Looking Back on an Unlikely Success
Story By Scott Carroll Photos by Joshua Smith
2006 marked the 30th anniversary of our Gay Men's Health Collective (GMHC), and in true Berkeley Free Clinic fashion, we celebrated with a raucous burlesque show. “I still remember the cowboy who stripped while bouncing on the pogo stick,” said Jane Maxwell, a phlebotomy volunteer. But Kasper, the GMHC alum who organized much of the event, mostly remembers all the work it took to get the night off the ground.
“I thought it was going to be a disaster, to be honest, up until the day of. The fact that it turned out as well as it did and the people who saw it that night don’t know what a mess it was still makes me very happy.”
Kasper says the idea for putting on an anniversary event came out of conversation he and other clinic members were having on the deck of a home he was house sitting at, and soon a group of guys started working to pull it together. However, without ever having put on an event like this, there was a lot they didn’t realize they were getting into.
“There’s a correct way of doing a gala event, but this wasn’t it!” Kasper laughs. “I made huge mistakes.”
An early mistake was to produce the poster featuring the smiling face of the intended host before the host had agreed to be part of the show. Fortunately, well known Bay Area drag performer Juanita More did say yes and had a big hand in rounding up acts for the night. Acquiring free access to the Berkeley Repertory Theater as a venue was another success.
“Somehow or somewhere I learned that when the city granted the permits to build the theater, Berkeley Rep was required to offer the space to nonprofits for something like 3 events per year for free. So I felt comfortable going to them and saying ‘I hear you have to do this and we have this great organization.’ And when I said, ‘Berkeley Free Clinic and drag queens,’ the woman in charge said, ‘Let’s meet and see how we can do this,’ and that’s what got it to happen.”
Having Juanita involved, holding the event in a classy theater, and the legacy of the GMHC got a lot of people to say yes on many fronts. Local business owners donated goods and services for the silent auction, the performers, who included drag kings, an extremely talented hula-hooper, and a gay hip-hop dance crew, eagerly joined in. Another element was a mini-fashion show. “Juanita pretty much took the reins and choreographed everything that was on the stage that night,” Kasper recalls with great relief. “The main role I saw for myself was getting sponsorship money so that the event wouldn’t end up costing the clinic money.”
The evening event began with a reception in the courtyard of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s complex on Berkeley Way. As current volunteers, alumni, friends, family, and community members were about arrive for wine, beer, champagne and hors d'oeuvres, several volunteers realized nobody had been tasked to chill the drinks. In fact, nobody had bought any ice. The wine, beer, champagne and soft drinks were sitting warm, under the drink tables just 45 minutes before the doors were to open. Fortunately someone had seen an episode of the TV show MythBusters the week before, in which the Myth Busters experimented to find the fastest way to chill beer, so they knew not only to buy ice, but to buy lots of salt. Mixing the ice with salt lowered the freezing point with such success that several bottles of champagne froze.
The evening included a recognition of John Day and Fred Strauss, who helped found the GMHC in 1976. To this day, both continue to volunteer in the GMHC . The two received an ovation from the audience and statuettes commemorating the GMHC’s founding. John recalls wishing he hadn’t had quite so much champagne prior to being surprised by the call to the stage to give a little speech.
The 30th Anniversary night “showed the creativity of the volunteers we had involved at that time,” John says, recalling the number of people who were involved in planning and production of the event and the feeling of community it achieved.
“The GMHC completely changed my life,” Kasper says. “I went there for my first STD screening, and my medic, Barry Swank, asked me what I do on Sunday afternoons. I ended up staying after that exam and stayed on the shift to help. This happens with every generation within the GMHC - people becoming part of the group doing something important for health and the community. This was the first time I was around gay men doing something like this - with gay men of different ages - you don’t have that in so many places. Where I came from, in the Midwest, there weren’t older gay men who were out.” That finding and connecting to a welcoming community and working together to provide service was what Kasper and the group had hoped to represent and celebrate that night.
“It was all family,” Kasper says. “It wasn’t a show that we would put on for the outside world - everybody in the audience had a relationship to the GMHC and everybody knew it wasn’t a Broadway production, but the energy in the air was great and it came out great. I got lucky and everything fell into place.”