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The Olden Gays 

Historic home movies capture gay life in San Francisco from the 30's onward

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
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Contrary to earlier reports, "Harold's Historic Homo Home Movies" will not be screening this Sunday as part of the Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. A selection of Super 8 films culled from the massive private collection of longtime San Franciscan Harold O'Neal, they capture the candid and charmingly mundane moments of San Francisco life -- and gay life -- from the '30s and '40s onward. But when O'Neal, who is 91, heard the title of the presentation, he "hit the roof," says Kim Klaussner, managing archivist at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. "Homo" isn't a word O'Neal takes well to, even if it's used only for the sake of alliteration. So it's "Harold's Historic Home Movies" that will be screening at the Herbst Theatre.

"They were just part of my everyday life," O'Neal (who now lives near Olympia, Wash.) says of his films. "Just events as I observed them." Among many, many others, he's got shots of Gen. MacArthur in a Market Street parade after World War II, Joe DiMaggio in town pitching Mr. Coffee, the demolition of the Fox Theater, and, he deadpans, "Noel Coward making love to Zsa Zsa Gabor on the stage of the Curran Theatre."

Wow. No, wait: Ewwwwww.

Actually Coward and Gabor were just acting, more along the lines of pitching woo. What's more interesting to local gay and lesbian historians are the remarkably candid -- and beautifully shot -- films of O'Neal and other gay men together in San Francisco in the days when such gatherings were usually anxious and fearful affairs. One movie from 1947 shows about a dozen men hanging out on Mare Island on a summer's day, doing what most anybody does -- sunbathing, drinking and smoking, cavorting on the hills, swimming. When Klaussner showed the tape last week, she was almost apologetic -- O'Neal's films aren't fancy, really. But the staff at the GLBTHS all stopped what they were doing to take a look; O'Neal captured a sense of freedom in a closeted time.

"This is unheard of, to have moving images of gay gatherings before the '60s," says filmmaker Peter Stein, who first came across O'Neal's movies when he was working on a documentary about the Castro for KQED. "The way the men were associating with each other told a story of a kind of comfort with their sexuality that we don't associate with the pre-Stonewall years."

O'Neal himself never became a professional filmmaker (he spent most of his working life in the Army Corps of Engineers), but at 91 he demurely suggests that maybe, perhaps, his films might have some value. "I'm delighted they [the festival] agreed to have it shown, but I didn't make them with a purpose," he says. "I have no interest in notoriety. I've been in the closet all my life, but I stuck a toe out every once in a while."
By Mark Athitakis

A Little Flap Over Big Wheels

East Bay artist Jon Brumit's most recent achievement was a collection of musical instruments he assembled from found objects. His "instruments" -- which included some crafted from kitchen pans and old suitcases -- were displayed in a window of Berkeley's Amoeba Records and later played during a performance at Oakland's 21 Grand nightclub.

For most artists, getting that much notoriety from garbage would be a coup. But for Brumit -- currently plotting a Carpet and Duct Tape Festival in the East Bay and something called the Garbage Games in San Francisco -- the instruments weren't even his most successful creation from trash.

During the fall of 2000, Brumit found a large, slightly rubberized, cracked plastic wheel among garbage in Oakland, and inspiration struck. He organized the Bring Your Own Big Wheel race down the world's crookedest street. In the past two years Brumit has organized six Lombard Street races, including two "annual" Easter Sunday contests, drawing as many as 30 racers and a slew of volunteers and spectators -- some from as far away as Sonoma and Petaluma -- through fliers and word-of-mouth.

To participants, there was little doubt this was Brumit's event: He had a show at the Door.7.Gallery before each race, featuring a raffle, films from past races, and even some "performance art" (Brumit getting hit in the face by a tennis ball machine).

Brumit shells out about $2,000 from his own pocket for the race, which includes making prizes such as BYOBW underwear for participants who manage the least distance before wiping out. Brumit has even secured tacit approval -- if not quite a permit -- for the event from the San Francisco Police Department.

"He lives for his art," says racer Brice Campbell. "It's not just an idea to Jon. It's something he created that's creative and fun."

But not trademarked.

While Web browsing on a local message board last month, Campbell discovered a posting from a sports television production firm called Zoom Culture, which was producing a televised Big Wheel race down Lombard with a course and rules that were nearly identical to the event he'd already participated in. "It was a little too specific to be [coincidental]," Campbell says of the plans for a televised race, which was to be shown by a Fox Sports affiliate.

Campbell e-mailed Brumit, who was upset at the prospect of having his idea stolen for someone else's gain. Brumit called the producer listed in the ad, Scott Foreman, whom he described as highly defensive. Foreman, who says the idea came from one of his bosses, still pooh-poohs the notion that it was stolen: "If you grew up in the '80s, you've raced a Big Wheel down a steep incline. ... It wasn't invented in San Francisco."

After a few testy conversations, however, the two seem to have reached a shaky truce regarding the still-unscheduled event.

Brumit says Foreman told him the race will not be presented as a Zoom Culture production, but rather as Brumit's own event. Or, as Foreman puts it: "I'm sort of featuring him to humor him."

Campbell hopes the differences stay resolved.

"Oh, yeah, I'm looking forward to it," the racer says, recalling past spills. "I mean, my ass isn't. But I am."
By Jeremy Mullman

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman

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