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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.

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