In late 1971, a little over two years after the Stonewall Riots, there were no out celebrities. That changed on December 27, when a respected Broadway choreographer/director and his business manager opened a low budget 16mm movie in a rundown art house theater on 55th Street.
“Boys in the Sand” was a phenomenon and utterly new—an artistically photographed, sexually explicit narrative film, set to classical music and featuring only male actors. These actors had unsimulated sex with each other on the beach, by a pool, and in a glamorous Fire Island house. It was presented and advertised as a legitimate film because it had no precedent. It wasn't like the seedy loops that ran at the 42nd Street porno houses. It was gay sex positive, showing gay male sex and sexuality as something beautiful and to be admired. And the film made a lot of money. Variety took notice and trumpeted “Amateurs Bring in Bonanza.” Straight couples and women showed up. Rudolf Nureyev drove hundreds of miles to see the film. Going to a screening, you might see Angela Lansbury, Liza Minnelli, or Halston in the audience.
Director Wakefield Poole, well-known in Broadway circles, put his real name above the title in all advertisements and on the marquee of the 55th Street Playhouse. Proudly. Poole became one of the most famous gay men in the world along with “Boys in the Sand” star Casey Donovan. Pirated copies of the film played for years in Europe. Outside New York, people heard about the film through enthusiastic coverage in magazines like After Dark and The Advocate.
Placing ads in these magazines, Poole and producer Marvin Shulman started selling “Boys in the Sand” to the home 8mm film market – making the film available on multiple reels for $99 with a suggested soundtrack insert sheet so folks in Oklahoma or Idaho could enjoy the film just as the New York theatergoers had. The money rolled in, even though sending “pornography” through the mail was punishable with a prison sentence. Actor John Gielgud arranged to buy a 16mm copy and take it back to the UK so he could show it to all his friends. Hugh Hefner and Sammy Davis, Jr, also purchased 16mm copies directly from Poole and Shulman for their film libraries. Even several Hollywood studios asked for a copy, thinking they could hire Poole for something more mainstream.
Less than a year later, Poole and Shulman had another hit. “Bijou” was a dark, enigmatic, hardcore experimental narrative featuring actor and Robert Redford lookalike Bill Harrison, who shocked audiences when he unveiled the largest penis most people had ever seen on a movie screen or in real life. “Bijou” was such a success and had such a psychological effect that audience members by the hundreds went and talked to their analysts about it. Eventually, the head of the Columbia University Psychology department summoned Poole to his home on Easter Sunday to screen the film for some colleagues, his wife, his teenage children, and his mother. The National Organization for Women screened “Bijou” as an example of a non-degrading sexually explicit film.
Then “Deep Throat” opened, copying the advertising and promotional campaigns of “Boys in the Sand” and “Bijou.” When “Deep Throat” became a crossover phenomenon, mainstream media declared it as the start of porno chic, a brief period in the 1970s when hardcore films with stories, humor, and good production values suddenly were acceptable. In reality, it all started a year prior, ushered in by two gay men who had no idea if anyone would even come to see their little movie.
So why haven't you heard of Wakefield Poole? Why isn't he acknowledged by film historians and gay cultural gatekeepers as one of the true pioneers? Fandor just released an infographic highlighting the history of sex in film. “Deep Throat” is there, but no mention of “Boys in the Sand.” It's not Fandor's fault. They are repeating the well worn notions of official film history which states that gay cinema started in the 1990s. But when Out Magazine or one of the other mainstream gay magazines names the most influential LGBT people of the 20th Century, you'll never find Poole listed. When an LGBT film festival in the US gives out a Lifetime Achievement Award, it's not to Wakefield Poole (though he has received two from non-US film festivals). Some US festivals are brave enough to show his films, but many cower at the feet of their corporate sponsors, who do not want to be associated with “porn.”
There is an effort among LGBT cultural gatekeepers to de-sexualize our history. They want our pioneers to be G or PG-rated because they want LGBT people to be seen as just like everyone else – parents, husbands, wives, and respectable members of society. The sexual parts of LGBT history make most heterosexuals uncomfortable. They even make many LGBT people uncomfortable. So it's best if these things are swept under the rug and forgotten.
But this denial of sex started years before the gay mainstreaming movement. By the time AIDS ravaged the community, sex was suspect and dangerous. Gay men who survived didn't want to talk about porn or the sexual component of gay history because they had an enormous amount of shame. Sexual hedonism killed their friends. Porn contributed. It didn't help that Poole's classic films were always released on home video as “pre-condom porn” by less than respectable adult film companies and in versions that made the gorgeous photography look like someone smeared mud all over the negative. Poole and his films faded from collective gay memory, known only to vintage porn collectors and a few film fans.
In 2010, I accompanied Wakefield Poole to the Fire Island Pines, where two brave locals were doing benefit screenings of “Boys in the Sand.” The screenings were to help fund a 24/7 doctor living in the Pines, something the community didn't have. Filmmaker Crayton Robey and artist Philip Monaghan were shut down by all official Fire Island Pines organizations m but forged ahead. When the two men started advertising the event, some locals were horrified, telling the organizers that porn had no place being screened at the Community Center and that the organizers were guilty of spreading AIDS because no condoms appear in the film. The loudest complaints came from gay men who owned property in the Pines—property that would not be worth nearly as much had it not been for “Boys in the Sand” making the Pines an international tourist destination in the early 1970s. The film is an integral part of the history of the Pines and yet some of the gay community there wanted the film demonized.
I hope this is changing. Five of Poole's films have been completely restored from 2K scans of their original elements and released by the highly respected exploitation film DVD company Vinegar Syndrome, who is marketing them to cult film fans. The response so far has been exciting and unexpected. But mainstream film history and mainstream LGBT recognition still eludes Poole, his legacy, and his work. Without Poole's work and its influence on other LGBT filmmakers, there would be no independent gay film, no big LGBT film festivals, and certainly, no accurate depictions of gay male sex on the screen. For most straight folk, that doesn't seem like a big deal. For LGBT people, however, Poole is a key figure in their culture and art. Too bad most of them don't have the slightest idea who he is.
Jim Tushinski is the director and producer of the documentary “I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole,” which is currently playing film festivals worldwide (and playing tonight at NewFest in New York).