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Remembering My Friend Mart Crowley, the Man Behind Boys in the Band

Remembering My Friend Mart Crowley, the Man Behind Boys in the Band

Boys in the Band Film cast with Mart Crowley
Mart Crowley at left with the cast of the 1970 film of The Boys in the Band

The Advocate's Christopher Harrity recalls the iconic writer, whose work could break your heart and make you screech with laughter at the same time.

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The last time I saw Mart Crowley was that triumphant moment last June when he accepted the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. That The Boys in the Band finally made it to Broadway with that stellar cast that included Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Matt Bomer brought me to tears as I watched the televised ceremonies in Los Angeles.

Half a lifetime ago in 1989, I was going through a rough patch. I had been steadily sober for eight years or so, but I needed more meetings, so I added in a morning meeting at Fountain and Fairfax in L.A.

In one of these early morning meetings I saw Mart Crowley, a longtime idol of mine, poking around the coffee urn. I smiled at him and poured myself a cup and asked, "Who do you have to fuck to get some half-and-half around here?"

He laughed politely, and I asked him if he was indeed Mart Crowley.

"Don't be coy, you know exactly who I am."

Well, yes. I was mangling his own lines already without a proper introduction.

Mart turned out to be warm, happy to be recognized, and remarkably forthcoming. For a lot of people Mart Crowley would not be considered a big celebrity, but he was the author of the groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band. Mart moved culture and LGBTQ history forward with his much argued-over and brutally honest depiction of a gay, fairly drunken birthday party. So yeah, he was big to me.

Many people did not like Mart's take on his tight group of friends. He claimed he did not know at the time that he was representing all of gay humanity. Because he wasn't. We agreed it was more of a play about alcoholism than gay culture. He dryly noted that the alcoholics didn't seem to be offended by his play.

Being able to sit for hours with Mart and ask him all the questions about his play I wanted was delicious. And there was much, much more. An example was his claim that he structured Boys on two scripts: Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rope. He wanted a play on the stage set in real time, so there are no time jumps in the progress, and it happens in one night in a social setting.

I had never seen Hitchcock's Rope, and that set us off on a pedagogical relationship that lasted for years. Mart decided I needed to see every Alfred Hitchcock film he could round up.

The benefits of Mart's lifetime in the Hollywood/Broadway entertainment business bore much fruit. In these pre-Netflix days Mart found delicate reel-to-reel films of rare vintage gems, like the silent The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), and he just walked out of the studios with them on loan. Examples of Hitchcock's love of camp such as Stage Fright, starring Marlene Dietrich, and Lifeboat, with Tallulah Bankhead chewing up the scenery, were new to me. There were all the classics and a few that I struggled to stay awake through (Under Capricorn and Topaz).

Because Mart had studied Hitchcock's film work so arduously there were all the details of productions that only film students knew: the single-take reels of Rope and the sets that had to break apart to allow the camera and crew to move through without making a film edit. And of course the fabled story about Tallulah and her excursions up and down the ladder into the Lifeboat set every day.

Each film night began with a dinner at Joe Allen's Orso on Third, where there might be air kisses from Mart to his friends. And sometimes more intimate shared moments with Hart to Hart's Robert Wagner or artist Don Bachardy. Then back to Mart's amazing apartment at the Villa D'este in West Hollywood to watch at least two films. Luckily my sketchy freelance work was on an easy schedule.

We stayed sober through all of it. Slowly I was feeling as if my funk of a mind-set was pushed to the side while my education on film history and mid-century culture was expanding as he told wild tales of Eloise author Kay Thompson, best friend Natalie Wood, and a million smaller but no less glamorous characters in his life.

Mart was involved and generous. He sent me to his Beverly Hills psychiatrist for a consultation, he involved me as a helper with various graphic needs, and he even let me design the poster for his play For Reasons That Remain Unclear that opened in Maryland in 1993.

One day my boss at The Advocate, Jeff Yarbrough, poked me and asked if Mart would be up for a republication of The Boys in the Band. Mart thought that was a splendid idea and asked me where we were going to take him for dinner to work out the details. "Tell him the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel," Jeff said. That satisfied Mart just fine.

Coincidence was in our favor. In 1996, just as the print copy of The Boys in the Band was ready to ship, in an edition including two more plays -- A Breeze From the Gulf and For Reasons That Remain Unclear -- a revival of TBITB was slated for a downtown theater starring the author and star of The Night I Kissed Larry Kramer, David Drake. So The Advocate threw the opening night party in New York. Thanks again to Jeff for making all that happen.

Seeing the New York Times announcement about Mart passing brought back so many memories. He and I shared about difficult childhood events with adults that changed our lives forever. He pointed out to me that the three plays we published in a collection for him were about three stages of his life. Not word for word about him, but all of the essence of different times of his life, and one that had not even happened but was dreamed of.

Mart and I drifted apart when he moved back to New York. But no one was happier to see the revival of TBITB in 2018. The play itself created the possibility of more acceptance especially once the film version of 1970, directed by William Friedkin and produced by Dominick Dunne, was available on video.

What kept me and my friends coming back to the video of The Boys in the Band was Mart's ability to break your heart and make you screech with laughter at the same time. His blend of caustic and unsentimental wisdom was sharp and real. The last line of the 1970 movie delivers Mart's point of view: "As my father said to me when he died in my arms, 'I don't understand any of it. I never did.' Turn the lights out when you leave."

Christopher Harrity is The Advocate's web producer.

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Christopher Harrity

Christopher Harrity is the Manager of Online Production for Here Media, parent company to The Advocate and Out. He enjoys assembling online features on artists and photographers, and you can often find him poring over the mouldering archives of the magazines.
Christopher Harrity is the Manager of Online Production for Here Media, parent company to The Advocate and Out. He enjoys assembling online features on artists and photographers, and you can often find him poring over the mouldering archives of the magazines.