Actor and comedian Steve Hayes talks about Tired Old Queen at the Movies, movies, & New York City before and after the early days of the epidemic
Text & photos by Alina Oswald
Stepping inside Steve Hayes’ Manhattan apartment is like escaping into a bygone world of Hollywood glory and glamour, defined by beauty, passion, love, and melodrama. Dramatic, mostly film noir portraits of actors from the forties and fifties—the likes of Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, Alain Delon and Rock Hudson—cover the walls. On the shelves, tucked in between books and more photographs, dolls designed by Hayes’ friend, Mel Odom, offer three-dimensional replicas of some of these actors, thus completing the backdrop for Hayes’ show, STEVE HAYES: Tired Old Queen At The Movies, now in its eighth season.
The charismatic, charming and kind actor and comedian shows me around, introducing me to the place where magic happens, where TOQ at the Movies is taped. Over iced tea and snacks, we chitchat about the show, Rock Hudson, Hollywood glamour days, and also HIV and AIDS.
“My great passion in life has been old movies,” Hayes begins. “I’ve loved them since I was a little boy.” He pauses, as if to ponder how to best explain it. “I knew I was gay at a very early age, and I felt left out. My generation was the first generation where the parents used TV to babysit the children. And my mother would say ‘you’re getting on my nerves, sit down and watch this.’ And inevitably it would be some old movie on. And the melodramas of the forties and the fifties kind of matched what was going on in my house. So they felt real to me.”
Then, when getting together with friends, Hayes would start re-enacting these movies to entertain his friends. Years later, he went on to entertain audiences across the country.
He explains that, like many other gay men at the time, he would be in particular attracted to the classic movie women stars and the characters they played. “They knew how to handle men,” he says. “And, as gay men, we always try to figure out how to handle [gay] men, and it isn’t always easy.” He further explains about the women characters, “They were dynamic, and often put down because they were [considered] the weaker sex. The men didn’t have to fight. They would fist fight, but they didn’t have to fight like the women had to fight for everything.”
Women in Hayes’ family were also a strong influence. He grew up in Central New York. Both his parents had sisters. “They were all funny,” he recalls. “My humor comes from women.” At parties and family reunions, he’d hang out in the kitchen because “that’s where you find out [everything]. The kitchen is the place where you pick at the leftovers and you talk.”
And his attraction to strong, legendary women followed him to New York. He came to the city in the seventies, before the AIDS crisis. “New York was wonderful and fun in the seventies,” he recalls. Older and younger gay men would mingle more in those days. “And these wonderful older gay men would pass on this tradition of all these people that I’d been watching [on TV] for years. And all these drag queens would come into town and do these [movie] legends. And they were so brilliant at it, [at keeping these legends] alive. It was all part of our culture.”
As a performer, Hayes came out of cabaret. To this day he believes that that experience taught him everything. While doing cabaret, he had to perform and be funny and do his act in a room full of people.
Steve Hayes might be best known for his role in the movie Trick (1999), a film directed by Jim Fall, about “the misadventures of two young gay men, trying to find a place to be alone, one night in Manhattan.” In Trick Hayes plays “a kind gay priest, who’s kind of funny.”
Over the years Hayes did stand-up comedy, but not in the traditional way. There had to be characters in his stand-up performances. “I knew I could do anything, because, in my head, I’d watched all these old movies, and I’d been playing these roles for years,” he comments, “so I created a comedy act where I could just be whoever I wanted to be.”
He also appeared in Off-Broadway shows directed by Vincent Cardinal. “We became friends,” Hayes says. “And he said to me, ‘Steve Hayes, I think you should be a household name, and I think I know how to do it. Let’s come in to your crazy apartment and let’s hand you a DVD and have you talk off the top of your head like you do at every dinner party and every chance that you get about that movie. And we’ll shoot them, and we’ll do one a month. What do you want to call it?’ And without missing a beat, I said, Tired Old Queen at the Movies.” He laughs, and his laughter fills the room. “I think you have to get comfortable getting old,” he explains about the title of his show. “In the gay culture you’re [considered] old at forty. And so when you get to be my age, which is in my mid-sixties, you got to get comfortable. And that’s what I try to do, accepting who I am. And it’s okay.”
TOQ at the Movies is taped in Hayes’ apartment. He has a team of five people—Thomas Meacham is photographer and editor; Dale Edwards handles publicity; Vincent Cardinal is the director; and John Bixler is a young actor who introduces Hayes at the beginning of each episode. Once the lights are set up, it’s “Lights, camera, action!” time. Cardinal hands Hayes a DVD, and the actor starts talking about the movie on that particular DVD. They usually shoot nine episodes at a time, in one day. Nothing is scripted. Everything is off the top of Hayes’ head. And it offers a brand new glimpse at older movies, especially those shot through the seventies and into the eighties, and especially for a younger audience.
“I always have Vince [Cardinal] and John [Bixler] here, because they make me laugh,” Hayes explains. “And the comedy is important. I want to laugh and keep it light. I want to go back to why movies were made. They were made to entertain us.” And that’s exactly why TOQ at the Movies is such a success.
For his show, he always tries to choose holiday movies—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s—and also something for Pride Month. He tries to do comedies and often chooses movies that are not well known.
One cannot talk about Hollywood glamour days and movies from the forties and fifties without mentioning Rock Hudson. I ask Hayes to tell me more about Rock Hudson. I find out that Hudson had not only the looks, but also the talent. He appeared in movies like Giant, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, Pillow Talk, to mention only a few. “Rock Hudson came from nothing,” Hayes says. “And he was this great big huge guy. He looked like Mount Rushmore. You looked at Rock Hudson and you wanted to start climbing.”
Although I’ve seen Rock Hudson in a handful of movies, the image burned into my memory is one I saw in a 1986 Paris Match Magazine, a two-page spread showing two portraits of the same actor—an image of a smiling and handsome Rock Hudson next to a portrait of the actor, aged almost beyond recognition, barely resembling the star the public had grown to love.
“It’s the disease,” Hayes says, when I mention it to him. “The thing about [AIDS] was that [doctors] couldn’t pinpoint it to anything. It masquerades as so many different diseases—pneumonia, Kaposi sarcoma, the one that eats the brain, toxoplasmosis. And in the beginning everyone was so scared. I would go to visit friends up at the hospital, and the nurses would put the food on the tray and push the tray with the foot through the door, on the floor. And not change their bedding. Not even go in the room.”
The joy in his voice is suddenly gone when he talks about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and his bubbly laughter, vanished.
“Did you see Dallas Buyers Club?” Hayes asks. During those days he had to take many of his sick friends to a lot of places like the one portrayed in the movie. They would be dirty warehouses, because they were illegal, where poor, emaciated dying guys would sit in chaise lounges, with intravenous tubes in their arms, getting infusions. “It was terrible,” Hayes says. “And you couldn’t get anybody [from] outside [the community], to understand what you were going through.”
The AIDS epidemic arrived in New York City at the beginning of the eighties, only a few years after Hayes. The epidemic forever changed the city scene, as it did Hayes’ life, taking away too many of his friends. “All the people I wanted to get old with died,” he says. “I never went to Vietnam—that was the war of my era—but I didn’t miss the war, because the [early] AIDS years were like a war. So I did everything that I could to help.”
For about seven years, from 1987 right up to the mid-nineties, he worked with an organization called The Holiday Project. “I spent all my holidays in AIDS hospices and wards. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, New Year’s, I would go in and sing,” he says, his voice breaking with emotion.
He’s been doing HIV benefits ever since. He is a member and on several committees at Episcopal Actors Guild, and often does HIV benefits for the organization. EAG was founded in 1923 to help actors in need. During the nineties, the organization created programs such as HIV/AIDS Relief Program to help actors living with the virus. As mentioned on EAG’s website, “twenty percent of the annual EARP [Emergency Aid and Relief Program] budget is earmarked for this program.”
“AIDS united the gay community,” Hayes says, reflecting on the early days of the epidemic. He continues, offering a timeline of the epidemic, a then-and-now image of where we were and where we are now in terms of winning the war against the virus. He talks about the people who, although sick, fought, some until their last breath, trying to do something about the AIDS crisis of that time. He talks about the progress we’ve made over the last three decades in terms of care, prevention, even finding a cure. And then he adds, “Like so many of us, the thing I worry about now is this generation. Young people today [don’t see HIV as a threat anymore and are often careless]. They’re playing with so much fire.”
Some, especially some young individuals, might find it unnecessary to listen to stories about the AIDS crisis. And yet, these same stories have inspired movies like Longtime Companion, An Early Frost, Parting Glances, and the more recent Angels in America and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and maybe they will find them on TV, as Steve did with women’s movies as a kid, and be inspired. Question is: are these stories they tell still relevant? If young individuals, today, become unaware of what happened during the eighties, how are they to prevent future catastrophes and crises such as AIDS was only a short time ago?
“You can’t get lax about this. You have to keep fighting,” Hayes concludes. “I think more young people have to climb up the wagon and get involved, because my generation, who went through that initial Big Bang of it, we’re getting old, and right before your eyes. Am I making sense?”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.