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Vito Russo, Pioneering Gay Film Historian & Gay & AIDS Activist, Is Remembered in Comprehensive New Bio, “Celluloid Activist,” by Michael Schiavi
photo © Rink Foto, 1981, & design by Betsy Donovan
Jacket of Michael Schiavi’s “Celluloid Activist,”
Vito Anthony Russo painstakingly searched for gay and lesbian characters and references, often covert, in classic Hollywood films that he loved and in films that friends told him about, but found frustrating the image of gays and lesbians that most of these films presented: degrading, in denial, and/or suicidal. He also loved sharing the films he found, either privately, with friends, in his apartment, or to groups of people, like those who attended his popular Friday film nights at the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) Firehouse, in Soho, in the early 1970s, and, later, with the world in his lectures, then his book and, finally, in a posthumously-produced documentary film, all entitled “The Celluloid Closet.” Vito was also present in the early days and, in some cases, at the birth of groundbreaking GLBT organizations GAA, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and his life and accomplishments richly deserve to be remembered.
In a new biography, appropriately entitled “Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), writer and teacher Michael Schiavi no less painstakingly details all early events that helped shape the film lover and expert and outspoken activist that Vito would become; looks carefully at Vito’s life and loves and organization involvement; and thoughtfully sets developments in Vito’s own story in the context of important US, world, and gay historical occurrences of the particular time.
Schiavi points up the seeds of Vito’s devotion to film and his activism almost immediately. Vito was born in 1946 in East Harlem to American parents of Sicilian descent, who would soon transplant the family in Lodi, New Jersey, and we are soon told, unsurprisingly, that “Vito’s favorite place to go was always the movies” and, memorizing lines, gestures, and costumes, he could do a “perfect imitation of James Stewart in “’It’s a Wonderful Life’” at an early age. “Once he discovered 3-D films, he was never home,” Schiavi writes, and the “traumatic” punishment that Vito’s parents meted out was, “I wasn’t allowed to go to the moves for a month.” They also, however, gave him “the best possible Christmas gift: his own film projector,” in the mid-’50s, and he arranged matinee showings of the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals, and Abbott and Costello reels for his friends, much as he would later share his discoveries at GAA and in his “Celluloid Closet” presentations. Vito and his brother Charlie were Boy Scouts, prompting a local bully’s taunt of “Look, here come the Girl Scouts,” to which Vito retorted, “And your mother’s a Campfire Girl!” which Schiavi notes was “Vito’s first challenge to homophobia.” Father Charles leapt to his sons’ defense, throttling bully Johnny Messina and threatening, in no uncertain terms, “If you go near either one of my kids again, I’m gonna wipe the fuckin’ streets with you.”
As a member of the Film Arts Club, and Student Council Fine Arts Board chairman, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Vito screened “The Children’s Hour” and “Scorpio Rising,” although not officially out yet, and in sociology class, “[a]fter months of discussing every minority save his own, … asked the professor, ‘What about homosexuals?’” When asked “Why did you bring it up?” he was not yet brave enough to answer more than, “Because I know a lot of people who are gay,” and was later so “ashamed” that he vowed he “would never, ever do that again, … would never, ever deny” his sexuality again.
Vito’s story takes him to his first Manhattan gay bar and bathhouse in the 1960s, at a time when these still regularly sported “signs proclaiming …, ‘This Is a Raided Premises’ [sic]” and signed, “New York City Police Department.” In the Village, he discovered the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, Craig Rodwell’s gay movement bookstore, then on Mercer Street, and the Mattachine Society New York, the early homophile organization. Vito went to work at Mama’s Chick’N’Rib, “the gay hangout of the world,” on Greenwich Avenue, and was among those who waited in line at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home on the Upper East Side, to pay last respects to Judy Garland in June 1969. Leaving work later that night, he observed the rioting at Stonewall and participated in “sassing the cops.”
Coming to his first GAA meeting, then held at the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea, in May 1970, Vito soon met men who became his lifelong friends and play a major part in the book, such as teacher Arnie Kantrowitz, a comforting and kibitzing presence, who later became the lover of Larry Mass, a doctor, who was one of the founders of GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis); the late Jim Owles, President of GAA, and Arthur Bell, columnist for the Village Voice; and younger friends Hal Offen and Jeffrey Karaban, who were still in college. Steve Krotz, who became Vito’s boyfriend; and the late Marty Robinson and Arthur Evans are other activists he would encounter. I would meet all of them within the next year or so.
Vito also cherished friendships with Bette Midler, whom he brought to the 1973 Pride Rally in Washington Square Park to quell quarreling factions by singing “Friends,” after drag performers Billie Blackwell and Michael “Tiffany” Bowers did their act and Jean O’Leary made her “We don’t want to be impersonated” speech. Vito’s relationship with Midler became troubled, though, as she became more famous, and later denied him the use of footage, which he had shot at her shows at the Continental Baths, for a benefit. They reconciled near the end of his life.
A closer, constant, and thriving friendship was the one Vito had with Lily Tomlin and he was always protective of her right to come out publicly in her own time. She would ultimately narrate the film version of “The Celluloid Closet,” which had its premiere at Alice Tully Hall in 1995, after Vito’s death, even though, she was, by her own admission, not quite “out enough” yet. Tomlin would talk publicly about her lesbianism in 2000.
Vito eventually got to meet one of his idols, Elizabeth Taylor, through their shared AIDS activism. He wanted to talk about movies, but she wanted to know about his health and to recommend a physician, if he didn’t already have a good one.
Vito’s book, “The Celluloid Closet” was not the first study of gays and lesbians in film, preceded as it was by Parker Tyler’s “Screening the Sexes” and Richard Dyer’s “Gays & Film,” but it was the first to consider the films, at length, from a gay liberation perspective, showing the distorted image they presented and recommending how the situation could be rectified. Schiavi goes into detail about Vito’s struggle to complete the book; his decision to move its “necrology summarizing the dozens of murders and suicides that had befallen gay characters throughout film history,” from the end, where it would leave readers “dispirited,” to an “earlier slot,” where it “left room for hope;” and his comparative discussion of the pivotal “Killing of Sister George,” from the year before Stonewall, and “Boys in the Band,” from the year after, both of which were taken as containing “definitive portraits of gay life” by audiences who “had never met a live homosexual in their entire lives,” and which presented quite a challenge to him to write.
Rink Foto’s handsome 1981 portrait of Vito, across the street from the Castro Theatre, on Castro Street in San Francisco, fittingly adorns the front cover of “Celluloid Activist.” Things happen in clusters here, as they inevitably do in life, and, in quick succession, in mid-1981, “The Celluloid Closet” was published by Harper & Row; Vito went to San Francisco to present his lecture and the 1931 erotic lesbian film “Mädchen in Uniform” at the Castro Theatre, where he met “the love of his life,” Jeffrey Allan Sevcik, who worked there; and AIDS, which would eventually claim both of them, but was not yet named that, first rears its head on the pages of the New York Times, in an article entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” written by Dr. Lawrence K. Altman.
Too devoted to his home in the East to settle in San Francisco for long, Vito brought Jeff to Fire Island, for a romantic retreat, and to the Big Apple, where he showed Jeff they could, and did, meet the likes of Geraldine Page, Lena Horne, Hedy Lamarr, Elizabeth McGovern, and Minnie Pearl—only in New York! This relationship, too, was troubled and on again, off again, and left Vito time for a dalliance with designer Clovis Ruffin, who “traveled in exalted, A-list circles” and on “the Pines/Studio 54 circuit,” to which Vito, financially straitened for much of his life, scarcely had access. The fling with the fashion designer was not destined to last, but gives Schiavi the opportunity, when considering Vito’s “companionship” with another “would-be bridegroom,” to deem the new swain and his “upwardly mobile values” “a little too Clovis for comfort,” in a clever turn of phrase.
Vito’s writing for the New York Native and the Advocate are considered here, as are his stints with gay cable television’s “Emerald City” and the short-lived “Our Time.” Positive new gay films, Barry Sandler’s “Making Love” (1982), though Arthur Bell called it “so inoffensive that it’s offensive” and Vito himself would later write of it as a “timid rehash of Fifties soap operas,” and Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1985, pointed to the change in attitude that Vito had felt was so desperately needed, and to the necessity for him to update his “Celluloid Closet” lectures and text. Vito’s time on the steering committee of the nascent GLAAD, in New York, like this writer, after the city began closing backroom bars and baths, and first AIDS activism, as media consultant for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF), co-producing a video to be shown to visitors to the San Francisco Health Department anonymous Alternative Test Sites, before their blood was taken to be tested for what was then called HTLV-III, as well as brochures about what the test would indicate, both in 1985, are covered. A few months after he began to work with SFAF, and at about the same time that Rock Hudson went public about his AIDS diagnosis, Vito noticed a dark spot behind his knee that he knew was a KS—Kaposi’s sarcoma—lesion, an indicator of AIDS, at first misdiagnosed.
Vito, like many of us, found that friends by the dozens were being diagnosed and dying, that treatments that seemed promising petered out or had debilitating side effects. It was a difficult, emotional time of turmoil to live through, and is difficult to relive here as well, as Schiavi so aptly graphically describes it, in his chapter entitled “The Activist in Wartime.” Vito became an informed patient, asking his doctor, Ron Grossman, if “his instinct to ‘kill the virus and keep it from replicating’ was sound,” engendering the doctor’s comment, “Here is Vito Russo who, to my knowledge, does not have an MD after his name, getting it exactly right in 1985, when most doctors [hadn’t] a clue.”
Jeffrey Sevcik died in March 1986 and Vito spread most of his ashes near Castro Street and brought the rest back to New York, where, later in the month, the city finally passed its gay and lesbian civil rights law, 16 years after GAA’s first determined militant, non-violent efforts on its behalf, 15 years after its first hearings, and 14 years after its first vote. In 1987, Vito hosted the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus’ tribute to the movies at Avery Fisher Hall—this writer’s review for the Native is cited in the bibliography; Cleve Jones started the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in San Francisco; hundreds of thousands marched in the second national March on Washington, D.C. for lesbian and gay rights; and Larry Kramer founded ACT-UP.
Vito participated, like many of us, in ACT-UP’s historic first demonstration, blocking Wall Street in protest against the high price that Burroughs Wellcome charged for AIDS drug AZT. He joined ACT-UP’s Media Committee; picketed outside the Food and Drug Administration, as others occupied the building in response to the agency’s failure to get other potentially promising drugs into bodies promptly; and went with ACT-UP to Montreal to invade the Fifth International AIDS Conference. Outside the FDA building, Vito told the media, “I don’t want to die” and “I’m here today because I don’t want a quilt with my name on it to be in front of the White House next year!” He was also interviewed in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.”
The last days of Vito’s life find him in NYU Medical Center. One of his visitors was New York City Mayor David Dinkins. On the same day as Dinkins’ visit, Vito signed his “do not resuscitate” order, and two days later, went on a morphine drip. Vito died on November 7, 1990, at the age of 44. Near the end of his Afterward to “Celluloid Activist,” Schiavi notes that Vito’s mother, Annie, celebrating her 73rd birthday, was present, in a box, at the premiere of the filmed version of “The Celluloid Closet,” and that the audience shouted up to her, “Thank you for giving us Vito!” One might say the same to Michael Schiavi.

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