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Monday, March 16, 2015

Closeted lesbian in 1961 TV show rejected for being too butch by CBS TV executive

Dobie Gillis, Maynard, Sheila James, in 1961 TV show Dobbie Gillis

PHOTO: (left to right) High school TV character Dobie Gillis in a 1961 TV show of the same name ("The Many Lives of Dobbie Gillis: I was a High School Scrooge," (1961) Season 2, Episode 18) is standing next to his friend Maynard, looking at their Central High School yearbook's photo from 1910 of the legendary football player, "Show no Mercy Appleby" while they are being asked to write an inspirational article about this alum for the high school's year book by the boyish Sports Editor Zelda Gilroy, played by Sheila James who later came out of the closet as gay and became an influential politician in California for gay rights. She learned that a CBS TV executive was not pleased by her masculine appearance, which back then homophobes equated with somebody being lesbian or gay, even though the number of so-called feminine looking "lip-stick lesbians" were probably equal in number. Some interesting and now obsolete technology can be seen in the background, including a platen press used for letterpress printing and a California job case that was used to hold the cast metal type used to hand typeset words to be printed. Zelda is shown wearing a visor next to an oak roll-top desk were both associated with famous newspaper editors of the era (Disclosure: I still own an oak rolltop desk I bought from Woodcastle in 1980 here in Corvallis -- I just knew it was so gay!).

Decades ago Vito Russo's book, "The Celluloid Closet," and other research documented how gay characters were depicted by Hollywood in the era when being homosexual was illegal and a matter that nobody would talk about openly for fear of being condemned. I recall hearing both Russo and various gay movie and TV actors of the pre-Stonewall era talking about how many gay writers, actors and producers were in the theatre and TV industry and how they would sneak gay characters into productions, as a subversive act, in a manner such that clueless heterosexuals would only see the character as being a little queer or odd, whereas gay audience members would be able to read the character as "one of their family" of gay people.

It is hard to see many examples of these old productions today and this is why I was so pleasantly surprised to see the above Dobbie Gillis show when I turned on my TV the other day to a free over-the-air TV channel in my area that shows old 1950's and 1960's shows on their secondary digital channel (KEZI-TV Channel 9.2 Eugene, Oregon, rebroadcast on Comcast cable TV channel 309 in Corvallis, Oregon). Their target audience must be people more than 64 years old because all of the ads seem to be for erectile dysfunction drugs, such as Viagra, and "reverse mortgages" used to convert your house equity into a life insurance annuity so you can receive a monthly payment for the rest of your life. (Note: this is a very bad deal with interest rates being so low, but it is a money maker for the Wall Street hedge fund managers who are paying for these lavish TV ads.)

I hadn't seen this Dobbie Gillis show in over 50 years ("The Many Lives of Dobbie Gillis: I was a High School Scrooge," (1961) Season 2, Episode 18), which judging from the episode number and title was likely shown as a Christmas show, but without any religious references because the Jewish and Catholic TV executives were fearful about offending people of different faiths. (I was taught to be respectful in this manner by my school teachers who pointed out I had Jewish, Catholic and Protestant friend in my classroom.) Sadly today, it seems that Republican theocrats and Fox News are misusing religion as a proxy for patriotism and a test for being a true American.

This episode of "Dobbie Gillis" also contained some other interesting cultural references that today have changed in the way they are expressed, but still reflect human nature, which hasn't changed over the last Century.

For example, the 1910 alum was described as being such a fierce football player that he had put everyone in the hospital, which led to his nickname "no-mercy," a nickname he was still proudly using years later when he was shown as a company plutocrat taking over companies and firing people without remorse in order to eliminate "waste" and make himself more money. Today, this is the same evil caricature used to represent Wall Street traders and the heads of American businesses.

The show's plot has Dobbie and Maynard (actor Bob Denver) accidently finding the alum Walter "show no mercy" Appleby in an act of dumpster diving behind a smokestack industry plant, and when Dobbie asks him why is doing it, Appleby replies "because this is the way I make my living."

Dobbie has no idea that Appleby is actually a rich man, who owns this plant and that he is merely looking for evidence of wasteful practices by his company's managers, and so Dolby takes pity and has Zelda and the local newspaper print a story asking people to take pity on this old alum and donate to a charity fund for him.

The plot provides the perfect vehicle for the very gay and "camp humor" of the show when Appleby is insulted by Dobbie's act of kindness and he sues Dobbie's father for libel because the newspaper article had diminished his reputation as a fierce, successful and self-sufficient businessman.

Of course, like the famous Christmas story of "Scrooge," the show wraps up with a happy ending when Appleby's heart is soften by words of kindness from Dobbie and all of the actors literally break into tears, which caused me to break into laughter, as well as tears!

This episode is an excellent allegory for today's anti-gay politics of plutocratic money men on Wall Street who cut people's wages while telling them it is their fault that they don't work hard enough to make up for all of the defunding of schools and other public services rich people take for granted.

I would highly recommend watching this show, if you can find it, because you will experience firsthand how American culture has not evolved over the last Century, despite the fact that I like to think America has evolved much further!

As an aside, Dave Packard, the co-founder of the company Hewlett-Packard can be seen in photograph posing as a football star at Stanford University, which looks identical to the pose of the merciless businessman in the Dobbie Gillis. I have a copy and I will post if I can in the future.

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