Gay History: Wakefield Poole’s “The Boys In The Sand”

Boys in the Sand is a landmark. American gay pornographic film released at the very beginnings of the Golden Age of Porn. The 1971 film was directed by Wakefield Poole and stars Casey Donovan. Boys in the Sand was the first gay porn film to include credits, to achieve crossover success, to be reviewed by Variety, and one of the earliest porn films, after 1969’s Blue Movie by Andy Warhol, to gain mainstream credibility, preceding 1972’s Deep Throat by nearly a year.

Produced on a budget of $8,000, the film is a loose collection of three segments depicting Donovan’s sexual adventures at a gay beach resort community. Promoted by Poole with an advertising campaign unprecedented for a pornographic feature, Boys in the Sand, which premiered in 1971 at the 253-seat 55th Street Playhouse (154 E. 55th Street, New York, New York 10022) in New York City, was an immediate critical and commercial success. The film brought star Donovan international recognition. A sequel, Boys in the Sand II, was released in 1986 but was unable to match the success of the original.

The film’s title is a parodic reference to the Mart Crowley play and film, The Boys in the Band.

Plot

Boys in the Sand is composed of three segments set on Fire Island.

• Bayside: The dark, bearded Peter Fisk walks along the wooded paths of the island until reaching a beach. He strips and sunbathes on a blanket. Suddenly, out in the water, the blond naked Donovan appears and runs up onto the beach to Fisk. Fisk performs oral sex on Donovan, who then leads Fisk into the woods. Fisk grabs the blanket and follows, catching up to Donovan in a clearing. They kiss and touch each other, then Donovan takes a studded leather strap from Fisk’s wrist and attaches it around Fisk’s genitalia. They continue the scene, with each performing oral sex on the other and Donovan penetrating Fisk. Following Donovan’s climax he returns to servicing Fisk orally and, as Fisk is climaxing, momentary flashes of previous scenes are intercut. The scene ends with Fisk taking the strap from his genitals and attaching it around Donovan’s wrist. Fisk runs into the ocean and vanishes, mirroring Donovan’s entrance. Donovan dons Fisk’s abandoned clothes and heads off down the beach.

• Poolside: The segment opens with Donovan on a pier, holding a newspaper. He returns to his house, strips by the pool and begins reading. Intrigued by an ad in the back of the paper, Donovan writes a letter in response. After a number of days pass (marked by the cliché device of fluttering calendar pages), he receives a reply in the form of a package. Inside is a tablet, which he throws into the pool. The water starts to churn and the dark-haired Danny Di Cioccio emerges to Donovan’s delight. The two couple by the pool, with each performing oral sex on the other and Donovan penetrating Di Cioccio in a variety of positions. Di Cioccio turns the tables and tops Donovan until Donovan’s climax. The scene closes with the two engaged in horseplay in the pool and then walking off together down a boardwalk.

• Inside: This final segment opens with shots of Donovan showering, toweling off and wandering idly around his room, intercut with shots of African-American telephone repairman Tommy Moore checking various poles and lines outside, Donovan spots Moore from his balcony. Moore sees Donovan as well. The remainder of the segment consists of Donovan’s fantasized sexual encounters with Moore throughout the house intercut with shots of Donovan sniffing poppers and penetrating himself with a large black dildo. The segment ends following Donovan’s climax with the dildo, with the real Moore coming inside the house and closing the door behind them.

Production

Poole was inspired to make the film after he went with some friends to see a film called Highway Hustler. After watching the film, he said to a friend, “This is the worst, ugliest movie I’ve ever seen! Somebody oughta be able to do something better than this. “Poole was convinced that he was that somebody; “I wanted [to make] a film that gay people could look at and say, ‘I don’t mind being gay – it’s beautiful to see those people do what they’re doing.’ Having enlisted the help of his lover, Peter Fisk, and another man, Poole first shot a ten-minute segment entitled Bayside.

The success of that initial shoot convinced Poole to plan two more segments and seek theatrical distribution for the completed work. He hired Tommy Moore and Casey Donovan for the third segment, Inside. When Fisk’s scene partner from Bayside heard about the potential distribution deal, he refused to sign release forms until he was guaranteed 20% of the profits. Instead, Poole decided to scrap the segment and re-shoot with Fisk and Donovan. The resulting footage was so good that Poole decided to use Donovan for the second segment as well, entitled Poolside, and construct the loose storyline around him. The three segments were filmed on a budget of $8,000 over three successive weekends in August 1971 in the gay resort area of Cherry Grove, New York, on Fire Island.

Popular and critical reception

Boys in the Sand had its theatrical debut on December 29, 1971, at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City. Poole engaged in an unprecedented pre-release publicity campaign, including screening parties and full-page ads in The New York Times and Variety.

The line, for the first showing, reached 7th Avenue. The film made back most of its production and promotions budget the day it opened, grossing close to $6,000 in the first hour, and nearly $25,000 during its first week, landing it on Variety’s list of the week’s 50 top-grossing films. Positive word of mouth spread and the film was favorably reviewed in Variety (“There are no more closets!”), The Advocate (“Everyone will fall in love with this philandering fellator”), and other outlets, which previously had completely ignored the genre. While some critics were less impressed, others saw the film as akin to the avant-garde work of directors, like Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. Within six months the film had grossed $140,000 and was continuing to open in theatres across the United States and around the world.

The film’s mainstream popularity helped usher in the era of “porno chic”, a brief period of mainstream cultural acceptability afforded hardcore pornographic film, having been cited as “very much a precursor” to the following year’s crossover success of Deep Throat. The film would continue to attract critical and scholarly attention from pornography historians and researchers for years after its release. The film is credited with beginning the trend of giving pornographic films titles that spoof the names of non-porn films.

With the success of Boys in the Sand, Casey Donovan became an underground celebrity. While he never achieved the mainstream film career for which he had hoped, he continued his career in pornography and translated his fame into some appearances on the legitimate stage, including a successful national tour in the gay-themed play Tubstrip and an unsuccessful attempt to produce a revival of The Ritz. His fame also allowed him success as a high-priced escort. He remained a bankable commodity in the adult industry, making films for the next fifteen years until his death from AIDS-related illness in 1987.

Legacy

Poole and Donovan had long wanted to make a sequel to Boys in the Sand. In 1984, they finally shot Boys in the Sand II. Also filmed on Fire Island, the film featured Donovan, the only cast member from the original to return. The original opening sequence, Bayside, was recreated for the sequel, with Pat Allen performing the run from the water. Litigation tied up the release of Boys in the Sand II until 1986 and with the advent of the home video market, there was a glut of gay porn titles available. Boys in the Sand II did not distinguish itself from the competition and was not particularly successful.

In 2002, TLA Releasing released The Wakefield Poole Collection. The two-DVD set includes Boys in the Sand and Boys in the Sand II along with a third Poole/Donovan collaboration, Bijou (1972), and other shorts and material shot by Poole. The collection won a 2003 GayVN Award for “Best Classic Gay DVD” and is now out of print.

In May 2014, filmmaker and writer Jim Tushinski’s full-length documentary I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole which features extensive interviews with Poole, “Boys in the Sand” producer Marvin Schulman, and many contemporaries, began playing at film festivals. In June 2014, the DVD company Vinegar Syndrome restored “Boys in the Sand” from the remaining film elements and released this new version on DVD along with early short films by Wakefield Poole and several documentary shorts about the filming and reception of Boys in the Sand.

Who is Wakefield Poole and Why Haven’t You Heard of Him?

In late 1971, a little over two years after the Stonewall Riots, there were no out celebrities. That changed on December 27, when a respected Broadway choreographer/director and his business manager opened a low budget 16mm movie in a rundown art house theater on 55th Street. 

“Boys in the Sand” was a phenomenon and utterly new—an artistically photographed, sexually explicit narrative film, set to classical music and featuring only male actors. These actors had unsimulated sex with each other on the beach, by a pool, and in a glamorous Fire Island house.  It was presented and advertised as a legitimate film because it had no precedent. It wasn’t like the seedy loops that ran at the 42nd Street porno houses. It was gay sex positive, showing gay male sex and sexuality as something beautiful and to be admired. And the film made a lot of money. Variety took notice and trumpeted “Amateurs Bring in Bonanza.” Straight couples and women showed up. Rudolf Nureyev drove hundreds of miles to see the film. Going to a screening, you might see Angela Lansbury, Liza Minnelli, or Halston in the audience.

Director Wakefield Poole, well-known in Broadway circles, put his real name above the title in all advertisements and on the marquee of the 55th Street Playhouse. Proudly. Poole became one of the most famous gay men in the world along with “Boys in the Sand” star Casey Donovan. Pirated copies of the film played for years in Europe. Outside New York, people heard about the film through enthusiastic coverage in magazines like After Dark and The Advocate. 

Placing ads in these magazines, Poole and producer Marvin Shulman started selling “Boys in the Sand” to the home 8mm film market – making the film available on multiple reels for $99 with a suggested soundtrack insert sheet so folks in Oklahoma or Idaho could enjoy the film just as the New York theatergoers had. The money rolled in, even though sending “pornography” through the mail was punishable with a prison sentence. Actor John Gielgud arranged to buy a 16mm copy and take it back to the UK so he could show it to all his friends. Hugh Hefner and Sammy Davis, Jr, also purchased 16mm copies directly from Poole and Shulman for their film libraries. Even several Hollywood studios  asked for a copy, thinking they could hire Poole for something more mainstream.

Less than a year later, Poole and Shulman had another hit. “Bijou” was a dark, enigmatic, hardcore experimental narrative featuring actor and Robert Redford lookalike Bill Harrison, who shocked audiences when he unveiled the largest penis most people had ever seen on a movie screen or in real life. “Bijou” was such a success and had such a psychological effect that audience members by the hundreds went and talked to their analysts about it. Eventually, the head of the Columbia University Psychology department summoned Poole to his home on Easter Sunday to screen the film for some colleagues, his wife, his teenage children, and his mother. The National Organization for Women screened “Bijou” as an example of a non-degrading sexually explicit film.

Then “Deep Throat” opened, copying the advertising and promotional campaigns of “Boys in the Sand” and “Bijou.” When “Deep Throat” became a crossover phenomenon, mainstream media declared it as the start of porno chic, a brief period in the 1970s when hardcore films with stories, humor, and good production values suddenly were acceptable. In reality, it all started a year prior, ushered in by two gay men who had no idea if anyone would even come to see their little movie.

So why haven’t you heard of Wakefield Poole? Why isn’t he acknowledged by film historians and gay cultural gatekeepers as one of the true pioneers? Fandor just released an infographic highlighting the history of sex in film. “Deep Throat” is there, but no mention of “Boys in the Sand.” It’s not Fandor’s fault. They are repeating the well worn notions of official film history which states that gay cinema started in the 1990s. But when Out Magazine or one of the other mainstream gay magazines names the most influential LGBT people of the 20th Century, you’ll never find Poole listed. When an LGBT film festival in the US gives out a Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s not to Wakefield Poole (though he has received two from non-US film festivals). Some US festivals are brave enough to show his films, but many cower at the feet of their corporate sponsors, who do not want to be associated with “porn.”

There is an effort among LGBT cultural gatekeepers to de-sexualize our history. They want our pioneers to be G or PG-rated because they want LGBT people to be seen as just like everyone else – parents, husbands, wives, and respectable members of society. The sexual parts of LGBT history make most heterosexuals uncomfortable. They even make many LGBT people uncomfortable. So it’s best if these things are swept under the rug and forgotten. 

But this denial of sex started years before the gay mainstreaming movement. By the time AIDS ravaged the community, sex was suspect and dangerous. Gay men who survived didn’t want to talk about porn or the sexual component of gay history because they had an enormous amount of shame. Sexual hedonism killed their friends. Porn contributed. It didn’t help that Poole’s classic films were always released on home video as “pre-condom porn” by less than respectable adult film companies and in versions that made the gorgeous photography look like someone smeared mud all over the negative.  Poole and his films faded from collective gay memory, known only to vintage porn collectors and a few film fans.

In 2010, I accompanied Wakefield Poole to the Fire Island Pines, where two brave locals were doing benefit screenings of “Boys in the Sand.” The screenings were to help fund a 24/7 doctor living in the Pines, something the community didn’t have. Filmmaker Crayton Robey and artist Philip Monaghan were shut down by all official Fire Island Pines organizations m but forged ahead. When the two men started advertising the event, some locals were horrified, telling the organizers that porn had no place being screened at the Community Center and that the organizers were guilty of spreading AIDS because no condoms appear in the film. The loudest complaints came from gay men who owned property in the Pines—property that would not be worth nearly as much had it not been for “Boys in the Sand” making the Pines an international tourist destination in the early 1970s. The film is an integral part of the history of the Pines and yet some of the gay community there wanted the film demonized.

I hope this is changing. Five of Poole’s films have been completely restored from 2K scans of their original elements and released by the highly respected exploitation film DVD company Vinegar Syndrome, who is marketing them to cult film fans. The response so far has been exciting and unexpected. But mainstream film history and mainstream LGBT recognition still eludes Poole, his legacy, and his work. Without Poole’s work and its influence on other LGBT filmmakers, there would be no independent gay film, no big LGBT film festivals, and certainly, no accurate depictions of gay male sex on the screen. For most straight folk, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. For LGBT people, however, Poole is a key figure in their culture and art. Too bad most of them don’t have the slightest idea who he is.

Reference

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