An Award-winning, Internationally-acclaimed Showman With a Historic Perspective on Coming of Age During Hollywood’s Golden Era
By Stephanie Miller
Marc Huestis is a world-renowned independent filmmaker. His career range is dynamic, spanning from grassroots activism and ground-breaking documentaries, to being the tour guide impresario for many celebrity-guests of The Castro Theater.
Huestis boasts a nearly half-century-long career in the film industry. Compared to the average independent filmmaker, this is an inconceivable amount of time to remain relevant in the field.
Huestis graced The BCC Voice with a get-together at his long time dwelling in the sunlight center of the Dolores Park neighborhood. We met to discuss his journey through the wild phases of camp culture, what it means to be an “impresario,” and to get an insightful look at what inspired him from a young age to become a local pop icon.
So tell me about your background, you’re from Long Island?
Yes, I’m from Long Island. I have an interesting gene pool. My mother was a stripper, and my father worked for NBC. He worked right on “30 Rock” back in the 1960s cutting together a show called “Hullabaloo”, where they would have guests and musical acts of the time. I got to visit the set all the time when I was young. It was a combination of my father’s editing skill and mother’s showmanship that made me what I am today.
Can you tell me about “Hullabaloo” ?
“Hullaboo” was the best. They featured the music stars of the day and had go-go dancers in cages.
Huestis took the time to pull a clip of the black and white variety show. The introductions boasts acts from The Animals to The Mamas and the Papas, all at the height of their fame.
Is this what got you interested in theater and show?
I got to visit the set, and I was drawn to the razzle-dazzle. I instantly began singing, and dancing and doing the “theater thing.” I was in every school play. My mother and I would also go to the Million Dollar Movie together back then, and see all kinds of films that inspired me. My father was hardly home, and an alcoholic. It was my mother running the show when they split when I was 14.
When did you decide that San Francisco was the place for you?
I was going to college in New York, and I hated it. One day I was in Provincetown, Mass. at The A-House, the popular gay bar. I met these guys from the Angels of Light (a San Franciscan theater company that was a subset of the much bigger, Cockettes.) They came and said “You should really move to San Francisco.” They told me, “we would love to have you in our productions.” I asked if I had to audition and they said, “No! We love you!”
And is this when you decided to go to The City?
I was attending Binghamton University, which was part of the State University of New York [branches]. I hated my college, and hated where I was. In my third year, halfway through, I left. I had a friend that was going too, so we got on the Green Tortoise, which was a famous hippie bus back then. It had no seats, it was just a bunch of rugs and mattresses on the floor.
And what was it like for you when you got here?
I started doing shows with the Angels of Light right away. They thought that shows, performances and everything should be free so that everyone could see them … I won’t even tell you how they financed them.
Huestis pulled up a clip of him as a young drag performer, “Ellen Organ” as a play on Helen Morgan, and a quintessential scene in his advent as a developing performer played. He sings and acts out a long swig of a milk bottle, pausing the clip as the bottle hits midair.
…and that bottle right there, I ended up, on the third performance, throwing it into the crowd, where it caught the head of one of the audience members who had to immediately be rushed to the hospital. So, I decided right then that I shouldn’t have a career as a performing drag queen.
Can you give some context for the scene that was alive in the late ’70s and early ’80s in SF?
When I arrived, I was living in my first apartment on 18th Street and Castro Street. Everyone lived in these communes back then. There was a commune for everything; magazines, food, everything. I lived in an adjunct commune to the Angels of Light, and we were in the middle of everything. We were right around the corner from Harvey Milk’s camera store.
Where were you when Milk died?
Actually, you’ll love this story. When Harvey died, I was on a bus. We were all on our way to a Talking Heads show at Sproul Hall in Berkeley. They had just started out as a group then — this was right when “Psycho Killer” came out — and I remember someone ran onto the bus and said, “Harvey has been shot.” And that was it.
Did you go to the Talking Heads show?
No, we just turned around and went back to City Hall (in San Francisco.) When we got there we all just sat and stared into space. No one could believe it.
So this was around the same time of year it is now, late November?
Yes. This was what I called “Dark November,” because Jonestown had just happened and also, earlier in the month, there was an initiative on the ballot to stop gay people from becoming teachers. Luckily due to a lot of the things we were doing to stop it at the time, it didn’t pass. But it was a dark time for the community, and it was also when the AIDS crisis began to hit. There were people with this life threatening illness and the rest of the world was completely silent and just ignored it, like it wasn’t even happening. Our president (Reagan) went seven years, never even saying the word “AIDS.” Watching your friends die all the time with no one acknowledging the issue killing them, that was hell.
Was this inspirational to your work?
After the milk bottle incident, I spent a week locked in my apartment out of sheer embarrassment. I decided afterwards that I was going to become a filmmaker instead of a drag performer. I enrolled in City College San Francisco and began learning how to make films there. We would make our own features with our own means. This was when “Whatever Happened to Susan Jane” came out. The Castro (Theater) actually had a showing of Susan Jane just recently. That was my first big movie.
“Whatever Happened to Susan Jane” is a San Franciscan cult classic that follows Susan Jane, a round-peg-wild-child escaping the fate of being forced to fit through a small-town-square-hole. This journey was archetypal to the average resident of Huestis’ community at the time, and spoke to the runaway culture of the Castro District and surrounding art scenes. It launched him into prominence as an independent filmmaker in San Francisco.
Tell me about the time in between your first feature, “Susan Jane,” and your most popular feature, “Sex Is …”
“Sex Is …” wasn’t until 1993. A lot happened in between. “Sex Is …” broke the box office at the Castro opening weekend and ran in 60 different theaters around the US. It was advocacy for people with life threatening illness. In that time there was a need for activism in the community for people living with the disease (of HIV and AIDS.) After that I spent some time in Berlin, Germany, and I loved it there. That launched my international film career. In that time I had also started a film festival, called Frameline, which is the first LGBT film festival ever. It still occurs every year.
When did you start doing your famous events at the Castro?
We started doing screenings at The Castro later on when it became harder for us to make the types of films we wanted to. We would produce parodies of movies that were popular at the time and we thought, “why not invite some of the stars.” So we started inviting the stars of the originals to attend.
I’ve heard you’ve had a great array of different talents there — all kinds of stars that you personally hosted in your signature hosting style, called “impresario,” is that right?
Our first guest was Carol Lynley. This was when we were doing the take-off on “The Poseidon Adventure.” It’s a great movie, you should look it up and watch it. It was funny movie, you’d hate Carol’s character in it — so annoying. She doesn’t die, but you wish she did. We had Jane Russell, too. She was a big star, starred opposite Marilyn Monroe and everything. Her 13-year-old granddaughter was in the crowd and had never seen her on screen. And I told Jane at the premiere, “you don’t have to stay for our tribute to you. You can go back to the hotel after five minutes.” Forty-five minutes later I looked up, and she was still there and crying. She said, “Marc, that was wonderful.” We always treated our guests well and with respect. We know that “has-been” is a dirty word We want to make it a great experience and make sure they feel respected.
You hosted Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis, along with many others. Your forthcoming book mentions Curtis — did he give you that lithograph on your wall?
Yes, Tony sent that to me. I remember when we had the show for him. When he got in I thought “he shouldn’t be traveling.” He looked very frail and unwell, but as the night went on I realized why he was there. The montage we made for him was later used for his memorial service. We knew he was there because he was saying goodbye, and this on the wall is something he sent to me when he was going back over all of the people who mattered to him.
Can you tell us more about running projects, like The Frameline Festival?
Frameline is the oldest LGBT music festival, with 42 years running. It just had it’s 40th anniversary, and we expect 80 thousand people to attend in June.
How often are your events held at The Castro Theater?
They occur about two or three times per year.
What’s next for you?
I hope to have my book out in June, in time for The Frameline Festival this year. It’s been long enough now that a lot of the people included are dead and can’t sue me for what I write about them. It’s called “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and it’s in two acts. Act I is about San Francisco days and “Susan Jane,” and Act II is more about my documentaries and being “impresario of The Castro Theatre.”
You leave a lasting legacy with impresario, more specifically your brand “Camp Impresario.” Can you tell me about what Camp Impresario means to you?
It was a title given to me once by a friend, she put it that I’m the “impresario.” I describe it as “producer with pizazz.”
In our last few minutes Huestis talked about his cabin near Tahoe where he retreats from the city when he can, and also about the cultural and social climate of the media.
He left The BCC Voice with the inspiring message that “it’s easier to tear things down than to build them up, but building them up is the way that I chose to live my life.” “When You Wish Upon a Star” will likely be ready for eager audiences in 2018.
At the top – The Castro Theatre. Photo: Tobias Kleinlercher