Saturday, June 10, 2017

Unlikely Road Trips

It's "Summertime" and (according to DuBose Heyward) the living is easy. This is the time of year when the travel bug bites hard and people plan their vacations around nice weather. For teachers, summertime usually involves two months of freedom from the high stress levels within a classroom. For others, it means a chance to hit the road in search of new adventure.

Starting in the 1950s, The Happy Wanderer became a popular song on American radio and television. Although Florenz Friedrich Sigismund's lyrics were written nearly 200 years prior to World War II, Friedrich-Wilhelm Möller didn't compose his popular tune until the second World War had ended.

During the 1960s, three Broadway musicals featured songs dedicated to the risks and rewards of wanderlust.

Today's residents of the Bay area find themselves with previously unimaginable travel options. In addition to heading north for Alaskan cruises, Oakland International Airport now offers nonstop international flights by Norwegian Air, Level, British Airways, and seasonal service by Azores Airlines to Portugal's Terceira Island. Airlines that have recently launched service to San Francisco International Airport include Air Berlin, Thomas Cook, and Finnair.

Joseph Heymont camping in 1931

Unlike my father (seen above), I'm not at all into roughing it. The last time I went camping was in 1989, when I joined a tour group from the Portland Opera on a whitewater raft trip that floated a $25,000 Steinway grand piano down the Colorado River for evening concerts featuring singers Pamela South, Gloria Parker, Jerome Hines, and Robert Bailey.

David McDade accompanies Robert Bailey, Jerome Hines,
Pamela South, and Gloria Parker performing during a 1989 whitewater
rafting trip down the Colorado River (Photo by: George Heymont)

The Above Average satire site recently posted two deliciously snarky stories entitled So Brave: This Man Climbed Mount Everest Without A GoPro and Lame! This Hedonist Sex Resort Doesn’t Even Have An Arcade.  Given a choice, I'd be much more inclined to prefer camping out at a Hilton or Hyatt, although I'll confess that these new luxury camping tents designed for the glamping crowd are quite intriguing!

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The 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival included many delights. None, however, was a more pleasant surprise than Heather Linville's presentation entitled "The World's Most Traveled Girl" (which was part of a morning program entitled "Amazing Tales From The Archives"). Born in Winnipeg on October 13, 1906, Idris Welsh left home in her teens to travel around the world in a 1918 Model T Ford under the leadership of Walter "Cap" Wanderwell (whom she subsequently married). Aloha had responded to Wanderwell's 1922 ad entitled "Brains, Beauty & Breeches –- World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman…. Wanted to join an expedition… Asia, Africa." She was hired to be the expedition's secretary, driver, and translator.

Aloha Wanderwell visits with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks

Throughout their travels, they relied on their ingenuity (using elephant fat for engine oil and crushed bananas for grease) to overcome mechanical hurdles. On April 7, 1925 when the couple wed in Riverside, California, Aloha's new citizenship prevented FBI agents from arresting her spouse for transporting a woman across state lines with "immoral" intent. Over the course of her extensive travels, Aloha set foot on six continents, visited 80 countries, and spent six months living with the indigenous Bororo people of Brazil. All told, she drove Ford vehicles for approximately 500,000 miles.The Wanderwells' 1929 silent film, Car and Camera Around the World, chronicled their world travels and led to Aloha's long career as a guest lecturer.

Linville's presentation showed how much the technology which allows us to travel has advanced since the early 20th century while reminding the audience how rare it was in those days for a woman to be a key figure in such an historic global adventure. The following video offers some sample footage from Wanderwell's travels.

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In June of 1994, two friends invited me to join them for the closing night screening of the San Francisco International Film Festival. None of us knew anything about the film we were about to see other than the fact that it was from Australia. Because it's rare for a film screening to receive a 15-minute standing ovation, now is as good time as any to offer some historical context. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
"As a result of HIV prevention efforts and increases in societal awareness of and response to the AIDS epidemic, new infections in the United States, which had risen rapidly to a peak of 150,000 per year in the mid-1980s, declined to an estimated 40,000 per year since 1992. With the advent of highly active anti-retroviral therapy in the mid-1990s, the number of new AIDS cases and deaths declined dramatically and then stabilized in the United States and several other industrialized nations."
Nevertheless, many gay men who had migrated to major urban areas since 1969's Stonewall riots were dead.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert delivered the perfect antidote: an armchair adventure for people who had spent the past few years trudging through a valley of death where one often turned to a family chosen from friends, lovers, and co-workers for support, relying on those who embraced LGBT people with unconditional love rather than homophobic blood relations who might react to the news of a dying family member's sexual orientation with hostility, violence, and ostracism, but could be cruelly eager to seize the decedent's fiscal and physical assets as soon as his body was cold.

Starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce, Priscilla melted the hearts of everyone in the Castro Theatre that night. As its writer and director, Stephan Elliott, told the cheering crowd, this was the first time his film had been screened in its entirety before a live audience. Because they were thousands of miles from their home in Australia, none of the people involved with the film had any idea how it would be received at its American premiere. Elliott and his colleagues were genuinely overwhelmed.

Darryl V. Jones as Bernadette in a scene from
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Photo by: David Wilson)

As they had done 25 years earlier during the Stonewall riots, it was the drag queens who came to the rescue. In addition to paving the way for subsequent films with heroic gay and transgender characters, Priscilla was so successful that, in October 2006, a musical stage adaptation entitled Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, opened at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney, Australia. Subsequent productions were staged in Melbourne (2007), Auckland (2008), and London (2009). In 2011, the musical had its U.S. premiere at the legendary Palace Theatre with Bette Midler as one of its producers.

Diogo Zavadzki, Charles Peoples III, and Derek Miller in a scene
from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Photo by: David Wilson)

Both the screen and stage versions of Priscilla rest on a solid foundation of disco music, a huge budget devoted to outrageous costumes, and the biting sarcasm of drag culture. When Theatre Rhinoceros announced its plan to stage Priscilla on the tiny stage of San Francisco's 200-seat Eureka Theatre to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the world's oldest surviving LGBT theatre company, few people doubted that the company's artistic director would achieve his goal.

Rudy Guerrero, Charles Peoples III, and Darryl V. Jones in a scene
from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Photo by: David Wilson)

If anyone can produce more magic while stretching a dollar than when Horace Vandergelder fingers a penny in his pocket, it is John Fisher. Aided by sound designer James Goode, music director Dan Feyer, and set designer Gilbert Johnson, Fisher was able to cram a rotating bus onto the Eureka's tiny stage and escort his audience from Sydney to Alice Springs in a style that Shinbone Alley's Mehitabel would describe as "toujours gay."

Special kudos go to choreographer AeJay Mitchell and costume designer Robert Horek, who managed to dress and dance this production as if they were creating a mini-extravaganza for The Rockettes. This was one creative team that fully understood Dolly Parton's words of wisdom: "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!"

Derek Miller, Rudy Guerrero, and Charles Peoples III in a scene
from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Photo by: David Wilson)

Fisher pulled together an extremely energetic cast for this production, with Rudy Guerrero portraying Tick/Mitzi, Darryl V. Jones as Bernadette, Charles Peoples III as Adam/Felicia, and Mary Kalita doubling as Tick's wife, Marion, and the show's solo Diva. Smaller roles were taken by Kyle Vetter as Tick's son, Benji; Cameron Weston as Bob, and Crystal Liu as Bob's hot-tempered Asian wife, Cynthia (who has a special skill involving a boldly improper use of ping-pong balls).

Rudy Guerrero as Tick in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
(Photo by: David Wilson)

The seemingly endless costumes changes require any cast of Priscilla to expend a huge amount of energy (both onstage and off). Mention should therefore be made of Patrick Brewer, Anna L. Joham, Stephen Kanaski, Kim Larsen, Derek Miller, Nicole Thordsen, Crystal Why and, most especially, Diogo Zavadzki.

Charles Peoples III as Adam in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
(Photo by: David Wilson)

With Priscilla, Fisher finally found the perfect vehicle to accommodate his penchant for wretched excess, camp, and occasional tackiness. With a score that includes such hits as "It's Raining Men," "Go West," "I Say A Little Prayer," and "I Will Survive," when these drag queens start singing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" you know they damned well mean it!

Performances of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert continue through July 1 at the Eureka Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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