Marc Huestis on the Runway

Michael Guillen July 30, 2007

Marc Huestis exhibits a playful flair to his showmanship, putting the “imp” back in impresario. David Wiegand’s career profile for The Chronicle a few years back remains definitive and SF360 editor Susan Gerhard and SFBG editor Johnny Ray Huston have each recently added brushstrokes to the portrait of this uniquely San Franciscan character. Huestis, one of the co-founders of the SF International LGBT Film Festival and a filmmaker in his own right (“Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age,” “Sex Is…,” and “Lulu Gets a Facelift”), has stitched together a dashingly-coutured festival at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre: The Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival; owning the stage with its Friday Gala Opening Night featuring the “Bad Boys of Runway” — Project Runway Stars Santino Rice and Jeffrey Sebelia — live and in person with a screening of George Cukor’s “The Women.”

SF360: Marc, I appreciate your taking time today to speak with me. You’re someone I’ve been wanting to talk to for quite a while.

Marc Huestis: Well, y’know I was Googling the other day and I saw your interview with Mink Stole where you mentioned my name. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s so nice of you.’

SF360: I’m a huge namedropper. [Laughter.] First of all I wanted to say generally that I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1975 and have seen so many creatures of light come and go over the years that it’s important for me to stress that your continuing presence in the city’s cultural profile has been so tremendous. I wanted to thank you personally. You are a true impresario.

Huestis: I’m glad there’s someone as old as I am.

SF360: I’ve read some of your comments regarding aging and I feel in league with you: No, I’m no longer young but I’m moving forward and it’s getting more and more fabulous as the years go by.

Huestis: I am going forward and it’s kind of fabulous but I’m always worried about making a living. That’s my big thing in life right now. It’s nervewracking to do [my programs]. I mean, I’m really thrilled that you acknowledge my work, a lot of people do, and I really like that — but, whenever I apply for grants from the City, they don’t even know who I am. Unfortunately, the financial support is not there and I’m getting really nervous about it. [These programs] are getting less and less profitable and sometimes I just break even and I can’t do that.

SF360: I’m very sorry to hear that. The current project you’re administering, the Fabulous Fashion Film Festival, is this your first true film festival? I know you’ve done several singular evening events but have you curated a complete festival before?

Huestis: Well, I was co-founder of the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Actually it was just the Gay Film Festival at that point — there was no ‘Lesbian’ in it — not that I don’t love the presence of the lesbians, mind you; but, back then it was just a bunch of hippie fags doing little Super 8mm films in the community center and showing them on a rickety Super 8mm projector onto a wrinkled sheet. So I know something about starting film festivals but this is really the first time I’ve had multiple films. Usually it’s just a one-hit thing and I’m through. But I figured [I’d further] my relationship with Santino, which evolved through email and MySpace. On his MySpace page there are all these films that he loves. He’s very film savvy and the choices that he has are really quite wonderful and a lot of them are the same choices that I would have. So I’m like, ‘Why not show these films in conjunction with what’s going on?’ So I pitched the management of the Castro and we thought we’d give it a go and see if it would work.

I wanted to do something that was not just old movies. That’s the whole thing: I feel that a lot of times things are really segmented in this town. It either has to be for this that or the other audience. I like to blend people. Even opening night, it advances edgy, punk-rock fashion with an old, classic movie, ‘The Women,’ and they’re not mutually exclusive. One can work with the other. It makes it even fresher and more wonderful to have the combination of elements that you normally would not see on the same stage. A lot of those movies on the list are movies I’ve loved and always wanted to show in one context or another and this was the perfect umbrella to do it.

SF360: It’s certainly an ambitious line-up! When I first saw it I was amazed that you were taking on such a body of work.

Huestis: We shall see. Hopefully it will work or we’ll make it work. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

SF360: One of the things I find interesting about you, Marc, is not only are you a definite part of San Francisco’s history but you’re continuing to make history.

Huestis: That’s one of my big things. Sometimes people only want to talk about the past and, yes, I think the past needs to be acknowledged and there needs to be a reverence of the past; but, I would die if I got stuck in the past. Even my friends in the Angels of Light or The Cockettes, they say, ‘Oh, they just don’t make shows like they used to. Nobody’s doing anything, la, la, la. Weren’t we wonderful? And blah blah blah.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we were wonderful but so what?’ Now it’s a new time. It might not be my favorite time to be on the planet, but this is the time we’ve got and we might as well make it as fun and wonderful as we possibly can. History is history — it’s always living and breathing — but, sometimes it can kill you too. It’s a doubled-edged sword.

SF360: With the Fabulous Fashion Film Festival line-up — as you were saying — you’ve accomplished a nice mix between older films and newer films with the theme of fashion thrumming through it all.

Huestis: It’s a class thing too. I just did not want to do stuff that’s so beautiful — glamour fashion. It was really important to me to include — for example — the documentary night (‘Grey Gardens,’ ‘Paris Is Burning’). Edie Beale from ‘Grey Gardens,’ of course, is in a league all by herself in terms of fashion. But then there’s ‘Paris Is Burning,’ which I find to be a very interesting movie about fashion because it deals with poor people who look at high fashion as something they would aspire to, whereas, in fact, it’s also depressing them too because of all the money and how expensive it is. It is a comment on fashion.

Like the Rock Night. ‘Velvet Goldmine’ to me is one of the most beautiful movies — it’s not a great movie — but its sense of fashion and the look of the film is quite wonderful and I’ve always wanted to see it on a big screen with a living, breathing audience. ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch:’ I actually [brought] John Cameron Mitchell about four years ago. I always loved that picture, but there’s another instance where it’s not high fashion but it’s thrift store fashion. I’ve spent the whole weekend looking for clothes for the festival. I’ve spent most of my time buying the best things in garage sales and thrift stores. You don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on wardrobe.

SF360: Speaking of ‘Grey Gardens,’ when David Wiegand profiled your career for The Chronicle, in that profile you mentioned your mother and how she became ‘very ‘Grey Gardens.’‘ Was your choice of that film a partial homage to your mother?

Huestis: I love that you’ve done your research. [Laughs.] I saw that movie when it first came out and I was blown away by it. It’s still to this day one of my two favorite documentaries; the other being Maximilian Schell’s ‘Marlene,’ which is really fabulous. I could relate to ‘Grey Gardens’ so much. Growing up, there was no aristocratic blue blood in my blood, but, my neighborhood in Long Island, it was respectable. I went back about five years ago and it actually looked nicer than I remember it being; but, our place was the eyesore and it was kind of fabulously scary. My mother was this wonderful creature of show business where she would do all these gigs. To this day I still have all her glamour pictures pinned up to the walls. I have a little dress form outside the Castro which is publicizing the festival and it has one of my mother’s dresses on it and everyone’s like, ‘Oooooh, this is such a nice dress,’ and I’m like, ‘It’s my Mom’s!‘ So Mom has this fabulous glamour stuff but then she couldn’t take care of the house and it was falling apart. At one point she had six white German shepherds. She had them penned up in this little area. She would never clean the poop and the lawn was brown with urine stains. So that motif in ‘Grey Gardens’ I certainly could relate to. I could smell ‘Grey Gardens,’ watching that movie. Because my house, a half block away, you could smell the odor coming out of my house. It was just that whole thing of beautiful, glamorous woman who let their life go to pot like that; just the attractive nature of that, the fascination that the Maysles capture so brilliantly.

SF360: How did Justin Bond come to be involved in the ‘Grey Gardens’ screening?

Huestis: I’ve known Justin since… I remember seeing him walking down Market Street by the Café Flore in the late ’80s when Justin was not even Justin; he was just kind of nobody getting off the bus from Maryland and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that one is cute!‘ He was very androgynous-looking and he certainly had an aura about him that I could tell something was going to be up. He was originally in ‘Sex Is…’ and made the cutting room floor, which he was most gracious about. I’ve always loved him since then. We did a whole dramatization of Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex. It was very funny and he was fabulous, but it just didn’t fit the documentary feel of the movie. Aesthetically, it just didn’t work. But he did a lot of my old benefits for ‘Sex Is…’ and I did an event with Sylvia Miles that he emceed. I’ve known him since the dawn of time so that — when I was putting this Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival together — I just emailed him and I said, ‘Y’know, I’m doing this thing and I’d love for you to host ‘Grey Gardens.’ He emailed me back in like 15 minutes. He was like, ‘God, I was just thinking about you’ — which I didn’t believe for a second — and he said, ‘Sure, I’d love to do that; it’s one of my favorite movies.’ So, voila, that’s the way it happened.

SF360: Reflecting a bit on these programs that you’ve been putting on at the Castro stage for — what’s it been? — 12 years now?

Huestis: 12 years, yes.

SF360: When I think back, you really were the first one to profile and honor these celebrities of yesteryear.

Huestis: I really wasn’t. Mike Thomas at The Strand used to do them, believe it or not, but he never did pop. Actually, he had Lana Turner there; he had Mae West there; he had Jane Russell there; but, he never would publicize them so no one ever knew. There’d be Lana Turner on the stage of The Strand theatre watching the rats run by and trying to walk on those gummy floors filled with…Coke…

SF360: I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Huestis: You know what I’m saying. I was the first one that really did it up in terms of the high profile glamour. Also, my clip reels are really important for my shows. One of my favorite things is to watch all the old movies of the stars and to put together something that’s representative of their work. I wasn’t a big Jane Russell fan before I did the show [with her], but then by watching all of her old movies, I became a fan of hers. She did a lot of these ‘B’ RKO Howard Hawks-produced [movies]. They weren’t great movies, but she’d always have a great number or there’d be some sort of magnetism. Her [films with] Robert Mitchum are wonderful because there was such a chemistry [between] them. Ann Blyth was the same way; I was never a big fan of hers either and then watching all of her [films], I got to love her and particularly her evolution as an artist. She was a really good actor, but I had never thought of her before in that context.

SF360: And yet you used Ellen Organ as your drag name?

Huestis: ‘The Helen Morgan Story’ was really important [to me].

SF360: Have you ever screened it?

Huestis: I would have loved to have shown it, but because ‘Mildred Pierce’ was the feted movie, I couldn’t. I did do a lot of clips that night from ‘The Helen Morgan Story.’ I’ve maintained relationships and friendships with — I would say — a quarter of these women and Ann Blyth I still talk to on the phone once a month. She’s quite wonderful. Her husband just died, but she got through that, and there’s just such an integrity about her as a human being. Carol Lynley also. She was my first [tribute] that I did and we’ve maintained a friendship to this day.

They all love coming here, too. These people, they live in this world — particularly those who live in L.A. — and they get treated like yesterday’s stale sandwich. People tell me, ‘Oh, in L.A. we wouldn’t be interested in this because we see ex-movie stars in the shopping malls or in the supermarket every day.’ But to me, you have to keep that history alive. It’s really important. I do like to combine the whole underground San Francisco culture with it and most of them really enjoy that too. The ultimate compliment for a lot of these gals is for drag queens to do them, and a lot of them have said that. Even the ones you wouldn’t think [would like it] — like Jane Russell, she’s conservative, very right wing in her politics and her handler was like, ‘Don’t tell her about the drag queens!’ — we had dinner and the moment I met her I loved her. She did remind me somewhat of my mother. She was an ol’ show girl. Her big line is, ‘I can’t see or hear anymore but I can still sing and dance!’ I just love that. But anyway, we had dinner the night before and I’m like, ‘Well, Jane, we’ll keep you up in the green room for the [pre-show] — I didn’t tell her they were drag queens — but she was like, ‘I want to see them!’ ‘No, we’ll keep you [in the green room], don’t worry.’ She was like, ‘If you keep me in that green room while they’re on, I’ll knock your block off!’ She sat in the audience and she loved it. They all love it. It’s just fun. There’s no malice in it. It’s not mean-spirited. It’s done in a spirit of reverence and honor [of] the people who are on-stage. To combine those two elements is really important. If you go onto YouTube, it’s real interesting [to read the comments], especially [for] my Ann Blyth thing, there are all these horrible people who are saying, ‘Isn’t it disgusting? These drag queens that were at this event? [They’ve] ruined an upscale event.’ All this drag-phobic [commentary], a lot of it by gay guys who are like, ‘We’re sick of this kind of thing in our community’ and I’m like, ‘Puh-leeze. Get over it. [Ann Blyth] loved it. I don’t understand what your problem is with it.’

SF360: Absolutely. The style by which you’ve combined ‘high’ and ‘low’ pop culture is refreshingly visionary and it does further cinematic literacy. It helps audiences understand what came before and what’s being done with it now.

Huestis: And now is as important — as I said — as before, and that’s one of the reasons why [I included Project Runway]. I love Project Runway. I discovered Season Two, the season Santino was on, and I was flipping the channels and I thought, ‘What is this?’ I was sick in bed and they had one of those marathons they have on Bravo and I just couldn’t stop watching it. Six hours went by in six minutes. I felt like I got to know these people. By the third season, I had turned on all these people [to the show] and every week we’d have a Project Runway party and — for the grand finale — we had a big blowout party and everybody was placing bets on who was going to win. That show is not better nor any worse than any of the old movies.

There have certainly been a lot of people with attitude. They’re like, ‘I don’t watch TV and I certainly don’t watch reality TV’ and I’m like, ‘I love reality TV!’ These are modern day stars whether you like it or not. They’re different from the stars of yesteryear because their celebrity is based more on their personalities than maybe talent; but, certainly on Project Runway — particularly Jeffrey Sebelia — has a wonderful sense of design talent. I already did John Cameron Mitchell. I already did John Waters twice. I do like to do something that’s contemporary. For this particular program, my old crowd are scratching their heads and going, ‘What the hell is he doing with this?’ From my mailing list there have been about two people who have bought tickets for this; but, for me, I want to find a new audience, too, and this audience — whoever shows up — it’s definitely going to be a new audience who will be exposed to what I do and will just build on my existing audience.

SF360: One of the aspects I find valuable in what you’re contributing, Marc, is this focus on personality. It’s easy to look back nostalgically at the screen personalities of the past, but that fascination with yesteryear’s personalities only underscores the thirst contemporary audiences have for guidance in how to be a personality.

Huestis: It’s hard because I don’t see much guidance right now, to be quite honest, particularly politically. We’re in a really rough period. We’ve had to live with this idiot for six and a half years and we have a year and a half to go. I don’t see much light. There’s no one that really inspires me so it is very easy to be nostalgic; but, y’know, even the stuff for which you’re nostalgic, when it was happening [folks] didn’t particularly like it, and it’s only in the context of retrospect that something becomes better. Certain critics — not to mention any names — but their whole schtick is, ‘They just don’t make them like they used to. There is no glamour anymore. Blah blah blah.’ There’s glamour; it’s just different. You might not like it. I don’t particularly like some of it; but, it is there and you have to acknowledge it, and every once in a while there is a movie that comes up that really inspires me. ‘Moulin Rouge’ is one. I saw that movie and I felt like I had died and gone to Heaven, particularly towards the end of that movie. It reminded me of the shows we did in San Francisco with the Angels of Light; that wonderful glittery razzmatazz dazzle ‘em visual visionary style that Baz Luhrmann has. I’m always curious to see movies that are going to really inspire me and I do, I continue to see them, and I’m hoping one day I’ll be able to — maybe 10 years hence — be able to bring somebody from these movies on to the Castro stage.

And the bad ones? We love the bad ones too because you can always do a camp event around a bad one. Bring it on, that’s what I say. If a movie gets really dreadful reviews, I’m the first to go see it because I’m thinking, ‘Ah, this is for the future.’

SF360: I was very sorry to hear that Munchkin Margaret Pellegrini has had a stroke and will be unable to attend the festival screening of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

Huestis: Yes, that’s very sad. She is the sweetest thing in the world. She’s 84 years old. I did an event with her about four years ago and we’ve maintained contact, too, and I’ve seen her at a couple of autograph shows and she’s always so bouncy and full of life, a go go go type of person, and it does really seem like she’s not going to be able to go go go anymore.

SF360: You mentioned that she might be phoning in?

Huestis: She will be phoning in, yes. We’re going to talk to a Munchkin on a cellphone.

SF360: How 21st century!!

Huestis: Talking to a Munchkin on a cellphone just cracks me up. And her attitude is really good so I’m hoping that she somehow heals. Those Munchkins, they’re getting to be fewer and fewer — and that’s living, vibrant history too.