Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.
Fifteen years ago. Joshua Grannell, a.k.a. Peaches Christ, and his Penn State college friend and "flawed drag partner" Michael Branchley, a.k.a. Martiny, were talking. "I have the worst memory, but when something is exciting or important, you just end up remembering," says Grannell. "It was 1997, and Michael and I had made all these incredible friends through participating in the first year of Trannyshack. We'd heard about what the Cockettes had done at The Palace and I was working for Landmark Theatres, running the Bridge Theatre. I specifically recall sitting in our apartment at the time and telling Michael about my idea to screen old cult movies with a drag pre-show hosted by Peaches Christ, and Michael almost immediately saying, "You should call it Midnight Mass!"
Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader, or as Grannell puts it, "queen of the freaks, the mutants, and social outcasts," a "ringleader and clown who can transform from horrific zombie to glamorous showgirl depending on what's being celebrated." Like the man behind her, Peaches is also an ultimate movie fan.
Whether she's celebrating Showgirls, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, or Sleepaway Camp, Peaches brings special signature touches to the midnight movie experience, not just overseeing wrestling matches and lap dances, but also conducting informative and entertaining live onstage interviews with the stars of the movies she screens, such as Mink Stole, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, and the late Tura Satana. While Peaches' look has grown more fierce over the years, the man behind her has grown as well, in ways not as easy to recognize.
"I think Joshua has changed more than Peaches has," Grannell says. "I sobered up in early 2002 and decided I wanted to keep challenging what we could do with Peaches and the little [short] movies we were making. I became invested in being a full-time artist, whether it be as a performer, writer, or director. I've opened myself up to relationships and experiences in San Francisco that continue to inform my perspective. Peaches and the movies I make provide an outlet for me to shock and offend folks, and sometimes even murder them. Joshua is a nerd, and people may not realize that when Peaches isn't onstage she can pass for [a] "bear."
Grannell may be a self-described nerd, but not every movie nerd has a well-loved feature directorial credit to his name. With 2010's cleverly-titled All About Evil, Grannell made that big leap, helming a self-written B-movie with Stole, Natasha Lyonne and young heartthrob Thomas Dekker in starring roles. All About Evil had a smash opening at that year's San Francisco International Film Festival, and has gone on to great success on the festival circuit, garnering its own cult reputation in the process.
A love of San Francisco's old movie theaters—those palaces surveyed in Julie Lindow's and R.A McBride's valuable recent book Left in the Dark (to which Grannell contributed an essay)—is at the heart of both Midnight Mass and All About Evil. Though these days Midnight Mass often fills the Castro Theatre, longtime home of fellow event impresario Marc Huestis, the event originated at the Bridge Theatre.
"I will always love the Bridge because for over a decade it was home-base for me as both as Joshua and Peaches," says Grannell. "My experiences running the theater really inspired me to write All About Evil, and much of the angst in the film derived from my own anxiety and fear about watching our great San Francisco movie theaters close as the 'new and improved' multiplexes came in and added far too many screens for this town. Movie houses like the Alexandria, the Coronet, the Alhambra, the Royal, and more were closing down all around us, and it was because of this that I made a movie about what length we should go to in order to save our old cinemas—even if it means murder."
A significant amount of All About Evil's mayhem takes place at the Victoria Theatre on 16th Street. "The Victoria was honestly always on my mind while I was writing All About Evil," says Grannell. "It ended up being the perfect home for the film, because it's so old and creepy and wonderful and theatrical—the perfect co-star alongside Natasha Lyonne's ‘Deborah.’"
While All About Evil gives the Victoria a place in film history, Grannell's work with it and other San Francisco movie palaces continues today. "I've been producing events at the Victoria alongside the Castro and the Bridge, and I think all three venues are wonderfully suited for a multitude of experiences," Grannell says. "The Victoria is now home to my SF Underground Short Film Festival, which I co-produce with Sam Sharkey, and it's the perfect place for us to do the kind-of interactive presentation we love so much. We can have bands onstage there, screenings with performances, and more that other venues cannot support." At the next SFUSFF on November 19, 2011, Grannell hopes to "make full-use of the specialness of the space."
As for All About Evil, it continues to be a way for Grannell to spread that special San Francisco movie magic to other parts of the globe. Most recently, he and Peaches and the movie traveled to Switzerland, where All About Evil was the opening night film at the Lausanne Underground Film Festival. "Everywhere we take the full Peaches Christ stage show, we have to tap into the local performance scene, and the Swiss performers that worked with us were awesome, " says Grannell. "The festival also gave me the honor of programming something they called 'Joshua Grannell Carte Blanche,' and I presented five days of movies as Joshua that inspired me while I was writing All About Evil, including Mommie Dearest, Doris Wishman's Deadly Weapons, Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise, and more. All of the movies screened on 35mm and I got to nerd-out all week long while eating silly amounts of chocolate and fondue, surrounded by hyper-beautiful Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps."
It's a deserved reward for one person who provides more than one reason why the San Francisco film scene is lively. In a way, Grannell's years leading Midnight Mass as Peaches provided the ultimate training for his endeavors as a director. "I've worked with the scariest drag queens and wild cult film icons at Midnight Mass, stretched every single penny onstage, and had to come up with solutions 'on the fly' for years, so making All About Evil was very similar in many ways," agrees Grannell. "A lot of the same logistics and way of thinking apply to independent filmmaking. I've been complimented by the actors for being so 'Zen' on-set and able to navigate my way through minor daily catastrophes and I think a lot of this calmness came from all those years of performing and producing shows as Peaches."
Joshua Grannell deserves the awards and honors—such as being recognized as an SF Essential—that his hard work and movie love have generated. But even as he writes another movie, works on a trio of television projects, and prepares new live shows (such as a Shining Christmas event at the Castro), he's clear about the deepest rewards of staying true to his passion. "Midnight Mass is truly the gift that keeps on giving," he says. "It introduced me to Mink Stole, Cassandra Peterson, and John Waters. These are people I worship and I can now honestly say that they've become important collaborators in my life. That's surreal and if I think about it for too long I get nervous, because even though they're now close friends of mine who I value, I've always been a fan and always will be. Honestly, it's hard to put into words the level of gratitude and humility I feel knowing these people who were so seminal in forming the person I've become."
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