Gay “Laugh-In” star Alan Sues dies

Alan Sues

Openly gay actor Alan Sues, 85, best known for his work on Laugh-In, died on Dec. 1.

Laugh-In was a pre-Stonewall, quick-paced comedy-sketch TV show that also featured another gay performer — Lily Tomlin. But Sues’ characters were all outrageously, unapologetically, screamingly gay. Among them was Big Al, a gay sportscaster (see clip below).

His campy characters even carried over into commercials. In the early 70s, Sues was featured in Peter Pan Peanut Butter ads as a very flamboyant Peter Pan.

According to the LA Times, Sues was openly gay but not publicly, because he was afraid it would ruin his career. At that time it was OK to be gay as long as you didn’t say you were gay out loud.

However, during a radio interview I did with Sues in the early 90s, he was open and talked freely about being gay.

Sues was in Dallas at the time to perform in Breck Wall’s Bottoms Up revue — a live sketch show that began at Jack Ruby’s Dallas night club and moved to Las Vegas in 1964 where it ran for years. Wall, who died last year, and Sues appeared on Lambda Weekly to promote the tour of Bottoms Up.

In person, Sues was as joyously flaming as his Laugh In characters. On the LGBT radio show, he talked freely about being gay and walking the fine line between his characters being gay and actually saying his characters were gay on a ’60s TV show.

Since a character couldn’t say he was gay on TV then, the only way to know the character was gay was through his flamboyant persona. Stereotype? Sure. Funny? Very. And without a few people like Alan Sues on TV then, we might not have Mitchell and Cam on Modern Family today.

For gay kids growing up in the 60s, Sues was the TV star who let us know there were others like us out there.

 

—  David Taffet

Strip tease

burlesque-1
THE FACE, AND BODY, OF BURLESQUE Satan’s Angel, center, continues in a profession that has welcomed such newcomers as Dita von Teese, left, and Jett Adore, right.

Out burlesque legend Satan’s Angel last performed in Dallas at Jack Ruby’s club in late 1963. And that’s not the only thing that has changed in the last 50 years

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Although she liked the film, Satan’s Angel thought the movie Burlesque was more about a lounge act than the actual art of the tease.

She should know. Satan’s Angel — a stage name, of course — is a legend who has a few healthy decades under her belt and she doesn’t want today’s generation to forget what burlesque should really mean to performers and audiences.

“Burlesque is about sexuality, being sensual and teasing,” she says by phone in a gravelly voice. “It’s getting the audience worked up and then letting them go home all fired up. It really is about the journey of titillation, not the destination.”

As part of Saturday’s Hotter Than Hell show at The Kessler, Ms. Angel doesn’t perform like she used to, but she still headlines this show that will include “boylesque” artist Jett Adore. Now 67, Ms. Angel has seen it all and welcomes the diversity in burlesque now, but she was in a class all her own back in the day.

“Well, I am the big lesbian legend of burlesque that probably paved the way for every queer there,” she laughs. “It was a terrible time. No one could really be open and lots of places were owned by the mob. If they found out, they’d throw you out the door.”

But she was defiantly queer in a pre-Stonewall era — even when she traveled in the South. She always “had a woman” and when a fellow dancer outed her to a club owner, she didn’t back down.

“Oh, he grabbed me by the hair and was hitting me in the face asking if I was gay,” she recalls. “Other dancers were telling me to just say I wasn’t, but I just told him to piss off. It was really hard then.”

Ironically, burlesque now is very fluid in its sexuality. Lesbianism could almost be looked at as a selling point. But Ms. Angel says many of today’s performers have replaced the tradition with shock art. She intends to keep the classical nature of it alive.

“People do this variety, bizarre stuff and it’s very offensive to me,” she says. “They need to put the truth of this out there. Don’t try to shock. That’s not burlesque; that’s bullshit. This Latina dancer had these donkey piñatas in her act and she’s fist-fucking the donkey’s ass. I mean, what the shit is that?”

Today’s performers haven’t all strayed from the traditional values. She cites Dita von Teese (who was in Dallas last week) and Ginger Valentine as staying true to the form, and commends the work of Jett Adore, who also performs Saturday.

Boylesque isn’t new to Angel — as she saw it decades ago in Canada and Europe. It’s just new to America.

“They were way ahead of us. Everyone was doing nudity outside of America and we were just trying to go topless,” she says. “What I like about Jett is he’s extremely masculine on stage and his Zorro makes Antonio Banderas’ a zero.”

Her appearance this weekend is something of a homecoming for Ms. Angel. She worked the Texas circuit back in the day, landing a gig in the fall of 1963 at Abe Weinstein’s Colony Club on Commerce Street. But then her agent found an offer for more money at a place called Carousel Club owned by some guy named Jack Ruby. Ruby wasn’t thrilled with the lesbian idea, either, but she was the featured performer.

Of course, a few weeks later, Ruby became more infamous than she could ever hope to be.

“He was a weird dude, very Jekyll and Hyde and a big talker but not much else,” she says. “He treated me well but I worked my week and was out of there and on to Kansas City. Next thing I knew, he’s on TV for shooting Oswald. He was strange, but I really never thought he was a killer.”

Life is a calmer these days. She does the occasional performance, live readings and burlesque classes, but finds her haven in Palm Springs. She calls her life partner of 14 years her “poor little butch” who has to sell merch, be her dresser, drive her to the airport and act generally as an assistant.

“If I didn’t just bring her along, I’d have to hire somebody,” she jokes. “She’s got bad knees. What is she going to do for a job?”

Of course, she’s just teasing.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Deaths • 11.19.10

Bud Knight passed away on Monday, Nov. 15 of leukemia. In August, he and his partner Chet Flake celebrated their 45th anniversary.

Knight began his career with Neiman Marcus. After two weeks in the executive training program, he became an assistant to Edward Marcus. He became a maternity clothes buyer for Neiman’s and in 1959 appeared on the game show What’s My Line and stumped the panel with that profession. He spent two years on the West Coast working for I. Magnin before returning to Dallas. He retired as president of woman’s retailer Lester Melnick.

In 1965, he met his partner Chet Flake. They met through a friend and played bridge on their first date. They traveled often and despite his illness they were recently able to take a cruise.

Knight was a volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center where he worked at the front desk for more than 17 years and helped stage Toast to Life. The Turtle Creek Chorale awarded him a lifetime membership after he founded the A-Z Auction. He was a former board member of Bryan’s House and he and Flake walked in LifeWalk for 20 years along with a team that they helped form from their church, St. Thomas the Apostle.

He is survived by Flake and a cousin, Judy Bolen, and Flake’s nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews who all knew him as Uncle Bud. The funeral will be held on Saturday, Nov. 20 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 6525 Inwood Road at 11 a.m.

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Breck Wall, the former Dallasite who created the long-running Bottoms Up comedy revue, died Monday, Nov. 15, in Las Vegas following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Wall was born Billy Ray Wilson in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 21, 1934, and was raised in Freeport, Texas. He spent one year at the University of Texas before moving to New York City for a time. Wall created Bottoms Up with friends in 1958.

Bottoms Up was first staged in Dallas, playing in nightclubs affiliated with Jack Ruby before moving to the Adolphus Hotel where it ran for two years.
The revue then moved to The Castaway in Las Vegas where it played late nights before becoming an afternoon show at the Thunderbird.

The show would run for several years in Las Vegas, then go on tour before returning to a new venue in Las Vegas. Wall’s longtime sidekick, David Harris, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the show originally focused on more sophisticated political humor until the Watergate scandal changed the public mood. Bottoms Up then switched to a more burlesque style, with Vaudeville-era jokes and skits framed by new generations of dancers and pop music.
The revue finally closed in 2007.

Wall also gained some fame in the early 1960s as a roommate of Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Wall’s connection with Ruby led to Wall being called to testify before the presidential commission investigating the assassination in 1964.

Wall had no survivors. The Review-Journal said he would be cremated, and that friends are organizing a memorial service for a later date.

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 19, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens