If that early biographer and arch-gossip, Plutarch, were alive in 2014 and writing an updated version of his Lives, he'd do far worse than include in his gallery of contemporaries the singer, dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and entrepreneur, Wakefield Poole. At least, according to Jim Tuskhinksy's sweeping new documentary movie, I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Pole that premiered at Los Angeles' Outfest film festival this past weekend.
If Poole's name isn't familiar, perhaps you may know one of the films he made, which in 1971 and 1972 helped to alter everyone's view of what a gay man was and could be -- most famously Boys in the Sand. Poole is to gay film and especially gay porn what D.W. Griffith is to the film medium in America: the originator and first master. And unlike Griffith, Poole's movies can be watched without flinching some 40 odd years later. To my mind Bijou is a classic.
I was at the Poole movie premiere because I'm in the film, one of the "talking heads" who contextualize what we see on screen. Also, because Wakefield Poole touched my life through his art, almost through a career choice -- about which later -- but mostly through the unique and beautiful men on the scene we knew, now gone, among them the famous Casey Donovan.
It's several years since I was shot for the movie, and while I'd not exactly forgotten the session, it had been one morning's labor, superseded by similar work in three films since, so my stake in it was tiny. Luckily, Tushinski caught me on a particularly articulate day and used the footage wisely, so I end up saying nothing stupid -- that's always a relief.
From the opening of the Poole documentary you are immersed in the life of a child for whom talent is abundant, relationships nearly as important, with art and various kinds of fun arriving later. The four year old from Florida singing along to the big console radio became the star of the church choir and school and when his voice changed at puberty, two thoughtful women got him into dance, first tap, and later classical, and they supported his talent. As a high school graduate he was able to leave home and fly to New York to join the Ballets Russes. When young Walter Poole Jr. (Wakefield is his middle name) realized he didn't want the touring and rigors of classical dance, he switched to popular dance and was soon hoofing it along with major stars on Broadway.
This led to a stint as a choreographer where he worked with people like Richard Rogers, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Bennett. He also had the hard luck to work with brilliant if troubled theatre folk like John Dexter and Joe Layton which nearly ended his career. His early marriage to another dancer did end and they divorced. Poole's involvement in small commercial films decided him -- he would become "an experimental filmmaker."
By then he was involved with a brilliant man -- Wakefield has nothing but great things to say about all of his personal relationships. He would fall in love quickly and remained hitched for long periods of time. Somehow everything seemed to come together and for a total of $4800, Poole filmed a two hour 16 millimeter film with a good looking blonde and a bunch of guys he makes love with at a house, pool, deck and upon the sands of Fire Island Pines.
Ironically, Boys in the Sand opened in a little cinema on the same block as The New York City Ballet where he might have been onstage but for his decision. Boys was a smash hit from the first day. Fortified with cash and a new star, Bill Harrison, Poole then made a second feature film, Bijou: urban, gritty and far less sunny than the first and that too struck gold. Which is where I come in. While I was being filmed for this documentary Wakefield said, "I know you. You took your clothes off for me." He vanished into an office and emerged with a semi-nude photo he'd taken of me from 1972--when I auditioned for Bijou. That came about because I knew Casey and he sent me to Poole. Alas, in the 1970's one did not become an author and porn star at the same time. So I turned down the part and a porno career and found a low paying bookstore job.
As the movie shows, Poole definitely had major career ups and downs, he moved across country then back again and ended up near where he grew up. He was a San Francisco co-owner of American Hot Flash Emporium which hit just as the Castro was taking off. He made and lost fortunes. He's totally open about how and why (drugs, sex, men) and unlike a lot of Boomer hypocrites, Poole is completely unapologetic about what he did. He tells us that he had a great time and enjoyed himself immensely. Bravo for him. Add it up and his is a storied life; and the story via the film is worth viewing.
As for those Plutarchian lives: The past century produced an overabundance of accomplished gay people. In 1981, I was composer Ned Rorem's date at the New York Philharmonic's memorial concert following the death of Samuel Barber. At the reception and later too, I hobnobbed with Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Barber's partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, John Corigliano, etc. etc -- and Lucas Foss, who introduced himself as "the straight one." One was right: He was probably the only straight male in the star-filled room. And that would be equally true of gatherings of popular musicians, novelists, playwrights, actors, directors, painters -- you name the field--of the time. It almost seems like compensation in advance for the enormous cultural loss to America from the AIDS devastation that followed.