A Rosetta Stone of My San Francisco Life
Back in May, we ran a story about a digitized collection we made available this spring: the Daniel A. Smith and Queer Blue Light Videotape Collection. This remarkable collection consists of nearly 100 half-inch videotapes recorded by the Queer Blue Light (QBL) Collective, a grassroots guerilla project that documented the politics and culture of the local LGBTQ community in the 1970s. The footage was all shot on a Sony Portapak, one of the first self-contained videotape recorders from the late 1960s.
While the majority of the tapes document the activities of the QBL Collective, they also include footage by QBL members of friends relaxing together and living everyday life. In her article in May, our project archivist Megan Needels was especially taken with a tape that depicted an informal dinner party that recorded what she described as “pure queer joy.” We’re delighted to bring you a follow up to this story: an interview with John Carr. Carr held the party at his apartment on Castro and Market Streets on February 29, 1980—it was a “Leap Day” party. Thirty-five years later, while attending the Frameline Festival, Carr recognized himself in footage licensed from the society by documentary filmmaker Stu Maddox for his 2015 documentary Reel in the Closet. Carr connected with Maddox and went on to donate three of his own Portapak videotapes to the GLBT Historical Society as the John Carr Videotapes.
How did you find out that the QBL tapes existed and that some of your own Portapak tapes might be readable?
JC: I knew the tapes existed because Dan Smith was a friend. His partner in QBL was Earl Galvin, who was my boyfriend at the time. Somehow, some of the tapes he made of parties at my flat ended up in the QBL collection. He had given three others to me. I did not know that the GLBT Historical Society now had the QBL tapes until I saw myself in Reel in the Closet in 2015. Stu Maddux told me about John Raines, a digital media whiz, who then digitized the other three tapes I had. Seeing those tapes again opened up a huge lost world, because it was 35 years since the tapes had been made and there was no equipment to play them on anymore. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone in terms of my life at that time. 1980 was a year before AIDS started. I lost count of how many friends I lost to AIDS, and several of the people in the tapes had died, but some that were possibly still alive, so I searched for them, found some on Facebook and brought them back into my life.
What do you remember about this 1980 Leap Day Party?
JC: That party really showcased my friends, I think. Most of them were single and cruising others at the party, even sort of flirting with the camera. Haha! And the novelty of home video—people being on camera like that—was brand new at that time. [The Sony Portapak] was a cumbersome piece of equipment. The battery only lasted 20 minutes and the tape 30 minutes, so you knew you had to change either the tape or battery or both if you had a long program that you wanted to record! (Laughs). We were just having fun, Earl brought it over for the parties, and we got high and had a good time. I had just escaped from a toxic relationship and took that apartment, so I was a single person again, and February 29 was a Leap Day so it was a good time to have a first party, and I was finally ready to have some people over.
What feelings do you experience, seeing yourself in the footage?
JC: Seeing the people in the tapes alive again reminded me that you forget a lot in 35+ years. It reminded me of the wonderful times we had, which I held in a kind of generic way in my head but this was a specific moment, and it was delightful to see. Going through HIV a lot of people went home, and you may not have known where they went, they just disappeared. They may have died.
San Francisco was such a focal point, a meeting place, back in those days, I arrived here in 1975. It was quite a magic time to be here and everyone was coming from somewhere else, but all of them had a coming-out story. That’s what I remember most about that time: we were dealing with a very diverse group of people who had some very similar things in common, they were running from or running to something. And boy, when they got here it all just exploded in so many ways, the exploring of their intellectual, their sexual and personal lives just happened. It was so repressed up to that point.
One thing that comes up for me strongly is, “Wow, there are people who are interested in this!” Now, as people make ephemeral recordings of their daily lives, they tend to think that future generations aren’t going to be interested in this, so it surprised me that there are people who are interested. And so, I say, please folks: If you have any of this stuff and you’re getting up there in years or whatever, consider donating it to the GLBT Historical Society, don’t toss it out. Give them a chance because you won’t know what’s important to future generations. Your life is important whether you’re here or gone, so let other people see into your life.
John Carr grew up in Colorado and has lived in San Francisco for the past 47 years, where he had a landscaping company until his retirement in 2004. Michael Lownie, his life partner of 19 years, is a fine artist.