Streaking through history: New Yorker article tells of Robert Opel

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Monday February 6, 2023
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Robert Opel at his Fey-Way Studios, in 1979. (photo: Jack Fritscher)
Robert Opel at his Fey-Way Studios, in 1979. (photo: Jack Fritscher)

With the Academy Awards coming up, it's always fun to take a look back at previous Awards, particularly the 1974 telecast in which David Niven's speech was interrupted by a naked male streaker.

That man, known to San Franciscans as Robert Opel, was a gay gallery owner, nudism activist, and freelance photographer whose life and death are now the subject of an expansive essay by Michael Schulman in the February 6 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

An excerpt: "The streaker was taken not to the authorities but to the pressroom, where he appeared in a blue jumpsuit unzipped to the waist and posed alongside a jumbo Oscar. He identified himself as Robert Opel, an advertising man. What he didn't say was that he actually worked for the Los Angeles school system, and that he was gay. "It just occurred to me that it might be an educative thing to do," he said. "You know, people shouldn't be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides, it's a hell of a way to launch a career."


Opel's famous streak became a brief media sensation, as Schulman writes:

"Six years after Andy Warhol made his fifteen-minutes-of-fame prophecy, and decades before "going viral" entered the lexicon, Opel epitomized both. He was famous for being shameless, and had found the perfect foil in Niven, whose dry deadpan matched Opel's bawdy exhibitionism. Hollywood had been trying for years to keep up with the counterculture, and now it had crashed the town's most sacred ritual.

"Even as Opel's fifteen minutes ticked down, his quest for exposure was just getting started. The Oscars were not his first or his last brush with history, and five years later he'd be dead."

Prolific gay author, photographer and Drummer editor Jack Fritsher was interviewed extensively for the article, and one of his photographs of Opel is included in the feature.

Since Opel was a local celebrity before his murder, there are a lot of San Francisco angles in the feature. Fritscher's book, "Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera," recounts the meeting of Opel and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The article also evocatively describes the 1970s-era San Francisco, up to Opel's death.

Said Fritcher, "Schulman's article honors and quotes local San Francisco legends Opel, Camille O'Grady (interviewed six months before her death from liver cancer), the late author, photographer and BAR columnist Jim Stewart, and photographer Dan Nicoletta, with contextual mentions of Harvey Milk, and a guest appearance by Robert Mapplethorpe living his life in San Francisco." The Bay Area Reporter is also sourced for several facts and quotes.

Read the article (subscription may be required) at www.newyorker.com

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