At 2109 Broadway, on New York’s Upper West Side, stands the Ansonia Hotel, a building which was once the major destination for horny gay New Yorkers, thanks to the famous den of sin that existed in the building’s basement: the legendary Continental Baths. Not only is this where Bette Midler began her cabaret career, this is a place where thousands of men came to get off with each other during the late 60s and early 70s, in addition to watching the midnight show in their towels. But if you walk into the Ansonia today, you’ll find nothing about the expensive facade, the doormen, or the classy black and white tiles that gives even a suggestion of the sexual history of the building. Across the street, however, things are different. Though the 73rd Street building may be swanky, inside lives a man who is far less well known, but whose work produced more orgasms worldwide than those that took place at the Baths ten times over. His name is Bob Alvarez, and he is very willing to take us back in time.
In the mid-1950s, Alvarez moved from Florida to New York in the hopes of becoming a professional dancer. After some twists and turns, he found himself working first in the underground film scene, then on legit documentaries like the Oscar-nominated Woodstock, before winding up one of the chief creative forces at the most beloved gay porn studio of the 1970s, Hand-in-Hand films, which was founded by Alvarez’s partner, the legendary porn director Jack Deveau.
Alvarez took his film training and became the editor of all of his husband’s films, including A Night At The Adonis, Left-Handed, Drive, The Boys of Riverside Drive, Dune Buddies, Rough Trades, and Sex Magic. He also edited films for Peter de Rome and other classic filmmakers who worked at the company. Alvarez and Deveau became known as the masters of narrative gay porn, integrating well-written scenarios (sometimes ordinary, sometimes outlandish) with jaw-droppingly hot sex scenes. Their stable of stars were the legends of their day: Jack Wrangler, Roger, Malo, Big Bill Eld, and more. “Have you seen Boogie Nights? That was us. That was our little family,” Alvarez explains to me over coffee and pastries. While Wakefield Poole and Jerry Douglas both faced financial difficulties after their initially successful films, Deveau and Alvarez’s studio became an industry powerhouse, and a generation of porn filmmakers would crib and steal from the innovation, humor, and rebellious spirit they brought to their work, long after Deveau died of lung cancer in 1982. I sat down with Alvarez this past weekend to talk about the golden age of gay porn, his Hollywood dreams (and very famous star supporter) and the evolution of his relationship with Deveau.
Bob: Yes. I started dancing late but nevertheless I wanted to do that as a career. The only place to come was New York, but I wanted to come anyway. I came here, started studying, did a little bit of off-off-off-Broadway and some things like summer theater. Finally, I did a tour one summer with Juliet Prowse. But I really wasn’t into it as much as I thought I was. So I decided to get out of it. I had a partner who encouraged me to get into something else. I got out of that and floundered around for a while. I fell into working with a group of experimental filmmakers, before they were called underground filmmakers. It was the beginning of that whole era and movement.
Who were the filmmakers you worked with?
Kenneth Anger was one. The guy I worked with mostly was Gregory Markopolous. I was in a couple of his movies.
Wow. I just watched Twice A Man the other day. With Olympia Dukakis.
Oh wow, I love that movie. I wasn’t in that one. I was in one about Prometheus. I can’t say I understood them but I loved them and they were sexy.
The experimental filmmakers helped break down the censorship barriers that cleared the way for porn, and they themselves were a kind of place that you could go and see things that were queer, erotic and proto-porn-ish, right?
Exactly. That’s where I got into looking at Andy Warhol’s films. I became a huge fan. For a while he was showing his movies in a regular theater near 42nd Street. I wouldn’t miss one. I think I saw everything that he came out with. Then a friend of mine who was also a dancer, and who had the same mindset that I did about eroticism — because I mean I loved porn — he decided that he was going to do a porn film. He had fooled around a lot with mixed media presentations, he and his lover. They’d done some things at a gallery.
You’re talking about Wakefield Poole?
Yeah. As you probably know he came out with Boys in the Sand. By this time I was working in film, making a little money.
Yeah. Documentaries. My most famous one is Woodstock. I worked on that. Then I did a lot of documentaries what’s now PBS, it was then Channel 13. I did a series called An American Family, which was very big at that time. I was an assistant on that.
That’s amazing. It’s one of my favorite shows.
Anyway, while I was doing that, Wakefield went out and made Boys in the Sand. My partner at that time was involved industrial design. He had a partner. I got him interested in this type of filmmaking—
Not only that, but some of the underground stuff as well. He wasn’t exactly a lover of it, but he appreciated it. I talked him into trying to make a movie. I said, look, Wakefield did it. If he did it, we have similar sensibilities, I’m sure we can do something too. So we did. We went to his then-business partner and formed Hand-in-Hand Films. I was to edit and he was to more or less produce and direct. My partner, of course, was Jack Deveau.
How did you and Jack meet?
At an opera. A performance of Saint of Bleecker Street which was down in Chelsea. He was there, not because he was an opera lover, but because his mother was playing in the orchestra. He cruised me and came up to me and talked to me. He was very charismatic and asked if I wanted to meet him after the performance. I said, sure. We went out and that was the beginning. After that we saw more and more of each other. Finally we became hitched, more or less. He was really something. When I do these interviews now, I think, you know, Jack should be doing these interviews, not me, because he was very charismatic, like I said. He could charm anybody. We set up shop, both together and with Hand-in-Hand Films, although we had been together sometime before Hand-in-Hand was formed. So we made our first movie, and it was Left-Handed.
As I understand it, Left-Handed went in almost immediately after Boys in the Sand left?
Yeah because Boys played for a long time. During that time we shot Left-Handed, and I edited it. It was ready to go when Wakefield moved out. We decided that we would keep control of it, like Wakefield did, and not sell it. We weren’t the first by any means, but we were the ones who were different from anyone else. Wakefield’s movie made an incredible amount of money. Everything Wakefield says is true, about how people were lined up to see it and it became porno chic. He made a lot of money and he made a couple of other films. It inspired us to do ours and we did. We were not as successful as he was by any means, but you know, he was the first.
Wakefield describes his directing process being something like, let’s set up the scene and just observe. What was Jack’s directing style like?
Very similar. We had to come to a realization that it was somewhat like shooting a documentary. You couldn’t direct too much. You could do minimal things to position people and perhaps set up the scene and keep your fingers crossed that they would get along and be attracted to one another and just go for it. A lot of the film took place in the editing room because invariably there were people who didn’t click or had a hard time and got self-conscious about it.
And you had to make it look like they were still super into each other.
Yeah. One of my favorite things that I remember is, I don’t know if you are familiar with a film we made with a guy named Malo.
Yeah. I’m going to ask you about him later.
After he saw how we edited his scene in A Night At The Adonis, he said, “Thank you for saving my ass.” And I did.
The scene in the bathroom? It’s hard to believe that wasn’t a scene he enjoyed.
It was work. It wasn’t like what people imagine. Now they have things like Viagra, which makes the whole thing a lot easier. We didn’t have anything like that then. Anyway, back to what I was saying about the method of doing it — I guess we created a genre and a way of handling things. Our films are different in that we tried to have a minimal storyline, and we liked to inject things like humor and some absurd storylines. It was nevertheless an attempt to get closer to the crossover line where they could say, “Oh they could make a movie.” Which was what we wanted to do, eventually. We were enjoying what we were doing very much. Have you seen Boogie Nights? That was us. That was our little family.
Did you guys feel like you were just in a business, or was there a sense that you were doing something politically important, that you were doing the world a service by showing gay people having sex?
We were very into it politically, although we weren’t political. We felt that we were definitely moving things in the right direction. I had seen how Hollywood had picked up so many things from the experimental filmmakers that had never been done before.
What was the involvement of the Hollywood star Sal Mineo in Hand-in-Hand Films?
Sal Mineo is someone that we met in Spain one year. We hung out with him while he was making a film, Was it Krakatoa: East of Java? Was he in that? Something like that. We knew the screenwriter, so we hung out a lot together. I was very, not enamored, but I really liked him a lot. Because when I first knew about Sal in Hollywood, I didn’t care about him very much, but as he got older he got more interesting. We met him again in Hollywood after we made our first movie. We looked him up and by this time he was on a downslide. He was living very modestly, like a hippie. He had this nude painting of himself up on the wall. He had kids running in and out, swimming in the pool, doing acid. We got closer and I helped him set up his little homemade editing machine. I think I even cut some things for him. But he was, I guess, impressed by us, because he came to New York not too far after that to do, what was that play?
Fortune in Men’s Eyes.
Yes! He had directed that in LA and was moving to NYC.
Don Johnson said recently that he had to sleep with Sal to get the part in the L.A. production.
Hmm… I wonder about that. Anyway, Sal got us more interested, especially Jack, in getting into this business. He contributed moral support, but he didn’t invest anything. He couldn’t, he was too broke. He even wrote a couple of scripts for us. We didn’t use them but I have them in my closet.
Wow! Someone is credited as “Al Mineo” in one of your films. That wasn’t him was it?
No, it wasn’t. We were sort of giving him a jab. I think it was me who was actually “Al Mineo” in that.
Did you get to sleep with Sal?
Almost. We were in sort of a ménage. We were together a lot, but I never did. It was funny because I was never interested before, but at that point I was very interested. We met him again in Hollywood after we made our first movie.
So let’s talk about your family. This question has obsessed me for years. who was Moose 100, who wrote a lot of your scripts?
Moose 100 was Robert Satcheloff. He was just somebody who came to us after we’d made a few films. I don’t remember if someone introduced us or whether he just called us up and wanted to meet and so on. He dealt with Jack mostly, so I’m not too up on how he got involved. But he did three or four films for us and he was good. He was a real writer. He wanted to do some legit plays and he did end up doing them. He was one of those analytical types who loved the porn industry from an academic point of view. He added something, which was a real sense of the language and some jokes and things.
He wrote so many funny lines. Why did he call himself Moose 100?
Because that was the time when a lot of so-called artists were going around with a spray can, putting their names on things. The names would be like Joe 108—
So it was a spoof of graffiti artists’ tags?
What about Malo? He’s a really interesting character. What was he like?
Crazy. He was sexually wild. He came into New York from, I don’t know where. He was Mexican. I think he must have lived somewhere other than Mexico before he lived here. He spoke perfect English. He was trying to be an actor. He studied at the Actor’s Studio, or some place like that. He got into things with us because he was just so horny. We put him in a couple of movies and much to his surprise it wasn’t as easy as he thought it was — as I mentioned before. Because invariably, whoever he was with — they didn’t click or vice versa, although I can’t imagine anyone not liking him because he was built like a brick shithouse. He was a real showman. He loved when after we finished shooting, to sit around and play and get stoned with Jack, and stay up for hours.
Jack Deveau or Wrangler?
Deveau. Wrangler was professional. He was wonderful in his own way because he was very interested always in how he came across as a character. He was into more than just the sex part. So was Malo, for that matter. But Wrangler was always asking — “Did you get that close-up?” Real professional, old Hollywood kind of attitude.
Yeah. But he was very nice. One of the nicest people that we worked with. He was a dream to work with because he could get a hard-on anytime. “You want it now? Okay. You want an orgasm now? Okay.” He would do it. He really worked. He didn’t just think, I can just knock this off in no time. He was really involved. So we used him three or four times as well.
What about Roger?
Roger was gorgeous. Magnificent. He was great. He was somewhat bisexual. At least that’s the impression I got. He came to us from a magazine called Blueboy. That was where he was first seen. We saw him and thought, wow. He came to us through his manager. So right away we put him in a film. He was easy to work with. His personality wasn’t dynamite, but who cares. He was a good performer and worked hard. His big thing was to hustle on the side. So when he came to town he lined up clients, so he could make more money.
Which is the norm now for porn stars. The porn is the advertising for the rentboy business.
Right. He eventually got married, I think. I don’t know whether he gave it up. He disappeared.
So then my last one is my favorite, the enigma, Big Bill Eld. What was he like? He was a strange guy, right? Sort of nerdy…
He was okay, except that he had one big flaw, which was, he loved drugs. He would do anything to get his hands on cocaine. Even steal if he had to. I know someone who had a run in with him because of that. Other than that he was okay. He was kind of an enigma. You never knew what was really going on in his head. And he wasn’t the smartest guy in the room. There were rough edges. He needed the right kind of person to direct him, and Jack did. He was one of the success stories. Just to get him was a real coup.
So you guys were all a real family.
Yeah, as it went along it grew into that.
How did your relationship with Jack progress? Were there struggles or was it always a meeting of the minds, a real partnership?
We had a very basic, good relationship I think. I knew what the pluses were and I knew what the minuses were and I went with it. Jack was not a person to be monogamous. I knew that from the very beginning.
Especially in the business you were in.
Although we didn’t use that to get laid. We did get laid, but it wasn’t the purpose. We got along pretty well, but we had deep set problems. Had he not gotten ill, I think we would have finally had to deal with it somehow.
What were the problems?
The problems were that I felt that we weren’t really close or communicative on a one-on-one level. We were using everything around us to keep the relationship going, but we weren’t working that hard on it. But he had some wonderful qualities and he was as generous as you can imagine. He took many of the actors on a trip to Paris and we stayed in a wonderful hotel there and had a great time and then went to Cannes after that. He could be extremely generous and enjoyed that. The main thing was he was a lot of fun.
You also appeared in the films, in sexual roles, although very briefly. Was it weird to suddenly be in front of the camera?
No. I loved it!
Hand-in-Hand wasn’t just Jack Deveau’s films. You also put out films by Peter de Rome and Tom DeSimone and others. What was it like working with Peter?
Peter was another one who came into our family. We didn’t know anything about Peter when we first met him, but when he told us that he had these little 8mm films that he made just for pleasure, I became fascinated. Having had the experience working with the underground filmmakers, I knew what the language was. I appreciated the shoestring attitude. I loved the fact that he was so into sexual things. You looked at him and you would never think that this little guy was such a fireball.
Flipping straight guys and all that.
Yeah. So we were introduced to him and the next thing you know, we were watching his movies. I was working at the time on An American Family. For a while I did both. So a lightbulb clicked in my mind and I thought, why don’t we blow these up, because in An American Family we did that with some of Lance’s films he shot when he was in Paris. So we blew that footage up and used it, and Jack went with it. We put it out as The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome. Peter was delighted. But all his films were softcore. So we decided that we would shoot some new material, and he ended up making three new hardcore films. One of them was my very favorite – Underground, which is a sex scene in the subway. I take credit because when Peter told me that idea I said, “Peter you have to do that!” I had had sex in the subway before. Going to work every morning, there was a certain car, and at a certain time if you were in that car, there was a group grope going around one of the bars. Things that were accomplished there were amazing, between stops. I participated in that several times. So I told him he had to do it. We did, and we actually went on the subway and stayed all day and made the movie. I love the whole concept of it, it’s gritty looking and amateurish and jump cuts and all this stuff. I thought it was perfect.
Let’s talk about the films. My favorite is A Night At The Adonis, which is a true masterpiece of porn filmmaking. It all takes place at The Adonis, which was a big gay porn theater on 8th avenue. How did that come together?
That was one of our mid-way films. We were doing business with the owner of that theater. We had a deal where he would put up the money for the film and after a certain amount of time when the money was earned back we would get profit. We always liked the idea of showing the underground, doing things in unusual places, that really are real. The Adonis was certainly real. It was probably more daring than what we showed. I saw a man walking around completely naked one day. We also wanted to try a new bit of technology, which was the steadicam. By that time we were both into film. So when Jack saw that — he said, “I want to use that.” We decided we would shoot that film, and that it would start with one long steadi shot that would show you the whole theater, from the entrance to the ticket booth to the first floor, up the staircase to the balcony and all that. Then you arrive at the kid who is the head manager, interviewing this new novice. That’s how it starts. That’s all one shot. There was also the idea of the movie within a movie. We had several movies we’d actually made, and so we decided to put them as the movies the guys were watching in the film.
There’s the wonderful moment where they’re watching this movie called Narcisssus, which is Big Bill Eld jerking off looking at a double of his image jerking off.
That was a new piece we created. That was something Jack liked to do because Jack was an amateur magician. He loved doing parlor tricks and illusions. In In Heat, there’s a scene where three guys are looking at each other from different windows in different buildings and masturbating. But the funny thing about it is they’re all the same person, wearing different disguises. A lot of people probably didn’t realize that. Jack liked doing things like that.
When you’re making something like that — from script to screen how does it work? Does Jack say, “I want to make a movie set at the Adonis,” and sketch out the storyline and give it to Moose 100 to write? Or does Moose 100 say “I have a script and you should use it.”
All of the above. It varied. Moose would come up with ideas, Jack would come up with ideas. It was never filmed off the cuff, because the set-ups gave us our trademark. We always had a storyline, even if they were minimal. But they were narratives and subject to change at any moment. That’s how we worked. There was always some kind of plot. Usually Moose 100 was around whenever we needed to change something. We were hoping that we were getting close to making real movies. Our real goal was—
To go Hollywood.
If not Hollywood, at least independent films.
Did you have projects that you wanted to make?
Yeah. We had two that we did turn into scripts. Moose did one of them. We called it several things, “Strangers in Paradise”, and then finally we used another title that was really outrageous. People said we couldn’t use it: “Jews at the Beach”.
Now of course, people would think that was hysterical. We had those scripts and ones that Sal had written. But things changed. Video came in, that changed everything. The porn industry became more of an industry and the experimental or crossover films were not around anymore.
People wanted hardcore or nothing.
Yeah. We were a big fan of Pasolini, because we felt he was on the road to doing what we wanted to do.
That was the dream?
Yes. That’s where we wanted to go.
Back to the films. Rough Trades. A fabulous film. It’s just these guys in an apartment – the cab driver, the repairman, the delivery guy, and it has this amazing scene where this guy takes a series of vegetables up his ass. How did Rough Trades come about?
We had made other movies that took a long time or were expensive and we weren’t making a huge amount of money on anything, so we didn’t have the ability to spend what we really wanted to. We decided we would make three films at a time and make them very simple, little comedies. Which Rough Trades is. It was the first one we did – they were all shot one after the other. Jack loved these old shorts that Hollywood came out with every so often called Pete Smith Specials, narrated by a nerdy character which showed him having all sorts of absurd things happening to him. Slapstick. The dialogue was very minimal but funny. That’s what Rough Trades was. Like in the beginning, the guy gets in the cab and the cabbie says, “I’ll take you home.” And he replies, “Okay, but I GOTTA get up tomorrow…” That kind of short exchange. That’s what Rough Trades is — one thing after the other. “Of course my phone is broken and you have to come in and fix it, telephone repairman.” “It won’t take me a minute.” “Alright.” And it immediately starts into sex.
Drive is an anomaly in porn cinema. It’s got a script by Christopher Rage, who also played a drag queen villainess. It’s a James Bond spoof story. Were you guys worried that it would be so out there that porn fans wouldn’t get it? Now it’s a bit of a cult classic.
I hope so because it’s one of my favorites. It’s so insane. We had this kind of rebellious attitude about things. “Let’s give them something really out there and see what happens.” Nobody had done that. We were crazy. We willing to take a chance like that.
Another chance you took was in Strickly Forbidden, which is another incredible film. You shot in the Rodin Museum.
Yes. We shot in France. Jack wanted to deal with a couple of guys in the business who were making porn films. They were supposedly backing us and giving us all the money. We loved Paris. One of the things we noticed is the art everywhere. There are umpteen museums, and we saw these postcards where the statues are half-people and half-statues. We thought that would be a great visual idea for a gay film. What better place to do it than Paris. We decided we would do that. Moose was on that too. So we went and shot this film. I edited a rough cut of it, and we ran into problems with the money people. So after we got our rough cut together, we had the reels in our possession, and we were having screenings in this posh hotel we were staying in. We used one of the conference rooms to screen dailies of this porno film. The people that had the money had possession of the negatives. All we had was the workprint. We were kind of stuck because they didn’t want to give us the negative. They just wanted us out. We were kind of stuck because we already spent a lot of money ourselves. We had nothing except the workprint. We had a little James Bond episode. We put the film in the basement of the hotel. There were thugs standing outside of our window waiting to go outside. We had to make sure we were let out a different way. That’s the nice thing in Paris, you pay the money but they take good care of you. So we left the film in the basement of the hotel. We escaped the thugs and came back to New York. They, in turn, did a version of the film themselves. They used some of our crew to put the film back together their way. So we’re here in New York, years pass. We came to find out that the prints were still in the hotel, so we sent one of our partners to Paris to go and retrieve it. We brought it back, and if you notice, Strickly Forbidden has black and white footage and color. It should have all been color, but those were bits in the original workprint that weren’t in color. So I tried to do my best to edit it like The Wizard of Oz, where she goes through the doors and it becomes color. That kind of idea. Some scenes are black and white and some are in color. Thank god we had a workprint on those. We made a copy of the work print, and released whatever we could. I don’t like it, I think it’s a shame that it never was printed properly.
I think it still has a cult following. It’s certainly one of the most interesting films of the time.
Yes, the effect is still there. The statues come to life which was all done with lighting.
So right at the key moment when porn is transferring to video and things are changing, at the beginning of the eighties, Jack gets sick with lung cancer. How quickly did that progress?
Six months. By the end of 1982 he was gone.
What did you do next? Did you try to keep the business going or was that it?
No I tried to keep it going. We had another partner who had been working with us for a long time. Jack’s other partner. I was a partner but I was relegated to the editing room. We had some unfinished films. We made two short-films movies, one was called Private Collection and the other was In Heat. I directed one of them. That was my first and only attempt at directing.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes. I always wanted to but I didn’t want to have a conflict between Jack and me because he was very sure of himself and wanted things done his way. So we had some episodes we’d already shot, I think maybe Peter de Rome had one in there. There was one about a marathon, I think that was also Peter’s. And the one about the three guys jerking off all together who were all the same guy.
What do you do next?
I started looking around, because I wanted to get out of the porn business after Jack died. I just didn’t have the heart or the assurance that I could pull it off on my own. I decided I should go into something else. I started investigating other jobs. By this time computer editing had come into the world. I took a few courses but I couldn’t get with it. I didn’t have anybody pushing or encouraging me. I just thought, “God there are guys coming out of college now that can already do this, what am I gonna do?” Someone said, why do you want to be in this business, you’re always at everybody’s beck and call. I said, he’s right. I decided to get into becoming a personal trainer. I quit smoking and drugging, and was living a healthy life. I started to go to the gym. I liked it and got results. I thought the best way for me to work and continue to work out is to become a personal trainer. So that’s what I did.
I can see that you’re extremely fit, by the way. You have a nice musculature.
Well nothing like I was. I’ve been doing that for 25 years and I’m still working.
What is your favorite of the films you and Jack did together?
I keep getting differen signals when you say something like that. Part of me wants to say Left-Handed because it’s the first one. Every time I see it I’m always amazed how inventive it is. I’m very fond of it. I’m very fond of Drive. I like a lot of the smaller films like Rough Trades and Dune Buddies. That’s a real comedy. Jack would probably say Left-Handed if he was alive. It was the first and it worked. I’m very fond of a lot of them.
Do you watch porn today?
Not very often. I don’t have the time. Once in a while I’ll get in the mood and want to see something. I have to admit, some of them are very sexy. But the formula is tiresome.
What advice would you give people today about how to be a good porn editor?
I would say go with whatever turns you on. Don’t be afraid to be original, you know? That’s what was fun for me, when I could throw in something that I knew had never been seen before. Mostly, though, I like being turned on by it.
Adam Baran is a filmmaker, blogger, former online editor of Butt Magazine and co-curator of Queer/Art/Film. His short film JACKPOT, about a porn-hunting gay teen, won Best Short Film at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and was recently featured on The Huffington Post, Queerty, and Towleroad, among others. He is a features programmer at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival and NewFest in New York. In his spare time, he complains about things to his friends. “Fisting for Compliments”, his weekly musings about the intersection of sex, art, porn, and history, will appear every Monday on TheSword. You can contact him at Adam@TheSword.com and follow him on Twitter at @ABaran999. Check out his previous columns in the Fisting For Compliments Archive.