Who's your Big Daddy?
by Dr. Jack Fritscher
Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen; Prairie Avenue Productions, $24.99
In Casablanca, "sooner or later everybody comes to Rick's." In Chicago, the world comes to Chuck's. Since 1950, Chuck Renslow, now 82 and one of the most famous gay men on the planet, has safely hosted thousands of GLBT visitors at his 30 venues, from his legendary Gold Coast bar (1960-88) to his International Mr. Leather Contest (1979) and his prestigious Leather Archives & Museum (1991). For 60 years, Renslow, a politically aggressive Democrat in the Chicago Machine, has been a person of interest to cops, politicians, fans, and frenemies.
Rather than review Leatherman, I can best, as a SoMa historian, serve as local tourguide to this bespoke book with its candid backstage drama of leathermen, lesbians, and Mafia wise-guys shaping homoculture two decades before Stonewall. I came out on Renslow's 1950s Kris Studio photography and his Gold Coast, where, beginning a 10-year union, I married his handsome bartender, photographer David Sparrow. As eyewitness, I appreciate the authenticity of Leatherman, into which my two-bits was invited by leather-village griots Owen Keehnen and Tracy Baim.
Renslow's strategic business mind led gays politically into a new age. He saw first what others only saw eventually. As an occult practitioner of magical thinking, he intuited the private necessity of coming out, and the public necessity of founding safe venues to do it. Starting Kris Studio (1953), he first courted homomasculine men by creating butch social destinations, which he eventually diversified to all genders: his 2010 IML winner was FTM wheel-charioteer Tyler McCormick. Pioneering locally, he built a nationally sustainable model proving gay-owned businesses key to building community, politics, and social networks. Born a year before Harvey Milk and politically active 20 years before Milk hit Castro, Chicago native Renslow evolved a transforming 1950s heartland identity that defied city, state, and federal laws.
In 1954, with lifelong muse Dom Orejudos, the artist "Etienne," he bought Triumph gym, photographed musclemen, created magazines, was busted by the Post Office for mailing obscene material, and helped push toward the Supreme Court decision that frontal nudity could be sent via US mail. Without that 1967 ruling, subscription mailing of 1970s sex-identity publications could not have reached readers, and Drummer would never have become SF's longest-running gay magazine.
Synergizing business with art, Renslow's pre-Stonewall Chicago style, driven by his can-do "Renslow Family," helped stimulate SF's 1970s immigrant boom. For instance, Etienne, Renslow's esthetician, painted the Gold Coast walls re-conceptualizing bars as galleries, beginning the Muralist Movement whose "Rushmore Four" included Tom of Finland, Drummer art director A. Jay, and SoMa's Chuck Arnett, whom Robert Opel and I dubbed Drummer 's "Lautrec in Leather." In 1962, Etienne tutored Arnett, who, speeding off to SF, painted his avatar mural at the Tool Box. When Life magazine pictured that mural, five years before Stonewall, it invited gays nationwide to bring all regional lifestyles to melt in San Francisco's pot.
Within the extended Renslow Family, B.A.R. columnist Mister Marcus regularly alerted Western readers to Renslow's Midwestern entertainments, from his annual White Party to Castro diva Sylvester singing on Renslow's "K-Y Circuit" stages. As an IML judge for 28 years, Marcus flew to O'Hare with SF entourages, often including Folsom's divine IML emcee Queen Cougar. Always, folks returned to SFO energized in local activism by the annual leather-family reunion that is IML. After winning "Mr. IML 1985," SF's Patrick Toner, using that celebrity, established the AIDS fundraiser, the Dore Alley Fair. In 1991, Renslow and Anthony DeBlase, the SF publisher of Drummer and creator of the Leather Pride Flag, founded the IML Trust-funded Leather Archives & Museum, with Joseph Bean, editor of SF's Bear magazine, as executive director.
In 1978, creating SoMa's first gallery, Oscar streaker Robert Opel chose veterans Etienne and A. Jay to launch Fey-Way Studio's opening exhibit, featuring emerging talent like Robert Mapplethorpe, who told me, when assigning him his first magazine cover (Drummer 24), how his own 1970s photography was influenced by the 1950s beefcake of Renslow, who was "genius at lighting his models."
Becoming Drummer editor, I purposely injected Renslow's masculine, but not separatist, heartland values into the founding of that magazine, which helped create the very SF leather culture it reported on. Drummer 9 featured the "Gold Coast 15th Anniversary," and, imitating Renslow's first IML, Drummer kick-started the "Mr. Drummer" contest, which soon anchored the Folsom Fair. In 1980, Renslow's business manager Patrick Batt moved to SF, helped Bob Damron found the Eagle bar, and became manager of Drummer during our editorial shift to safe sex.
Forthrightly, Leatherman dares dish dirt, such as how the rift between thwarted S&M lovers Renslow and Sam Steward, both filmed separately by Kinsey, caused Steward to move his Chicago tattoo parlor to Oakland (1964), establishing Steward as famous SF author "Phil Andros." And those are just some local GPS links to this entertaining documentary about 20th-century gay American history.