Thursday, June 28, 2018

49 Years Ago Today, History was Made at Night ...

The Stonewall Inn, September 1969. The sign in the window reads: "We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village."
by Denis Ferrara

“BE the change that you wish to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi.
TODAY is the 49th anniversary of the famous Stonewall riot: an event that changed history. Gay people battled their way out of the closet with bricks and uprooted parking meters in defiance so shocking, so long festering and righteous that it scared the men of the New York Police Department. Despite many challenges and a palpable air of unease and disquiet these days—the legalization of same-sex marriage notwithstanding—they never have and never will go back in.

Unlike many gay men of my age who lived near and/or hung around Greenwich Village in 1969, I will not claim to have been a participant in the riot, an observer or even having been at the Stonewall earlier, before the riot. I wasn’t in the Village that night. I had, however, been downtown the night before, and attempted to get into The Stonewall.
Denis Ferrara and friend in 1969. He says: “The Chihuahua didn’t accompany me to The Stonewall. I didn’t need any props.”
The Stonewall was my very first bar—so exciting with its two jukeboxes and the little dance floor in the back that looked like a chessboard, lit from below. But the bouncer who usually allowed 16-year-old me onto the premises was away. No amount of eye-batting or promises of more could dissuade this dragon at the wooden door to allow me in. “How old are you?” I swore I was 19. “You look 15. Go away!” I wanted to argue that I’d been let in when I was 15, but better to wait for the friendly bouncer another night.

So I wandered off, found a few similarly displaced acquaintances and spent the hot summer night camped (and camping it up) on various stoops, loitering outside other bars and making general teenage nuisances of ourselves.
The "street kids" who were the first to fight with the police.
At six o’clock AM on the morning of June 27th, I was standing on Sixth Avenue right off Christopher Street with some pals. We were about to go our separate ways, when I said, “Wait, girls, today’s the last day Judy’s laid out, we should go up and see her!” (Back then, if you weren’t overtly masculine, you talked like that. Later, I dropped my “Oh, Mary’s” and “Miss Things.” A guy I met around that time said, “I thought you were really cute, until you started talking! Why do you think that’s necessary?”)

Garland had died in London on the 22nd.  Her body had been brought back to New York for the funeral. Now, the funny part was I wasn’t even much of a Judy Garland fan. No fanatic, at any rate. I knew who she was, and what she supposedly represented to gay audiences. I was aware of her many dramas, suicide attempts, tales of her ruined voice, the “scandal” of her new much younger husband, Mickey Deans. I loved her MGM musicals, especially “Presenting Lily Mars.” And of course I’d seen “A Star Is Born.” I didn’t think then, and don’t think now, it was her finest hour. But, yes, of course she deserved the Oscar over Grace Kelly.
“A Star Is Born.”
But I’d never seen her perform live, and had never listened to any of her later recordings. (My one memory of her ill-fated TV series occurred while I was visiting relatives on a Sunday—there was Judy on the tube, in stark black and white, and looking rather fascinating to me. “Eh, she’s drunk,” said one of my uncles, switching to “Bonanza.”) So, I knew nothing of the thrall she held over audiences, gay and straight.

Still, we all decided that going to see Judy Garland laid out at Frank Campbell’s would be a “fun” thing to do. (I know—but now you tell me about how sensitive you were at 16.) So, we boarded an uptown bus and pretty soon there we were in front of Frank Campbell’s—five motley, long-haired, fey boys in jeans and tee shirts. There was still a line of mourners traipsing past Judy’s open casket. (The funeral would begin in a few hours.) While we stood there, I thought I’d impress my friends with my vast knowledge—“Rudolph Valentino was laid out here.” Nobody was impressed. They didn’t know from the Sheik of Araby.
Outside Judy's funeral.
Soon, I was standing in front of the coffin. I looked in. I must tell you that I always wish I hadn’t. Judy Garland was the deadest person I’ve ever seen. Nothing could be done to disguise the ravages of her final years. She didn’t look peaceful. She didn’t look pretty. Suddenly, I felt ashamed. This wasn’t fun at all.

The Alamac Hotel, my home in 1969.
Outside again, the heat was climbing. We made our casual, giddy goodbyes and headed to our various “homes.” I was living on Broadway and 71st Street in what was then The Alamac Hotel. (Now it’s a super-expensive condo.) The Upper West Side was still very “Panic in Needle Park”-ish but I liked it. So I crossed Central Park, and went to bed. You know when you’re a kid, how you can sleep forever—a whole day, even? That’s just what I did. I’d been up the entire night. I was beat from ... being young. So I slept and slept and slept. I didn’t wake up until the very early morning of June 29. The sun wasn’t up. I switched on the radio. (I loved the radio!) And that’s when I learned my life had changed while I slept.

The raid on the Stonewall was being treated in a very jocular manner—oh, those sissies, thinking they can fight the cops. My own concern—my deep concern—was would the bar ever re-open?!  After all, though the phrase “Gay Liberation” would take a few days to take hold, I’d been living in a liberated fashion for some time. I hadn’t experienced prejudice because I hadn’t experienced anything of value to my thought process yet. I didn’t work. I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t.

(And guess what, lucky me—I never did have to pretend! I eventually fell into show-biz in the big city, and worked for a boss who certainly did not care on which side I buttered my bread. Hard times, agonizing coming outs, doubts, hiding—I was blessedly untouched by what millions of young men and women still suffer, despite what appears to be unfettered progress in movies, on TV and on the cover of Billboard magazine. Listen, eighteen states still have no employment protection for the LGBT community.)
However, even for an immature type like me, by the end of that  week I realized something incredible had happened. You could see it and hear it and read about it. (I saved for years the famous Village Voice cover story on the event.) In an effort to mock and minimalize the riot, the tale of grief-stricken gays mourning Judy took hold in some quarters. Believe me, the patrons of the Stonewall weren’t Judy Garland fans. (That group was over at Julius’ or Uncle Charlie’s.)

The Stonewall re-opened briefly as a juice bar, which was OK by me—I didn’t drink, yet. But the semi-exciting, forbidden furtiveness of gay life—even in the louche and loose Village—had altered irrevocably. I’d experienced and rather enjoyed that forbidden vibe. I thought it was “exciting” when the music stopped and lights would go up at Stonewall—there was a cop on the premises!
Judy, having a good laugh at the idea that SHE had anything to do with the Stonewall Riots.
There would still be raids on other bars, and the battle for equal rights had just begun, but I realized that there wasn’t really anything attractive or sexy about the fear of being who you are. Cops should have better things to do.

I never became an activist. I was too busy  having fun after the dam burst. (Although I did partake in the early Gay Pride parades, when they were marches and kinda dangerous.) Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue—always free—became an even more invigorating, joyous, cruisy conversational jaunt—you’d walk and meet friends and bring them along and meet other friends and everybody seemed in tune, as if we could all read each others’s minds, finish each other’s sentences.

Even in wintertime, there was a warmth that came from an entire group of people demanding their right to live and love—and yes, just plain make love—fearlessly. I’m glad I’m the age I am, saw what I saw, lived how I lived. And how amazing that I managed to live this long, survive illness, maintain a relationship that became marriage—even though both of us were for years wildly averse to becoming “straight gays.” Eventually it was about securing me financially.  We had cats.  Let others adopt Korean infants.  
And Judy? Well, a month after the Stonewall riot, I was over at some fellow’s house. I was poking around through his record collection, and pulled out a striking-looking album. In giant red letters it declared “Judy. Judy. Judy at Carnegie Hall. The Historic Concert.” It was a two-record set, which impressed me. I opened it up and read all the liner notes. The guy woke up and found me engrossed in raves about Miss G. “Oh, you like Judy, huh?”
“Well, yeah, kind of. Is this good?”

“It’s great. Listen, it’s an old album. I need to get a new one. It’s a little scratchy. You can take it if you want.”
And so I trundled back to West 71st Street with Judy at Carnegie Hall under my arm.

I turned on my crappy record player. I put the needle to the overture, which was thrilling in itself. By the time Judy was crying, “Good night, I love you, God bless!” I was crying too. I had lost my heart to Judy. I didn’t feel so ashamed anymore that I’d made a sport out of seeing her laid out.

At least I could say, “Yes, I saw Judy Garland.” I didn’t have to say where.
Contact Denis here.