By Kevin OKeeffe
Originally published on Advocate.com March 26 2014 5:00 AM ET
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.
After his sharp left turn, Opel became most well-known for his nudism. In addition to the Oscars, Opel also streaked through a Los Angeles City Council meeting — interrupting a debate on outlawing nudity on public beaches — and even ran for president as a nudist. ("I have nothing to hide," Opel joked of his candidacy on The Mike Douglas Show.)
Streaking the council meeting landed Opel in jail. After his release, he was "disillusioned" with Los Angeles, according to Castro, and went north to San Francisco. There, he created Fey-Way Studios in 1978.
"That’s when I really got more obsessed and started to find out everything about him," Castro says In fact, Fey-Way was the model and inspiration for Castro's own Antebellum Gallery, in Hollywood.
Forty years later after Opel's shocking broadcast moment, Castro is staging "The Res-erection of Fey-Way Studios" in his gallery to display the forgotten artwork of the studio and to illuminate Opel's non-streaking accomplishments. Joining Castro in this venture is Opel’s nephew Robert Oppel. Opel was Oppel’s namesake (the elder Robert dropped the second p from his last name to distance his family from his crazy antics), but he never knew his uncle, nor did his family speak much of him.
"I grew up in a rather conservative upbringing," says Oppel, who grew up in Pittsburgh. "I was raised by my mom and grandma. So asking them about it ... they couldn’t deal with it.”
Not meeting Opel didn’t stop his nephew from being passionate about him, and after finding a sizable stash of his uncle’s old art in a closet, Oppel embarked on a new adventure.
"I said, ‘This is who my uncle is, I’m gonna find out, damn it,'" Oppel says. "He’s the one I really wanted to understand myself, as well as celebrate his life. … I love him. I’m fascinated by who he was."
That fascination led to a documentary, Uncle Bob, Oppel made about Opel to answer the many questions he and others had about his uncle. He talked to Opel’s friends, including O’Grady, to uncover as much as possible.
After meeting Oppel, Castro worked for some time to get an exhibit together. Oppel said it was clear that Castro couldn’t have been more excited to put the art on display.
"I’ve had it in my family for generations, over 30 years now. It just seemed to make sense," Oppel says, explaining that the where was more important than the when, finally finding a home at Antebellum. “I think it deserves its day in court. I think it should be seen."
The exhibit includes almost all of the artwork that was hanging on the walls of Fey-Way Studios the night of July 7, 1979, plus a few pieces from Antebellum’s own collection.
"No matter what this art is considered, to me it is always dark and mysterious, because it witnessed murder," Oppel says.
Castro, who spent much of his adult life researching Opel, describes seeing the exhibit come together as "a dream."
"This art and this presentation of a lifestyle — and I call this a lifestyle because of what it’s creating and conveying — is, to me, what I’ve always wanted to build at Antebellum,” Castro says. "The fact that it now has an historic edge is just the icing on the cake.”
The exhibit, which has been extended multiple times, is now running until April 12. Castro and Oppel continue to expand their promotion of Opel’s work and have screened Uncle Bob at Antebellum. In addition to extending Opel's legacy beyond his brief streak across the Oscars stage, Castro and Oppel say they hope to bring some resolution to the questions surrounding his death. According to Castro, many of Opel’s close friends at the time didn’t believe the "drug deal gone bad" narrative espoused in police reports.
"You have to think about the political climate at the time with gay rights and sexual rights. The gallery was pushing a lot of boundaries," Castro says. "The police at that time were not homo-friendly whatsoever. They were very antagonistic and would do whatever they could to close establishments down."
Castro also noted that one of the killers, Keenan, managed to escape quite easily after almost no time had passed. Distressed over the escape, O’Grady and Anthony, the two witnesses, went into hiding. Though Keenan was eventually recaptured, Oppel has never been able to meet him to ask the questions he has about his uncle’s death.
"The fact that this guy came in, tied up Anthony and Camille, put them in the back, and solely just executed my uncle, when they had no money or drugs … it was just very suspicious," Oppel says.
As the two men search for answers, they know that this gallery is part of their journey to spread Opel's name.
As Castro says, "It's just the beginning."
"My uncle pops into this universe so often and so randomly," Oppel says. "I did the documentary, and I thought, Well, I’m glad I got to know Uncle Bob. I’m glad I understand him. And then this show happens … he just pops in and out."