Although circumspect, members of a small theater circle in the early 1960s were much less likely than others to understand homosexuality as a mental illness, instead associating it with a privileged relationship to aesthetics, wit, and style.
The circle was not exclusively male or gay. Beverly Ball (OC 63), a heterosexual woman, quickly became a vital part of the circle after immersing herself in the Oberlin Dramatic Association her freshman year, soon earning the moniker “La Reine Mère” (ostensibly French for “Queen Mother”). “I actually preferred the company of my gay theatrical friends,” Ball recalled. “They were more fun and there was kind of a secret we all had—it was like a little club.”
A letter from a fellow student to Timothy Hansen (pseudonym, OC 64), a flamboyant history major involved in the circle, suggests the group’s character. “Dearest, darling [Timothy],” it begins,
Needless to say, I am absolutely thrilled to death and devastation with your charming offer. Needless to say, I will be honored and delighted to accept the role, and I promise to use my famed talent and sensitivity to execute it in the best manner possible. Needless to say, I will return on the eighth…because I just simply adore having my picture taken. Since all is needless to say, I shan’t say more.
The letter was signed, “Passionate Love, Sophie Tucker,” using the name of the flashy and dynamic performer who claimed to be “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.”
Camp was clearly important to the circle. In her landmark 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag defined camp as the “the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” “To camp is a mode of seduction,” she wrote, “one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders.” Camp ultimately helped gay men, “outsiders” in the larger world, define themselves as “insiders” of their own secret world. Members of the theater circle embraced the “club”-like characteristic of their gay campus world.
“Much was below the radar of most of America; but that was always OK with me,” Hansen remembered. “I loved the ‘secret life’ aspect of 1960s gay life; I rather miss it, in fact.” Jim Mosher (OC 62), a government major who arrived at Oberlin from a boarding school in Wisconsin, described the theater circle as a “secret underground society.” “You knew other gay people and you knew that you had a secret bond that the rest of the world didn’t know about,” he recalled. “There was an excitement, it was a little bit subversive, a little bit underworld…and being hidden was part of the fun. It’s hard to imagine from today’s perspective, but there was a real positive side to the oppression.”
The circle may have been able to capitalize on the public’s naïveté and find the “positive side to the oppression” in part because many associated homosexuality not with mental illness, but with sophistication and artistic talent. “We were happy, budding aesthetes,” recalled Tony Wells (OC 62), a Conservatory student from a small Kansas farm town. In his memory, gay life at Oberlin “was wildly sexy, romantic, and fun.”
The group gathered at an off-campus bar called Don’s to gossip and—Oberlin being a dry town—drink 3.2 beer (“It was just like dishwater,” Ball remembered). When a French theatrical company whisked through Oberlin their senior year, members of the theater circle paired off with them for the night; Stephen Calvert (OC 62) ended up with the famous executive producer, who eventually invited Calvert to stay with him in New York City. The group also occasionally found their way to Cleveland gay bars, and Ball and Wells hitchhiked to New York City, where they made their first stop at Julius, according to Wells, “the famous Greenwich Village gay bar with picture windows proudly open to viewing from the street.” The famed French baritone and his accompanist who met at Oberlin in the early 1950s returned to campus for a recital that the circle attended, the story about their campus romance still circulating.
Perhaps most importantly, the group held campy theater rehearsals with the outrageous director of the Oberlin Dramatic Association (ODA), English professor Stan McLaughlin (OC 22). McLaughlin taught at Oberlin since 1925, directed the ODA from 1935 until his retirement in 1961, and helped create a sense of cohesion and continuity for gay student theater circles.
Mosher remembered visiting McLaughlin at his house often for drinks (“in cold weather it was rye,” he recalled, “and in warm weather it was orange blossoms”), to cry on his shoulder about relationship problems, learn about Oberlin gay life in the 1940s and ‘50s, and borrow gay-themed books. “He was the first person that sort of gave me a picture of what it was like to live as an adult gay person,” Mosher remembered. “I credit him with getting me through life sane.” In the same vein, Howard Spendelow (OC 66) remembered McLaughlin, then retired, holding “salons” for gay students. “If you went down to Stan’s house, you knew you were going to have fascinating conversation [and] really great music,” he recalled. “He created the kind of social atmosphere in which you could be relaxed with a bunch of guys, learn some of the lore of the campus, [and] stories about people in the past.”
In 1962, when most members of the circle were in their senior year, they produced The Boy Friend–A Gay Musical Comedy of the ‘20s, to the wide acclaim of the Oberlin community. At a time when “gay” was still largely a code word and the community underground, the student staging of The Boy Friend was a remarkable production; it brought together a group of primarily gay male students, showcased a camp sensibility (however coded) both for Oberlin students and Cleveland gay bar patrons, and was at the same time wildly entertaining.
“I loved ‘The Boy Friend’ from absurd beginning to ludicrous finale,” one student wrote in a Review article. “It is fast, funny, and delightful, and it should be enjoyed, not analyzed. The show is a spoof of the ‘twenties musical, and every corny line and irrelevant song is, and is meant to be, gloriously ridiculous. The plot is silly; the chorus dashes on and off for no known reason; the characters constantly break into tender song and are as rapturous at the final curtain as the audience.” The Boy Friend was, in other words, very camp.
The musical “lends itself to extreme camp, and that’s what we did with it, in a very not-so-subtle way,” remembered Beverly Ball, the director of the largely gay male cast. “That element of here I am honey was right out there and it was a very gay show.” She also felt that the gay students “were liberated by it in a way, because it was totally okay to camp it up and be a hoot and a holler.” Wells recalled being “outrageously campy and fey in the ‘title’ role. By this time in our young lives, I think most of us had decided that it was chic to be homosexual. I know that I was certainly flaunting it.”
Set primarily in “Madame Dubonnet’s Finishing School for Fine Young Ladies,” the musical is a heterosexual love story about an English heiress and a delivery boy. But the musical, itself a spoof on ‘20s musicals, might also be interpreted as a lampoon of heterosexuality. In a romantic duet between the two leads, for instance, Jim Mosher remembered that Wells (“a little bit of a lisp—a little too much of a lisp”) and “Suzie,” the female lead, hold hands, “but they never look at each other. They are so concerned with looking out at the audience…they’re obviously actors with egos up the wazoo…And Tony is looking out at the audience with his big Colgate smile and Suzie is looking at him and then all of the sudden, when he turns to look at her she looks into the audience. So never do their eyes meet throughout this whole romantic duet.”
These memories suggest that while the production may have been “absurd,” “irrelevant,” and “silly,” as the Review claimed, the camp employed in the production can also be understood as a cultural strategy that helped gay students to undermine and make sense of social views that served to stigmatize them. In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag reminds her readers that “every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it.” Homosexuals, who she called the “vanguard” of camp, “have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense,” she wrote. “Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
At least parts of the audience were in on the joke. On a run into Cleveland for theater props and lighting equipment, Mosher and others posted fliers at gay bars advertising the “gay musical comedy.” “We had some of the strangest audiences turning up in Hall Auditorium to see that show,” he remembered. Robert Stiefel (OC 63), who heard a rumor that “the whole male cast of The Boy Friend was gay,” recalled a “sense of camaraderie, and … a sense of electricity in the cast,” at the performances he attended. “They got that point of the play,” he remembered, “which is to appear naïve but actually be highly sophisticated … Looking back on it, the gay sensibility is what made theater so exciting and so fun.”
At the same time, the theater world, like the Conservatory, regulated its homosexual presence. At a summer around 1958 at Cape Cod with Oberlin’s Gilbert and Sullivan troupe, Thomas Tibbetts (OC 59) was called into the office of the producer, a professor of French at Oberlin. “He wanted to know what I knew about all this homosexual activity that he’d been hearing about,” Tibbetts remembered. “And the first thing I thought was, am I going to get the third degree about myself? But I very shortly discovered that suddenly I was supposed to become his inside confidant and whistle-blower, which was not my preferred role.”