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

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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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