Christine Barker's 'Third Girl from the Left'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 9, 2023
Share this Post:
author Christine Barker
author Christine Barker

In the introduction to her enthralling, gorgeously written memoir, Christine Barker attempts to describe what happens between a dancer and the audience.

"With the music in us, our job is to translate it with every spinning step or hurtling leap, so someone sitting in the orchestra or balcony can feel its power, too...engaging unselfconsciously as if we are figments inside their heads singing in a language akin to prayer. Some people go to church to experience grace, others go to the theater."

A few pages later, commenting on the changing zeitgeist in late fall 1984, she now observes, "We were dancing in a graveyard." These two observations, bookended from 1971 through 1986, cover the gamut of her experience from the eventual thrill of becoming a Broadway dancer in one of the hottest, transformative musicals of the 20th century to the devastating repercussions of AIDS that derailed her life and career.

Barker's personal story, intertwined with cultural history, joins Alysia Abbott's memoir "Fairyland," about her San Francisco gay father, as unique searing testimony about the impact of AIDS from the straight perspective of families and friends.

Actors (L-R) Yvette Mathews, A. William Perkins, Steve Baumann, Christine Barker & Mitzi Hamilton in a scene from the Toronto/London productions of the musical 'A Chorus Line.' (photo: Martha Swope)  

a chance to dance
From a very young age, Barker knew she was destined to be a dancer. "A dancer knows the world through her body," she writes, "a portal to a wholly liquid space where music sent me swimming through the air... an order that filled me with presence, an affiliation to something like religion, but not religious."

Her father was a U.S. Navy Commander, so they moved continually until he retired and they moved to Santa Fe. Her great-great-grandfather founded The Sacramento Bee newspaper and her grandfather worked on it as a journalist.

After graduation, she moved to New York City, lived at the Salvation Army Evangeline Home for Girls, studied at the American Ballet Theater School and apprenticed with Alvin Ailey. It was Ailey who suggested her talents were better suited as a Broadway — rather than a ballet or modern — dancer.

Her life could be characterized as a joyous struggle, complete with jobs in summer stock, dinner theater, and national tours, But in 1975 she hit the jackpot when gay director/choreographer Michael Bennett (an unflattering portrait) hired her for the London production of "A Chorus Line" as one of the dancers; third girl from the left.

A year later she would join the Broadway cast where she remained until 1985, which provided stable employment, along with numerous TV commercials. The cast, alongside the stage managers and producers, became her family of choice, mostly gay men, most of whom later died of AIDS, decimating a generation of the creative theatrical community.

Her older brother Laughlin, ex-military, a corporate lawyer, eventually a divorced father, confided to her he was gay. He also traveled to New York to build a queer life and met his significant other, rising fashion designer superstar Perry Ellis. Barker spent much of her leisure time at their Upper West Side brownstone and Water Island retreat, enjoying the couple's financial success.

However, a few years later, Laughlin divulged to her he had AIDS, but she couldn't tell anyone, not her parents or his daughter, especially when Ellis was diagnosed. If word spread they were gay and ill, it would destroy the company, leaving hundreds of people unemployed.

What I did for love
Barker goes into unflinching, emotionally wrenching detail about the bleak decimation as AIDS claimed Laughlin painful inch by inch as well as the tensions created within their family, who could neither acknowledge or cope with the truth of his illness. It became Baker's heartbreaking task to help her brother die, which was the reason she left "A Chorus Line." She would play a lesser but still pivotal role with the death of Ellis less than five months later.

When Laughlin died, his personal relationship with Ellis wasn't noted in either his or Ellis' New York Times obituaries. What especially irked Barker was that Laughlin's role in initiating licensing deals as President of Perry Ellis International was not acknowledged, even when those deals quadrupled the value of the Perry Ellis label.

She writes, "For more than twenty-five years, no reporter or biographer ever contacted anyone in my family to provide information or verification about anything reported on Laughlin's life or Laughlin and Perry's relationship. The result was that Laughlin and Perry as a couple don't exist in history, as is true for many gay couples of that era. As Laughlin feared, he'd been erased."

To her credit, Barker isn't bitter, but she's intent on setting the historical record straight.

While AIDS overshadows the second half of Barker's memoir, the book works equally well as an honest behind-the-scenes examination of the grit and perseverance required to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of glamorous New York theater: working odd jobs at odd hours, walking 35 blocks instead of taking the subway, enormous wait times between auditions, and living on one's own when women's equality was still being constructed (i.e. she couldn't get her own credit card for years).

Ironically, Barker's life mirrors the story told in "A Chorus Line." Her memoir should be required reality-based reading for anyone thinking about becoming a professional actor or dancer.

Barker never fulfilled the success she dreamed, and eventually pursued a Master's of Fine Arts degree at Sarah Lawrence College, developing her writing skills, which are proficient. Her memoir is a gift in spite of the tragedy she endured. She's a survivor and readers will be grateful she did, rejoicing that she found her own artistic path to follow.

'Third Girl from the Left: a Memoir' by Christine Barker, Delphinium Books, 334 pp., $28.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.