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Wakefield Poole and the Experimental Edge of Gay Cinema

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The first thing that you notice is the art. Located on the Arlington River, Wakefield Poole’s two-story townhome is a modest yet well-appointed home. Hanging over the couch in his living room, a late-19th-century piece by itinerant painter D.L. Peters features an infant child staring blankly at the viewer. To its right is a colorful, yellow-and-black Pop Art-style work by Rick Herold. The opposing wall features two ’60s-era paintings by Paul Jasmin. Over the course of a half-plus century 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, as he places his coffee cup on a steamer-trunk-turned-table. “When I needed money, I would sell a piece. And that’s what I’ve done. I sold my last Warhol three years ago, here in Jacksonville.”

In addition to being an astute art collector, Poole had been a dancer, choreographer, theatrical director, and even chef. Erudite, thoughtful, and humorous, in conversation Poole is expansive about all of these previous vocations that took him around the globe and deep into the artistic atmospheres of Manhattan and San Francisco. But Poole is surely best known as a maverick and icon for his work in gay cinema, specifically erotic film. 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?”

Walter Wakefield Poole III was born Feb. 24, 1936 in Salisbury, North Carolina. The youngest of three, Poole describes his parents, Walter and Hazel as “very progressive” in their parenting of his sisters Marilyn, Pat, and him. They moved to Jacksonville in 1944, and Walter Sr. established himself as successful car salesman at Brooks Motors on Laura Street. Poole’s natural inclinations toward independence and curiosity were bolstered by his folks’ lenient attitudes; the nine-year-old Poole was allowed to explore his new surroundings without restriction. He would walk from the family’s house on Herschel Street in Riverside to Downtown. “I’d start out at Jacobs Jewelers and just work my way from there,” says Poole. “Then next week, I’d branch out even further.” Downtown movie houses like The Empire Theatre, Empress Theatre, and the Arcade Theater offered Poole the chance to indulge in his growing love of cinema.

In a matter of weeks of moving to the city, Poole walked into radio station WJAX, home of the popular children’s talent show, Crusader Kids, and auditioned with the song “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life.” Within the hour, he sang the very same song on the air, and won the first place prize of $15 in savings stamps. He became a regular on the show and continued to win, taking home anywhere from $50 to $100. Suddenly he found himself an in-demand performer around town, with his mom fielding offers that ranged from private functions to appearances at the Mayflower Hotel. “If nothing else, I was precocious,” Poole laughs.

During his preteen years, Poole shifted his attentions toward dance. After receiving a scholarship from Katherine Bagaley of the Bagaley Juvenile Theater, he studied acrobatics, ballet, dramatics, and tap. When he was 16, he moved from radio to television, performing a calypso number with Virginia Adder on her variety show. During his senior year in high school, Poole did 10 weeks of winter stock at the Palm Beach Playhouse. While there, he worked with likes of Charlton Heston, Jan Sterling, John Barrymore Jr., and Billie Burke.

Poole continued to excel and his passion for dance was rivaled only by his other desire: sex. Poole developed early sexually and felt no shame regarding homosexuality. Somewhat surprisingly, 1950s Jacksonville already boasted a clandestine gay subculture that met him with open arms. “Riverside Park was one of the ‘cruisiest’ places in the city. There was a little house at the park and there were all kinds of action going on there,” says Poole. “I used to walk up there when I was a kid in bare feet, 12, 13 years old.” Poole also regularly cruised the men’s rooms at the Mayport Naval Station and Cecil Field.

One evening not long after he returned from dancing in South Florida, Poole attended a party of roughly 30 other gay men. The police suddenly raided the bungalow. Everyone present was arrested. Poole was charged with “crimes against nature.” Even though the charges were immediately thrown out of court, the Jacksonville Journal ran a front-page story with the headline, “ALL-MALE PARTY RAIDED.” Along with the lurid details of the event, the story featured the names, ages, addresses, and phone numbers of every man arrested. After the threat of a lawsuit, the paper published a retraction. “It was about the size of postage stamp,” says Poole, almost matter-of-factly, of the Journal’s grudging apology. “If you were gay back then, that’s just how it was.”

But Poole’s confidence in his absolute skills as a dancer far exceeded his concerns about Jacksonville’s undeniable hostile environment toward homosexuals. Manhattan had been in his crosshairs for some time. And the same peripatetic and curious nature of his boyhood that once compelled him to investigate the streets of Downtown Jacksonville soon guided him toward New York. Poole moved to the city in 1955; within a decade he would establish himself as a dancer, choreographer, and theatrical director. And once those dreams became fulfilled, he surrendered to his celluloid fantasies.

The elements of dance can involve action, space, time, and energy, a deliberate fusion of movement and rhythm either subtle or extreme. Once Poole arrived in New York, he took those sensibilities of dance and applied them to every facet of his creative life. In 1957, he was invited to join the internationally acclaimed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The group performed everywhere, from Puerto Rico to the Grand Ole Opry. But while Poole was finally dancing fulltime, his expectation of a romantic world of dance was soon quashed by the hectic blur of tour buses, grimy dressing rooms, one-night stands of Swan Lake, and little sleep. “It quickly just became a job,” says Poole. “And anytime something becomes a job … goodbye!” Back in New York, Poole began accepting a series of notable dance offers. Finian’s Rainbow with director Herb Ross, Tenderloin with Maurice Evans and Hal Prince … a year in West Side Story. He was making connections and getting firsthand experience on Broadway. “Why is it there are so many assholes in theater?” Poole asks. “Unbelievable.” His second job in New York was as co-choreographer for the television production of Once Upon a Mattress, with Carol Burnett and Elliot Gould. “The most exciting thing in my life is that I got to work with the geniuses of musical theater of my time. And we became friends as well: Noël Coward, Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Michael Stewart, Jerome Robbins. It was like a family. I used to play bridge with these people!” In our phone calls and personal conversations, Poole has a story and anecdote for every relationship from his Broadway days, however deep or in passing. And while he had regular work as a choreographer on The Ed Sullivan Show, he is at times more enthusiastic recalling some lesser-known figure who was plugged into the musical theater scene of that day. Poole, in his words, “simply stepped into” a mythical time in American theater, film, and culture, as the 1960s moved from black-and-white to radiant Technicolor. Poole was no wallflower to the radiating, ’60s countercultural 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. The New York bathhouse scene was in full bloom, and while the NYPD officers weren’t above harassing gays, Poole was less likely to become front-page news for indulging in a night of no-strings-attached casual sex.

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 TownFollies 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.” For a segment based on Byrd’s poster for Jesus Christ Superstar, Poole created a staggering montage passage. “I filmed just a corner of the poster with a lot of details. Then I put those in pictures. Then I took the poster and put lights behind it and made it look like a pinball machine so the colored lights … then I took reproductions from magazines of the life of Christ from beginning to end and I burned them, each one. So it went on for like three minutes, the life of Christ. And mind you, all of this was going on at the same time. It was surely before what multimedia is today. And in the middle of the screen, I had superstars making an entrance: Marilyn Monroe stepping off a plane, Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra coming into Rome. And I ended with Jesus riding a donkey, borrowed from some Mexican film, riding into Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday.”

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, with a soundtrack that included passages from Strauss’ Clytemnestra. While attending the premiere of Warhol’s Heat, Poole hand-delivered a copy of the film to the silver-haired Pop Art icon. “It was packaged in a nice film canister with a card. 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.”

Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (1971) was an absolute 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 to the bluntness 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.” 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.” The film is also acknowledged as the catalyst that helped make the following year’s Deep Throat such a blockbuster hit. “Actually, I ‘came out’ publicly with that movie,” says Poole. “I mean, I’d never been ‘in’ but here I was professionally, coming out.”

If Poole came out of the closet publicly with Boys in the Sand, his follow-up would find him breaking out from the confines of gay erotic cinema all-together.

After the immediate success of Boys in the Sand, the producer and filmmaker were suddenly flush with cash. While Shulman bought a new Mercedes, 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.

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 secrets it away and hurries back to his apartment. Inside her purse, he finds various items along with 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.”

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 photo montage 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. “It’s Hitchcock. I made the movie so you have to make up your own mind of what it’s about. I tried to keep suspense and tension,” says Poole of the film’s enigmatic approach. “I can be arbitrary but nothing is put into a movie that doesn’t mean something.”

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 pater familias of underground cinema, Warhol himself, acknowledged that, “After Wakefield Poole’s films, mine are unnecessary and a bit naïve, don’t you think?”

His next film, Wakefield Poole’s Bible (1973), told the scriptural stories of Eve, Delilah, and Bathsheba with a decidedly feminist slant while also introducing straight sex into his work. “This was during the Nixon era and we were going to make a hardcore version of the bible,” Poole laughs. Even though the film featured fairly staid scenes, Poole’s film was still stamped with an X rating, which inhibited the movie’s chances for greater commercial success. Bible was another critical fave but had a lukewarm reception from audiences, ostensibly for Poole’s audacity at coloring outside the lines of adult films.

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

Wakefield Poole’s life in California was as creative and colorful as it had been in New York. After arriving in San Francisco, Poole and Fisk moved into the Castro district, unaware that it was the terra firma of the city’s gay cultural Renaissance. Their friend from New York, Harvey Milk, helped them find an apartment. “I didn’t know what Castro was. I was a New York queen,” laughs Poole. Once settled in, he quickly got to work on his next film. (1974) used a style similar to Boys in the Sand, with episodic passages centered on the idea of renting a place to live.

Fisk and Poole decided to end their long-term relationship. Not long after, Poole met Paul Hatlestad, an eclectic artist in his own right. Together, the pair of them helped launch Hot Flash of America, a large-scale boutique on Market Street that sold everything from affordable kitschy collectibles to high-ticket antique pieces. “People still rave about that place,” says Poole. “It was a lucky combination of the entrepreneurial spirit, good taste and the right time.” While Poole had always smoked grass, during the ’70s, he started smoking free-base cocaine. “That’s an expensive high. You take a hit and it blows your mind,” says Poole. “And you keep chasing it, but it never comes back.”

Even though he was in an increasingly stupefied state, Poole continued to make films. 1977’s Take One was, in Poole’s words, a “docufantasy” that combined interview footage with sex. The interviewees would tell their sexual fantasies to the camera; then those very same erotic dreams would be actualized onscreen. Take One received unilaterally positive reviews and also continued Poole’s forward momentum of making unpredictable movies in an almost-expectantly routine genre.

By the end of the decade, Poole began to buckle from the drugs. “I became useless and that’s bottoming out.” Realizing that his life was truly on the line, Poole headed back East to New York.

Poole and Hatlestad eventually kicked the free-base habit that had nearly wiped them out in San Francisco. While they were finally freed from their addictions, Poole still had to make some income. Shortly after arriving in Manhattan, Poole made a series of video-releases, including Boys in the Sand II. But he wasn’t enthusiastic about the increasing conveyor-belt, quantity-over-quality sensibility that defined the new wave of VHS porn. The increasing specter of AIDS that was decimating the gay community also dampened some of the fire. “As soon as I saw a condom in movies, the fantasy ended,” says Poole. At this time, Hatlestad had been dealing with non-AIDS-related liver problems for years. In 1984, he passed away. “There’s so much I could say about Paul,” says Poole. “He was an incredibly special man. I love him so much.” The following year, 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.” After being diagnosed with AIDS, Fisk took his own life. “I lost my whole fan base to AIDS,” says Poole. “If it hadn’t been for AIDS I would be a huge icon right now.”

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.

Sipping on his second cup of coffee in his living room, the now-80-year-old Poole seems sheepish when asked about the City Council’s recent embarrassing handling of the HRO bill. “I hate to admit this, but I am so out of it. I do not read the newspaper. And I very rarely watch local news, because it’s all murder and death.”

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 stopping creating movies years ago, the appreciation for his work remains strong. The revival DVD imprint Vinegar Syndrome offers digitally restored versions of Boys in the Sand, Bijou, and Wakefield Poole’s Bible. In 2000, Poole published a highly readable memoir, Dirty Poole, and in 2013, director Jim Tushinski created the biopic, I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole. While Poole might not be a well-known auteur in the Jacksonville community, Tim Massett, co-owner of Sun-Ray Cinema, hopes to change that. On March 26, Sun-Ray Cinema screens Poole’s Bijou and Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White. As part of the theater’s series “The Talkies,”  during on the screening of Bijou, Poole and LaBruce offer real time commentary discussing Poole’s life and work. Afterward, Poole introduces Hustler White, followed by a Q&A. “Like others, I'm fond of Jacksonville's secret histories. I recently learned about Wakefield Poole, his ties to Jacksonville, and the impact he had on the gay sexual revolution,” explains Massett. “I think it offers a unique opportunity for our signature series, ‘The Talkies,’ to have Mr. Poole discuss his life and work while one of Mr. Poole's (in)famous films rolls by, and that there is no one better to facilitate that discussion than another gay film-making maverick, Bruce LaBruce.”

While Poole might not be a well-known celebrity in the Northeast Florida community, most of his films remain in print. In 2000, he published a highly readable memoir, Dirty Poole, and in 2013, director Jim Tushinski directed the biopic, I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole.

Today Poole’s biggest vice 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 about the ladies’ reactions to this sudden local attention. “They know that I made movies,” says Poole, with a laugh. “They just don’t know what kind of movies.”

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