Gay Men's Chorus Russian Diary
When the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles took their music and message to Eastern Europe, they wound up joining a post-Communist revolution of gay visibility. One participant recounts their remarkable trip.
From Russia with love. So was the moniker on the back of the T-shirts worn by most of the 137 members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles and their entourage as they gathered at Los Angeles International Airport to depart on their five-city, two-week tour of Eastern Europe. I was along for the ride working as a cameraman for a documentary being made about the tour and the gay community in the cities we'd be visiting. Though I was excited about the trip and recognized it as an opportunity of a lifetime, I must admit that I was a little nervous about jumping into this crowd of what I feared would be 137 screaming queens singing show tunes at the drop of a hat. At 30 years old, I knew I'd be among the younger of the guys on the tour, and didn't want to fall into the "fresh meat" category. Fortunately, that didn't become a problem. What I found was a group of extremely talented, friendly, playful and compassionate gay men, who understand the value of community and served us all well as "cultural ambassadors" on this ground-breaking tour. A week before we left, the chorus performed for President Clinton and California Governor Grey Davis at a gay and lesbian fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. Clinton loved the show, and went on to tell the sold-out auditorium at the Beverly Hilton ballroom about all the wonderful things he's tried to do for our community and all the hard work that lies ahead. Cheers and applause from everyone. At one point someone turned and whispered to me, "Think he means it?" "Don't ask me that," I answered. "I won't tell you."
Still, it was a good kick-off.
The Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, Germany (where we had a layover before heading on to Moscow) was what would be expected when you have 100-plus gay men on the same plane with free booze. We were scattered around the plane, so there was no safe place for the unsuspecting Germans, tourists, and business people-the "non-gays"-to hide. After a couple of cocktails, the boys were filling the aisles, chatting away, singing "Happy Birthday" to chorus members and passengers alike. Nine hours later, we landed in Frankfurt, tired but still in good spirits. The flight to Moscow was overbooked by two, and none of the five passengers on the flight not associated with the tour would give up their seats. I'm sure they felt like Marilyn on The Munsters. As it turned out, one of the Chorus members is a flight attendant, qualified to work the type of plane in which we'd be flying. They let him sit in the flight attendant's seat, and he decided to lend a helping hand and help serve drinks and the in-flight "meal." I've always said it pays to know the bartender, and "flight attendant" should be added to that list. "Sweetie, over here-a double if you please." Oh, the joys of flying.
So that took care of one seat. The captain was kind enough to let another member of the chorus (a former Air Force pilot) sit in the cockpit. Lucky for me, the guy up front agreed to let me switch seats as we started our descent into Moscow so that I could videotape the landing from inside the cockpit. Suddenly I was eight years old again, and I wanted to call my dad and brag, "This is so cool, I got to sit in the cockpit!!" We were met at the airport by the local guides and tour operators, who whisked us through customs and out to the waiting buses. Or at least that was the plan. I, of course, was held up by a humorless customs agent who refused to allow me to enter the country with all of the video and sound equipment I had with me. It was time for a bribe. Luckily, the concert planned for the upcoming Friday night was to include Russian superdiva Alla Pogacheva, and the tickets were hot on the black market. Lots of whispering and knowing glances later, four concert tickets changed hands and I grabbed my bags and ran for it. I was Sean Connery.
Security was tight entering the city, and with the recent slue of bombings in Moscow, police were checking all suspicious looking vehicles. All of the major sites were pointed out to us on the ride in-the Bolshoi, the Kremlin, McDonald's. It's all there. We pulled into the Hotel Rossiya, the largest hotel in the world until recently, with over 6,000 beds, and unpacked. Having been up for nearly 24 hours at this point, I was in desperate need of a shower. I was thrilled to find the room had a bathtub that could accommodate my 6'2" frame, and I treated myself to a nice hot bath, complete with the Kiels Lavender Foaming-Relaxing Bath with Sea Salts and Aloe Vera that I brought from home. I'm not a products person, it's usually soap-and-go for me, but this was a special occasion. After dinner in the hotel, we walked across the street to Red Square and stood dumbstruck by the sight. The Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's Cathedral, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-all right there. I was overwhelmed by the sense of history that had taken place on these very same cobblestones. It was humbling, and I couldn't help but respect the people who had endured the history which this country has survived. Back at the hotel, a small group of us decided to go for a drink and all piled into taxis and took off to Central Station, a gay bar in the center of Moscow. We pre-negotiated the cab fare and instructed the cabbies to come back for us at 2 am. (It was about $6, and we probably paid too much.) None of us had any idea of what to expect in a Moscow gay bar. Well, let me tell you, for the most part, a fag is a fag is a fag, I don't care where you are. There were go-go boys in g-strings, preppy young coeds drinking beer, party boys getting hammered on vodka ... except for the back room, it was just like any bar stateside. At least, that was my first impression. Then I noticed how young so many of the boys on the dance floor were. The age of consent in Russia is 16, and those teen boys love to dance. My god, if I had come out at that age, if I had a place to go to have fun and have access to my community at such an early age, the suffering years of junior high and high school would have been totally different. I'm sure I'd be much farther ahead in my own personal, emotional, and psychological evolution than I am after having survived 12 years of repressed sexuality in Catholic school.
Suddenly, the music quieted and the crowd took the cue to head upstairs to the café. We followed. The upstairs, with its ten or so tables packed with patrons, was standing room only as the show began. It was a nice change of pace to see the crowd, comprised of all walks of life, so enthusiastic about the drag show that was to start. It became a common theme in most of the cities I was to visit-the local gays love a good show. Whether it be a drag show, a bar contest, or karaoke, they are a very participative and lively bunch. I didn't catch much of the show as I was trying to have a conversation with a hot gypsy with dark curly hair and green eyes who had been shakin' his groove thang my way when he was dancing on the bar downstairs when we first arrived. He didn't speak English, I don't speak Russian. He asked if I spoke Italian. I tried answering in French to see if maybe that would work, but it didn't. Luckily, one of my new friends from the chorus did speak Italian, and he served as interpreter. They had more in common than the gypsy king and myself, so I gracefully left the scene and turned my attention back to the stage in time for the last act. The moment the last drag queen finished her final high note, everyone headed back downstairs for more dancing. I went to the bathroom, but got all turned around and ended up exiting into the dark back room instead of back into the bar. It was an accident, I swear! Suddenly it was like being back in New York in the late '80s. Pitch black darkness, lots of groping and grabbing. Evidently, our cabs had come for our pick-up, and as I was trying to find my way out of the maze, I heard one of the chorus members bumping his way through the darkness whispering "Sean...Sean...we're leaving. Zip it up and let's go." Like I was unzipped. Please. My Levi's are button fly.
I woke up and went downstairs to the complementary breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then took my time as I got ready to join the chorus on a guided bus tour of the city that was to depart the parking lot at 10 am. Who would have imagined that you could organize that many men, fresh from their morning showers, primping and outfit selecting, to all get on a bus and go on schedule. Lesson learned. This was a punctual bunch. When my fellow crew member and I waltzed out of the lobby, we found the parking lot empty. They had left without us! Industrious as we are, we decided to hire a cab for a few hours and have our own private tour. We saw the buildings and sites we wanted to see but missed out on the informative narrative that goes along with a guided tour. We did, however, find something not on the tour: the statuary "graveyard" as it were for the communist state statues that had been toppled during the fall of communism. We saw a statue of Lenin that had once stood proudly in the center of a square (maybe even the one from Red Square?), which now sat in a corner, with his nose broken from the fall that knocked it from its pedestal. These statues and works of public art were off to one side of a statuary garden filled with some remarkable modern works. Though not on the guided tour, it should be. The juxtaposition of the modern art with the iconoclasm of the communist era was surreal. It was a moving display of what the people had suffered through, and continue to suffer through, as Russia and her citizens find their place in the world and stake their claim to their own individual dreams. Back at the hotel, a group of 20 singers gathered for a trip to the Municipal hospital's AIDS ward to visit some patients and give a small performance in the hospital's auditorium. The AIDS ward of this hospital was to be the beneficiary of the proceeds from the Moscow concert (a local AIDS concern was to receive the money from each of the five concerts). We were horrified by the conditions of the hospital: drafty windows, dirty floors, orderlies smoking cigarettes in the hallways-a brutal reality check as to the economic deprivation of the country. We came armed with boxes and boxes of dietary supplements which we brought as gifts for the patients. The doctors at first didn't understand what the boxes contained, and were afraid we were trying to smuggle in Western pharmaceuticals. As to the drugs, we were pleasantly surprised to find that they did indeed have access to some of the modern drug therapies and antiviral and protease-inhibiting cocktails that have had such a hopeful affect in the States.
The small crowd that gathered for the show was comprised mostly of hospital staff and what appeared to be outpatient visitors. Only a few of the patients we had seen upstairs in their rooms hobbled their way down to the auditorium. They seemed a bit put off by the declaration at the beginning of the show that "we're all gay men from L.A." The quizzical looks on their faces seemed to ask "So what if you're gay?" It was presumptuous of us to assume that AIDS has had the same affect demographically in Russia as it has here in the states. And hypocritical, I thought, to come in with the same "it's a gay thing" presumption that we as a community have fought so hard to discredit at home. The Q&A that followed the show started off pretty slowly. Finally, someone asked what was on everyone's mind: "Why are you here?" At that point, someone from the chorus explained that AIDS has had a huge impact on the chorus during its 20-year existence, and has claimed the lives of 140 of its members. That answer was immediately followed by the question, "Do any of you have HIV?" When the audience saw the number of hands that shot up into the air from within the ranks of the chorus, a bridge was instantly built. The questioner, an older man, apparently very sick with AIDS, was dumbstruck and simply sat back in his chair and said, "Speciba"-Thank you. As we were packing up and getting ready to go, two young men, giggling, smiling and flirting, came and asked me for an American cigarette. I gave them each one. Then they came back for a light, saying, "Thank you." I smiled and lit their cigarettes, using one of the two Russian words I know to indicate, "You're welcome." "No," they indicated, not thanking me for the cigarettes, "Thank you," with a sweep of their arms indicating the chorus and our visit. "Speciba.." A young couple, boyfriend and girlfriend, no older than 17 or 18 years old, was talking with another group of singers. The boy had an outwardly mild case of KS. It was one of those truly inspiring moments in life when I realized that they were talking with a group who had all raised their hands during the Q&A, and you could see the reservoirs of hope fill as they watched and listened to these healthy and robust men with beautiful voices encourage them to keep healthy, stay on their treatments, and maintain their dreams for the future. This, at the end of it all, is the image I hold most treasured. On the return trip to the hotel, a small group decided to get off the bus and take the subway out to a shopping promenade and walk back to the hotel. Though I had seen the promenade earlier in my taxi tour, I jumped off the bus as well, figuring I'd find my back to the hotel and walk around the neighborhood surrounding Red Square. The subways are gorgeous. Evidently, when the aristocracy was brought to its knees, the marble and ornate fixtures from their newly confiscated homes were brought underground. The intent was to make the subway stations the "peoples' palaces." They were quite beautiful. And clean. The whole city is clean. For a country where everyone seems to be smoking, there's not a cigarette butt to be found on the streets. There is always someone with a broom cleaning things up.
One thing I did notice was the lack of attention people bring to themselves in public. There are very few public displays of affection, especially from the generation that lived through the communist era. There is no loud music emanating from boom boxes, no panhandling on the subway cars, no raucous laughter, loud voices, or anything else to indicate that people are having a good time. Riding the subway was like a really long elevator ride; keep quite and stare straight ahead. I meandered around on the walk home from the subway station and did a little shopping. The weather was unseasonably warm but the locals were still dressed in their coats and winter wear. As one guide pointed out, they dress according to the calendar, not the actual weather conditions. I was in my favorite vintage short-sleeved plaid shirt and jeans, and people looked at me like I was nuts. I stopped in a beautiful, glass-roofed shopping center. It was a series of ornate old buildings all enclosed in one giant glass roof to create an upscale mall. Very similar to that gorgeous domed shopping center in Milan across from Il Duomo. Filled with Gucci, Prada, Armani, Calvin Klein-it was Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive with climate control. The prices were all in American dollars, an obvious indication of the client base that supports these shops. That evening, we had a limited time for dinner as there was an excursion planned for the whole group later that evening. After wandering around looking for the reportedly fabulous Pushkin Café, time became of the essence and we had to settle for TGI Friday's. TGI Friday's in Moscow. American food, American prices. It was dreadful. Where was the borscht? The chicken Kiev? The beef Stroganoff? Instead, I had a caeser salad with grilled chicken. How cosmopolitan of me. Later that evening, three busloads of "choralinas," as they had been dubbed at this point, pulled up to The Chance Club, arguably Moscow's hottest night club. It was around 11 pm and there was a line around the block. Arrangements had been made with the club management, so we were able to bypass the line and walk right in. Security was tight. Coats must be checked, and everyone got frisked. Some twice, just for fun. The famous "water show" that takes place at this club usually starts at 2 am with another at 2:30, but they had agreed to have an early show at midnight just for us, as the last bus back to the hotel would leave at 2 am so the chorus wouldn't be out too late the night before their first concert. The club has four rooms; a dance floor with some of the best dance music ever-American, Russian, Euro-dance, you name it, they played it, and the floor was rockin'. A stage stood at one end, and later in the evening the house go-go dancers kept the crowd moving. In another room, a small bar and pool tables and in a third, a bar and café. In this room, we were surprised to find that the bartender, a young blond who spoke impeccable English, was playing the chorus's CD. He was very inquisitive and was eager to chit-chat about America and the following night's concert.
The fourth room was the Aquarium room. Rectangular in shape, with a long bar on one side, the room was filled with tables and booths, with aquariums filled with all sorts of fish as the rooms only decor.
On the dance floor, the partying Russians were asked to clear the stage and quieted down as the house lights came up slightly and the DJ grabbed the microphone and asked the chorus to step forward and perform an impromptu concerta. Confused and mildly perturbed at the disruption of the nights festivities, the locals none-the-less cleared a path and showed mild encouragement with mild applause. Two songs later and the crowd was going nuts, sincerely appreciating the talent of the group, but also playfully amused at the notion of a choral group (whose average age was noticeably older than that of the local revelers) performing in a dance club. The chanted "Encore! Encore!" I can't imagine that happening here in a major dance club in the states. They'd be laughed off the stage. But, it was the first, yet by no means the last, example of a society rich in tradition, truly appreciating what we Americans often blindly refer to as "culture."
At the end of the bar, along the entire back wall, stands a giant fish tank around five feet tall and some 20 feet long, filled with water, with some oceanic rocks scattered around for visual effect. When the house lights dropped, people rushed to fill the tables and chairs in front with standing-room-only in back. The lights came on in synch to the pulsating music; operatic with a techno underbeat, when a gorgeous Russian Adonis dipped into the pool, swathed in a flowing, sheer toga. He began an underwater dance rhythm to the lights and music. It was like Patrick Duffy in Cirque Du Soleil. The toga came off. Then the G-string. For five or ten minutes the crowed was mesmerized by the artistic, exotic, and erotic display of athleticism and beauty. Later shows would include a duet of mermen swimming and wrangling together in their underwater ballet. It was quite a show.
The busloads of choralinas left by 2 am. I stayed and danced and chatted with the bartender. He loved having all of us Americans there that night. (Of course he did, he was gorgeous and the boys tipped like it would get them something.) We talked about gay life in Moscow, and he told me that it was pretty much a non-issue. It has never been a topic of public debate, isn't illegal, bashing isn't a real threat... He explained that, gay or straight, "people don't engage in public displays of affection," a fact I had already noticed. Public intimacy, as Maura Reynolds, the Moscow correspondent of the L.A. Times pointed out to me, just isn't done. After years of communism, the people have learned to keep their private lives private. Homophobia hasn't had the opportunity to rear its ugly head on any major lever partly because partisan politics, the "us vs. you" mentality that rules our democratic process, has not taken over their own political or social agenda. Russia seems to me to be so focused on their economic recovery, that social issues don't have a place in the national agenda. They seem realize that the fall of communism means that personal freedoms now exist. They dare not risk that freedom by trying to limit its scope or create exclusions.
It was also Maura who stressed to me the significance of tomorrow's show. The chorus was to be joined by Alla Pugachova, Russian diva-supreme. Evidently, she was creating quite a stir. According to Maura, no one in Russia can command an audience like Alla.
"You don't understand, Sean" she told me, "Not even Yeltsin gets this kind of attention. She is Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler."
Alla had gone on the record that evening during a press conference publicly stating that gay is good, that some of her best friends are gay, and that homosexual or straight, people should be accepted for who they are. She created a national discourse and the concert was to be the first openly gay event in Russian history.
When I returned home to the hotel, my roommate was still awake. We had heard stories about the guys getting phone calls in their rooms from the prostitutes that hung out in the parking lot downstairs. They'd answer their phone and hear a sultry Russian woman asking "You want sex? Sex massage?." Obviously, they had no clue as to with whom they were dealing. The hotel had a "Key Lady" on each floor. The keys to the rooms were on these monstrous wooden nobs, and you weren't supposed to leave the hotel with your key. When you check in, they give you a card with your name and room number, and as you come and go you trade your card with the Key Lady for the key to your room. I figured it was the Key Ladies who called the prostitutes to tell them when the men came in for the night in exchange for a cut of the cash. Well, evidently the Key Lady had wized-up. Ten minutes after I got home, the phone rang. "Hello?" I answered. "You want sex?" says a husky male voice on the other end. Figuring it was one of the guys playing a prank, I said, "Sure I do, but I got standards. You gotta be really, really good at it."
When I heard the response, I was amused to realize that this wasn't a prank, but the real deal. "Oh, I very good" said the heavily accented man, who then promised size and quality in simple English words.
Oh, really? I thought. Well, the roommate and I decided to have some fun with this, and interviewed the guy for about ten minutes before finally hanging up with a giggle and bolting the door. There are no clocks in the hotel rooms, so the wake-up call is your only way to be sure you won't oversleep. Obviously, we couldn't unplug the phone or turn the ringer off. Thank god he didn't continue calling. Payback would have been a bitch if the phone rang all night long.
After breakfast in the hotel, the rest of the crew and I went to pre-scout Tchaikovsky Hall, the venue for the concert that night. It was huge-it seats 1,400 people and the place was sold out. Alla had sent an army of a production crew of her own, and all the local papers and television stations were present. This was indeed turning out to be a big event. After staking a claim to our positions and watching the rehearsal, we jumped in the van for a tour of the Kremlin and Armoury. We only had an hour to do what would normally take several. But we saw all of the highlights, including the fabulous Fabergé eggs. A true treasure. A quick bite for dinner-and I mean quick. The restaurant was pre-set for the whole group. As you finished your last bite of one course, your empty plate was whisked away and boom, the next course was there. God forbid you should pause. They interpret taking a breath to mean "he doesn't want anymore" and bam-your plate is gone. We had a three-course meal and coffee in 20 minutes. After more rehearsals, camera plotting, sound checks, etc., the show was ready to begin. You could feel the excitement in the crowd. I think at first during the show the crowd was getting restless waiting to see Alla. But by the second half of Act I, the chorus had won over the crowd and the enthusiasm that filled the hall was contagious. It was a great concert. I was duely impressed by the talent of the chorus. When they performed a Tchaikovsky piece as the encore to their standing ovation, the Russian audience was quite pleased and honored to hear one so dear to them seranaded in their own native tongue. After the concert, a reception took place in the lobby. The younger, more openly gay segment was very enthusiastic and appreciative of the chorus and wanted to meet and talk and exchange email addresses. They were also very open to being videotaped, a sign of the openness that seemed natural to the younger generation. A Russian TV star was there, flamboyantly dressed in a baby blue sequined jacket, and spoke openly to the press about being gay. The older gents however hung back and watched. They made it quite clear that they did not want to go on the record or be captured on videotape. At one point, and elder man took his cane to the crotch of one of the other cameramen to help impart this fact. Ouch. It was truly quite powerful to hear the crowd's appreciation. Guys would walk up to the singers and thank them for coming, saying that ths concert and the attention it has brought with it, has done more to bolster the gay community than anything else in Russian history. The Russian Stonewall, if you will. Pretty remarkable when you think about it. Although some felt that Alla tried to steal the show (there was, of course, more than one diva on the stage that night) everyone was in a great mood as we arrived at the train station for our overnight track-trek to St. Petersburg. Evidently, quite a few parties took place in those 6-foot-square compartments, but I skipped the festivities, climbed up into my bunk bed, and went straight to bed.
We arrived in St. Petersburg, checked in, freshened up, and took a drive out to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great. Fashioned after Versailles with an amazing array of fountains throughout the grounds, it was breathtaking. We rushed back to the hotel to gather the rest of the crew so we could beat the chorus to the venue for their rehearsal. That night they sang in Glinka Cappella, a beautiful old concert hall with perfect acoustics. The chorus sounded breathtaking that evening.
Evidently, not all of the sold-out audience was aware of the "gay" part of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. When that was explained, there were audible gasps and lots of shifting of the tushees . However, being the true music aficionados that the Russians seem to be, they were quickly charmed and impressed and absorbed themselves into the show. Though the applause was thunderous and sincere at the show's finale, there was no standing ovation as in Moscow. One little old lady pensioner, though, jumped up and clapped, and started waving her arms at the rest of the audience to stand and join her. She was so pissed when no one stood. She turned to her old lady friends and said what appeared to be the Russian equivalent of "Come on! Stand up!" Still no response. Deflated, she plopped back down into her seat.
When the chorus started its encore smiles of recognition spread through the hall as they began their Tchaikovsky piece. The little old lady turned to her friend and smacked her on the arm as if to say, "Now don't you feel ashamed? They're singing Tchaikovsky for us!!"
At the show's conclusion, I noticed a young black kid, probably around 19 years old, and his friends standing behind the back row. The friends were clapping, but chit-chatting and laughing and joking around as they did it. This kid, though, had his arms raised and was clapping his hands high over his head with a huge smile spread across his face. Eventually, he noticed his friends looking at him funny. They seemed confused, worried, like, "You tying to tell us something, Brad?" He just smiled brighter, kept on clapping, and shrugged one sassy eyebrow in response as he turned back to face the stage and continue his moment of apparent pride. You go girl! It was beautiful. After the concert, there was another organized party at The Metro Club. Supposedly a mixed club, it was, at least on Sunday, more like "gay friendly." Moods were high after two sold-out performances and the atmosphere was quite festive. Not a lot of interaction with the locals though-it was more of a bonding opportunity for the guys on the tour. The mood inside was more like "Nice to meet ya-you stay with your kind at your table and we'll stay with our kind at our table." Definitely not hostile, but a bit divided nonetheless. The beer they served here was incredibly strong-a much higher proof than we are used to in the States, and by the end of the evening I was on a microphone with a half dozen choralinas singing Bette Midler's "The Rose" karaoke style. And damn were we good.
My favorite day of the tour. We were able to sleep in, with nothing to do until a 2 p.m. departure for our guided sight-seeing tour of St. Petersburg. The city is absolutely beautiful. There is a statue, park, mansion, palace, church... pick a thing of beauty and there it is. And, unlike the majority of the Moscow that I saw, the people seemed vibrant and excited, yet relaxed and accessible. We got off the bus to take pictures, shop from street vendors, etc. Everyone was laughing and having a good time, with the pressure of another performance gone. The leaves were changing, the fountains were flowing, we were in our jackets and scarves (always a thrill for us Angelenos), running through the parks that seemed to be filled with children. I went in to a small corner market and bought a snack. Shopping like that when you don't know the language at all is always fun. I even got permission from some little old ladies, babushkas and all, to allow me to have my picture taken with them. It's my favorite from the trip.
After the tour, I had the van drive me and a friend up Nevsky Prospect, one of the major boulevards, and drop us off so we could walk back while the sun was setting and the streets were alive with the after-work throngs. Well, someone's "gaydar" was working, because on our walk home we were stopped by a visiting Swede doing AIDS social work in St. Petersburg to ask us to buy a postcard to help support a local AIDS/drug program. I didn't want to buy a postcard I knew I'd never use, so I just made a donation instead.
That evening, a small group of us went to the Zazou-Zizou café where, later that evening, a bunch of choralinas were going to see a drag show. Dinner was good, though somehow the waiter interpreted our order to include two entrees for everyone at the table. A scam? Maybe. I mean, who could eat that much? This was an interesting place. During the day it's a straight restaurant, but at night it goes gay. They even change all of the art on the walls to some whacky gay-themed cartoon pieces. One of the waiters was in drag as who we could now all identify as Alla Pogacheva, and the others were all quite flamboyant. The stage becomes a dance floor where the local hustlers show their wares until a potential sugar daddy comes and dances with them. Like a peacock spreading his wings at auction. The show itself was a blast-lots of Russian camp classics along with their version of American camp and show tunes. The best was a Baby Jane look-alike lip-synching "The Man I Love." At one point, one of the performers started pouring vodka shots down the throats of the guys in the front row. The bar was very cruisy, but playful enough to keep it fun. A "businessman" was there with his "fashion model" friend and he wanted to "introduce" us. I figured it meant "pimp," "hustler," and "score," but what the hell, I was there with a table full of guys and I could always just play dumb. After a few minutes of chit-chat, the subtleties began to fade. I feigned innocence and didn't seem to notice the suggestiveness of their comments. Finally, Mr. "Model" (I don't think so) just slowly lowered his gaze until it settled on my crotch, and left it there for a good solid ten-count. When he looked up, I gave him a wary grin and excused myself to the bar for a refill. "You want to buy me one?" he says with a wink. "You want to buy me one?" I repeated, throwing it back to him still in the form of a question. "Thank you," I said as I plopped my empty glass down in front of him. "I'm having vodka and tonic, and I'll be sitting right over there next to the barritone in the blue jeans." A great day. I think I'll go back to St. Petersburg.
I woke up and got right on the bus to the Hermitage, where we had received special permission to shoot the guys on their tour. The museum is amazing. It is the former Winter Palace of the Russian czars and is filled one of the most amazing art and artifact collections in the world. It is on a scale with the Louvre, and completely took my breath away. Besides the architecture and mosaics, which are stunning, the museum boasts the largest Impressionist art collection in the world. There were three or more rooms filled with Picassos. Van Goghs were everywhere, Monet, Manet, Gaugin, everyone. But as beautiful as it was (and you should leave yourself at least a half a day just for this one collection), it is equally disturbing. Not all of the paintings were framed in glass and many were exposed to the elements. None of them was roped off, and many were hanging on the wall next to a window with direct sunlight hitting the paint. It was mortifying. Some art philanthropist somewhere really needs to step up to the plate and pay for some basic preservation. It really is a shame. But lord is it beautiful. It completely overwhelmed my senses and I chose to remain behind and hitch a ride with the chorus when my van was ready to leave. I was still admiring the paintings. I'm glad I did. Upon leaving the Hermitage, I bought a few sketches and paintings from a very good and very nice street painter, evidently a recent graduate from the local art university. A few of us got off the bus at St. Peterberg's largest department store and had a burger at a European burger chain. After that we took our time strolling home down the main drag, stopping by Versace and other shops along the way. Once we got home I crashed-I was too pooped to party and needed some rest. I napped for a bit and then joined a few friends for dinner. I had beef Stroganoff. I thought it was appropriate as I had just that day seen the building in which Count Stroganoff first served it to Peter the Great. It was go-o-o-od. But I wasn't, and left home to get a bit more of a nap before heading back out to another club to videotape the locals. Club 69 was pretty fun; cute waiters dressed as sailors in the café/bar area, a small yet fun show in the dance room, and a dark back room upstairs. The bar show was more like a frat house drinking contest, but the locals liked it. I wasn't feeling well and laid low until my opportunity to get back to the hotel and go to bed. Evidently, it is the club in St. Petersberg, and Tuesday happens to be the strictly enforced "men only" night, so our female tour guide had to wait in the bus. I left before it got too late, but evidently it got very busy and energetic as the night went on.
I woke up early and grabbed the English news paper and went down and had breakfast alone and had some down time. Being constantly on the run with a group of people can really make you appreciate a little solitude. After breakfast, I packed and off we went by coach to Helsinki, Finland. The bus ride was actually quite wonderful. The scenery was great and we played Password and I wrote in my journal to pass the time. I suck at Password, and my poor partner and I lost by a landslide. That made me not want to play anymore. I'm very competitive and it really pisses me off when I lose. I know, I should talk to someone about that. We stopped in Vorgo, a small city along a river en route and had a great, authentic Russian lunch. It was yummy-the best borsht I've had. I, of course, had to climb up on some old wooden ship to get my picture taken and sprang my ankle as I jumped off. It was one of those instinctual things you do and then realize, a millisecond after you've committed to it, that it is not a wise thing to do. The instant I jumped I thought, Wait a minute, I'm over 10 feet up and I'm no longer 12 years old. What the hell am I doing?! Bam. On my butt, with my ankle doing some unseemly Chinese Circus stretch. I didn't want to draw any attention to my self, embarrassed as I was, so I just jumped up and ran back to the bus. It didn't start to hurt until, well, immediately. The border crossing from Russia to Finland was arduous and took hours. Thank god we got the expedited service and they didn't look through anyone's bags. The guard on the Russian side that came on to check our passports was funny. I swear to god he was first border or customs agent I've ever seen in my life who actually not only smiled, but had a sense of humor. He was cracking jokes about people's names and their haircuts when checking the passports. He even posed for pictures up in the front of the bus as he was getting off. Well, 65 men who have been sitting for six hours just loved that. Their response to his friendliness surely made him blush. A lot of kisses were thrown out the window to that one. We arrived in Helsinki that evening and checked in and took showers and put some warm clothing on. It was freezing outside, and had begun to rain. A gaggle of us met downstairs and we tromped off to find a place to eat. Our first choice was packed, so we settled for high-class tourist food, that was actually quite good. After, we went to a bar and had a few drinks before coming home. The bar was very nice. Helsinki is very nice. It is very clean, very safe, and very Western. Everyone spoke English, the prices were equivalent to ours, it was very modern...it felt like a little break somewhere close to home after being somewhere so foreign the week before.
I woke up early and met my producer and the director of the chorus and a couple of chorus members for our trip to the TV studio where they were to be interviewed on Good Morning Finland, the Finnish equivalent to Good Morning America or Today. It seems that quite a little controversy had begun to brew here in Helsinki over the Chorus's performance. A request had been made to perform in the "cathedral in the rock," one of Helsinki's premiere tourist attractions and a gorgeous Protestant church carved into a huge rock of granite. Permission had been denied by the Viccar, who cited the group's sexual orientation as the reason, claiming that it would not be "appropriate." The local gay community responded and we had instant scandal.
The hosts of the show were very nice, and the chorus got some great free publicity and spoke very eloquently in their free five minutes of Finnish fame.
We got back to the hotel in time for me to run up to a drugstore and buy some vitamins (everyone was fighting off colds at this point) and an ace bandage for my damn ankle. We then had a guided tour of the city. Lucky for us, our guide had a good sense of humor. In her explanations of the reserved nature of the Finnish people, she told a joke: "A couple was celebrating their 30th anniversary. The wife, by the day's end, came to her husband and said "Today is our 30th anniversary and you haven't even told me you love me!!" To which he replied, "30 years ago today I told you that I love you. If I change my mind, I'll let you know."
It was cute. The city is very pretty, very small, but with a good sense of humor to it. I wandered around and did some shopping and ate Finnish food after the tour. We then raced off to the rehearsal and set up for that evening's show, which was to benefit the Finnish AIDS Counsel. I met one of the directors of the foundation that evening, who told me that the AIDS epidemic has not hit Finland nearly as harshly as other nations, and credits the government's quick and decisive response to the disease. According to him, "when HIV was first discovered, the government sent condoms and safe sex literature to every household and every teenager in every school" and educated its people. The foundation's caseload in Helsinki, the largest city in Finland, is 50. Five-Zero. I was stunned. A Finnish diva joined the chorus that night, but she was no Alla. More like their Sharon McNight as opposed to Streisand. The place didn't sell out, and she didn't do nearly as good a job on her duet with the boys, but still, it was a great show and the reception after was very fun. The locals were very eager to meet the Americans, and a bunch of people went out for drinks afterwards. I had been invited to go out with the guy from the AIDS Counsel and some of his friends, including the only Finnish drag queen I had seen. She was fabulous. I had to run back to the hotel, shower, change, etc. so I said I'd hook up with them later.
Midnight and ready to roll, I hit the streets and headed over to the bar where we had planned to meet. The streets are very safe, and I had not a problem in the world getting to my destination. Right as I was walking in, they were walking out, on their way to another bar. A few passers-by smiled and made playful comments to our drag queen companion, replete with elbow-high red gloves, a floor length, skin tight red sequined gown with a slit up to Norway, and red stilettos. We went to a little local gay joint where all the Finns were drunk, happy, and singing karaoke to their hearts' content. The bars close at 2 a.m., so at that point we headed down the street to the dance club, which stays open hours later. It was just like any other dance club in any other big city. Fun, great lights, loud, lots of booze flowin'. One thing I did notice was the absence of drugs. No one seemed to be on them, no one was looking for them, no one was selling them. What a refreshing experience, unlike the large clubs stateside where the circuit party lifestyle has invaded the gay social scene. Mike Brady would have been very proud. Back at the hotel, as I waited for the elevator, I bumped into one of the guys from the chorus as he returned home for the evening and we started yacking. Then another came home, then another. Before you knew it, we had our own coffeeklatsch going in the lobby, sitting around drinking amaretto on the rocks and telling of our adventures out in Helsinki. This one went home with the hottest guy in town but was disappointed to discover that hot and heavy equaled hot and premature and called it a night and hopped in a cab. That one met the man of his dreams. That one went home with a gorgeous boy from the club only to have his efforts, shall we say, non-reciprocated. It was the morning after prom with all the boys either bitching or bragging about their sexual escapades the night before. Thank god its not a shy bunch.
This morning was another one of travel. After having the time to settle in a bit in Moscow and St. Petersberg, the new pace of two days in each city was really keeping us on our toes. As soon as I figured out the exchange rate and learned how to say hello we'd be off to some new country, currency and language. How jet-set of me.
The dock for the super hydrofoil we'd be taking across the Sea of Finland to Tallin, Estonia, is literally right across the street from the hotel. It was a fun ride-definitely the most comfortable mode of travel to date. The boat was huge, and there is no assigned seating. There are chairs, booths, tables, a bar, a cafeteria type food counter. Plenty of room to move around, chat, whatever. Definitely the way to go. After clearing customs and immigration we all piled on the buses and had a quick tour of the city. The old town of Tallinn is absolutely beautiful. It is mid-evil with narrow cobblestone streets, red tiled roofs and stone buildings. Old castles still stand, and the churches are exquisite. On our way into the city we stopped at the park where the Estonians have their annual choral festival. Singing is a rich tradition here, and they have an amphitheater that is huge. It can easily accommodate over 5,000 singers on its platformed stage, and the audience sits open-air on a huge hill that gently slopes upward forever. I'd imagine that 50,000 people could fit in there. Our tour guide told an amazing story about the theater. It seems that Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union through song. At their annual choral festival, the national chorus performed all the songs approved by the local communist party. But they didn't stop there. They kept going, singing traditional Estonian songs not permitted by the communists. The power was killed. The lights went out. But they kept singing and the audience was on its feet, hand-in-hand, showing their solidarity. The next day the newspapers, the public, the entire country got behind what was dubbed the "bloodless revolution" and declared its independence. Quite a tale. A small contingent of the L.A. chorus, maybe 15 singers, climbed up the stairs that comprise the stage and performed an impromptu rendition of one of their pieces, and you could hear it clear as day for over one hundred yards out into the audience area. The acoustics were perfect. I could only imagine being there for the festival. It must truly be spectacular. After our tour of the town we headed downtown to the hotel. The Hotel Olumpia is a modern hotel with all of the amenities. The downtown area is very modern, as Estonia has done an amazing job of economic recovery since its independence from the USSR in 1991. The country is small, with only about 1.5 million inhabitants, so it can respond quickly and decisively to the changing economic climate. It's economy is certainly among the best of former Soviet Republics, and is on par with that of the rest of Western Europe.
It was cold and rainy and I didn't feel like venturing out into the city, so we had dinner in one of the restaurants in the hotel and had a nice leisurely evening. Later, we went to one of the two or three gay nightclubs to check out the local scene. I was with my roommate and fellow crew member and four or five guys from the chorus. It was nice going to one of the bars and pretty much having it to ourselves. It wasn't inundated with 130-some-odd Americans, so we had a chance to get a feel for it. The bartenders in Estonia are so-o-o slow, and they were making fun of some of the guys for ordering their drinks without ice. We had been told not to drink the water, but it never bothered me. Then again, I'm not exactly delicate. We had a blast just hanging out and talking, commenting on the locals as they danced their hearts out to the mostly American dance tunes. Picture American Bandstand circa 1986. But who's to judge, they were having fun, being very "out," and god bless 'em for loving it.
After a wonderful breakfast in the hotel, I joined the rest of the crew for a pre-production pow-wow before we went to the Estonia Concert Hall to scout and prep for that evening's performance. The prep for the show is always crazy, walking into a space and figuring out angles, sound, etc. on the fly. It's a little nutty, but fun. It gets the adrenaline going. During the groups' rehearsal we received word about a large earthquake centered near Riverside, which is about an hour-and-a-half from Los Angeles. There was some concern from those with property in Palm Springs, but we quickly learned that no major damage resulted from the quake. It was interesting though, because it really made you realize just how far from home we were. I remember that during the big Northridge earthquake of '94, I was living in New York and couldn't get through to my family, which lives maybe 12 miles from the epicenter of that quake. The helplessness you feel is so aggravating, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn't a major disaster. Coming home to something like that would have been just horrible. How could you enjoy a vacation, even a working one, knowing that people you know and love, not to mention your own property, pets, etc. are in the midst of going through something so terrible? It could have changed a wonderful experience into something very traumatic.
The concert, like always, was great, although the gay contingent in the audience didn't seem to be as large as past venues. There were a lot of couples and families who apparently support the choral tradition as season ticket holders to the concert hall. Next to me was a group of music students who had just come from class and they all had their instruments with them. They snickered and giggled when the "gay thing" was addressed, but I could tell that they were all dully impressed by the performances, and they applauded honestly and vigorously at the show's conclusion.
And what a conclusion it was. It was one of those moments that gives you the chills and brings a tear to your eye. John Bailey, the Artistic Director of the Chorus, speaks with the audience on a few occasions during each show, introducing the group, welcoming the audience, explaining the purpose for the tour, etc. Towards the end of the second act, John tells the audience about the donation of the evening's proceeds to a local AIDS charity, and talks a bit about the toll that AIDS has had on the chorus over the years. Each show ends with "We Shall Overcome," a theme song of sorts for the Gay Mens' Chorus of Los Angeles. This night, John explained that "We Shall Overcome" was the chorus' freedom song, their peaceful advocacy of their own pride and independence. When performing this song, as always,, the chorus came down off the risers to the front of the stage and joined hands as they sang. We were all completely overwhelmed when an older couple, man and woman, rose from their seats and held hands in a show of support and solidarity. The entire audience followed suit and stood to show their support for what this group of men was doing. They didn't have to be gay to understand the value of freedom. Somehow, through the tears, the chorus sang their hearts out, visibly moved by the camaraderie shown by these strangers.
I'm always amazed by the power of song and music to inspire and unite. All in all, it was an amazing journey. I witnessed some pure moments of human kindness, and was invited to join a family of sorts within the Gay Mens' Chorus of Los Angeles, a group of men dedicated to their art, and to each other. It was definitely my privilege to be along for the ride.