy fruit-flavored slurpy drinks. When I had finished and my lips were framed by an orange- or red-colored mustache, I would stand in front of the magazine counter and look through the racks. There were copies of those general interest Apple Pie Americana periodicals such as Look and Life and Time and Saturday Evening Post on the racks, ladies monthlies like McCall’s and Glamour and Woman’s Day and Vogue were given a whole shelf, and the sports and hobby magazines like Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Popular Electronics had a whole case on the other side of the aisle. But my gaze was always searching with burning-eyed neck jerks to where two specific magazines were located within that last rack—Muscle Builder and After Dark. I pretended, with all my stagey rehearsed nonchalance, not to want to look at them by feigning interest in a whole slew of other magazines. I would stand there and flip through Sports Illustrated, for instance, unable to read the articles or even look at the pictures because all I wanted to do was to look at one of those two other magazines instead. When I had spent enough diversionary time not to be studied by the salesclerk, I picked up a copy of Muscle Builder first, holding the spine gingerly between my palms as if I were Superboy and the pages were to ignite from my overheated stare.
Muscle Builder was full of workout routines photographed with bodybuilders such as Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbo, Larry Scott, Dave Draper, and pre-Hollywood Arnold Schwarzenegger—huge, thick-shouldered men with ridges of abdominals and striations across their chests and massive sets of muscles called deltoids and triceps—all of whom looked like they would be the winner of a national tractor pull contest. They made the guy in Wish You Were Here look like a leprechaun who had wandered out from behind a four-leaf clover by mistake. I would stand there and look aghast at the sizes of these powerfully-built men, many photographed in skimpy swimsuits in poses where their muscles popped obscenely to the surface of their skin. The pictures never failed to arouse me—me, a tiny, scrawny thirteen year-old yearning for hair under his arms—and I would stand there, shifting back and forth on the heels of my feet, feeling myself growing erect, a sensation I had not yet adapted to, furtively looking about to see if anyone understood what was happening to me but not wanting them to know about it, of course, my throat drying out and my heart beating in my ears, frustrated because I didn’t understand anything except that I shouldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling. I could seldom muster up the courage to buy a Muscle Builder, especially if a guy was working the check-out counter, but, oddly, I never had a problem taking the newest issue of After Dark to the register. To me, After Dark was just like one of those hobby magazines, except, of course, it was all about my hobby.
The true irony about After Dark, however, was that it tried to pass itself off as a legitimate entertainment monthly magazine, something like People before People was invented. Only there were no stories about aging soap stars recovering from alcohol abuse or movie stars supporting charity causes; instead, there were articles about Broadway revivals and choreographers and ballet dancers all throughout After Dark, all accompanied by glossy studio photos of young male dancers without their shirts on, or young sports jocks breaking into show business without their shirts on, or up-and-coming male models without their shirts on, or recently unemployed television actors looking for stage work without their shirts on. These young men were not nearly as beefy as those in Muscle Builder, of course, those older men were professionals, but these guys were just as fit. And After Dark treated their subjects more like gods who had landed on earth than those sweaty gym idols. Those men in those photographs were styled and posed and airbrushed and lighted with every kind of gel and make-up and super hair-dryer and micro-strobe technique imaginable. I have no idea how this magazine ever found its way to my small hometown in north Georgia, but After Dark, I believe, even to this day, awakened my sexual desire for other men with its soft core erotica. I didn’t want to be a skimpily clad dancer in those pages. I wanted to be the big, beefy bodybuilder with that skimpily clad dancer. It’s as if those two magazines were the culmination of my fantasy world come true.
Not a day went by without my fretting over these magazines once they had found their way into my consciousness. I soon had such a collection of magazines to compliment my musical theater library (including a few discreetly-hidden-in-my-closet muscle magazines that I had found the courage to buy). About that time my older brother abandoned his basement lair and I took to working out with the set of weights he had left behind. I borrowed my sister’s portable Swinger phonograph with the flip-down turntable and took it downstairs, exercising to show tunes in the chilly, damp space of our basement, a room that smelled like carpet which had been flooded on too many times. I huffed and puffed and tried to blow the walls of that basement apart with my new super-exercised strength, but more than once I would abandon those dumbbells in favor of, well, just dancing and lip-synching to my favorite songs, always trying to end my routine by stretching my legs into an impossible split. The door to the basement stairs was always opening and closing, and I suspected my mother and father and siblings were peering down from their worried perches, wondering what all that noise was about—what could I possibly be doing that could make the foundation of the house literally, well, vibrate in that kind of manner?
About that time, too, I discovered in my father’s workroom of tools and hardware—the dusty, sunless location-of-the-power-drill closet that was adjacent to my new personal-and-very-own-private rehearsal studio and gym—a flimsy, dark yellow paperback book on one of his shelves wedged between old copies of National Geographic, titled The Parents’ Guide to Sex. It was the scariest book I had ever seen up to then, and just the kind of book for parents to leave in a well-hidden-but-not-too-well-hidden spot so that the child-in-question will discover it on his own. It had been written decades before, but inside were sketches of male and female genitalia and reproductive systems. In the back of the book were horrid black and white pictures of men and women with swollen lips and running sores and scabs and rashes on their bodies—all illustrating a chapter entitled Venereal Diseases. The pictures were both repugnant and magnetizing, but what worried me more was a chapter in the middle of the book on homosexuality. The book was very specific on the distinguishing characters of homosexuality in young boys, describing the potential he-will-grow-up-to-be-a-nasty-man-and-a-pervert as exhibiting a “desire to dress up like little girls” and “moving around in a way identified as feminine.” Homosexual boys, the author informed the reader, had sloped, rounded shoulders (OK, whew, not me), hairless chests (Uh, oh, maybe me), soft, delicate skin (Uh, oh, maybe me again), and a peculiar swinging motion of the hips when he walks (Whew! Not me at all; I only swing my hips when I dance). What I needed was someone to tell me what to do with those feelings for other men, which were, needless to say, crowding out everything in my brain except the lyrics for all those show tunes.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when I admit that I wasn’t much of a jock in high school, even with all the playing (and dancing) I did with dumbbells. In tenth grade, I mustered enough courage to audition for the school production of Oliver!, believing, well, just knowing, really, that I was perfect for the title role of Dickens’s orphan circa nineteenth century London. I wasn’t cast in the lead, of course, even though I knew every note and lyric and word of dialogue by heart and had demonstrated so at my boisterous and too-cocky audition for Mrs. Prentice, the eldery drama club sponsor-cum-choral teacher who always smelled of alcohol and rose-infused perfume. Mrs. Prentice didn’t much care for my over-the-top rendition and when it came right down to it, I couldn’t sing the boy-soprano part, either; I had developed underarm hair by then (thank goodness for something) and my voice had changed an octave lower. No boy in my school could sing the part, or so Mrs. Prentice announced one afternoon, and she cast an eleventh grade girl as Oliver—a girl, mind you, creating a wave of raised eyebrows throughout the drama club and the first time I ever heard the word lesssz-beee-innnnsss whispered in public. It wasn’t like we were doing Peter Pan and expected to cast a girl as a boy.
Mrs. Prentice did cast me as Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s grandfather, a grand faux pas if you ask me, since the fake gray that had been sprayed into my hair for the part failed to age my pageboy coiffure—it had turned it silver and I still looked younger than the girl playing Oliver. My stage debut was nonetheless memorable, however. I knew nothing about vocal projection and breathing from the diaphragm and all that stage-actory stuff, nor was Mrs. Prentice smart or sober enough to impart that sort of wisdom to her assemblage of wanna-be theatricals. By the day of the first performance I was so nervous and sore from shouting my grand total of three lines that I had developed laryngitis. I spent my off-stage time coating my throat with a cold spray. Mrs. Prentice, helping me into the jacket of the costume my mother had sewn which looked more like a revised Confederate soldier’s uniform rather than an English gentleman’s topcoat, and which Mrs. Prentice had complimented me on only days before when I had shown it to her, said, just before pushing me on to the stage, “No one will ever believe you are supposed to be in this play. But, hell, at least, you sound old.”
The next year I didn’t fare much better as Pontious Pilate in Jesus Christ, Superstar, though I had studied voice in the year since my stage debacle and I could carry a tune, even project it across the footlights. Superstar was Mrs. Prentice’s concession to the students that the drama club should be more au courant, though there was a backlash against the production from a group of Baptist parents about a singing and dancing Son of Our Lord during His Last Days on Earth. I had wanted to be Jesus Christ, but when they made the student who was cast in that role wear a fake beard, I was relieved to have been overlooked. My costume was a white dress shirt and white bell-bottom pants and since our version was an abbreviated one, I was only onstage once, to sing “Pilate’s Dream.”
By my senior year I had gained some weight and muscle tone from my on-going basement exercises when I was cast as Rolf in The Sound of Music. I was determined, of course, to make Rolf a star cameo turn. A dance instructor was brought in to teach me how to waltz with the girl who had been cast as Liesl for the big “You Are Sixteen” gazebo number, but the cul de resistance occurred when Mrs. Prentice rewrote the finale cemetery scene for me so that Rolf wouldn’t be the bad guy and blow the whistle on the von Trapps. Instead, he sang a “Sixteen” reprise (with new lyrics written by moi) and then, with a slight tremor of his hand, triggered off another Nazi spotting the von Trapps.
That was the same year that I bought my first pornographic magazine. I had just gotten my driver’s license and had become a great adventurer on my own, planning trips to downtown Atlanta to usher for matinee performances of the touring Broadway productions that played at the Fox Theater, a former movie palace near the Georgia Tech campus. I bought that first illicit magazine at a convenience store that was attached to a gas station on my way home from a performance of the musical Grease. When I went to pay for the gas I had just self-pumped, I noticed a rack of magazines near the check-out counter—plastic wrapped editions of Hustler, Playboy, Penthouse, and a magazine I had never seen before—Playgirl. I reached directly for the Playgirl and, without even acknowledging it, slapped a ten dollar bill boldly down on the counter and in my best good-ole-boy Southern accent said to the guy behind the register, “My sister is too embarrassed to buy this. Can you believe it? She wants it for a bridal shower.” There was not an iota of a reaction from the guy over my purpose, and my bold, brazen action went unremarked. (I suppose the salesclerk was as bored with his job as he looked to be—even the junk food at this particular store looked like it hadn’t been moved in more than a decade.) The salesclerk gave me my change and I walked swiftly back to the car, the magazine placed on the seat beside me, its contents driving me so crazy that I finally had to pull off to the side of a road once I had crossed the Chattahoochee. I tore the plastic cover off that magazine as quickly as I could, flipping eagerly through the pages to look at the pictures of the nude men, studying how many men were featured, which ones were hairy and which were not, who had the best body, and who had the most unbelievable equipment.
That magazine set a yearning into place that would take me a few more years to fully comprehend, but I know now, in retrospect, that that may have been my first confusing of sex with love. It wasn’t just that I wanted to know this man’s skin and hair and cock and butt and smells and sounds and tastes. I wanted to be with him, wanted him to need me and want me as much as I wanted him. I wanted to belong to him as much as I wanted him to belong to me, to know that when he scratched his neck to understand whether it was an itch or a reflex, to know when he woke at night if he was restless or worried or had eaten too much, to know when he kissed me or held my cock that he knew my name and understood what I wanted to feel while he was with me. I wanted to be with a man when he got up out of bed in the morning, with the same man when he went out looking for lunch or dinner, with him again when he wanted to watch a movie or even better yet, when he had tickets to see a big, brassy, never-seen-before Broadway musical. At that age I’d never imagined anything except romantic sex, had never fantasized about any kind of a guy except a seriously-involved-with-me-and-only-me one. It never occurred to me that sex could be, well, meaningless, functional or simply recreational. What I wanted, of course, was someone to love. And I wanted to feel as if I should sing about it in a Broadway musical.
Though it would be years before I would be able to articulate my desire for men to anyone other than myself, I had no such qualms of my love of the theater. In college, this appreciation grew and the people who became my friends were theater people—performers, designers, actors, singers, dancers, and choreographers. My life wasn’t so much a slow, unfolding drama of acceptance and coming out as it was a long learning curve—a soaring arc of light that hoped to find a home somewhere on a stage, waiting for the right moment to belt out a show tune and bring down the house.
Jameson Currier is the editor and publisher of Chelsea Station.