PHOTOS: The Fairoaks Project

Photographer Frank Melleno must have intuited the once-in-a-lifetime magic of the moment when he took these candid Polaroid pictures at the Fairoaks Hotel.

BY Mark Thompson

July 24 2010 4:00 AM ET

1 PIXEL GIF | ADVOCATE.COM

FAIROAKS PROJECT 03 (MELLENO) | ADVOCATE.COM

“Full moon” parties were regularly held, as were events planned around a theme. Patrons were encouraged to bring costumes—from feathered masks to black leather uniforms—and a bowl of psychedelic punch was often set out. For awhile there was a weekly drop-in support group led by a hip shrink. This nucleus of a group fostered a more familiar and intimate atmosphere than was common in other gay bathhouses of the era. The sense of playfulness and camaraderie there was palpable. No more so than the night when the city’s reigning disco diva, Sylvester himself, came to party down.

Dug into the bedrock beneath the Fairoaks (below the sauna, glory holes and sling), was the basement office and living quarters for some of the owners and staff. There were eight partners, including Melleno and his lover, Rob Mullis. Many of those men, like a great number of Fairoaks patrons, are no longer alive--taken by the plague of AIDS that would decimate the city’s gay population in just another few years.

How lucky for us that Melleno kept a Polaroid camera nearby. With a historian’s eye and gay activist’s zeal, he captured the fragile, fun, and always fantastic life in the Fairoaks Hotel. Melleno posted the shots on a lobby bulletin board for the guys to enjoy then stored the pictures in a cardboard box where they’ve been the past thirty years.

More than a pictorial record of a by-gone scene--or even of passing strangers with sticky feet--these photographs open a door into a secret gay world of sexual encounter and sweet innocence the likes of which will never be seen again.

Tags: Art

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