One of the best ways to make history come alive is to see it acted out. That’s the idea behind the yearly living gay history walking tour in West Hollywood, taking place on Saturday and starting at 11 a.m. Actors in costumes perform as various characters telling audiences about many aspects of the area’s gay history. However, rather than performing on stage, the actors will be performing on the sidewalks, explaining events in the actual locations where they took place.
“The tour is intended for pretty much everyone,” explained Jason Jenn, the tour’s organizer and director. “For people who think they know a bit about West Hollywood, they’re going to learn more than they probably realize and have a fun time because they’re seeing these surprising performances by the different characters. It’s also for people who completely know nothing about West Hollywood. Or people who are history buffs or interested in history. Or people who just like to be entertained.”
The tour starts at the West Hollywood Library on San Vicente Boulevard, where a shuttle van will take people on a brief tour around town, then drop them off on Sunset Boulevard, where an actor will perform in front of the Viper Room nightclub, offering bits and pieces of history. From there, the tour continues on foot down Holloway Drive to Barney’s Beanery (site of the infamous “Fagots Stay Out” [sic] sign), then goes down Santa Monica Boulevard making several more stops before finishing back at the library.
Along the way, those on the tour will meet a colorful cast of characters, including a gay hustler on roller skates in front of the CVS drug store, which in the 70s and 80s was a roller disco called Flippers, and a drag queen performing in front of the Revolver bar, once a gay bar known as the Blue Parrot.
One of the many One City One Pride events offered during June, tours are free and leave every 15 minutes starting at 11 a.m. Offered on a first come, first serve basis, each tour can accommodate up to 15 people, with the final tour leaving about 1 p.m. The entire tour takes about two hours, 90 minutes of which is on foot. Tour guests are provided colorful parasols to protect against the sun and also add to the gay spirit of the event.
The tour is based on walking tours created by the late Stuart Timmons, a gay historian and activist who, along with Lillian Faderman, wrote the 2006 book “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.” After the book came out, Timmons wrote walking tours covering gay history of downtown Los Angeles and of Silver Lake. He was in the process of writing a West Hollywood walking tour when he suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2008.
That stroke left his mind intact, but his body disabled. Timmons was initially barely able to communicate but with therapy regained some of his speech. In 2013, Timmons, who also wrote the biography of gay activist Harry Hay, “The Trouble With Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement” (published in 1990), was living in a nursing home in North Hollywood when his friend, journalist/author Mark Thompson, introduced him to Jason Jenn. A performance artist, Jenn was fascinated by Timmons’ work, especially his walking tours, and the two struck up a friendship.
“Some friends in the Radical Faeries and I did the walking tour of Silver Lake with Stuart in a wheelchair and Bill Fishman reading the tour aloud,” recalled Jenn, an Iowa native who moved to Los Angeles in 1998 after his college graduation. “We were blown away by all this history of Silver Lake that we didn’t know about.”
Shortly after that, the City of West Hollywood announced they were offering grants for projects celebrating the 30th anniversary of the city.
“I immediately thought, ‘Oh wow, finish Stuart’s tour.’” Jenn said. “That would be a good thing for Stuart to have something to do. And it would honor his work.”
Timmons’ rough draft of the WeHo walking tour was about 80% complete. The two worked together to complete it and do the needed fact checking. Originally, the plan was to create a downloadable audio tour for the smart phone. However, once they walked the tour, playwright Robert Patrick suggested doing it as a living history tour with actors performing the parts. So, in June 2015, the living history walking tour made its debut to rave reviews.
“It’s vitally important that the City of West Hollywood honor both its LGBTQ history and its elders,” said Mike Che, arts coordinator for City of West Hollywood. “I’m so glad we were able to complete the tour that Stuart Timmons created and that it’s been so successful.”
However, Che adds that 2017 may be the final year for the living history walking tour, at least as far as the city’s involvement goes. Che notes that putting on the tour and arranging all the actors is a major undertaking and a private tour company, Out and About Tours, is now doing similar walking tours around the city, albeit without the actors in costume.
Jenn is grateful Timmons was able to see the WeHo tour become a reality. “Stuart was so happy to see that everyone enjoyed the tour,” Jenn said. “He was there for the first two years of the tour and loved it.” Unfortunately, Timmons will not be on this year’s tour as he died in late January 2017, just two weeks after his 60th birthday.
“Stuart was such a treasure to the community in that he spent a lot of time gathering stories from the community as part of the process of making [his book] Gay LA,” Jenn said. “He was in the community and involved in so many ways and this tour has his heart and soul in it. It’s such a gift to all of us to learn from it and to realize that some of the same problems we have today were going on back then and not everything has been worked thought. But there were people who were fighting for their freedom and for different causes that paved the way for us today. It really gives an appreciation for the history that we’ve shared as a gay community.”
More information about the tour is available online at http://stuarttimmons.com/tour/