With the 50th anniversary of Stonewall just behind us, another fast-approaching historic milestone is making its way into our public consciousness this month. This year also marks a half century since NASA’s Apollo 11 put the first man on the moon – an event that captured not just the nation but the world, and one of those moments so significant that everyone who was alive and aware to see it can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time.
For Angelenos who want to commemorate the occasion in a fittingly spectacular way, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena is presenting “Apollo 11: The Immersive Live Show,” which opened on July 5 and continues through Aug. 11 before moving on to an 18-city tour across the U.S.
Already drawing raves from awe-inspired audiences, this dazzling multi-media experience takes place inside a state-of-the-art, custom-built venue with a 1,600-seat theater called the Lunar Dome. It’s a celebration of one of mankind’s greatest achievements, meant to inspire the imagination of future scientists and explorers; but it also serves to remind us, among other things, just how many world-changing things were happening in 1969.
Looking back, it was a time that was perhaps not that different from our own. An unpopular president sat in the White House after a divisive and controversial election that had seemed to crush the youthful hope of a once-hopeful liberal left; the country was escalating an ongoing course of military action that many viewed as immoral and even illegal, the civil rights movement was reeling from half a decade of racially charged mob violence, and a new and chilling kind of evil was beginning to encroach upon American life in the form of murderers like Charles Manson and the Zodiac Killer.
Yet as the hit musical “Hair” had proclaimed the year before, it was also the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” a new era that was supposed to bring positive and sweeping transformation. And it wasn’t just the Broadway stage that had been invaded by hippies; the counter-culture had begun to infiltrate the mainstream in films like “Easy Rider” and books like “Slaughterhouse Five,” and the music of young people was rich with voices of change, many of them highlighted at the Woodstock music festival.
In the summer of ’69, this turmoil of conflicting ideologies was momentarily stilled as the nation turned its attention to the moon landing. For many, it felt like a shift had taken place; this was an event of global importance, a victory for the whole human race, and it seemed like a doorway was opening into a brave new world.
In retrospect, it’s somehow fitting that the Apollo 11 mission came three weeks after Stonewall. For a younger generation, which might never have had reason to juxtapose the two events in their imaginations, it might seem an odd match; but for those in the queer community who were around at the time, feeling the stirrings of a long-brewing liberation movement that had been sparked by the last-straw raid at Stonewall even as they watched mankind break its earthly shackles for the first time, it would be easy to imagine them as being twin harbingers of hope at a time when hope was hard to come by.
Fifty years later, NASA is again developing missions to the moon, and the fight for LGBTQ equality rages on as we continue to defend our hard-won advancements. The connection between the two is once again made unavoidable by the close proximity of their anniversaries, calling extra attention on the fact that, to date, none of the 561 individuals that have been selected to go into space have ever identified openly as LGBTQ. (Astronaut Sally Ride came out in her obituary in 2012.) Last week, the Out Astronaut Project teamed with the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) to create opportunities for LGBTQ persons to become actively involved in space-related research, with the aim to train and fly the first LGBTQ-identified person to conduct climate-related research in space.
Fortunately, “Apollo 11: The Immersive Live Show” is ahead of the curve on LGBTQ inclusion. The production features three “out” actors in an ensemble cast of 20. Performing under 40,000-square-feet of stunning 360° video projections, with the help of world-class theatrical design, a full orchestral score and life-size rockets, they take audiences on an epic journey to the Moon and back.
One of the show’s LGBTQ performers is Tom Trudgeon, who plays Frank “Chronos” Wilson, a former Korean War bombardier who ran the Trench in Mission Control for NASA during the Apollo flights in 1969. He understands why some people see a connection between Stonewall and the moon landing.
“With the success of Apollo 11, with men walking on the moon, the entire world celebrated and cheered the victory,” he says. With the first rebellious brick thrown at Stonewall, a new power emerged, and pride was born.”
Though his character may not be gay, he thinks “Chronos” still embodies qualities shared by the rioters at Stonewall and the LGBTQ community in general.
He explains, “In the show Chronos says, ‘I am grateful nobody was keeping a body count back then. That’s why nowadays I prefer setting my sights on the heavens.’ He carries the weight of destruction and PTSD but aspires to utilize his talents in a positive way.”
He reflects on the cultural context in which these two monumental events took place.
“It was a devastating and precarious period in our history,” he says, “with Korea, Vietnam, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., and civil rights and LGBTQ+ oppression. Every last being in touch with their humanity was desperate, screaming, clamoring for hope. Both Apollo and Stonewall… gave us exactly that – hope!”
Five decades later, Trudgeon’s description sounds unsettlingly familiar in a world torn apart by its own version of the same conflicts that raged back then, and hope is just as desperately needed. In pausing to remember these two seminal events of our modern history, it’s perhaps a great opportunity to also take stock of all the advancements we’ve made in their wake, and to set our sights, with renewed resolve, on the goals we have yet to achieve.
With this in mind, “Apollo 11: The Immersive Live Show” seems more than just a blockbuster spectacle designed to blow our minds and dazzle our senses – although it certainly does that, too. It’s a chance to connect to a cultural touchstone that just might give us all the hope we need to keep pushing forward for another 50 years.
For tickets and more information about “Apollo 11: The Immersive Live Show,” visit visitpasadena.com.