Our Love is Here To Stay VI

World War II to the 1960s

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, last revised 2008)

(All the images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

In Uniform

Playbill cover for This Is The ArmyWartime often brings a loosening of sexual mores, and World War II was no exception. Gathered from across the country to fight and possibly die for the cause of freedom, a new generation of gays and lesbians discovered that they were not alone. It was at this time that "gay" became more widely recognized as a synonym for homosexual.

Irving Berlin's all-serviceman musical revue This Is The Army (1942) was intended as a fundraiser for armed forces charities, but (as documented in the film Before Stonewall) it also became an unintentional haven for gay performers caught in the draft. By the time the U.S. government realized it had a cast riddled with homosexuals, the show was so popular (and made so much money for military charities) that no one would have dared to shut it down. After an extended Broadway run, it toured the world, raising millions of dollars. Most of the stage cast appeared in a hit 1943 film version co-starring everyone's favorite homophobe, Ronald Reagan – who stayed in uniform, leaving the dresses to more talented performers.

Germany had a bizarre parallel to this. When the statuesque, full-figured musical star Zara Leander needed a backup chorus for a big screen production number in the 1942 film Die Grosse Liebe (The Great Love), producers were unable to find enough women of comparable height. Hitler's personal SS guard was ordered to exchange their uniforms for fluttery gowns and picture hats. Covered with heavy makeup, these elite storm troopers provided Leander with a living wall of long-limbed angelic "chorines." Hitler's private guard may have all been straight (yeah, right!), but they certainly let their feminine side shine through in surviving copies of this scene. Thanks to discreet camera placement, audiences never suspected the ruse, and it remained a well kept secret until after the war. One of the professional actors who appeared in Die Grosse Liebe recalls a dressing room encounter with the feared killers of the SS --

"The men from the personal guard were there getting changed. I came up behind them in my lieutenants costume, and I couldn't resist it. I shouted, "Achtung!" They all sprang to attention in women's clothes, wigs slipping, their make-up half-finished, some in underwear. It was an amazing sight."
- Wolfgang Preiss, as heard in the documentary Hitler's Women: Zara Leander (ZDF-History Channel, 2001)

The Nazi regime's treatment of homosexuals during the war was anything but comical. Declaring homosexuality a crime punishable by death as of 1941, the Nazis sent tens of thousands of gays and lesbians to die in extermination camps – including many who worked in the arts. When popular lyricist Bruno Baltz was sent to a Gestapo prison for being a homosexual, Zara Leander intervened, insisting no one else could provide the songs for Die Grosse Liebe. Baltz was released, with the condition that his new songs (written with composer Michael Jary) had to be uplifting. Die Grosse Liebe became Germany's most popular wartime film, and Baltz's "It Isn't the End of the World" and "I Know One Day a Miracle Will Happen" were sung everywhere. Nazi officials accepted these songs as morale boosters, but shrewd listeners realized the lyrics had a second meaning. Baltz had expressed the aspirations of those enduring Nazi persecution – the fall of Hitler would not be the end of the world, and this seeming miracle would happen one day.

Baltz survived the war and enjoyed a long public career as a songwriter – he was one of a lucky few. After the war, the new German republic left existing anti-gay and lesbian laws in place for decades, not repealing the last until the 1990s. Many gay prisoners released from concentration camps in 1945 were quickly re-incarcerated in German jails. The persecution of homosexuals was long denied or ignored by historians and German authorities. It seems the defeat of Hitler was not quite enough of a miracle, at least not for German homosexuals.

The 1950s: McCarthyism

When their wartime service ended, thousands of honorably discharged American men and women flocked to the cities where they could explore their identities with some anonymity. Just as thousands became part of America's gay subculture, a political firestorm erupted that made it more dangerous than ever to be a homosexual.

In the conformity-conscious 1950s, anti-gay witch hunts were common in government and industry.  Ironically, a few homosexuals in key positions played a major role in the persecution of their own kind.  The FBI officially considered homosexuality to be as dangerous as communism, despite the fact that the FBI itself was headed by two homos – J. Edgar Hoover and his lover/assistant, Clyde Tolson. Senator Joseph McCarthy held a series of televised hearings to purportedly weed out the traitorous "reds" and "fairies" in government. In truth, all McCarthy sought was publicity. His ruthless assistant Roy Cohn was one of the most vicious closet queers in American history, and McCarthy himself was rumored to be bisexual. Although these bellicose poseurs failed to identify a single bona fide traitor in the U.S. government, innocent people named at McCarthy's committee's hearings (and by the House Un-American Activities Committee) were forced out of government jobs or blacklisted by Hollywood. Many careers were shattered, without making the United States one jot safer from any real threats.

Whatever the dangers, extraordinary gay talents thrived in various fields in the 1950s. As before, the trick was to either re-write the rules or live a life that denied any need for rules, as evidenced by –

– "Beat" poet Allen Ginsburg
– Mainstream novelists Truman Capote and James Baldwin
– Broadway playwrights Tennessee Williamsand Arthur Laurents
– Composers Ned Rorem and Leonard Bernstein.

Gay directors and choreographers who avoided persecution quietly came to the forefront in musical theatre and film. This was reflected both in terms of artistic product (staging, design, etc.) and the more frequent casting of gay performers. It is sad to note that gay choreographer Jerome Robbins was among those who named names for witch-hunting congressional committees. He compromised the careers of others in order to avoid censure for his own political and sexual activities. Robbins' monumental professional record never erased the memory of this sad, self-serving act of cowardice.

Gay choreographer Jack Colenever attained the fame enjoyed by Robbins, but he infused many stage and screen musicals with a unique homoerotic sensibility. In the film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Cole set buxom Jane Russell amid a sea of disinterested half-naked hunks for "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love?" Although Cole made fresh and frankly sensual use of the male form, his fascinating dances were often created for musicals that fell short of success.

Gay performers were certainly present in musical theatre. This is verified by Alan Jay Lerner s explanation for using an unlikely rhyme in a 1956 My Fair Lady lyric:

"S" is a dangerous consonant. Too many sound like a tea kettle, and with the growing shortage of male hormones it is even more precarious.
- Alan Jay Lerner, On the Street Where I Live (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), p. 259.

During the 1950s, the number of amateur groups staging musicals in schools and community theatres skyrocketed. It would be impossible to calculate how many people, gay and straight alike, got their first personal experience of musicals by seeing or working in such productions. For many a musical theatre queen, this is where the obsession began.

Becoming Visible

Mattachine Society ad from the 1960sA pioneering gay rights ad from The Mattachine Society s magazine, One.

Through the 1950s and 60s, American homosexuals made their first attempts to organize for mutual support with The Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis and other "homophile" groups. They ultimately failed in their attempts to encourage the acceptance of homosexuals by society, but they did help many isolated gays and lesbians realize that they were not alone.

The mainstream theatre of the Fifties was hardly a safe place for a gay audience to manifest itself. However, there were occasions where an appreciation of camp triumphed over social oppression. Historian-novelist Ethan Mordden has suggested that public homosexuality began when Tallulah Bankhead appeared as Blanche in City Center's 1956 revival of Tennessee Williams' drama A Streetcar Named Desire. Mordden even quotes an eyewitness who swears that every man who saw that production "instantly turned gay"! (As if it were that easy!) Although Streetcar was not a musical, its revival was one the first events that made leading New York critics complain in print about the colorful behavior of "gay lads" in a Broadway audience.

A similar homosexual presence was remarked upon at numerous musical theatre events in the years that followed, ranging from the enthusiastic claques attending Sondheim's short-lived Anyone Can Whistle in 1964 to the "young gallants" who stood to cheer Ethel Merman's 1970 first night in Hello Dolly. Illegal pirate recordings of Merman's last performance in Gypsy and Barbra Streisand's final night in Funny Girl provide audible evidence that a gay contingent carried on in Broadway audiences well before the Stonewall riots.

In the delightful cultural history Stepping Out (Owl Books, NY, 1997. pp. 263-264), Daniel Hurewitz tells us that a visible gay contingent was accepted at Harlem's Apollo Theatre throughout the 1950s and 60s. During those years, one of the boxes overlooking the stage was reserved by a group of drag queens for the Wednesday "Amateur Night" contests. Performers who dared to dress poorly were met with merciless cries of "That's some bad crap you're wearing," or "You don't look half as good as I do darling!" Well-attired performers with talent got quite a different reception. Gladys Knight recalls those same drag queens greeting her act with shouts of "There's our girl" and "Look at those Pips!" Ms. Knight has said, "I was proud because they were proud of us."

Of course, most of America was still very much in the dark on most sexual issues, including homosexuality. Who was it that said something about none being so blind as those who will not see? Some pertinent quotes:

"Of course I knew Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye were having a long-term affair. So did all of London. So did their wives. Why is America always the last to know?"
- Dame Peggy Ashcroft

"We lived in fear of an expose, or eve none small remark, a veiled suggestion that someone was homosexual. Such a remark would have caused an earthquake at the studio. The amazing thing is that Rock (Hudson), as big as he became, was never nailed."
- George Nader

"Mary Martin was Broadway's biggest closet king. Everyone thought Ethel (Merman) was butch and maybe a lesbian, but she wasn't. And everyone thought that lovely little Mary was Miss Femme, and she was -- except next to her gay husband. In other words, don't judge a star by her cover."
- Bob Fosse

Change in the Wind

Around this time, theatre professionals began to openly discuss the gay presence in the business. Straights in the theatre realized homophobia was bad for business. Why waste time hating people you had to work with? The dean of Broadway directors, George Abbott, wrote the following in his 1963 autobiography –

"Fairies," the average man calls them with a sneer, or "homos"; around Broadway they will be referred to as "queers" or "gay boys". . . Of course, some are obvious in their effeminate behavior, but many more show no sign of it whatsoever. And if you knew the truth about some of your heroes and your movie and stage stars, you would be surprised. . . Homosexuality is a disagreeable fact that we just don't want to face, so we look the other way. But it does exist; and that civilization generally admitted to be the greatest the world has ever known (i.e. - ancient Greece) was a homosexual civilization.
- George Abbott, Mister Abbott (New York: Random House, 1963), p. 70.

Mr. Abbott's only stated objection to homosexuality was that he could not conceive of men preferring men when women are so appealing. (Such naivet from a theatrical legend!)

The mid-1960s saw the first public manifestations of a gay rights movement, inspired to some extent by black America's civil rights struggle. Several gay rallies were held in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and daring groups of gays and lesbians picketed the White House as early as 1965.

In 1966, four members of The Mattachine Society staged a "sip-in" to protest the longstanding New York state regulation that prohibited bars and restaurants from serving homosexuals. With reporters in tow, activists went to several establishments, announced that they were gay and ordered drinks. When the popular gay hangout Julius refused to serve them, the ensuing controversy led to a Human Rights Commission investigation. After trying to deny that the regulation existed or had ever been enforced – like decades of nasty police raids had never happened? – the NY State Liquor Authority was forced to drop the regulation in the early 1970s.

Gay America's closet door was set to be blown off its hinges. 1969 brought a culmination of forces that had been building-up for years. The aftermath would reshape many aspects of Western culture, including the musical theatre.

Next: After Stonewall