Out on the Cape
A man in a hat walks by. He is a big man, deeply tanned, and all he's wearing is a small swimsuit. More startling is his hat; it is almost three feet high, an erect, rainbow-colored penis. The testicles are each just slightly smaller than the man's head, and the pubic hairs are tendrils of curled, iridescent plastic. The man is beaming. Families line Commercial Street, and they're pointing. Everyone is happy to see this man, and he's happy, too.
As he nears a clump of people, a vivacious young woman darts out and puts her arm around his shoulder. She smiles beatifically for a photo. Photo finished, the man lowers his head and charges the crowd like a bull. The crowd shrieks with delight, as the rainbow penis advances on them. At the last minute, just as he is about to impale an obese New Jersey housewife, the man with the hat swerves and skips down the street. The crowd roars.
Welcome to Gay Carnival in Ptown.
The parade has been blessed with sun and a light breeze. The town is out in force, and hordes of tourists have come for the festivities. The mood is gay, both in the old and new sense of the word. At the East End, the older folks hang side by side with young families. The center of town is inundated with the pudgy, straight tourist set, a white, middle-class bunch for the most part. Toward the West End, the street is chock-a-block with young gay cyborgs. It might appear to an open-minded stranger as some sort of Utopian vision. Of course, to Jesse Helms, it would be a nightmare, Dante's Hell. But sadly, Jesse Helms is not here.
For the straight tourists, Carnival is a grand spectating event. They watch slack-jawed as the two Fabulous Hat Sisters strut by. The combined weight of the Hat Sisters is at least 500 pounds, and their hats are monstrous replications of tropical bushes. A middle-aged lesbian walks by with her Chinese daughter, who is carrying a duck. A pair of men pass dressed as a hot dog and bun; they stick very close together. A man dressed as a Cracker Jack box walks by; the front of the box reads: “Eat Me.”
This is what goes on in plain sight, during daylight hours, in a small town in the U.S.A.
The parade meanders through the throng, music blasting from every float. Men kiss on the streets. Obese queens weave through the crowd. In today's Ptown, there are very few queens not dipped in a postmodern irony. In today's Ptown, it's all about camp, with its garish colors, outrageous ensembles, and battalions of hairy-chested men in tight dresses. The Carnival used to be even more outrageous, until finally the town elders declared that they'd had enough: The bacchanalia had to be toned down.
By nightfall the clubs of Ptown will be packed. The shirtless, sweating men with the prominent deltoids will be jostling for space in the Crown & Anchor, and the A-House will be jammed.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Vietnam War protesters across the country were chanting “Make Love, Not War,” but Provincetown residents had already made that choice. It had become the country's best-known vacation spot for lesbians and gay men, and the club scene was exploding. There was the Pied Piper, the Pilgrim House, the A-House, the Gifford House, and the Crown & Anchor, all in the center of town. Weathering Heights, Ptown's earliest drag-queen bar, located out near Route 6, was still going strong. The Moors, a fishnet-and-buoys-type place in the West End, was known for its teatime sing-alongs, featuring songs by Judy Garland and Ethel Merman. Even the “straight” bars like Rosy and Piggy's were serving larger audiences every day. Mixed, gay, bi Â— it was a bazaar that promised to satisfy every taste.
Clearly, though, catering to gays was the way to go. Quick to take note of this was Reggie Cabral, proprietor of the Atlantic House. The “A-House” was a gabled Greek Revival mansion down a narrow alley off Commercial Street. Originally, it had been a stagecoach stop and inn where, it is said, Thoreau stayed while on his famous walking tour of the Cape in 1849. Yet Reggie was anything but a Yankee. Indeed, he was an odd combination of hubris and originality, a fisherman's son with little formal education who had, on his own, discovered art, which he came to love as much as he loved the artists. After buying the A-House in 1950, he opened the doors of his club to such young and rising painters as Mark Rothko and Claes Oldenburg, with the result that he assembled the core of an important collection.
Reggie was smart. He not only traded drinks for paintings and sculpture, but also collected literary memorabilia, amassing a considerable collection of original material by Eugene O'Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Susan Glaspell, as well as manuscripts and first editions of Tennessee Williams and Norman Mailer, both A-House customers.
“History,” Reggie told the local weekly, the Provincetown Advocate, “is only as good as the material you have to work with. Everybody had a story about O'Neill and his friends, and the stories were simply not true. Everybody told them, not because they cared, but because they wanted to grab on to the glory.”
In the summer of 1976, Reggie decided the A-House had to “go gay.” The A-House had always been “mixed,” but now Reggie set up a two-tiered price list and hiked the drink prices for women fourfold. A gin and tonic suddenly cost $12, not $3, and soon he had an exclusively gay nightspot. In addition to the main dance room, the A-House had two other bars: the Small Bar (also known as the “Little Bar”) and the Macho Bar. You gained entry to the Macho Bar by climbing a steep flight of stairs guarded by a bodybuilder employee, while Reggie himself slapped boys on the behind with a riding crop as they ascended.
A year after the club decided to exclude women, town selectman Paul Christo was arrested and charged with committing an “unnatural sex act” there. Undercover police had found the 32-year-old Christo using a belt to vigorously beat a man tied head and foot, while a third individual performed fellatio, all to the enjoyment of a crowd of drunken, cheering onlookers. All in all seven people were arrested, and although the bust made the Advocate's front page, it was treated as a joke by many. Christo would soon be reelected for his second term, as well as chosen to chair both the board of selectmen and finance committee.
Then in 1977, town selectmen voted to revoke the club's liquor license. The A-House, Reggie announced, would remain open as “a juice bar” and still offer music for dancing. At a selectmen's meeting packed with his supporters, he stabbed the air with his finger and spoke of homophobia and civil liberties: “The whole thing is unjust. We've worked hard to provide a comfortable atmosphere for customers, to enable you to continue your right of . . . life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It was little short of a comedy, this small Napoleonic figure defending public blowjobs on the grounds of “freedom of choice.” But it was Ptown. It was also Reggie.
At the time of Reggie's passing in 1996, a friend told the press: “If Provincetown nowadays is becoming more of a yuppie playground and less of an arts community, Reggie's death is especially saddening because it's emblematic of what is happening in town. He was one of the great figures, and they have all been dying out.”
Down the street at the Crown & Anchor, the Ms. Room, a lesbian bar, overlooked Commercial Street and provided the best theater in town. On any given day, you'd see a midget and his tall partner posing as Christ and God-knows-what, dragging a huge cross up Commercial. Then there were the drag queens: One reputedly a sheriff from Rhode Island; another a horse breeder from Kentucky; and “Charlotte,” a cross-dresser in his seventies who adored high heels. Charlotte's biggest kick was to walk down Commercial like Miss America on the ramp, fishnet stockings, miniskirt, makeup, big pearl earrings. “Hi, my name's Charlotte,” he'd announce. “I'm the oldest living drag queen. . . . I've got the best legs in America.”
Once a year the Crown hosted a gala drag contest. Queens would fly in from all over to compete, with many of them spending thousands on their gowns, their shoes, their hair, and their surgeries. Once the winner was announced, the fights would start, and the show's second part played itself out in the parking lot, where wigs were ripped off and punches thrown.
Staniford Sorrentino, the decadent, roly-poly Nero who presided over the club, “loved the scene,” recalls Caroline Tacke, one of the Crown's favorite waitresses. “He'd sit back and giggle, 'Oh! This is too much!' while he watched the queens screaming at each other. . . . He loved it because it was so wild. He loved the drama, the opera of it.” Caroline says she cannot recall a time when Stan wasn't either on cocaine or high on uppers. But instead of getting skinnier and skinnier, the usual result of the drugs, Stan just got fatter and fatter. And the fatter he got, the better the Crown did.
The Crown was a svelte waterside club consisting of three bars, a swimming pool, and a disco known as the Back Room. The Ms. Room hosted performers like Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt. There was a clam bar and two full-service restaurants, but in the evening, the Back Room was where it was at, with two bouncers at each door and a darkened seating area where patrons were free to grope one another. Some of the waiters had pierced nipples, their bodies flecked with glitter, and many wore studded neck collars. And upstairs, in what had once been innocuous seamen's quarters, were cubicles that Stan rented by the hour.
Stan and Reggie Cabral were always competitive. If the Crown had an outdoor patio, the A-House would, too. If the A-House installed an S&M bar (the Macho Bar), the Crown would, too (the Vault). During the '70s and early '80s, these were “back rooms,” places men could go for anonymous sex.
When the A-House began to shift its focus to a gay crowd, Stan followed suit. Previously, the Crown had catered to a drug-addled, high-energy mix. But now Stan decided to make a move. So he did what any right-thinking, rational club owner would do: He built a wall down the middle of the Back Room disco. On one side, having a vagina was strictly verboten; on the other, women could cavort as always. The staff took it all in stride. Stan was constantly remodeling and tweaking the club; one day they came in and there was a wall. They laughed, shrugged, and got to work.
One local, though, was not so accepting. Barbara Rushmore decided to test the new wall. The walled-off area was a gym, she was told, private and only for men. Rushmore, incensed, took the matter to the selectmen. “It's not lightly that I ask you to hold a hearing to lift their license,” she said, “but the reason I'm here is because I don't believe in gay bars. I would like to feel at home going anywhere in this town.”
Stan said it was a “semantic mix-up” to say women weren't allowed on the premises. “She's perfectly welcome in the pool area and bar area, but because of the common showers and bathroom facilities, not in the actual exercise area.” He also said that while no liquor was served in the gym, men could get a drink at the bar and take it back. The selectmen weren't convinced. They set a date for a hearing on the liquor license. Ten days before the hearing, the wall was dismantled.
Trouble in Provincetown
Deep down, Provincetown was in mourning. AIDS, the demise of the fishing industry, and the decay of the year-round community, bohemian and Portuguese both, created a vacuum.
Perhaps the clearest expression of what was happening was how gay had become an identity, not a sexual preference, for many of the newcomers. Philosophically, this constituted an absolute: You were or you weren't, and it didn't take an Einstein to understand that day to day, this amounted to a local apartheid, something separatist and sometimes hostile. If you had any doubts, all you had to do was count the rainbow insignias that filled the town. The new PC sentiment applauded this iconography as an expression of tolerance and oneness; others saw the flags as divisive and believed they sanctioned antistraight behavior on the streets.
“I won't patronize businesses that fly rainbow flags,” says Dr. Brian O'Malley, the town's bearded general practitioner, who had treated “all kinds” and been a card-carrying member of Students for a Democratic Society prior to coming to Ptown in the early '70s. “I consider that analogous to flying a Confederate flag, to flying a Nazi flag. I'm sorry, that's exclusionism. That flag is saying to me I'm not welcome there.”
John Sinaiko, filmmaker, craftsman, volunteer fireman, and expatriate from New York, says, “It never used to matter if you were gay or straight in this town. And now it does.”
Those more philosophically inclined console themselves with thoughts that what was so precious about the Outer Cape can never change Â— the embracing harbor, the dunes, the soft morning light, the fog's muffling the clank of distant buoys.
But it's the inevitable loss of the “rebel class” that longtime resident Regina Binder considers the biggest problem. “That's what made Provincetown a mecca for anyone who came with nothing. The freedom to be.”
With more of the local powers that be bringing in their income from elsewhere, Provincetown is more homogenized, more mainstream, more PC. “But we're not going to give up,” Binder says. “Provincetown is our home. We know it's unique and that we're lucky to be living here. We're just going to have to find a way.”