There are, alas, no shortage of municipalities in the United States where the citizenry might be expected to revolt if confronted with an all-nude, all-gay musical revue in their midst. Topeka, Kansas, let’s say, and probably Salt Lake City, and wherever Trent Lott is from. But Provincetown, Massachusetts? Provincetown, the bustling beach-front artist’s community, the sunlit jewel nestled at the far eastern tip of Cape Cod, the same Provincetown known as one of the nation’s première gay vacation spots? Provincetown, the legendary home of freethinkers, where Tennessee Williams wrote and Charles Hawthorne painted and a little something called the Mayflower Compact was cooked up in the early 1620s?
“It’s a very gay place,” says one longtime resident. “Not like a gay ghetto, though – it has a nice mix of gay and straight, happily coexisting by the sea – you’ve got people in drag and you’ve got baby strollers, all running around together.” Among the many, many shows with gay themes that played on Provincetown’s cabaret and nightclub circuit this summer – shows like the a capella/drag/barbershop group The Kinsey Sicks and the stand-up comedy of queer community fave Margaret Cho – was a slight, unpretentious little romp, imported from New York City, called Naked Boys Singing! With no dialogue, no plot and no pants, Naked Boys has been a smash for three years now Off Broadway, and its creators have long since begun the lucrative process of licensing the show for regional productions. Versions have been presented without incident in Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Sydney and, oh yes, Rome.
But when the Provincetown Naked Boys arrived at the Crown & Anchor Inn on June 24, trouble was waiting. The first “cease and desist” order showed up five days later. According to the normally uncontroversial Provincetown Department of Regulatory Management, Naked Boys Singing! was in violation of not one but two town laws.
First, the Crown & Anchor hadn’t mentioned on their entertainment license application that the show had nudity in it. So that’s a licensing bylaws 4.01(d) violation right there. Plus, Naked Boys, by virtue of its location, had run afoul of a zoning regulation on “adult entertainment.” The bylaw offers no definition of “adult entertainment,” but whatever it is, it better be “at least 500 feet from any school, playground, museum, church, community center, municipal building, nursing home or cemetery.”
Adam Weinstock – the producer who brought Naked Boys to Provincetown – and the Crown & Anchor’s owners reacted with a collective “Oh, come on.”
“In Provincetown, you can have men in full harness and leather, right in the middle of the day, walking down the main drag,” Weinstock points out, pausing to add “so to speak” and chuckle at his pun. “This is at 5 p.m., with the sun out and families walking around. No hassles.”
Weinstock and the Crown & Anchor did not shut down the show; the naked boys kept singing; the cease-and-desist orders kept on coming. So did the audience. “When this started, people would say to me, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” Weinstock says, somewhat gleefully. “I said, ‘I’m going to add shows.’ We went from six to eight performances a week – it turned out to be a publicity dream.”
Meanwhile, Naked Boys Singing! draped itself in the Bill of Rights. The Crown & Anchor general manager introduced the musical each night by reminding people that “if you don’t fight for [First Amendment rights] you can unintentionally give them up.” At a thronged September 4 “show cause” hearing, Crown & Anchor lawyer Kenneth Tatarian did everything but take off his shoe and bang it on the podium: “This is a First Amendment case! This case is about nothing but the First Amendment!”
Were anti-democratic elements in the Provincetown power structure really trying to shut down the show, which counts among its tunes politically controversial numbers like “Nothin’ But the Radio On” and a paean to hunky Robert Mitchum? The patriot defense was met with skepticism by some outside the Naked Boys camp. Like Judith Oset, permit coordinator at the Department of Regulatory Management.
“What you have to remember is, this was a town bylaw that was passed: The town chose by a two-thirds vote to say that we don’t want nudity in these areas. It was passed for a specific reason,” Oset points out. “Look, it doesn’t have anything to do with Provincetown having a liberal outlook or not. There’s just some bylaws being broken, and this department will ticket for that.” The “specific reason” Oset mentions is the peep show (or “Adult Arcade,” to those in the peep show – er, adult arcade business) that someone tried to open in 1998, which prompted the town to pass the “adult entertainment” ordinance purportedly violated by Naked Boys Singing!
Also not sold on the Naked Boys free speech defense is Dixie, a manager over at the Post Office Café, another popular nightspot. “Their lawyer was trying to press it as a freedom of speech thing,” says Dixie, and you can practically hear his eyes rolling over the phone line. “That’s not what it was about. It was about their improperly applying for licensing.”
“[The Crown & Anchor] just went about doing the show. They had a cease-and-desist and they continued to do it using the First Amendment,” Dixie adds. “It’s not a question of freedom of speech, it’s a question of going through the proper channels and taking care of business.”
In such complaints, Weinstock catches a whiff of sour grapes. He also has a prize theory that – despite the city’s contention that an audience complaint prompted their investigation – it was rival club owners, in Provincetown’s crowded summer entertainment market, who tried to silence his poor naked boys.
“I really don’t feel like saying who it was, because there’s no proof,” Weinstock says. “But you have to understand that at the Crown & Anchor – the owners are new. They are what could be considered upstarts. And here they take out nine pages of advertising in the Provincetown Magazine, they take these huge ads out, these young guys with some newfound money that wasn’t made in town. The more established people who have been there longer …” He pauses for a second. “It’s just very tough to make a go of theater in this town sometimes.”
“I don’t know if it was necessarily the cabaret owners per se [who lodged complaints],” says Dixie at the Post Office Café, adding hastily that it definitely wasn’t them. “It didn’t bother us – but I know there was some animosity among other owners.”
Judith Oset at the licensing board flat out denies that other businessmen were “out to get” the Naked Boys. “I don’t put any stock in that rumor,” she says. “They had no influence in what was going on, other than they’re waiting to see the outcome because it certainly might affect their own businesses.” The outcome, when the September 4 hearing at last rolled around (five days before Naked Boys was set to close anyway) was that the incomplete licensing application charge was dropped, and the “adult entertainment” bylaw will be re-examined at the next town meeting.
“Can a theater group do the show Hair here, say, versus having a peep show or a porno-type activity? It really comes down to that,” Oset says.
In other words, it’s time for freethinking Provincetown to take on one of the oldest questions of all: Is something theater just because you put it on a stage? Is it adult entertainment just because it’s got a bunch of penises in it?
Of course, as Weinstock points out, a lot of people couldn’t even get a peep. “Thing is, the space at the Crown & Anchor is not even the greatest space, because the audience seating isn’t raked. If you’re out in the eighth row, and you’re sitting behind someone, well – you really can’t see dick.”