Saturday, December 16, 2017

Tales of Armistead Maupin ...

Back in 1994, when Iowa Public Television after considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth decided to broadcast Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," my television and VCR were living closeted lives --- stashed because I worked nights, never watched and had decided a tasteful display of antiques would look better in what had been their corner.

Maupin's light-hearted tales of life at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco and featuring such memorable characters as Michael Tolliver, Mary Ann Singleton and television's first trans character, Mrs. Madrigal (played by Olympia Dukakis), had been brought to the small screen by the United Kingdom's Channel 4 during 1993 then picked up the next year by PBS.

It contained as the narrative progressed images of the occasional breast, a buttock now and then, cuss words, pot-smoking and, most shocking of all, sympathetic portraits of gay characters mingled with straight at work and play in a city thought at the time to be the U.S. capital of unconventionality (and sin). There for all to see --- among many other things --- a man-to-man kiss, even a scene of scantily clad males in bed together after a night, presumably, of well you know what.

Mild fare by today's standards; quite shocking to delicate sensibilities back then.

Iowa Public Television after much deliberation opted for the bowdlerized version --- naked body parts pixilated and the sound track cleansed of questionable language --- and scheduled it for 11 p.m. on consecutive Wednesdays preceded by stiff warnings about unsuitability for general audiences.

Naturally, I hauled the TV and VCR out of the closet, refreshed my memory about how they worked and recorded the series for later viewing --- after late breakfasts as I recall. Later on, I bought the boxed set in order to watch it all without Iowa Public Television as mediator.


To make a longer story short, I've been reading master story-teller Maupin's new biography, "Logical Family," then watching a new independent film issued at about the same time the book was published, "The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin."

The latter, I believe, will be broadcast on Iowa Public Television at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 3,  as part of the "Independent Lens" series, although IPT scheduling is a somewhat mysterious and I can't guarantee that. But obviously times have changed to a degree (sorry, no nudity in the film).

Both are delights, in my opinion at least. Maupin writes a concise generally light but unsparing narrative that is as easy to read --- and as entertaining, informative and occasionally poignant --- as the series of novels that resulted from those original tales. The film explores themes covered in the autobiography and more, adding faces and voices --- friends such as Sir Ian McKellen, husband Christopher Turner, Laura Linney (who portrayed Mary Ann Singleton), and many others.


Maupin began life as the elder son in a family of staunch (and segregationist) North Carolina conservatives. His parents' friends included, among other, U.S. Sen. and Mrs. Jesse Helms --- he one of the grand old men of institutionalized racism and homophobia. It was Helms who gave Maupin one of his first jobs, as a reporter for the Raleigh TV station Helms then managed, and came to view the young man as a rising right-wing star.

Maupin did his best to live up to expectations both politically and so far as sexual orientation was concerned through high school, college and into the U.S. Navy --- serving honorably as an officer in Vietnam, including a stint on the rivers.

While working as a newspaper reporter in Charleston after the war, however, Maupin landed a job  in San Francisco as an Associated Press reporter and nothing was quite the same after that. Somewhat estranged from his birth family now because of sexual orientation he began to form, as many gay folks did and still do, a "logical family" to replace and/or supplement it. Hence, the autobiography's title.

"Tales of the City" began as a series for a bay-area weekly, then transitioned somewhat unexpectedly to the mainstream San Francisco Chronicle --- newspapers rarely (intentionally) published fiction back then. He signed on to write 800 words a day five days a week, a stint that lasted four years at The Chronicle and another year at The Examiner, for an audience that became transfixed by the continuing narrative.

He adapted the series into novels, then wrote more on the same theme (there now are nine novels; I've got them all).

In the course of his years in San Francisco, Maupin knew all the major figures in the gay rights movement, including Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts, a ground-breaking gay reporter for The Chronicle and a hero of mine, the former now dead of an assassin's bullet, the latter of AIDS. He even managed to have sex a few times with Rock Hudson, among quite a number of others, and it was Maupin who ultimately confirmed for the world that the matinee idol was indeed dying of AIDS back in 1985 rather than another disorder more in line with Hudson's fraying and false heterosexual persona.


Although "Tales of the City" was a huge success for U.S. public broadcasting --- so much so that the network initially signed on to produce a sequel --- political outrage ensued and PBS, knowing who buttered its bread, hastily backed away. Later sequels (1998 and 2001) were produced instead by the cable network Showtime.

There's word now that a fourth series may be in the works with Linney and Dukakis, now considerably older, reprising their roles. I hope so. 

No comments: