Can We Make Gay Bathhouses Cool Again?
Business has not been good lately for bathhouses, the urban meeting places for gay men who enjoy using steam rooms and saunas or getting blowjobs from complete strangers in them. The Hollywood Spa, a long-time haunt in LA, closed its doors this year after decades in business, and the Associated Press recently looked at the decline in the importance of these fabled sex dens.
Now the North American Bathhouse Association (NABA) is using a combination of awareness-building, steep discounts, and social media outreach to entice a new generation of young dudes to put down Grindr and Scruff (the apps that are basically a bathhouse in every gay’s pocket), pick up a towel, and channel the 70s spirit of cavorting with the hottest bods in town. It might be an uphill battle, but it’s one that Dennis Holding, NABA’s 75-year-old president, says that they’re winning.
I recently chatted with Holding, who has invested in bathhouses all over the country since he opened his first club in 1972, about the past, present, and future of the industry.
VICE: How did you end up in the bathhouse business?
Dennis Holding: I worked in the automotive industry at the time on the racing side, selling parts. I was in Indianapolis for the qualifying for the [Indy] 500, and it was raining, so I went out and met somebody. We went to a brunch the next day with his friends, and they got talking about how Indy needed a gay bathhouse. I looked at the demographics and realized there wasn’t one for 100 miles in any direction. And that’s how it came to be. A couple weeks later, I met the principals of the Club Baths chain [which had 42 bathhouses in its prime]. At that time, six or eight guys would throw in some money, and one guy agreed to go build it, and that’s how they were built. It was the 70s, so things were going great guns.
Michael White Is the Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard Of
Michael White in the early 1970s. All photos courtesy of Michael White unless otherwise stated
How do you begin to tell the story of a man who’s spent his life telling the stories of others? I’m sitting on the floor of impresario Michael White’s home in London’s fashionable Westbourne Grove, sifting through an endless collection of photo albums and trying to work out the answer.
“I have 20,000 photographs of people. I only like to take pictures of people, not places,” says Michael, casually ignoring the fact that the “people” he’s talking about happen to be some of the most iconic figures from the past four decades of popular culture.
Bruce Anderson, Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher, Naomi Watts
Here’s a picture of a young Bob Geldof holding a pair of Easter eggs; there’s a photo of Jack Nicholson flexing his muscles by a pool; a few pages down, Naomi Watts, conservative columnist Bruce Anderson, and Margaret Thatcher are leafing through books next to a Christmas tree. On his mantelpiece there’s a tiny framed picture of Kate Moss with Michael’s son in her lap, taken on vacation sometime in the 1990s.
“Michael White is the most famous person you’ve never heard of,” says actress Greta Scacchi inThe Last Impresario, an upcoming documentary about his life. You might not have heard of him, but there’s no doubt you’ll be familiar with his work.
Michael White, Susan Sarandon, Boy George
Having basically discovered men like John Cleese—as well as introducing women like Yoko Ono and Pina Bausch to Britain—he’s had a hand in shaping the sensibilities of both your generation and your parents’. Meanwhile, his productions Oh! Calcutta, The Rocky Horror Showand Polyester liberated the concept of camp and elevated it to a mainstream aesthetic.
The Bizarre and Terrifying Propaganda Art of the Children of God
The Children of God movement was founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, by former pastor David Brandt Berg, known to his followers as Moses David, Mo, King David, Dad, and Grandpa. Essentially a communist cult founded around banding together to proselytize the word of Jesus in the streets, the group maintained an “old world” idea of Christianity, which, at least in Berg’s view, centered largely around sex. By the time the organization changed its name to The Family of Love in 1978, Berg had introduced a process called “flirty fishing,” which involved the women of the group recruiting new members by fucking them.
The use of sex within the Family did not end at the recruiting stage. When the group changed its name again, for a second time, in 1987, to simply “The Family,” numerous allegations of abduction, pedophilia, and various sexual abuses were leveled at the group, which by this time had locations in countries all over the world. In 1993, more than 70 percent of the group’s 10,000 members were under the age of 18, operating under a strict and insane set of guidelines laid out by Berg and his wife, Karen Zerby, the latter of whom still heads the organization to this day, under their current moniker, the Family International.
I have paraphrased 20 of the Family’s foundational ideas below.
1. God loves sex, because sex is love.
2. Satan hates sex, because sex is beautiful.
3. Incest is OK, because there’s no better place for a young man to learn about doing it than from his own mother.
4. Eleven-year-olds are capable of becoming pregnant, so why shouldn’t they be having sex?
5. Fucking your grandpa is awesome.
6. Everybody is married to everybody else.
7. Children should have at least an eighth grade education, provided by their parents, and if the children want more education, it is “up to the parents to see if the Home can comply.”
8. Pictures of naked congregation members, referred to as “nudie-cuties,” make good bookmarks for the Bible.
9. It is OK to lie to non-believers in order to protect God’s work.
10. Men should not be gay, but it is hot when women are gay.
In Randal Levenson’s practice, insiders and outsiders become one. His series In Search of the Monkey Girl comprises photographs of enigmatic freaks, pictures of carnies, and sideshow scenes taken from his travels across North America in the 70s. His subjects included such illustrious figures as the Man with Two Faces, the World’s Smallest Mother, Penguin Boy, Willie “Popeye” Ingram, and the iconic Artoria Gibbons. In 1982, Aperture published In Search of the Monkey Girl as a book, which featured an essay by Spalding Gray titled Stories From the 1981 Tennessee State Fair.
The pictures are now on view at La Petite Mort Gallery
, Ottawa, Canada, so we sat down with Levenson to talk about his days on the road, getting to know sideshow freaks, and being able to photograph who people really are inside.
VICE: What motivates your practice?
Randal Levenson: I am interested in how people work to solve or adapt to life’s problems. The camera has provided me with a means to enter environments where it might otherwise be difficult or impossible to interact.
When did you begin In Search of the Monkey Girl?
In 1971, I traveled from Ottawa to visit a friend who lived in Fryeburg, Maine, at the time of the Fryeburg fair. I spent the eight days of the fair photographing both the agricultural and carnival side—that is, both the livestock arenas as well as the carnies brought in to operate the independent midway. I traveled to the next fair, the last of the season, in Topsham, Maine, living in and working out of an old Sears canvas tent I set up in the woods adjacent to the fairgrounds.
From that initial encounter with fairs, I determined to work toward a book that would document the people and places I encountered while traveling from fair to fair. I soon gravitated toward the carnies and especially the sideshow part of the business. My last was the Tennessee Sate Fair in 1981. The bulk of the work was done from 1974 to 1978, when I was able to be on the road nearly full time, thanks in part to a couple of grants.
How would you describe your experience of the circus or carnival subculture?
There is no “circus” in the carnival, and carnies are generally looked down upon by circus folk. Carnies do not have much use for circus people, either. It’s a different culture entirely. In a circus, everybody is on a payroll, and most carnies except, for the roustabouts, get paid from their own independent arrangements with the main show promoter.
The super special September issue of VICE was exclusively culled from the archives of Bob Guccione Sr.—the legendary magazine publisher who built a media empire that started with Penthouse. This portion of the issue features an interview with a frustrated Playboy butler who was fired for “an intrusion on his personal life.”
Read about what the Playboy butler saw
Resurrecting the Man Behind the Penthouse Empire
It was a dark February evening. Jeremy Frommer, a former Wall Street trader turned entrepreneur and financier, had spent the day overseeing a successful storage-locker auction with his daughter, a fan of the show “Storage Wars.” They’d bought every unit except for one. Now, he was driving to a sketchy warehouse on Long Island—alone—to meet a Russian contractor who’d outbid him for that final unit.
When Jeremy arrived at the warehouse, he saw the contents of the storage unit the Russian had bought spread out: household stuff, junk, and pottery. For a moment he was disappointed. He’d hoped the contents of this unit might hold something of immense value: the rest of a unique collection Jeremy had discovered in the neighboring unit. But it wasn’t there.
Then he spotted the boxes, piled up near the trashcans. The boxes were filled with slides. The Russian contractor “thought the slides were garbage and didn’t give a shit about them,” Jeremy told me. In a hasty negotiation, he bought the entire storage unit for $2,000 cash, loaded the contents into his SUV, and drove breathlessly to the nearest gas station to dig through the boxes. It was the treasure he had been hoping for: the personal photographs of Bob Guccione, publishing magnate and kingpin of the Penthouse empire.
The combined total of Jeremy’s purchases that day amounted to a substantial portion of Guccione’s abandoned stuff: hundreds of slides, photographs, and personal letters. Rarities from the annals of Penthouse. A Japanese film reel of Caligula, the bloated Dionysian-porno-biopic Guccione produced against great odds in 1976. The final piece was the phone numbers, which led Jeremy to the real jackpot lingering with a creditor in Phoenix: the entire Guccione estate.
In time, Jeremy bought that too.
Tom Bianchi Photographed His Gay Paradise Before It Disappeared Forever
Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are at the party of your dreams. Everyone you love and are infatuated with is around you, the music you loved in your teens is playing, and bad trips are not a concept. You dance and you love and you spin and you love some more, and then all of your friends die.
I know it’s harsh, but it’s also sort of what happened to Tom Bianchi in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. It’s also the subject of his latest book, Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983—a selection of photos taken in a small part of Long Island called the Pines, that functioned as a kind of IRL utopia for a large community of incredibly beautiful and charismatic gay men in the 1970s.
Tom’s name, by the way, is one of those you should know, because he’s been integral in making the world you live in a nicer place than how you found it. You see Bianchi—who, in the early 70s, also worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington, DC—has spent most of his life fighting AIDS and weird heterosexual attitudes toward gay culture. He is the co-founder of a biotech company researching AIDS medication and, if he feels like it, he can also boast a long catalogue of incredibly affectionate photography, poetry, and video work.
With the release of his new book as an excuse, I called Tom up to talk desire and grow up a little.
VICE: Hi Tom, how are you today?
Tom Bianchi: I’m very good, I just had a lovely breakfast out by the swimming pool. I’m ready to go today.
OK, let’s do it. Shall we start by telling the story of how this book came to be?
Growing up and coming out in Middle America, you had to imagine a world very different to the one you were living in. The world we were living in disregarded us and called us perverts. So the brilliance of Fire Island was that it was built by those people who imagined a different world and set out to create it. We carved out the tiniest little place just for ourselves, where we could be safe and laugh and play with one another on the beach, and not have any negative judgement surrounding us. What that did was attract the best and the brightest gays from all over America—particularly because of its proximity to New York, which was the centre of so much culture, fashion, style, and even film. It was a very glamorous time.
Was the creation of this neighborhood planned or circumstantial?
The island is a 36 mile-long barrier a few miles off the Long Island coast, separated into small communities by extended open sand dunes. The Pines, which is one of these little villages, is a mile-long grid of boardwalks connecting about 600 houses built on telephone pole stilts sunk into the sand. Back then, some real-estate guys got to building on this virgin terrace, and it just so happened that the place began to attract bohemian New Yorkers; writers and artists would come out and live in little shacks. It wasn’t intended for the gay community, but it made sense when it formed to be a home for it.
And you happened to be there with a fancy, new Polaroid camera, too.
I was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures at the time. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given an SX-70 Polaroid camera. It was this little plastic thing, which I took to Fire Island a little while later and started taking pictures of my friends. At the time, a lot of people were still in the closet so, as you can understand, they were extremely wary of having their picture taken. So, the important thing about this camera was that it allowed me to take the picture and a few minutes later put it out on the table for people to take a look. It made everyone immediately more comfortable and I very quickly formed the intention to show the world what a cool, amazing place the capital of Queerdom was. Or the provincial part of it [laughs].
Epicly Later’d - Eric Dressen, Part 2
In part two of the Eric Dressen Epicly series, Eric makes a return to skating, and this time he hits up Venice and gets a pass into the scene that was ground zero for modern street skating. Enjoy.