Duane Scott Cerny: midcentury maven

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday August 16, 2022
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Duane Scott Cerny
Duane Scott Cerny

Duane Scott Cerny knows enough about buying and selling vintage artifacts to fill a book; actually, a couple of books.

His first, "Selling Dead People's Things: Inexplicably True Tales of Objectionable Estates" was published in 2018. His latest, "Vintage Confidential — Retro Rattled, Tales Tattled: Confessions of the World's Third Oldest Profession" (Thunderground Press, 2022) was recently released.

In "Vintage Confidential," Cerny touches on the professional (a buying visit to the home of two brothers with an impressive board game collection) and the personal (his own family matters), all the while keeping readers engrossed, and often in stitches. On a side note, music lovers will appreciate the details about Cerny's career in house music.

Gregg Shapiro: I've never asked an interview subject about the blurbs for their book, but I'm breaking my own rule. How did you get blurbs from Gretchen (Jon's mom) Cryer, gay historian Boze Hadleigh, and songwriter Julie ("From A Distance") Gold?

Duane Scott Cerny: Back in 2017 I had a very aggressive LA agent who insisted "Selling Dead People's Thing" be a television show of some sort and I had zero interest in that idea. I wrote a book and I wanted her to find a publisher. Seventy-five rejections later, my agent says: "What this book needs are celebrity book blurbs." With that, we parted ways and I took a deep dive into that idea. It took some time, but today I am blessed to say I have all these wonderful people in my network, and I'm honored to call each of them a friend.

Gretchen (Jon) Cryer's mother is a writing coach, playwright, and actor. In 2011, I was invited to take her six-week writing class via a referral from an actress/neighbor in NYC. The work was to be done live, in person, no laptops, nothing composed in advance, no fiction, and the writing had to be "to the bone" intensive. Unfortunately, I was unable to reschedule a series of vintage commitments I made earlier, and I had to decline the invitation. A year later, I called Ms. Cryer, and started to remind her of our prior correspondence when she stopped me cold, saying: "I know who you are. You're the person who turned me down. No one turns me down." Long story, literary shortbus, I took her life- changing class and incubated what would become "Selling Dead People's Things."

Boze Hadleigh. Shivers, right? Boze is legendary. Our friendship began with Boze and his partner Ron sending me postcards from their extensive travels; most often from Ron with him reporting on what Boze thought of "Selling Dead..." what adventures they were having, recommending books, and writing chit chat. Again, I did not know them at all. The postcard medium evolved into a delightful email correspondence between the three of us with Boze offering to provide a blush-worthy blurb. I guess I have a fan!

Julie Gold is as genuine, gracious, and wonderful a person as she appears. We met in the same Gretchen Cryer writing class and befriended one another. Honestly, I was unaware that she was that Julie Gold until I had walked her home the second or third time—I have a small place in the West Village, and we'd commute together weekly and talk about our writing, gossip about the class, the writings of others, the eccentric range of our classmate characters, hilarious girl talk. The two of us commuting home together was probably my favorite memory of the class.

In life, I have learned: Ask. Be polite, kind, and empathic to whomever you may encounter, but ask. Artists help artists.

Did you have a chance to see Gretchen when she did "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it On the Road" at the Drury Lane Water Tower Place in Chicago in 1980?
I love this question [laughs]! Yes, I went with my parents and sister to see "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road" at Drury Lane Theater. I remember thinking what a woman-oriented show it was for the time, truly groundbreaking. I could never have imagined years later I'd be sitting in Gretchen Cryer's New York City apartment, reading aloud my stories and making her "laugh and cry, sometimes in the same sentence" (her quote, not mine!).

Personal stories are woven into the fabric of the book. From middle and high school situations to Aunt Bernice at CVS to interactions with your therapist. Did you include these "confidential" aspects of your life as a person who qualifies as MCM, or "vintage?"
These are my personal vintage stories, some confessions, if you will. The example of my aunt: those are my vintage experiences as caregiver, an area that many of us are thrown into with little experience.

I thought it important to write about something that so many of us experience, the love, frustration, and yes, occasional humor. My history of caregiving was for three family members in a cancerous row, the last being my Aunt Bernice who truly deserves a book of her own. But her story is an important one. And yes, together we were tossed out of CVS.

Regarding the therapist: I must fill in the details of those six years of caregiving. The final illness and subsequent death of my aunt broke me. Truly. I had survived the plague of AIDS while most of my friends, including my boyfriend, had not. Miraculously, all of that did not break me. But this, losing all my family members within such a short period—my sister and mother six months apart; I was a mess.

Everyone was gone and I inherited my sister's poodle, forcing me to move as my condo didn't permit animals; more drama I didn't need. I've often described this time as a very long, very messy, slow-motion car accident. After all of this, I learned to embrace what has become one of my favorite words: resilience.

This book reveals confidences, things I've told to very few people. I felt the final session with my therapist deserved an airing out... somewhere. Sorry if I'm stinking up the place with sorrow—but this story, to me at least, says so much. Our life's path is our history, our vintage life. I dealt with my exit from my therapist better than most exits in my life. Maybe I enjoy my own dramatic endings, I don't know.

In chapter 12, you mention ivermectin, which I read as a COVID reference, and COVID makes appearances in later chapters, as well. How much of the book was written during the lockdown?
As of late, I prefer referring to our present variant state as "Mid-COVID" as I don't believe we are anywhere near getting out of these viral woods. We're 40 years into AIDS, have many effective treatments, but we still have no cure, and people around the world still die of this scourge every day.

What's the latest COVID count now? The Sixth Wave? Sounds like an M. Night Shyamalan movie with an aquatic theme, revealing itself to be filmed in a goldfish bowl. So yes, a bit more than half of the book was written during lockdown, and it reflects our times. It also gave me the chance to create an audiobook for "Selling Dead People's Things" which was great safe fun. It was professionally recorded in an actual spice closet. It's an Instagram thing. Check it out!

Chapter 2 features a treasure trove of vintage board games. Have you ever encountered any mint condition versions of Hands Down, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Mousetrap (with all the parts), Feeley Meeley, or Mystery Date?
Games like Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots were made so you could beat the shit out of both it and your opponent. For the anally retentive collector, one minor plastic mold imperfection is one too many. Game collectors, like dinnerware or ephemera collectors, often require perfection that pushes the boundaries of belief. That said, I've sold "used" versions of the Robot game —if a head pops off, good enough— as well as Mousetrap and Mystery Dates of studs and plenty of duds. I'm unfamiliar with Feeley Meeley, though I can certainly see a Monkeypox game on the virtual horizon.

Have you ever come across a Mattel Thingmaker with still-usable goop?
I'm a sticky fan of Mattel's Thingmaker, especially the goop. I had it as a child, but my monsters always came out looking like they'd been surgically removed from someone's kidney. To this day, I still can't bake. Or cook. Or be able to flag down an inattentive waiter.

Chapter 3 is full of revelations about your life as both a poet as well as a house music pioneer. Have you ever come across any of your vinyl records, recorded under your pseudonym Danny Alias, at an estate sale?
I haven't found my recordings at estate sales but rather in vintage record stores and for some pricey resale. I'm all over Discogs (eBay for vinyl) and again, some crazy prices. I think the top price I once saw was $400 for a 12-inch. On that same note, readers have found my book in resale stores and dealers love reselling it online, which is both wonderful and weird. Reselling a book about resale; I should have seen that coming.

How did you come up with the Danny Alias pseudonym?
I was Danny Alias for some 30 years. Everyone in Chicago knew me as Danny; heck, he even had his own credit cards! Danny Alias was (and still is) a band though the members have changed throughout the years. When I creakily moved into my fifties, I decided to break from the persona in what I considered an efficient way: Danny Alias Duane. Danny Alias was always about the concept that this guy could be anyone.

My French music label, Le Disc De La Mort, still releases me as "Alias." How ironic to be released on that particular label, right? Now I feel like I'm the guy who could sell the Angel of Death a vintage scythe.

Duane Scott Cerny at the Wrigleyville Antique Mall, mid-1990s  

Chapter 5 is simply star-studded with Phyllis Diller, hatmaker to the stars Raymond Hudd and, I'm guessing, Oprah Winfrey. Am I on the right track?
That's one of my favorite chapters. I loved Raymond Hudd both as a friend and as a living, breathing piece of vintage haberdashery history. The stories regarding Phyllis Diller and the unnamed television host are true, but I prefer he/she/they remain unnamed.

Again, this book is a collection of confidences... and not all confidences should be confirmed or denied, especially when the confidence is particularly unflattering. One recalls poor Truman Capote going way too far with gossip as literature.

Chapter 9 features a tribute to early Andy Warhol superstar Paul America. Why was this book the right place for that story?
I felt very strongly that now was the time to tell this story, and this book was the place. Again, I'm divulging something personal which is always, shall we play with the word, "tricky?"

Now that I'm in my sixties with health problems of my own, I decided the full story should be told and be done with it. Paul America deserved better, and he certainly should not be forgotten. Yes, he was movie star handsome —heck, he was a Warhol movie star— but beyond that, he was a nice guy, a good egg. I found him to be a quiet, thoughtful person. I write about a brief fling we had many years ago and, tragically, mere months before his death. I know of no other stories from this time, but I do know he remains unforgettable to me. I'd like to think he will continue to be unforgettable to many, many others.

South Florida, where I live, is an Mid-Century Modern hotbed. Have you ever thought of opening an outpost here?
No. For years my partner Jeff and I were dealers at the New York Pier Shows that began with 600 dealers and over the years dwindled to 200 or so. I found it grueling to sell and do well in multiple places simultaneously, at least in the vintage biz. I will steal a quote from Raymond Hudd: "Sometimes it's better to be a big fish in a small pond."

The chapter about George and Evelyn and A Vintage Thrift: Buy and Sell was especially touching. Would it be fair to say that it's something of a cautionary tale for those thinking about getting into the market?
Yes, absolutely a cautionary tale, and not just for dealers or would-be dealers, but also for those who define volume in terms of sound and not a measurement of the growing enormity of "all your stuff." However, I also feel it's a thoughtful story about dreams and how they can be chased over time into very different realities.

Divine is also mentioned a couple of times. Would you care to say anything about her divineness?
I was lucky to see her many times, my favorite being her appearance in "The Neon Woman" at Park West (in Chicago). It's a brilliant show if you get a chance to see it or read it. Big Tom Eyen fan here! I saw Divine perform her nightclub act at The Bird Cage on Oak Street and she was often the disco-personification of Don Rickles. No one could heckle back funnier than Divine.

Have you started working on or thinking about your next book?
I always have something in the works. I don't have a title for the next book, yet stories seem to find me as well as moments of visual inspiration. Readers certainly seem to enjoy my book covers. I may stumble upon a single disturbing image and suddenly I know what a book will be about. It may sound odd, but the stories within me encourage my inner image hunter. Only then can they spill out in memoirs, essays, and story mediums that challenge me. "Vintage Confidential" was very much birthed in this fashion.


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