The past two years saw the loss of two of the major figures of early LGBTQ cinema, Shan Sayles and Monroe Beehler. Yet their passing went largely unremarked in both LGBTQ press outlets and the popular press. Each of the two produced films, owned theaters, and had distribution hubs in the Los Angeles area. In addition to their significance to LGBTQ film history they should also both be remembered for their struggles for first amendment rights against antigay censorship regimes, both local and national.
In the 1960s and 1970s, before the proliferation of niche markets and “filter bubbles,” LGBTQ content was not widely accessible through mainstream media platforms such as cinemas or television. While gay print media had circulated for some time, the studio-produced Boys in the Band (1970) is often recognized as a landmark of overtly queer film from that era. Yet directly before Boys’ release there was a deluge of queer movies in the Los Angeles area that were produced and distributed independently from the Hollywood studios.
Los Angeles gay community figure and film director Pat Rocco is rightly acknowledged as a pioneer in gay independent filmmaking. Yet Rocco’s movies were part of a larger movement that included early groundbreakers in the physique genre, Bob Mizer and Dick Fontaine, and later filmmakers such as Lancer Brooks, Barry Knight, Dick Martin, Warren Stephens, and Joe Tiffenbach.
The existence of a broader burgeoning Los Angeles gay film movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s is seldom acknowledged for two primary reasons. On the one hand, the majority of the films in this movement have been inaccessible for nearly 50 years. Existing copies are difficult to access within institutional archives and the films were seldom, if ever, released on home media formats. On the other hand, the majority of them are adult films, both softcore and hardcore. Despite shifts in American culture since the 1960s, adult film continues to have a diminished cultural status.
During their original release, the films produced by Sayles and Beehler garnered largely positive reviews in The Advocate and other gay newspapers across the country. Some, like Song of the Loon and The Experiment, became legendary. Despite difficulties in production, Sayles’s softcore frontier film, Song of the Loon, was considered a major accomplishment and among the very first feature length narrative films to positively portray male same-sex love. The Experiment (1973), a hardcore rumination on friendship and self-acceptance released by Beehler’s company, was celebrated for its powerful sequence of a son coming out to his father. In an interview with Jerry Douglas for Manshots, the film’s director, Barry Knight, fondly remembered the sequence’s effect on audiences: “It was so much pride I had as I watched several of the patrons of the theatre leaving with wet faces.”
Yet more than the films they produced, Sayles and Beehler should be remembered for how their businesses provided space for local LGBTQ community formations. Sayles was perhaps the first entrepreneur to comprehensively hire gay men to perform in, direct, write, and edit gay films. In June of 1968, he scheduled the “World’s First Homosexual Film Festival” at the Park Theatre on Alvarado. The success of this festival prompted Sayles to shift the theater to a gay film policy. Sayles would later open other legendary gay adult theaters such as the Nob Hill in San Francisco and the Park-Miller in New York.
Beehler got his start working for Sayles. He worked on both Song of the Loon and Inside AMG (1970), a documentary on Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild. Soon after, Beehler formed his own company, Jaguar Productions, and would open the famous Hollywood Century Theater. Jaguar’s films, such as The Experiment, were known for their intricate plot development and advanced cinematography. They were for Los Angeles what Wakefield Poole’s films were for New York, prestige productions that were appreciated not simply for their sexual content, but for their formal, technical, and narrative innovations.
Both Sayles and Beehler were extremely successful, and they proved that gay audiences were a viable market, hungry for positive films that expressed their experiences. Their expert advertising techniques propelled their theaters into the public view as open spaces of gay affirmation. Yet because of widespread homophobia this visibility threatened the heterosexual status quo. Throughout the 1970s, Sayles and Beehler fought first amendment battles on both the local and federal levels. In their struggles against arbitrary obscenity laws and unjustified raids, they vigorously defended our rights as LGBTQ people to produce and consume sex-affirmative media, and to gather in venues free of homophobic harassment.
Shan Sayles and Monroe Beehler should be remembered as champions of LGBTQ public life. Shan Sayles passed away in Pacific Grove, Calif., on December 21, 2016. Monroe Beehler passed away in Los Angeles on May 15, 2018.
FINLEY FREIBERT is a Ph.D. Candidate in Visual Studies at University of California, Irvine. His current research is on queer film history in Southern California and bisexual community history.