Sunday, February 9, 2020

Remembering Robert Conrad, our Wild Wild Crush

The death of actor Robert Conrad on February 8 brought on a slew of remembrances from fans online, most notably those who recalled him shirtless, in tight pants, and often tied up, in the unusual hit TV series The Wild Wild West. 

That the show's barely disguised erotic aspects aroused many gay men (mostly teenagers at the time) is self-evident in any of the show's episodes. It also brought forth several memories of my first published short story, and how my own meager PR skills at the time seem fairly quaint.

In The Wild Wild West, which premiered in 1965, Conrad played James T. West, a James Bond-like agent who used innovative tactics and futuristic gadgets (steampunk before there was such a thing, and futuristic for the 1800s) to battle bizarre villains. 

As a youngster in grade school, the homoerotic aspects perhaps eluded me. I do recall owning a denim vest that made me feel cool like James West, and, imitating one of West's many gadgets, I even tried to insert a penknife in one of my shoes. That didn't turn out well.

What did turn out well, in my vague memory, was a Show and Tell grade school morning where, after possibly hours of rehearsal, I enlisted several other boys to reenact almost an entire episode of the show. Had we audiotaped it? Written down a script? I don't recall, other than constructing a large cardboard wall for one of the boys to crash through.

Some claim that the show may have even had an influence in the rise of gay BDSM culture. As Jack Fritscher, editor of Drummer magazine wrote in my query: 

"Robert Conrad was an archetype of the classic American physique, leather-and-western clothing fetish, and bondage action considered basic by the founders of Drummer. Publisher John Embry wrote about his personal passion for 'Bob' Conrad.  Drummer was built on a continuing series of pictures of hunky movie stars in S&M situations that began in Drummer #1, June 1975, with Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Steve McQueen, and Robert Conrad. 

"We featured the peerless Conrad in Drummer issue #1 to set a certain 'tone' by offering his shirtless poster for sale in Drummer mail-order. A torso cover drawing by Bud of LA referenced Conrad's famous stripped torso on display in bondage in nearly every episode of Wild Wild West, the series that brought thousands of young gays out and led them to Drummer and Folsom Street."

While SM gay culture was thriving elsewhere, my own introduction to the show was in syndication in the 1970s. Our family had moved our older television to the basement, and a northern Ohio TV station, WUAB, broadcast a set of shows, including Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and others. 

But The Wild Wild West remained my favorite, as my teenage libido was struck by Conrad's feisty antics, frequent shirtless scenes, and his very tight pants. Never before, or since, had a male actor's body been so blatantly put on display, along with his dashing outfits.

Jump ahead to the early 1990s, as my years of (mostly hand-written or manually-typed) scribblings developed into a few novel beginnings and a few short stories. I had begun to befriend authors and editors, mostly through my fledgling journalism efforts at Outweek, and somehow managed to be invited to contribute to a new anthology of fiction edited by prolific author and editor Ethan Mordden.

Having just learned the basics of word processing, I found that my story about being bitten by a dog, and receiving my first G.I. Joe doll as a boy, grew into a long list of TV and pop culture crushes. As a play on scholarly writing, I added footnotes to various actors and cartoon characters.

"Forty Wild Crushes (or Whenever I See a Dachshund I Think of G.I. Joe)" became part of Waves: An Anthology of New Gay Fiction.  Contributors included John Weir, Brad Gooch, Scott Heim, Michael Cunningham and several others.

PR, Sweetie Dahling
In covering the anthology, Kirkus Reviews (link above) offered my first literary review as well. 

"These writers, Mordden contends, are more activist and more stylistically inventive. This is certainly true of Jim Provenzano's 'Forty Wild Crushes,' which takes the form of an elementary school memoir – with hilarious footnotes."

Having a year before moved to San Francisco, in 1993 I enlisted fellow contributor Richard Davis to share a reading at A Different Light bookstore on Castro Street (The location is now Dog Eared Books).

Back then, before any sort of online availability (other than comparatively primitive bulletin boards), writers and performers relied on newspaper event listings. As a new Assistant Editor at the Bay Area Reporter at the time, I received a slew of colorful flyers and mailed press releases, which I filed by issue number in the weekly paper (where I still work, and once again edit event listings; some things never change).

But I knew a few listings would not be enough to get people into A Different Light to hear Davis and I read, and to buy books. 

So, with the aid of our layout designer at the B.A.R., some nice fonts and a bit of collage work, I put together mini-flyers at the local Kinko's on Market street, cut the pages into four little squares, and for a few hours before the reading, handed out the flyers outside the bookstore, not unlike nightclub promoters down the street.

It worked.

My memory may be exaggerated, but I recall at least twenty attendees. To make my own reading of my 40 crushes more entertaining and visual, I bought a large book of multi-colored construction paper, and photocopied then hand-painted images of each crush, which included several grade school classmates. 

Another crush included the classic animated kid's show, Jonny Quest, where my preteen gaydar presumed that Race Bannon and Dr. Quest were life partners. Hey, it could have been true.

My story mentions in particular an episode where Race disguises himself in purple berry juice. Later adult viewings of the show starkly showed its consistent racism, so enough of that.

Still, an air of younger innocence remains in the story. At the premiere reading, recruiting the aide of (soon to be bestselling author) K.M. Soehnlein as my page-turning assistant, I read the tale with visual support. Back then I couldn't quickly find a video of the specific 'berry juice' episode, but I did today!
Soon after the anthology's publication, I submitted the story to the then-new San Francisco edition of Frontiers, a large-format gay news and entertainment magazine (LGBT had yet to become the more inclusive standard descriptor). 

I had been contributing arts and travel features to the magazine, and was paid well ($200-$300, good pay at the time).

The editor and designer lavished space on the story's layout, with several photos of the mentioned crushes, including a shirtless beach photo of Robert Conrad. The issue also featured a cover feature and interview with the affable and sexy Colt model Steve Kelso. The former bartender is now a farmer who's quite politically engaged on Twitter. But don't expect nudes. You'll have to look elsewhere for those.

Time Warp
Jump ahead to 2016. Having come down from the high of my fifth novel Message of Love becoming a Lambda Literary Award finalist (its companion novel, Every Time I Think of You, won a Lammy in 2012), I had a bit of writer's block with what I thought would become my next publication, Now I'm Here

Timelines, song titles, and character development formed a confusing cluster of ideas. One productive decision I made was to add my lengthy, unpublished pumpkin-farming semi-autobiographical story "Tractor Pull" to Now I'm Here

I'd originally played with using that story's title for a collection of short stories, but made the better decision to use "Forty Wild Crushes" as the title.

One problem I had with foraging through my old short fiction, published and not, was that many older Word documents were unreadable on my new computer. I had to manually scan several stories into PDFs and extract the text.

After months of shifting and correcting, retyping and formatting, for the cover, I chose an original painting by fantastic painter Kenney Mencher. I even bought the painting, which hangs on a wall in my home.

I also did a few readings of stories from my collection at the (also now closed) Books Inc. on Market Street, and at a Lit Crawl reading event that I host annually at Martuni's.

So, thanks to the late Robert Conrad for being part of this long journey. I won't go into his later rightwing political views, his alleged bisexuality as a young 'trade' stud, or other personal views. You can dig those up elsewhere.

You can also dig up a 2016 video of me reading "Forty Wild Crushes" with the illustrated collage book (It's a bit awkward and I was overcoming a terrible cold) with Baruch Porras-Hernadez and prolific author and editor Rob Rosen, who's archived it on Facebook.

But even with all this new media – Facebook ads and promos, Instagram, etc. – I feel that it never surpassed the old-fashioned style of making flyers and promoting my long-ago reading event like a simple street huckster.

You can read more about the story collection on my website. I'll leave you with one of a few reviews, from Edge Media 

"Forty Wild Crushes is an enticing, poignant and highly engaging collection that presents men and relationships of all ages and from all walks of life, some of whom we can all relate to and others we would just as soon avoid."

Yes, there are a few jerks in the stories. Not every character is nice. Just as Conrad's real life had some problems, I hope you'll consider the best of him, and the best of my writing, some of it inspired by a handsome actor.

And follow me on the things!

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