The Past I Heard …
By Buddy Early, October 2019 Issue.
Theatre was theater for gays (and everyone else)
To celebrate Echo’s 30th
birthday, this year I will be catching up with some of Arizona’s LGBT
personalities from past and present to revisit the people, places and events
that helped shape our community.
you want to get an earful of Phoenix gay history, plant the seed with Steve
own tons of memories — tangible and intangible — and would be more than happy
to share them with you. (I’ve mentioned Steve a few times in this column, along
with Miss Ebony, as someone who has educated me on our past.) Steve was out
before I was born, and I don’t know a whole lot of people who fit that bill.
originally met Steve when we both worked at this magazine — me as the assistant
editor and then the managing editor, and Steve as the sales manager. We worked together starting in 2000 all the
way through 2007. He was also an esteemed member of the Valley’s leather scene.
But Steve’s most memorable role in the
story of our community was as founder of Janus Theater, the Valley’s gay
theater company that existed from 1979 to 1987.
hooked up with Steve at First Watch in August to talk about Janus. We sat down
and he promptly handed me a five-page single-spaced history of the company …
and his theatrical resume. If you know Steve, you’re chuckling right now. To
say that he is still proud of Janus is an understatement. But why shouldn’t he
be proud? Their accomplishments and mere existence during that time were pretty
the late 1970s a childhood friend and New York City roommate from two decades
earlier, Bud Guiles, had enlisted Steve’s help with a production of three gay one-act
plays for the Dignity-Phoenix Chapter. (Dignity, to be brief, is an LGBT
Catholic organization.) Despite the struggle to find rehearsal space and death
threats, the show went on. Opening Night
began with Steve as the only actor in a 40-minute play titled … wait for it … One
Person. According to Steve, the response to the one-acts was overwhelming.
critics from Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe raved,” he said. “Mesa and Glendale
declined review invitations.”
buzz created from the show led Steve to pitch the idea of “theater for gays.”
That is, in fact, what they called this new troupe. However, a church that had
offered rehearsal space declined to take a check from a troupe called Theater
For Gays. So, the name was changed. And Janus Theater was born.
name was chosen from Roman mythology; he was the god of beginnings and
temple had no doors, remaining open at all times to anyone wishing to enter,
stay as long as they wanted and able to leave when they were ready,” Steve
said. Furthermore, “Janus is the god with two faces, also the symbol of
theater: comedy and tragedy.”
loyal audiences, it was not an easy path being a “gay” theater company if
ultra-conservative Arizona. Steve remembers receiving arson and death threats,
since his home phone number served as the box office. And the PO Box the
theater rented regularly housed similar notes. Concerns raised with the local
police were met with a scoff and, according to Steve,” Whaddya expect? Bunch of
came from elsewhere, even as threats continued. Local theater legend Helen K.
Mason was a huge advocate, and in the early days reached out to offer
performance space on behalf of Phoenix’s Black Theatre Troupe. “You boys come
on over,” she told Steve. “We’re both fighting against discrimination and for
acceptance. Let’s help each other.”
then-Arizona Governor Brice Babbitt even sent a formal letter to welcome Janus
to the downtown community when it moved into its own building at 3rd
Avenue & Moreland Street.
its eight-year existence Janus Theater produced a number of popular gay plays
in front of packed crowds. And, as Steve pointed out to me multiple times, they
did not limit themselves to entirely gay-themed shows or gay actors.
felt that if gays complain they are discriminated against, how then can we
practice discrimination ourselves?”
productions included Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Boy Meets Boy, Orphans,
The Boys in the Band, Fifth of July, Merrily We Roll Along, The Ritz, Bent, The
Women, Torch Song Trilogy, Bus Stop, and The Bad Seed, among many
personal all-time favorite of mine, As Is, the brilliant AIDS play by
William Hoffman, premiered at Janus only six days after the Tony-winning
production closed on Broadway. Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, Harvey
Fierstein, David Rabe, Edward Albee, Martin Sherman — they were all among the
hottest playwrights of the day, and Janus got the rights to produce all of
don’t recall a near-empty house,” said Steve.
Guiles eventually relocated to san Francisco after a seventh and final attempt
to resign from Janus. In 1986, Steve relocated to Los Angeles and, less than a
year later, Janus was no more. The company’s home theater, which had previously
been a Mormon church, ultimately became home to Great Arizona Puppet Theater in
1996 after it has fallen into disrepair. Steve returned to Arizona in 2000 and
Bud passed away in 2006.
laments the closing of Janus, and wonders what might have been. It could still
be operating, he believes, if it weren’t for this mismanagement that occurred
after he left.
“mismanagement” is my word. According to Steve, someone who had been trusted to
run the troupe embezzled the funds; both bank accounts (a sizable general fund
and a growing building fund) were cleaned out.
more than three decades letter, Steve firmly believes Janus could’ve continued
been wondering for years why no one is doing gay theater here.”
reminded him that “gay theater” has now gone mainstream, and a number of local
companies are, in fact, producing gay-themed shows (what we would now call
queer themed shows, I suppose) and/or shows that appeal to that audience.
paraphrase Steve: it’s not the same. “Looking at the whole (current) season,
there is no specifically gay theater.” And he’s right. I can go through the calendar
and find a number of shows that fill that niche, but Steve is referring to the
lack of a singular company producing those shows. He thinks there’s a market.
I never expected an audience back then,” he replied when I asked if such
a company will still sell out shows. “This was still when cops used to wait
outside (gay) bars. Of course there would be an audience now.”
I mentioned, Steve is an encyclopedia of memories, and we sat and talked about
all kinds of things: the state of American theater and how he can’t find shows
on Broadway that he wants to see; the history of movies (which, admittedly, is
a topic I forced on him); his adventures as a young man in Hollywood in the
1950s; how his grandmother told him to leave her home in Atlantic City and go
see his mother in Philadelphia, where he was told to go back to Atlantic City
and pack because his grandmother wanted him out of her home; off-the-record
conversations about certain people in this town; and his rather one-sided feud
with Andy Griffith.
at Steve Schemmel’s central Phoenix home, we went through his memorabilia room,
which is chock-full of framed photos (of himself, fellow theater brethren, and
celebrities), photos albums, plaques and awards. It’s a 10x10 museum of Phoenix’s
gay theater company of yesteryear.
for nothing, but I think it would be cool if Janus Theater still