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click to enlarge Wakefield Poole on the set of Bijou, 1971/1972.

Photo courtesy of Jim Tushinski

Wakefield Poole on the set of Bijou, 1971/1972.

Wakefield Poole, a maverick of experimental gay cinema in the ’70s, visits Orlando this week 

The first thing that you notice is the art. Wakefield Poole’s two-story Jacksonville townhouse is full of colorful paintings. Over the course of a half-century-plus of collecting, Poole has owned pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns; at one point, his collection included 24 Andy Warhol works, including the Marilyn and Electric Chair series in their entirety. “People asked me, ‘What are you doing buying art?’ And I explained to them that it’s my retirement. I didn’t have a pension,” says Poole. “When I needed money, I would sell a piece. And that’s what I’ve done. I sold my last Warhol three years ago.”

click to enlarge Poole with his collection of Warhol Marilyns. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM TUSHINSKI
  • Photo courtesy of Jim Tushinski
  • Poole with his collection of Warhol Marilyns.

In addition to being an astute art collector, Poole has been a dancer, choreographer, theatrical director and chef (though none of these vocations offered a pension). But Poole is surely best known as a maverick and icon for his work in gay cinema, specifically pornography. Films like 1971’s Boys in the Sand and the following year’s Bijou are considered classic flicks that merged Poole’s sense of experimentalism with the X-rated.

“I hate the word ‘porno.’ It’s so downplaying. When someone says ‘porno,’ you know they have a problem with it,” he laughs. “It’s one thing if they say ‘X-rated’ films, or ‘experimental.’ I really thought that I was doing experimental films but I was doing it in a sexual medium. Why can’t someone make a pornography film that is beautiful to look at and not dirty and something you could be proud of?”

Orlando’s art-film fans will get an eyeful of what Poole’s talking about this Sunday, when the More Q Than A film series screens two of his films. And they’ll get an earful of stories in the post-film discussion.

click to enlarge Poole as a young dancer. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM TUSHINSKI
  • photo courtesy of Jim Tushinski
  • Poole as a young dancer.

The elements of dance can involve action, space, time and energy, a deliberate fusion of movement and rhythm either subtle or extreme. When Poole arrived in New York in 1955, an accomplished 19-year-old dancer, he took those sensibilities and applied them to every facet of his creative life. After a stint with the acclaimed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Poole accepted a series of notable Broadway dance roles, as well as regular work as a choreographer on The Ed Sullivan Show. But Poole was no wallflower to the radiating counterculture scene: He readily enjoyed psychedelics and soft drugs and even tripped out with the muddy, million-strong throng at Woodstock.

In his early 30s, Poole’s sex life was as actively charged as his career and newly psychedelicized sensibilities. During the late ’60s, Poole and his then-lover Peter Fisk began experimenting with colored lighting and film projectors, creating primordial multimedia presentations that bordered on avant-garde installations. Poole and Fisk had also made some playful experimental movies in their apartment, featuring the two of them cooking Julia Child recipes, filmed in stop-motion. These forays into left-of-field moviemaking soon caught the attention of the Manhattan visual arts scene.

Poole was commissioned to make a short film for an exhibit by the artist Vittorio. The acclaimed artist David Byrd, creator of now-classic posters for productions like On the Town, Follies and Godspell, along with Fillmore East rock posters, hired his friend Poole to create a kind of film-based installation at Triton Gallery. “I used 20 projectors and slide projectors to cast images on stretched fabric.”

After visiting the Warhol retrospective at the Whitney, Poole decided to make a movie document of the show. Shot in handheld color, the resulting 10-minute film, Andy, is an abstract tour of the exhibit. While attending the premiere of Warhol’s Heat, Poole hand-delivered a copy of the film to the silver-haired Pop Art icon. “I handed to him and I said, ‘Happy birthday.’ And he thanked me and laughed because he never really told his real birthday,” says Poole. “But he never really told me what he thought of the film. Of course, you could have hung out with him for hours and he’d never open his mouth. But it’s now in the Warhol Museum.”

One evening, Poole and Fisk went to see the gay porn film Highway Hustler. While hardly parochial in his views on sexuality, Poole found the film to be not only degrading, but quite evident of the soulless, bland and greasy elements that compromised then-porn.

“They called them ‘black socks movies,’” Poole laughs. “They were movies made with no story and it’s just people on a bed fucking and wearing black socks. Sure, I’d never made a movie. But I had ideas. And I knew that whatever I made would be better than that. And I already had a good life. But it totally changed when I made Boys in the Sand.”

click to enlarge A still from Bijou (1972).
  • A still from Bijou (1972).

Boys in the Sand (1971) was an example of a DIY project-turned-overnight success. Made with a budget of $4,800 and shot over the course of three weekends on Fire Island, the film featured three segments of measured, languid sex scenes that were almost defiant of the blunt fucking of the 8mm sex loops of the day. Over the course of the film’s 90 minutes, leading man Casey Donovan interacts with men in scenarios that Poole based on the concepts of what he had described as innocence, hero worship, dreams, the attainment of love, and hedonism. In the case of attainment, in the film’s second act, Donovan tosses a mysterious tablet into a swimming pool. The water begins to bubble and churn and a nude man rises from the water, soon becoming the literal object of Donovan’s desires. While that device might seem trite by today’s standards, in the nascent world of gay pornography, it was downright revolutionary.

For the film’s premiere, Poole and co-producer Marvin Shulman rented the 55th Street Playhouse in Manhattan. Poole had chosen that theater since it was the same venue where were Warhol screened his films, like Kiss, Blow Job, and Couch.

“I didn’t do it to make a lot of money. I had no idea anyone would show up. I thought that I’d have 10 of my friends show up at the theater and that would be it.” Instead, on the opening weekend, Boys in the Sand raked in $28,000. The film received rave reviews in the New York Times and Variety, which featured a page-and-a-half article titled “Amateurs Bring in Bonanza.” The film is also acknowledged as the catalyst that helped make the following year’s Deep Throat such a blockbuster hit.

In the nascent adult cinema industry, there were no VHS tapes for commercial release. Poole and Shulman began selling 8mm versions of the film for $95 to satisfy the ongoing demand for the picture. “No one had ever sold full-length gay films before. I had John Gielgud come to the office in New York and buy a copy of Boys in the Sand to take back to London, since we couldn’t ship to Britain,” says Poole. “We finally started shipping everywhere in the world because we were getting so many requests.”

“Actually, I ‘came out’ publicly with that movie,” says Poole. “I mean, I’d never been ‘in’ but here I was professionally, coming out.”

After the immediate success of Boys in the Sand, the producer and filmmaker were suddenly flush with cash. Poole upgraded from his hand-cranked 16mm to a top-of-the-line Beaulieu 16mm camera. “You could play it backwards, you could play it forwards, slo-mo … you could do everything.” Now armed with state-of-the-art gear, Poole aimed his focus toward distilling his ideas of sex and surrealism into a cerebral 75-minute blend of both.

click to enlarge Wakefield Poole on the set of Bijou, 1971/1972. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM TUSHINSKI
  • Photo courtesy of Jim Tushinski
  • Wakefield Poole on the set of Bijou, 1971/1972.

Bijou tells the story of a construction worker (Bill Harrison) who witnesses a woman being hit by a car on the streets of Manhattan. When the woman’s purse lands at Harrison’s feet, he looks inside and finds a card emblazoned with only the word: “Bijou.” On the flip side, he reads an address with an invitation to visit this cryptic place that evening (and that evening only). “The things he picks out of the purse are all things we have guilt about: religion, secrets, possessions … all the things we struggle for and struggle with. And the invitation to ‘Bijou’ is freedom, escape. ‘Bijou’ is a place to go open yourself up and whatever happens, happens.”

click to enlarge bijou_poster.jpg

After climbing the stairs of the Lower East Side walkup to “Bijou,” Harrison steps into a dimly lit world populated by a giant wreath-like cluster of human hands and large genital-like objects. Blue stroboscopic lights, a four-panel split screen, and a photomontage featuring religious icons, Greek gods, swimsuit models and a leopard eating its kill makes Bijou more Alejandro Jodorowsky than John Holmes. The film soon moves from the phantasmagoric toward the orgiastic, but the certain arrival of explicit sex, filmed in a red room, only enhances the overall otherworldly experience of viewing the film.

Gay filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Shan Sayles, Jack Smith, Warhol and Paul Morrissey had all made movies that featured homoerotic content. But Poole was arguably the first gay auteur to work solely within the genre of pornography. Yet Poole admits that, other than Warhol, he was unaware of this very peer group with which he was most aligned. It seems most fitting that the paterfamilias of underground cinema, Warhol himself, acknowledged, “After Wakefield Poole’s films, mine are unnecessary and a bit naive, don’t you think?”

click to enlarge A still from Bijou (1972).
  • A still from Bijou (1972).

With three films under his belt and ready for the next adventure, Poole and Fisk decided it was time for a change. So in 1974, they packed up and headed West.

After arriving in San Francisco, Poole moved into the Castro district, unaware that it was the center of the city’s gay cultural Renaissance. His friend from New York, Harvey Milk, helped them find an apartment. “I didn’t know what Castro was. I was a New York queen,” says Poole.

While Poole had always smoked grass, during the ’70s he started smoking freebase cocaine. By the end of the decade, he began to buckle from the drugs. “I became useless, bottoming out.” Realizing that his life was truly on the line, Poole headed back East to New York.

Poole eventually kicked the freebase habit that had nearly wiped him out in San Francisco. While finally freed from addiction, Poole still had to make some income. But he wasn’t enthusiastic about the increasing conveyor-belt, quantity-over-quality sensibility that defined the new wave of VHS porn. The rising specter of AIDS that was decimating the gay community also dampened some of his fire.

“As soon as I saw a condom in movies, the fantasy ended,” says Poole. After the death of a longtime lover in 1984, Poole became celibate, a lifestyle that he has maintained ever since. He also credits his addiction with saving him from being a casualty of the early AIDS crisis, as it nullified his sex drive. “Out of everyone I knew personally and in the industry, three of us survived,” says Poole of AIDS’ relentless onslaught on the gay community. “And I am one of those three.”

“I lost my whole fan base to AIDS,” he muses. “If it hadn’t been for AIDS, I would be a huge icon right now.”

click to enlarge Wakefield Poole today. - PHOTO BY DENNIS HO
  • Photo by Dennis Ho
  • Wakefield Poole today.

Disenchanted with the adult film industry, Poole decided to become a chef. He enrolled in the esteemed French Culinary Institute. “I thought, ‘Well, I like to cook.’ So I went to cooking school.” Poole describes the school’s regimen as “brutal.” Yet he excelled on his finals and found a new passion and career. Poole worked with a high-end caterer and eventually landed a job with Calvin Klein Cosmetics in an executive position as manager of food services. He worked there for 15 years, retiring in 2003. “I used to ride the elevator every day in Trump Tower, and there’d be Donald Trump,” laughs Poole. “Nasty man.” After 9/11, Poole became increasingly depressed. “I lived about 20 blocks from Ground Zero, straight up Sixth Avenue, in the West Village. And for a good six to eight months, I smelled death every day.” In 2003, Poole decided to move back home to Jacksonville.

Poole says the main reason he came home was his family. “I shared so much over the years in life. But I didn’t share enough with my family. I didn’t share enough of me. And I love them very, very much. That’s why I’m back here.” Poole notes the incredible bond that he has with his only remaining sister, Pat. “She’s 83 now. She was married but she’s come out of the closet now, and she has a lover.” Poole explains that in his family, his orientation is hardly big news. “Pat has a gay son and I have a cousin who’s gay. In our family alone, there are six gay people. I have a great uncle, too, that I know who was gay. And people say it’s not genetic.”

While Poole might not be a well-known celebrity, most of his films remain in print. In 2000, he published his highly readable memoir, Dirty Poole, and in 2013, director Jim Tushinski directed the biopic I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole. After the screening of Bijou and Andy on Sunday, Poole will read from his memoir; copies will be available for sale and signing. (As well, every attendee will receive a free mimosa with admission.)

Poole’s biggest vice today is one of his oldest passions: bridge. Every Thursday, Poole and a group of ladies play bridge from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a break for lunch. Decades after pioneering both experimental gay cinema and pornography, he has heard every type of praise and criticism. But he admits that he’s curious what the ladies’ reaction would be.

“They know that I made movies,” says Poole, with a laugh. “They just don’t know what kind of movies.”

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