The Life, Death, and Legacy of the Oscar Streaker

Robert Opel made history when he ran naked across the Academy Awards stage. Forty years later, two men are working to promote his vibrant life's work and uncover the truth behind his murder.

BY Kevin OKeeffe

March 26 2014 6:00 AM ET

Robert Opel and Oscar, directly after Academy Awards streak in 1974 (All photos courtesy of: ROBERT OPEL: THE RES~ERECTION OF FEY WAY STUDIOS ~ Antebellum Gallery)

Robert Opel was alone in his homoerotic art gallery, Fey-Way Studios, on the night of July 7, 1979. His girlfriend, Camille O’Grady, and ex-boyfriend, Anthony (a.k.a. Harmodious), were sleeping in the back of the gallery. All of gay San Francisco was on edge.

Two days earlier, Opel had performed his one-man show, The Mock-Execution of Dan White. It was a scary time in gay San Francisco — the memory of both Harvey Milk’s death and the White Night riots, in response to Milk killer Dan White’s light sentence, was still fresh. Opel’s show, in which he staged White’s death, did nothing to ease the community’s anxiety.

That night, two men, Robert E. Kelly and Maurice Keenan, came into the studio under the pretense of looking around and quickly held Opel up at gunpoint. After searching for his money — and finding none — they were interrupted by Anthony and O’Grady, who had stirred at the disruption. They were tied up as the two burglars continued to search.

Then, moments later, O’Grady heard a shot. She knew Opel was dead.

Fey-Way Studios, San Francisco’s first known homoerotic art gallery, shut down after Opel’s murder, just a year after it opened. Now, 35 years after it shuttered its doors, two men who describe themselves as "obsessed" with Opel have revived Fey-Way in Hollywood's Antebellum Gallery. Through a new exhibition promoting Opel's trailblazing artwork and political advocacy, these two want to give Opel a lasting legacy that goes beyond 15 minutes of fame.

Up until now, Robert Opel has not been famous for his art, nor his activism, nor his mysterious death. He’s known for streaking the Academy Awards.

In 1974, David Niven was about to introduce Elizabeth Taylor, who was going to announce that The Sting had won the award for Best Picture. During Niven’s introduction of the legendary actress, however, the audience’s attention was stolen by a man wearing a mustache and nothing else.

In an age of seven-second delays, overeager censors, and incredible security measures, the idea that someone could streak through the Academy Awards — and stay in the press room to take pictures afterward — seems beyond belief. It’s one of the Oscars’ most memorable moments.

Quite a bit away from San Francisco, 15-year-old Rick Castro watched the ceremony, awestruck at what he just saw. Though the cropping of the frame prevented young Castro from seeing Opel’s "willy," as he calls it, the streaking still caused major change in him.

"It just really made an impact on me," Castro says, "because of the freedom and audacity for someone to do that."

Castro immediately set about learning as much about Opel as he could — he refers to his interest in the artist-activist as an "obsession." He soon learned that Opel’s career took on several permutations before settling into the homoerotic art realm.

"He used to work for The Advocate. He started a magazine called Finger," Castro says. “He also worked for the Hollywood Star, but before all this, he was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. So he made a little bit of a left turn somewhere."

That last résumé line is enough to make anyone raise an eyebrow. According to Castro, Opel worked as a speechwriter during Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign before falling out with the future president.

"He was [disenchanted] with the [Republican] party, [disenchanted] with Reagan, and did a 360. Or 420," Castro laughs.

Tags: Oscars, Art

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