The historic Orpheum Theater in DTLA played host Thursday night to a sea of LGBTQ glitterati as the 2019 edition of Outfest kicked off its 11-day film festival with the traditional Opening Night gala, an event which has long been one of the highlights of LA’s queer calendar.
As the sunset lingered in the downtown summer sky, a diverse and high-spirited crowd enjoyed a pre-party in the Orpheum parking lot, with music, cocktails, fun activities, and food ranging from free movie popcorn to the heartier fare served up by participating caterers like On The Border Mexican Grill.
The evening’s main attraction was the festival’s first film screening, the eagerly-awaited documentary “Circus of Books,” which uses the story of gay LA’ long-notorious – and beloved – bookstore and cultural hub – which closed its doors permanently in February of 2019 – as a means to explore the hidden history of LGBTQ life in the city, as well as to profile the store’s unlikely owners, a married straight couple who fell into selling porn as a temporary means of making a living, and ended up raising a family while running an iconic queer business for decades.
Before the movie, Outfest board co-Presidents Terry Franklin and Marissa Roman Griffith took the stage in front of the packed theater audience to open the festivities with a joint speech, thanking the festival’s many donors, members and sponsors, with Franklin saying, “Tonight you are out here in force, and we want to thank you for your commitment to ensuring that LGBT+ stories are made, seen, and preserved.”
Franklin also invoked the recent 50th anniversary of Stonewall, saying, “Who among those gathered at Stonewall in 1969 could have imagined that an out black man and a fierce Latina ally would be standing here, in this historic venue in front of this diverse group, as co-presidents of the Board of Directors of Outfest? It’s a first, and we are incredibly proud to be here.”
Griffith called Outfest a “family,” and spoke of Outset, the festival’s young filmmaker project in partnership with the LA LGBT Center. Watching these young artists “find and raise their own voices through the collective medium of film was a joy and a privilege,” she said. “It was more than their creative choices that were so inspiring – it was also about how the Outset program supported them in becoming stronger, more authentic versions of themselves. That is our future.”
The pair then introduced outgoing Outfest Executive Director Christopher Racster, who is stepping down after 4 years in the post. After being met with an enthusiastically vocal standing ovation, Racster said “It has been a joyous experience.” He went on to extend praise to the festival’s board members for their “hundreds of hours” serving alongside an “incredibly tireless and passionate staff,” as well as the volunteers “who give what is perhaps the most precious gift we have today, time, in service to this organization.”
Following Racster’s brief remarks, Franklin and Griffith introduced new Executive Director Damien Navarro, who said, “As a lifelong lover of film and storytelling, it is both exhilarating and pretty, pretty overwhelming to be standing here in this theater with you guys tonight. However, I couldn’t be more exciting to joining Outfest’s family, on what promises to be a truly thrilling ride.”
After citing the festival’s importance as “a unique, powerful witness of our lives and contributions,” in a time when “there are people in power […] who are actively working to reverse the progress we have made, and to silence our voices once again,” Navarro went on to say, “We are not just a regional film festival anymore, in fact we haven’t been that for decades. We are a festival of life, where every silenced and underrepresented voice can be heard, expressed, and protected.”
He ended by calling on the audience full of Outfest supporters for their help, saying “We will need each and every one of you to help make this next chapter in Outfest a reality – but with the energy in this room, combined with what I know about this community, I have no doubt that we can do anything that we set our fabulous little queer minds to.”
After Navarro’s speech, Director of Festival Programming Mike Dougherty spoke about the 2019 festival’s upcoming slate. He remarked on the two themes he sees as connecting the films to be screened. “One is triumph,” he said, adding, “In this world where the fight for our communities rights is under attack, showcasing over 200 stories from queer filmmakers is in itself triumphant.”
He went on to single out history as the second theme, citing two of the year’s scheduled films – the restored version of the 1967 seminal documentary, “The Queen,” spotlighting New York ballroom legend Crystal LaBeija, and a new documentary, “Pier Kids,” about queer and trans homeless youth who still live at New York’s Christopher Street pier. “The rich diversity you’ll see onscreen over the next eleven days exemplifies just how many of our voices can now be heard,” he went on, “and it is crucial that we listen to all of them, and fight for all of them.”
He then invited festival-goers to support movies outside their comfort zone. “We all want to see ourselves represented onscreen,” he said, “but what if we all took a challenge tonight to support stories that are outside our own experiences? We’ve chosen some tremendous films that will allow you to do just that, and we promise it will be rewarding.”
Dougherty then introduced Rachel Mason, director of “Circus of Books” and the daughter of Karen and Barry Mason – the iconic Weho shop’s longtime owners who are at the center of the documentary. She thanked the many people in the audience who had helped her in making the film by asking them to stand up and be acknowledged. She then said to the audience, “If you have ever been to Circus of Books, in any capacity, please stand,” and brought half the crowd to their feet.
Before beginning the film, Mason brought her family to the stage – brothers Josh and Micah, and Karen and Barry themselves. When asked by her daughter if she would like to say something, Karen Mason said, “If I had known you all were going to show up to see this, I would never have cooperated with it.”
The film, which was acquired by Netflix prior to its screening at the Tribeca Film Festival and will debut on the streaming platform later this year, evoked laughs and stirred memories in an appreciative audience full of people for whom its story was part of a shared personal history.
Following the screening, the crowd of happy film fans returned to the parking lot for an after-party that continued into the night, celebrating the official start of an important, exciting, and uplifting week-and-a-half dedicated to queer stories and the queer people who tell them.
For tickets and information about Outfest 2019, visit www.outfest.org.