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  • In 1967, when "starving" writer Mart Crowley "on the brink of destitution" but sitting in the lap of luxury finished his play The Boys in the Band, he says he intended it to be controversial. But, having distanced himself from gay politics, he didn't set out to be an rights activist. "I probably didn't even know what that meant," he laughs.

    He soon found out. When the play opened Off Broadway in 1968, whether he wanted it to happen or not, Crowley and his play became catch words of the gay civil rights movement. Accolades and anger were heaped upon Crowley. Looking back, Crowley says he never thought he'd achieve such acclaim -- or be so reviled.

    If you are going to be reviled [even by a segment of the gay community] for something you wrote - a ground-breaking comedy with a very dark side about eight gay men at a birthday party which segues from celebration to bitchy and brutal onslaught among the participants - better it become a world-wide hit and film [which Crowley produced in 1970] and provide the good life you always wanted to be accustomed to; and that, 35 years later, you can write a sequel about those boys.

    That play, The Men from the Boys. enjoyed a successful run late last year at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre, is now having a SRO run in Los Angeles [through September 28] at the award-winning Fountain Theatre [which, 10 years ago, presented a 25th annivesary revival of TBITB].

    The Men from the Boys has one disadvantage. It appears some years after an amazing across-the-boards acceptance of just about anything homosexual. In both West Coast engagements, it's received mixed to glowing reviews and done socko business.

    L.A. critic Laura Hitchcock wrote: "Mart Crowley's funny, fascinating sequel Ö has the virtues of its weaknesses. It's so full of intriguing characters, political and cross-generation conflicts, and the puzzlements of love that you want to know more about everything and, in a nine-character play that takes place in a single evening, that's a tall order."

    In the sequel, the same circle of "boys" [minus one] and three much younger ones gather in Michael's chic New York apartment for a memorial. TBITB characters are certainly older now, but not necessarily more mature. Some are wiser; some are not. However, all seem as bitchy and acid-tongued as ever.

    "What I wanted to do," explains Crowley, "is explore the interplay of what is now the older generation with the younger generation and how they must come to terms with the how times have changed."

    After what Crowley described as several "relaxing and dull years," his life is hectic again with non-stop calls, faxes and conservations with his agent. But its not certain TMFTB will be New York-bound [where it received its first readings at the WPA with a cast headed by Joel Grey]. Crowley wants a New York run, but his enthusiasm is dampened by New York's soft theatrical economy and the news that recent, well-reviewed gay-themed theater did not fare well. However, there is moving and shaking going on to get productions up in Chicago and Washington.

    This week, Alyson Books of Los Angeles released a trade edition of Crowley's new work along with his classic, titled The Band Plays: " The Boys in the Band" and Its Sequel "The Men From the Boys" ($13.95). It has an introduction by author/theologian Donald Spotto. In 1996, Alyson published 3 Plays by Mart Crowley: The Boys in the Band, A Breeze from the Gulf and For Reasons That Remain Unclear. Breeze, about an extraordinarily dysfunctional Mississippi family, was critically acclaimed in its New York Off Broadway run but did not score at the boxoffice. In my opinion, it's Crowley's best work. Reasons, several years ahead of its time, is about a young Southern boy's relationship with a pedophile priest and their reunion years later.

    Crowley has been more than celebrated for his landmark first play, but on September 26, he will receive an honor that he's quite enthused about: PFLAG's (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Oscar Wilde Award. Past recipients include Robert Preston (for Victor/Victoria), Quentin Crisp, Robert Towne (for Personal Best), Ron Cowen, Daniel Lipman and Sherman Yellen (for the TV movie An Early Frost) and Jane Chambers (for Last Summer at Bluefish Cove).

    The precursor to the sequel is, of course, Crowley's 1968 original. Following a 1996 Off Broadway revival of TBITB, USA Today's David Patrick Stearns called it "The Uncle Tom's Cabin of homosexual literature."

    Success at age 32 was exhilarating for someone who dreamed all his childhood of writing and making movies; but it also brought its demons: stress, depression and alcoholism. Following the failure of his second play, Remote Asylum, in L.A., he began to ruminate about being a "one hit" playwright. It was a theme that haunted him for yoyears.

    Now, at 67, the past is behind him. He admits he went though "tons of money" buying the good life in New York, Los Angeles and in Europe; but he's not bad off. He lives in a historic and legendary area of Hollywood, where Fitzgerald wrote and Monroe lived -- in a 20s bungalow complex whose architecture typifies the "old" grandiose Hollywood -- where he has a stylish duplex and drives a Mercedes. He's well known just about anywhere that's anything.

    Immediately after the success of TBITB, he was urged to write a sequel. "At the time and for years to come, I rejected the idea because I didn't feel that I knew what had happened to the 'boys.'" Of the 35-year wait, he says, "It's just taken time and hard living."

    Crowley grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, site of a fierce siege that was a turning point in the Civil War and where Coca-Cola was first bottled. His father, Irish and a heavy drinker, operated a pool hall and cafÈ whose motto was "Where All Good Fellows Meet" and where, among the games, "the best damn hamburgers in the South" were grilled.

    His mother was a stunning and elegant if ethereal creature. That juxtaposition of lifestyles may have contributed to the family dysfunction -- alcholic father, drug-addicted mother. Crowley describes his childhood as a "Eugene O'Neill nightmare. When I got serious about writing, I was always pissed off that O'Neill had stolen all my material." Not to mention Tennessee Williams.

    Crowley attended Catholic school where, interestingly, he was an equipment boy for the football team. His escape was working with the Little Theatre, where he surrounded himself with the artsy crowd and impressed all with his set designs. He also spent "endless hours in the dark." Movies were his world and, he reports, where he developed his writer's imagination.

    After graduation in 1953, Crowley west West and was reduced to washing dishes in the UCLA cafeteria. In his spare time, he was obsessed with visiting movie lots. His goal of attending UCLA's film school was dashed when his father demanded he attend a Catholic university. "I did some research and found that Catholic University in Washington had an excellent drama department. That led to a compromise."

    Over Christmas holidays in 1955, in an interesting chain of events, he met director Elia Kazan. Recalls Crowley, "He was shooting Baby Doll [with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams based on his one-acts 27 Wagon Loads of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short] in the Mississippi Delta town of Benoit. I'd seen On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire and, onstage, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Tea and Sympathy, which Kazan directed, so I was already in awe. I spent days hanging about the locations, gawking at Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach."

    Kazan and company hung out in a nearby eaterie owned by a Crowley family friend, so he had an entrÈe to the New York and Hollywood set. "I asked Kazan a ton of questions," states Crowley. "He seemed rather amused, and we developed a fast rapport. However, when I began talking about working in the movies, he advised ëGo back to school. Get your education, then come and see me.'"

    [Controversy-wise, Baby Doll was, like TBITB, ahead of its time. Time called it "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." It was termed "lewd," "salacious" and "morally repellent and provocative." Upon release, it was condemned by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, which might have led to big boxoffice if so many theatres hadn't declined showing it.]

    After working on an art degree at UCLA, briefly becoming an illustrator and majoring in speech and drama at Catholic U., Crowley performed in regional theater and began writing. On a trip to New York, he contacted a Baby Doll crew member who befriended him and got a job as a production assistant on the Mickey Rooney film The Last Mile, which led to jobs on The Fugitive Kind, based on Williams' play Orpheus Descending, starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward and Maureen Stapleton, and Buttlerfield 8, starring Elizabeth Taylor.

    One fateful night in New York, Crowley bumped into Kazan, who asked what he was doing. Kazan offered him a job as his personal assistant on Splendor in the Grass, starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Crowley says he did everything from making the director Greek salads to being the shoulder Wood cried on. When Wood was cast in West Side Story and in need of an assistant, she made Crowley an offer he couldn't refuse.

    "She knew I was writing all these screenplays and said if I came to California she'd introduce me to agents. The part I liked best was that Natalie was hot and receiving loads of scripts. She trusted me enough to say, ëWhy don't you read these and tell me what you think?'" Their relationship blossomed into a lifelong friendship [and continued later with husbands Robert Wagner and Richard Gregson and their children]. Of Wood he says, "She was that extraordinarily rare individual - warm, caring, wonderful. I loved her deeply."

    The pressure of stardom and romance led Wood to attempt suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. It was Crowley who discovered her unconscious and rushed her to the hospital, registering her under a pseudonym and avoiding a Hollywood scandal.

    In Hollywood, he wrote scripts, submitted them and received rejection slips. But in 1967 he was hired to develop projects for Paramount Studios. Shooting began on his screenplay, Fade-In, starring Burt Reynolds. It was an insider's take on how they make movies. Paramount thought a little too inside and brought in another writer. "In the end," says Crowley, "the film was ruined and deemed unreleasable." He hated it so much that with his first money from TBITB, he paid to have his name removed from the credits. Interestingly, the film was directed by Jud Taylor using the infamous Hollywood alias "Alan Smithee." It occasionally pops up on TV [and was released on video] under the title Iron Cowboy.

    At Paramount, Crowley had an office "but nothing to do. On days when I didn't have one martini too many, I'd fall asleep reading magazine or start a project of my own. One of those was the seed for The Boys in the Band. The idea of setting it among a gathering of gay friends had been rolling around in my head, but setting it at a birthday party came a week before I started in earnest on the script. I was actually invited to this birthday party and witnessed the most interesting collection of people. In the final draft, all the characters are based on people I either knew well or are amalgams of several I'd known to varying degrees."

    The title came from a Garland line inA Star Is Born, but he says the stimulus that really got him motivated was a New York Times feature on "closeted drama." "This critic wondered why America's leading playwrights didn't really write what they were really writing about. It stirred lots of controversy and I thought, ëYeah, why hasn't anyone done that?'"

    By the summer of 1967, Crowley says, "I had dried up as a Hollywood screenwriter and was so exasperated at trying and being shut out that I considered throwing in the towel." Then he got a call from actress Diana Lynn, who asked him to house-sit her Beverly Hills mansion. "For five weeks," he laughs, "in a state of sheer determination and hysteria, I sat in the library and fought off the servants and wrote."

    When he began shopping his play around, doors didn't exactly fly open. Crowley recalls the reaction of a New York agent, who exclaimed "A play about homosexuals at a birthday party! Come back in five years." TBITB predated by a year the so-called Greenwich Village Stonewall riot, one of the flash points of gay liberation.

    Riding to the rescue was Edward Albee and his producer Richard Barr, no strangers to controversy. Their Playwrights Unit presented a workshop [on Vandam Street at what is now the SoHo Playhouse]. It was invited audiences only and the lines extended around into Sixth Avenue. With Charles Woodward as co-producer, the play premiered Off Broadway at West 55th Street's Theatre Four, where it became a cause cËlËbre.

    Clive Barnes, writing in the Times, noted: "The Boys in the Band is one of the best-acted plays of the season. It is quite an achievement. I have a feeling that most of us will find it a gripping, if painful, experience - so uncompromising in it's honesty that is becomes an affirmation of life." More recently, a critic wrote: "It was a brave play for 1968, vividly juxtaposing societal abhorrence and gay self-hatred against a growing desire to live and love openly."

    Crowley and director, his college friend, Robert Moore were blessed with the perfect cast. And one reason Crowley declined big movie buy-outs and wanted to maintain control over the film version was to keep the cast intact.

    "My history up to then had been nothing more than one flop or false start after another," says the playwright. "Those failures left me unprepared for all the sudden acclaim."

    For a time, Crowley had more money than he ever imagined, "but," he says, "it didn't last the way I lived." And after the failure of his next plays, from 1973-1979, "I sort of evaporated, spending time in Paris, Rome, the south of France, so you see where the money went. But, like Edith Piaf, I am regret-free!"

    On his return Stateside, desperately in need of money, he was hired by Aaron Spelling as executive script editor and later became a producer for TV's Hart to Hart, which co-starred old friend Robert Wagner. After four years, he left to concentrate on writing Movies of the Week. "I was under immense stress to prove myself again, and had a heart attack. It was a wake-up call to change my diet and to stop drinking."

    Most recently, Crowley was hand-picked by Kay Thompson's heirs to carry on the tradition of her Eloise books with her long-time collaborator [and long-time Crowley friend] famed illustrator Hilary Knight.

    One criticism consistently leveled against TBITB is that it depicts only guilt-ridden self-hating gay men who wish they weren't gay. One of Crowley's young fans wrote: "I am 19 and I know why these men are so guilt-ridden and self-hatingÖbecause it's still tough to be gay in AmericaÖIf The Boys in the Band seems a bit narrow for focusing only on that, it's remarkably deep in spite of that."

    Through the years, he's been asked if the character of Michael is based somewhat or in whole on himself. He says, "I'm not ashamed if anyone wants to make an association between Michael and me. It's obvious he's based on me more than on anyone else."

    Notes Crowley, "The themes of The Boys in the Band and The Men from the Boys - self-loathing and self-destruction -- fascinate me and are what I was hung up on for years. I've tried to learn how we can be our own worst enemies. After 35 years and five very expensive psychoanalysts, I think I've changed about as much as I'm going to change. If you can come to grips with yourself, then you can be a lot happier. I've finally been able to achieve that!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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