The Past I Heard …

By Buddy Early, October 2019 Issue.

Janus

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.

If

you want to get an earful of Phoenix gay history, plant the seed with Steve

Schemmel.

He

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.

I

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.

I

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

impressive.

In

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.

“Newspaper

critics from Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe raved,” he said. “Mesa and Glendale

declined review invitations.”

The

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.

The

name was chosen from Roman mythology; he was the god of beginnings and

transition.

“His

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.”

Despite

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

fucking faggots.”

The cast of Janus Theater’s The Boys in the Band.

Nevertheless,

they persisted.

Support

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.”

And

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.

Over

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.

“We

felt that if gays complain they are discriminated against, how then can we

practice discrimination ourselves?”

The cast of Janus Theater’s The Boys in the Band.

The

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

others.

As

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

them.

“I

don’t recall a near-empty house,” said Steve.

Bud

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.

Steve

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.

Ok,

“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.

Even

more than three decades letter, Steve firmly believes Janus could’ve continued

and thrived.

“I’ve

been wondering for years why no one is doing gay theater here.”

I

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.

To

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.

“Buddy,

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.”

As

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.

Back

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.

Not

for nothing, but I think it would be cool if Janus Theater still

existed.


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