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Drag’s pivotal powerhouse, Brian Butterick, aka Hattie Hathaway, dies at 62

Behind the scenes maven who nurtured some of drag’s most famous talent

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Brian Butterick, at 2017’s 3 Teens Kill 4 album reissue launch at Howl! Happening gallery. (Photo by Yoon)

Brian Butterick, 62, who performed in drag as Hattie Hathaway and played a pivotal role in defining NYC nightlife from the early 1980s onward, is being remembered by friends and colleagues as the definition of kindness and generosity — a far-reaching creative force in his own right, who gave others a public forum in which to both express themselves and evolve.

Butterick passed away in the early hours of Jan. 30. “Under treatment and fighting lung cancer for the past six months, he was surrounded by all the friends who loved and cherished him,” read a notice on the website of Howl! Arts, Inc. — a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the past and celebrating the contemporary culture of the East Village and Lower East Side.

“His warmth, intelligence, wit and friendship, have sustained all of us throughout his many years as a fierce, visionary creative force in the community,” the message noted, further praising Butterick as a “provocateur, satirist, and magnet for brining together diverse individuals.”

In recent years, Butterick served as a Howl! board member, alongside Chi Chi Valenti, co-creator of Jackie 60, the 1990s Meatpacking District-based nightclub where Butterick worked, after his years at the Pyramid, on Avenue A.

In written remarks accompanying the 2015 Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project gallery exhibition, “Secrets of the Great Pyramid: The Pyramid Cocktail Lounge As Cultural Laboratory,” legendary columnist and nightlife chronicler Michael Musto described the club as “the jewel in the East Village crown, a hotspot with a unique set of anything-goes ethics and its own stable of stars… filled with oddballs, outcasts, and fabulosities angling to throw on some tinsel and get their attention-hungry asses on that stage.”

As a producer, curator, and creative director at the Pyramid, it was Butterick who fed that desire to perform.

NYC-based drag queen Lady Bunny, in a Jan. 30 Facebook post, called Butterick’s demise “the first time that queen ever ‘passed’ in her life!” Recalling the Pyramid as “a crazy yet inspired East Village dump which provided a home to many a fledgling drag queen,” Bunny noted the club’s function as a proving ground, and said there “definitely would be no Lady Bunny or Wigstock without the environment which Hattie fostered.”

Deee-Lite, They Might Be Giants, Dean Johnson, Baby Gregor, John Kelly, Billy Beyond, Wendy Wild, Page, Christine, Mr. Fashion, Alexis Del Lago, Tabboo!, Barbara Patterson Lloyd, French Twist, RuPaul, Tanya Ransom, Frieda, Lypsinka, Ebony Jett, Kestutis Nakus, Tom Rubnitz, Peter Kwaloff, Flotilla Debarge, Sweetie, Linda Simpson, Madame, The Now Explosion, and Ethyl Eichelberger were among the artists who “honed their crafts” at the Pyramid, Bunny noted. “On invites, the Pyramid proudly proclaimed that it was ‘Drag queen owned and operated.’ Although my favorite thing about the Pyramid was that both its staff and clientele were mixed.”

Hattie Hathaway in front of the Howl! float, at NYC’s Pride parade, 2017. (Photo by Yoon)

As for recollections of Hattie, Bunny noted “Ya hag!” was among her favorite greetings, “and she was queen of the eye roll, typically with a cocktail in her hand” — a “smart cookie” and a “rocker at heart” who would “often ‘mistakenly’ book a rockabilly band or trans jazz singer Stephanie Crawford to perform on the upbeat Sunday night disco party called Whispers. It was as if Hattie wanted to challenge the disco dollies with something she felt had more substance. And it worked…. Curating all of this was Hattie’s genius. Try booking a rockabilly band or Jayne County or Gwar or ESG at a Hell’s Kitchen gay bar today.”

In his written contribution to the “Secrets” exhibition, Butterick noted, “Certainly we had no idea how this would all begin on that cold day in early December 1981. We were a young confused group, like many, searching for something — anything that would shed some light on the murky future that stretched before us… We knew we were dissatisfied. We left what we felt was an oppressive atmosphere. What New York’s West Village had become. And the Castro, and Hollywood. And countless other places. We headed East. Unlike the men who flocked to those places, we loved women. And we rejected labels.”

Speaking to the Pyramid’s own take on drag, Butterick noted, “Certainly, we embraced drag and what was then called cross-dressing, which many at the time insisted was a crude parody of all things female. And although we embraced parody wildly because we always loved a good ‘send-up,’ the drag we did was deconstructive. More like gender-fuck at first. Ripped fishnets with hairy legs, panty hose beneath Wall Street suits. Women in top hats and tuxedos.”

Blurring the lines of gender, and “beginning to erase the binary world,” the performing artists and patrons of the Pyramid “came to realize (more through instinct than intent) you had to own your own gender, sexual preference or role. And this was the last great revolution of the Twentieth Century. The beginning of what we now call ‘Queer,’ though it didn’t have a name then.”

All of this, Butterick noted, “was played out against the horrifying backdrop of the AIDS crisis, and yet it was a time of great joy and revelry.”

In a 2016 interview for PAPER Magazine, Butterick recalled the creation of his drag persona, telling Musto, Hattie “was originally Loretta, something that Faye Runway and I had concocted as a country singer. Loretta Nicks became plain old Loretta, and then Loretta B. DeMille as a joke because of all the spectacles we supported.”

One New Year’s Eve, he put $25,000, made from $10 per-head door charges, in a suitcase labeled “Hattie Butterick” (his grandmother’s name), and hid it under the stage. Butterick “came back sober the next day and paid everyone… everyone saw ‘Hattie’ and thought it was the funniest thing on earth, so they started calling me Hattie. And one day [drag performer] Hapi Phace called me Hattie Hathaway, because Jane Hathaway — Nancy Kulp — had just died.” (Kulp, Musto duly noted, for the uninitiated, played Miss Jane Hathaway on the ’60s sitcom, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”)

Declaring him as “one of downtown’s unsung heroes” and “a lovely combination of been-there and totally optimistic” who was “basically sweet and ultra-likable, never mean,” Musto said Butterick’s embodiment of “the ‘Let’s put on a show’ ethic that makes nightlife so great” was the impetus for his 2016 interview.

“I felt he hadn’t gotten the proper chance to tell his story, from doorman to promoter/drag queen/impresario and beyond,” Musto noted. “He was never trying to get famous, just to be part of an event well worth leaving the house for. Hattie truly represented the satirical and bold spirit of the Pyramid club and evolved to reflect the more sophisticated themes later espoused at Jackie 60, where there was a dress code, a theatrical stage, and an abundance of smart references.”

L to R: Richard Move, Chi Chi Valenti, Brian Butterick, and Paul E Alexander, circa 2012, at Alba Clemente’s birthday party. (Photo by Johnny Dynell)

Paul E Alexander, whose 2017 play, “Trinkets,” had as its centerpiece a club reminiscent of Jackie 60, said, “To me, Hattie wasn’t very much different than Brian — smart, witty, sarcastic. Harsh, but very funny, very fair, very honest… an East Village person you just don’t find anymore, the art for art’s sake kind.”

At Jackie 60, Alexander shared emcee duties with Hathaway. “We hit it off from the minute he hit the stage,” Alexander recalled. “We’d make jokes, and puns, and innuendos… We had this Burns and Allen routine going, where we could volley, hit the punchline, and move on to the next thing.”

As for his kinship with Butterick, “I just liked him,” Alexander said, “because I felt he was a fair person, hardworking — and I never really saw him angry at anybody, or cursing them out. Of course he must have gotten angry, but he wasn’t a bullying or bitchy personality. He was very even-tempered, from my perspective, and I like that in a person.”

Doug Bressler said, of his days with Butterick while members of the early ’80s band, 3 Teens Kill 4, “We were pretty loud, hard-rocking… very primitive, a mix of conventional rock instruments, beat boxes, toys. Our sound was ‘post-punk art rock no-wave.’ ” 

Although Bressler said Butterick was “a brilliant singer, songwriter, and performer,” the “most amazing thing about Brian was the acts he booked. He was asked to bring performers together, and he did this absolutely phenomenal job… Brian was the person who could handle the people better than anybody. He was unflappable; this stage mother who could take all the slings and arrows, and had this unique ability to make the kind of environment where everyone was welcome, as long as you weren’t a hater… He was a giant in the LGBT community. He gave these amazing people the opportunity to perform.”

The Jackie 60 contingent, at NYC’s Pride march. At far right, Butterick, standing, with cigarette. (Photo by ©Tina Paul, 1992, all rights reserved)

Jane Friedman, founder of the Howl! Happening gallery, rhapsodized about Hattie’s ability to “solve problems and get you where you need to go” — qualities that came into play when the two of them, along with Marguerite Van Cook, put together the HOWl! Festival, a neighborhood-centric celebration of the arts, held in Tompkins Square Park, from 2003-2013. 

“He was a very exciting person and had great ideas all the time,” she said of Brian/Hattie’s work with the festival. “He was able to do every single chore or job there was. He did the bookings, the poster artwork. He directed a lot of things, and participated in performances… He was just a very amazing human being.” 

Regarding that widely held assessment, Bressler provides a fitting coda, calling Butterick “this sweet, gentle guy — clear-eyed, and unflappable. You could almost say he was like a nun, because he basically had taken a vow of poverty. The guy could have been a millionaire, with all of his talent, but he always put other people before himself. He was wonderful, and generous.”

A memorial service will be announced in the next few weeks, at howlarts.org.

Brian/Hattie gives remarks at the opening of the 2015 Pyramid exhibition at Howl! Happening gallery. (Photo by KC Mulcare)

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks

For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.

Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More

The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live

The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More

Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More

List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More

Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More

Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More

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