A Peek behind the Neon Signs at a Secret Los Angeles Night Club, 1953: This Is Not "I Love Lucy"
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
Play It Cool
W. 42d St.
New York, N.Y.
We all know what it was like to live in Los Angles in 1953. There are numerous books, movies and television shows that tell us. We never get the real story, though, because the history we know edits out the history we should know -- and don’t.
Play It Cool, that just opened on Theater Row, in New York, pulls back the censor’s patch on history and tells us the story of gay life in L.A., centered in Mary’s Hideaway, a gay night club that bristles with hot jazz, new talent and old wounds
Play It Cool is a new look at gay life in the early ‘50s but, at the same time, a well-staged ‘noir’ type of play that outwardly resembles dozens of late 1940s and early 1950s black and white night club movies and police shows in theaters or on television. It opens with a detective in a fedora and brown trench coat smoking a cigarette and setting the scene for Play It Cool. The detective then steps into the play itself and a rich and dangerous story about gay life in Southern California unfolds.
We meet Mary, a rumpled, dowdy woman in her 40s, dressed in male clothing, the owner of Mary’s Hideaway, and her girlfriend and club singer, young, blonde and beautiful Robyn Hurder. Lena is using Mary to make headway in the entertainment world and Mary is using Lena for sex. Lena is, the detective lets you know, Mary’s yearly blonde singer/lover.
Mary’s Hideaway is a basement level club in which the neon sign is inside the club, not outside, to hide its gay identity. Mary pays off the neighborhood detective, Henry (played well by Michael McGuirk), to stay in business. One night Will, a teenaged boy from South Carolina, who just hopped off the bus and wants to be a movie star, arrives with Eddie, a 40ish movie executive who wants to make him a star and be his lover.
The story is pretty simple. Eddie promises to make Lena a star, too, in return for sex, the cop reveals his sexual feelings and Mary is wounded by everybody. They fight their way out of the emotional traps they have created for themselves.
The musical features an interesting book and good jazz. The lyrics to the songs tell the story of the club and, in general, oppression of gays in L.A. and in the United States in 1953. The book is a bit stodgy in places, and a little overdone. It is too long; the last ten minutes of the play should be cut. The jazz music is wonderful and the club is the perfect backdrop to the story.
Play It Cool could be hotter. The story could be more intriguing and the relationships a little deeper. At times it seems too much like a television episode.
What is intriguing about the musical, though, is the spotlight it shines on gay history in southern California in that era. Everybody who is gay has to hide. They hide in the club, they hide at the office, and they hide in their marriages. The three hours they spend in the gay club is a refuge from their tattered real lives.
The highlight of the show is a story Mary tells about how a patron of a club where she was a singer waited for her after the show and beat her badly, reminding her between blows that she deserved it for being a lesbian. It is similar to stories used again and again in literature and theater, but the way she tells it shows how vulnerable gay people were in the 50s, with nowhere to go except a club like Mary’s Hideaway.
Los Angeles was home to a bustling gay community since the notorious bath houses of the 1890s and early 1900s. By 1953, when the play is set, there were well known gay night clubs in West Hollywood, some public and some underground. Gays hosted parties in numerous apartments and homes throughout Los Angeles in the 1950s, and in the 1960s the gay presence in town became prominent. Today, following years of battles, gay history is taught in California schools and civil unions are legal (the battle for marriages continues). In other places, such as New York, gay life is more acceptable, although not completely, and gay marriage is legal.
The relationships in Play It Cool involved the world of movies, and gay life thrived in the film colony since the 1920s. It was kept private for years and it was not really until the death of Rock Hudson via AIDS that people were made aware of how prevalent it was. Studios set up gay men and women as romantic couples to advance their careers and some people were even married to look good in movie land publicity. Huge stars were rumored to be gay but studios built them a good public cover to let them continue working. That is all chronicled in Play It Cool, and with a powerful punch.
Director Sharon Rosen has done a fine job of combining the music of Mark Winkler, Phillip Swann and others with the book by Martin Casella and Larry Dean Harris. She has turned an uneven book into an interesting play. It is a story told well and never becomes either parody or cliché.
The star of the show is Sally Mayes as Mary. She is not only a good actress, but a solid torch singer who makes the audience come alive in ten seconds with her music. Her lover, Hurder, is a good match for her as recognizes her sexual appetites are not going to get her anywhere in show business. Other solid performances are by Michael Buchanan as Will, the transplanted mid-westerners, and Chris Hoch as Eddie, the film producer.
Thomas Walsh has created a handsome night club set that gives the actors and musicians a lot of room to work. It is also evocative of 50s clubs and bars.
Play It Cool, despite its problems, is an intriguing look at cultural history in the 1950s and offers a melancholy backdrop for the world homosexuals and lesbians lived in.
PRODUCTION: Producers: Mary’s Hideaway LLC, Sets: Thomas Walsh, Lighting: Deb Sullivan, Costumes: Therese Bruck, Sound: Carl Casella and Peter Fitzgerald. Directed by Sharon Rosen.
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
comments powered by Disqus