Geoff Story spent much of his 20s perusing thrift stores and garage sales in search of antique photos and vintage cameras. It was during one such visit that he made an unusual find that would inspire a massive and, in some respects, personal project that’s a work in progress more than two decades later.
In 1996, Story dropped by an estate sale in St. Louis, where he purchased two reels of 8 mm film he found in the home’s attic. The photographer and creative director, then 27, was intrigued by the canister containing the reels, which bore the label “a gay party.” Given the age of the film, he wondered, would “gay” mean “homosexual” or simply “merry”?
It didn’t take long for Story to get an answer. The 22 minutes of color footage shows dozens of seemingly carefree men sunbathing and splashing around a swimming pool in a remote Missouri location. Some are shirtless, while others appear in drag attire and military uniforms. Several pair off to dance, sip beer and even share a kiss.
It’s a scene that may look familiar to anyone who’s ever visited Provincetown, Massachusetts, or Palm Springs, California, except that it took place in the rural Midwest ― miles away from any semblance of a queer-inclusive resort ― sometime around 1945. (Catch a snippet of the film above.)
“The first thing I saw was a man in drag, sashaying towards the camera, cigarette in hand,” Story told HuffPost. “I didn’t know who the owners were; it was all out of context. I didn’t know how old the film was, but I knew that it was something special. I don’t know how comfortable I’d be having a party today in some parts of rural Missouri.”
After a handful of viewings, Story opted to put the fragile films aside out of fear he’d damage them. Watching the men in the clips also struck a nerve given that Story, who is gay, had yet to come out to his parents when he purchased the reels. By 2017, however, he digitized the films and began screening them for friends and acquaintances in hopes of learning more about the men seen in the footage.
One of those viewers was health care researcher Beth Prusaczyk who, like Story, found herself grappling with the unanswered questions posed by the reels. Since then, the two have joined forces for a documentary project to incorporate the original footage as well as new findings. Titled “Gay Home Movie,” the film will be Story’s directorial debut. Prusaczyk will serve as its producer and co-director.
If all goes according to plan, “Gay Home Movie” will offer a historic glimpse into queer life some 20-plus years before the 1969 Stonewall uprising, cited as the symbolic start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. There will be a semi-autobiographical thread to the project, too, tracking how Story discovered the reels and, possibly, his hesitation in viewing them given his feelings regarding his own sexuality at the time.
Of course, the scarcity of information regarding the original footage has created its share of challenges.
“I think we both naïvely thought this would be a weekend project,” said Prusaczyk. “I thought, ‘I’ll Google this tomorrow and give Geoff a location and the names.’ Two years later, it’s turned out not to be an easy mystery to solve.”
Thanks to beer labels, gas ration stickers and even markers on a military uniform, Story said he and Prusaczyk have determined that the footage must have been shot around 1943 to 1945. At present, they’re able to identify five of the men seen in the film, which they’ve learned was spliced together from multiple parties. Among them are celebrity hairstylist Buddy Walton and his partner, Sam Micotto, who owned the home at which Story attended the estate sale in 1996.
As for the swimming pool itself, it no longer exists ― although property deeds and zoning office records have helped Story and Prusaczyk track down its former location, now a country subdivision near Hillsboro, Missouri, roughly 40 miles south of St. Louis.
Friends and family members of those men have come forward for interviews, giving “Gay Home Movie” a deeply human angle Story wasn’t expecting.
“I thought we were going to have a lot of doors shut in our face,” he said, noting that the interviewees “were not ashamed or embarrassed” at seeing their male relatives in the midst of revelry at a time when such relationships could get them ostracized. Noting that “Gay Home Movie” will incorporate the “hardships” and “ugly side” of the pre-Stonewall era, he added, “It’s become a story about family, friends and unconditional love.”
The finished product, which is currently aiming for a 2020 film festival release, will also be telling in what it doesn’t show ― for one thing, people of color are noticeably scarce. And there’s another component Story and Prusaczyk would like to secure: firsthand testimony from at least one of the men seen in the footage.
While Walton and Micotto are deceased, any surviving subjects would be in their late 80s and early 90s today. So Story and Prusaczyk have created an online gallery of still images of those they still hope to identify. The two stress that their intention is not to out any of the film’s subjects, and they are cognizant of the fact that some may be less enthusiastic about recalling personal affairs. Based on the responses they’ve received so far, however, they are hopeful at least one person will come forward.
It’s become a story about family, friends and unconditional love.Director Geoff Story on "Gay Home Movie"
“The day our film debuts, we know someone’s going to email us and say, ‘Oh, that’s my dad.’ We know that’s probably going to happen,” Prusaczyk said. “But we don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
Ultimately, Story would like “Gay Home Movie” to serve as “a learning tool for healing in families.” Still, he can’t help but get a little wistful when he thinks about the men in the reels, forever frozen in time as their youthful selves.
“When I first watched the film, I was the same age as the men were,” he said. “I’ve turned 50 and I continue to grow old, but these men have never aged. It gives me a strange perspective on life.”