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Media Coverage


A creative maven who has been an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric for decades

by Johnny Ray Huston

 

Photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

“What a swimmer is Dracula’s daughter!,” exclaims John “the Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, as “Dinner With Drac” blares from the speakers in Marc Huestis’ Redstone Labor Temple office. ‘Tis the season for Huestis’ tribute to Poltergeist’s Jobeth Williams, and the activist, filmmaker, and camp impresario is in the final stretches of preparing for the big night.

What hasn’t Marc Huestis done? As a youngster, he arrived in San Francisco from Long Island, New York, unafraid to recite poetry while sporting a pompadour that would make any Elvis impersonator feel size envy. Soon you could see him singing in drag or writhing around on stage in a dirty diaper in Angels of Light productions. But from the very beginning, film was at the heart of Huestis’s life. His father was an editor who worked on the ’60s teen music TV show Hullabaloo, while his mother was a showgirl. “I have a little bit of both in me,” he jokes, and it’s the truth – a Marc Huestis extravaganza involves informed editing and explosive creative freedom.

One of Huestis’ first notable celebrations was the San Francisco Gay Film Festival, now known as the Frameline fest, which he and his non-biological twin-of-sorts Daniel Nicoletta (born just three days apart from him) began with other like minds in 1976. “It was fun, a bunch of kooky hippie kids who wanted to get their movies shown,” he remembers. “There was no pretense, and the group of us were able to get together to do it. It’s great to see what it has evolved into, and feel a bit like a patron saint. Some people will always hate you, but at this age” – Huestis is 55 – “you get to the point where some people respect you. And you respect yourself.”

In 1982, after making some short films, Huestis wrote and directed Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?, his distinctly San Francisco answer to the kinds of antic comedies John Waters was making on the East Coast. In recent years, the movie has found a new audience amongst music lovers devoted to San Francisco’s new wave heyday – one of its strongest aspects is its documentation of wild performances from Tuxedo Moon and other groups of the day. “It was a great combination of gay culture and punk culture,” Huestis says of the era. “There’s a kindness to it, and it was very smart.”

Huestis’s next feature-length movie, 1993′s Sex Is… is very much a film of its time. A direct look at and discussion of the experience of gay sex and intimacy amid the AIDS crisis, it was also a do-it-yourself, many-year labor of love, with DIY aesthetics one common thread throughout Huestis’s creative life. “It’s very heartfelt,” he says of the film. “It was an important film when it came out because no one was talking about sex, and if they were, it was really hypocritically. The high point of my life was to be at the Berlin Film Festival for the world premiere, and then several days later, be at the awards presentation with Billy Wilder sitting nearby. For me, having HIV, and not thinking I was going to live, that moment was a gift.”

One year later, Huestis moved into his office in the Labor Temple, a treasure trove of film memorabilia where the walls are lined with autographed photos, and VHS tapes, DVDs, VCRs and DVD players are stacked on top of each other – in a well-organized fashion. The site is his base for the celebrity events that he puts on at the Castro Theatre, theatrical and cinematic programs that have blazed a trail for another generation of movie mayhem purveyors such as Jesse Hawthorne Ficks and this year’s Goldie winner Joshua Grannell, a.k.a. Peaches Christ.

Old media surrounds us as we talk, but there is little doubt that Huestis, experienced at putting together political and community fundraisers, is always focused on the present and future as well. “I love new media,” he says. “I could not do what I do if I didn’t have knowledge. I design the posters, I do the clip reels, I get the music together, I do the PR. I would sell the popcorn if I could. I love it. I never get tired of movies.”

It’s fitting, then, that Huestis gets to call one of this country’s oldest and most beautiful movie palaces, the Castro Theatre, home. “One of the first shows I put on there was when the Republicans took control of Congress, so everything comes around,” he says. “The best thing is seeing someone go there for the first time. To me it’s like the town barn, but it’s an amazing, beautiful place.”

If star power can me measured in size, some of the players that Huestis has brought to the Castro over the years – Debbie Reynolds, Jane Russell, Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie, Patty Duke – rival the size of the fabled venue. He’s also given eccentric talents such as Sylvia Miles and Karen Black the type of spotlight they deserve. In the end, it’s about gratitude, on his part, on behalf of the audience, and hopefully, from the subjects of his tributes. Huestis’ night for Tony Curtis resulted in him being hired by the actor to create a clip retrospective that ultimately wound up being shown at Curtis’s funeral. “I had a great fondness for and connection with him,” he says. “I love it when they’re thankful, because no one shows gratitude, the world is so entitled. After the [Castro] show, he [Curtis] held my hand really hard, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, ‘Thank you.’”

Thank you, Marc Huestis.

Marc Huestis grew up wanting to be either an actor or president. Now the filmmaker and camp impresario is using his showmanship to promote peace.

Marc Huestis used to spend afternoons with his mother watching “Million Dollar Movie” on New York’s Channel 11. While he gloried in the same old movies shown over and over again, his mother, a stripper known professionally as Marija the Continental Gypsy, would be sewing sequins on her pasties.

Much later in life, Huestis, 48, a co-founder of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, has been able to celebrate his love of old movies with a series of programs at the Castro Theatre that included films such as “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Valley of the Dolls” and “The Bad Seed.” The programs have been highlighted by onstage interviews with cast members. Carol Lynley, Patty McCormack, Ann-Margret, Ann Miller and Barbara Parkins are just some of the stars who’ve not only talked candidly about their memories of the old films onstage, but have also happily sat back and watched the pre-screening antics and skits that have become a staple of Huestis productions.

Photo by John O'Hara

But there’s another side of Marc Huestis, one that prompted him to campaign for Eugene McCarthy as a 13-year-old.

“There’s always been two sides of me,” he says, sitting on the floor of the mezzanine lobby at the Castro. “One’s very razzmatazz and the other is very political. As a kid I either wanted to be an actor or president.”

The political side inspired Huestis to dream up his latest production, a benefit Friday night at the Castro featuring artists and performers who oppose the nation’s involvement in Iraq and think in general that there should be a peaceful alternative to the way the Bush administration pursues foreign policy.

Headed by actors Mike Farrell, Janeane Garofalo, Mimi Kennedy and Hector Elizondo, “War Is Over: Create Peace” will benefit a relatively new peace group called Artists United.

Late last year, as the war drums began beating, Huestis began assembling the stars for “War Is Over,” not knowing, of course, whether there would even be a war or if it would be over by the time the curtain rose on the show.

“I knew the name of the show would work no matter what happened, because it can be a statement of fact, it can be a statement of irony or it can be just a wish,” he says.

Kate McArdle of Artists United, the group founded by Farrell and producer Robert Greenwald, says the idea behind the show is not to oppose one specific war, but rather war in general as a way of solving international disputes.

“No one ever said we were experts at anything,” she said this week. “We just have opinions like anyone else, and we’re able to use our celebrity in a positive way.”

“What I wanted to do was to create a space where people can feel good about peace,” Huestis says. “I know there are people who say what business do artists and entertainers have speaking out about foreign policy. But artists are plugged into things. Part of being a good artist is that you’re constantly taking in information, and part of the information you’re taking in is the world around you.”

The world around Marc Huestis hasn’t always been sunny, but it’s been a wild ride. After his parents divorced when he was 12, Huestis lived with his mother but would often see his father, who was an alcoholic.

“It was very uncomfortable,” he says, adding that his childhood was often “traumatic” and sometimes violent before his parents split up.

His mother continued “gigging,” as he puts it, working as a stripper, while young Marc went to high school.

“She became very ‘Grey Gardens,’ ” he laughs. “Everyone else on the street would have these beautiful lawns and lovely homes, and she’d have like eight German shepherds with vines crawling all over the house, but I loved her for that.”

Huestis spent many weekends going into New York to see plays and was befriended in high school by a gay drama teacher who encouraged his love of theater.

“I remember he had me do my senior thesis on ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ ” he laughs.

He spent three and a half years at the State University of New York at Binghamton, majoring in drama, but left without getting his degree. He wound up in Provincetown, Mass., where he danced at a place called the Atlantic House, or A-House to the P-town set. An offshoot of the Angels of Light theater collective was performing in town at the same time, and he met one of the members, Gregory Cruikshank.

On a whim, he took the fabled Green Tortoise cross-country to San Francisco and ran into Cruikshank, who asked him if he wanted to perform with the Angels here.

“My first show was this thing called ‘Parasites on the Bourgeoisie’ at Herbst Theatre. I played this Gypsy beggar girl and was the first one to come onstage. As soon as I appeared, I heard all this whooping and screaming and it was so outside the realm of any theatrical experience I’d ever been through and I thought, ‘God, this is home.’ “

In a later production, playing a drunken chanteuse named Ellen Organ, Huestis accidentally let go of a liquor bottle that flew out from the stage and right into the head of an audience member, who had to be rushed to the hospital. “At that point I knew that my acting career was over and I had to do something else,” he laughs. “The guy was OK, though, and he was into S&M so he loved having the scar.”

At this point in his life, “the dad genes kicked in and I discovered I had a talent for putting images together.” After courses in filmmaking at City College, he began making Super-8 films, the first of which was called “A Day in the Life of a Death” and was about a drag queen’s funeral.

“I started making a movie a month,” as did many of his friends. “I had four or five films and other people had some, so we just said, ‘Hey, let’s put on a show,’ which is how the gay film festival was born.”

Long before it was the huge, multivenue event it is today, the festival screened films at two gay community centers on Page and Grove streets.

“But I kind of did that and thought, ‘Oh, this is cute,’ and then I decided to do my own shows,” he says. The first, “Strange Fruit,” featured Huestis’ 15- minute film “Unity,” about the Nazi persecution of gays. It included footage he’d shot at Dachau and went on to be included in film festivals around the world, including the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was shown on a bill with two porno films.

A later film, “Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age,” about one of the founders of Theatre Rhinoceros, won an award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1986. In 1993, Huestis made his magnum opus, “Sex Is . . . ,” a documentary compiling interviews with a variety of people on the subject of gay sex and sexuality.

Despite the fact that Huestis was able to tour the world with that film, and that it cost only $55,000 to make, he began to realize he’d never make a living as a filmmaker; he began his “extravaganzas,” as he calls them, at the Castro Theatre.

Those campy shows have been virtual sellouts, with audience members crowding in as much to see the live show as the stars themselves, some of whom, Huestis concedes, have been “high maintenance.”

No, he won’t tell tales, which is probably why he’s had such great luck getting celebrities like Sandra Dee, the late Troy Donahue, Linda Blair, John Waters, Piper Laurie, Sylvia Miles and Edie Adams to sign on for the fun.

Huestis will tell you about the stars he’s particularly liked working with, such as Waters, whom he calls “a really nice guy and so well-bred: He always writes very proper thank-you notes,” Patty McCormack and Lynley, who has become a close friend since her “Poseidon Adventure” appearance at the Castro in 1995.

Lynley, speaking this week by phone from her home in Los Angeles, admits that she was not interested, thank you, when Huestis first asked her to show up for a “Poseidon” screening, but “finally I decided to just take a chance. After all, I’m Irish,” she laughs.

Since then, she’s done several appearances at “Poseidon” events, often with co-star Stella Stevens — “They’re gonna write ‘Poseidon Beauties Kiss Off’ when we die,” she cracks — and even with 92-year-old director Ronald Neame.

But it all began at the Castro with Huestis, whom Lynley compares favorably to such showmen of the past as Otto Preminger, Irwin Allen and Mike Todd.

“He’s the last of the old-time showmen,” she says. “He knows how to do it. He has an instinct for how to do it. He’s also plainspoken, as am I, and when you’re working in this business, you appreciate someone being direct.”

The key to working with showmen like Huestis is trust, Lynley says, something she felt toward her “Bunny Lake Is Missing” director, Preminger, and her “Poseidon” producer, Allen. She also trusts Huestis, so much so that he persuaded her to come back to the Castro last Christmas for a “twisted,” as she puts it, reading of “The Night Before Christmas.”

“Did you know Santa was gay?” she laughs.

Asked to sum up her feelings about Huestis, Lynley is near reverent when she says, “‘He’s larger than life; he’s larger than imagination.”

Of course, there are former colleagues he doesn’t speak to any more, and Huestis admits with a raucous laugh that he has a “volcanic” personality and is given to feuds. He and Parkins had a spat some time after her appearance for the “Valley of the Dolls” screening, but he still calls her “a classy lady. “

One celebrity he doesn’t speak to any more is Christina Crawford, who appeared at a Christmas show in 1997 to talk about her book before a screening of “Mommie Dearest.” That show was so successful Huestis took it on the road, but he found Crawford more and more difficult to deal with.

“The longer we went on, the more desperate she became to sell her books, so she’d embellish things quite a lot,” he says. “In New York at an appearance at Town Hall, she started talking about how she thought Joan Crawford might have killed the late star’s last husband, Alfred Steele, and Michael Musto took her to task for that one in the Village Voice.”

Although the Crawford road show made news wherever it went, Huestis says he lost $20,000 on the New York appearance alone and is still paying it off.

Characteristically, Huestis delivers that information with a hearty laugh: It’s how he’s always dealt with adversity, even the life-threatening kind.

“I got tested the first week of the test,” he says. “I had a boyfriend at the time and he got tested. And he said I should get tested, too, and that he’d stay with me no matter how the test came out. So I was positive and he took off the next day.”

Again, laughter.

“I think I probably was positive well before that,” he says. “I can’t believe I’m still alive today. These drugs are pretty fabulous. I just skirted an AIDS diagnosis. I was down to 202 T-cells and the AIDS diagnosis is 200, so I was just on the borderline.” AIDS has informed much of Huestis’ work, including his film on Chuck Solomon, “one of the first people I knew who died of AIDS.”

“Nobody was making AIDS films back then,” he says, “and here I was, this positive filmmaker making films about AIDS.”

In some ways, Huestis has come to terms with his past, and that, too, is part of his survival mechanism.

For one thing, he has made peace with his father, who still lives on the East Coast. “I’ve come to love him very much,” Huestis says quietly.

Huestis was able to spend time with Marija the Continental Gypsy before she died three years ago — “She had the grace to die between (Castro) gigs,” he laughs.

“She was actually pretty fabulous before she died,” he continues, “because I got to be a kid again. I’d put her nail polish on and I’d bring her sparkly things. She just loved sparkly things.”

As for his own future, Huestis is nothing if not optimistic, albeit sardonically so.”I’ve reinvented myself so many times, I don’t know what I look like anymore,” he says. “But I will continue to survive. I have to. I can’t do anything else.”

And again, he laughs.

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War Is Over: Create Peace: Live music, prose and performance to benefit Artists United, featuring Mike Farrell, Mimi Kennedy, Janeane Garofolo, Hector Elizondo, Mark Eitzel, Jewelle Gomez, Youth Speaks and others,

and a short play by Tony Kushner. 7:30 p.m. Friday. Castro Theatre, 450 Castro St., San Francisco. Tickets: $27.50 (for the show alone), $60 (for preferred seating at the show and a celebrity dessert reception afterward). (415) 863-0611.

E-mail David Wiegand at dwiegand@sfchronicle.com.