I was born in 1966 (I am less than three weeks away from my 2nd annual 39th birthday) in St. Michael's Hospital in the town of Texarkana, AR, Miller County. If you hear Loretta Lynn singing in the background it is with good reason.
Texarkana in the 60s and 70s and 80s was not a fertile breeding ground of sophistication, progressive thought, tolerance or diversity. In fact, I can't tell that there is any reason for the place to exist other than to inspire Dante-like imaginings of eternal torment and despair.
Of course, my entire childhood was not spent in Texarkana, AR. No indeed! There was a brief period of my young life spent just outside of Little Rock in a tiny town called Bryant. And there was about 10 horrific years in an unincorporated community outside of Texarkana known as Liberty-Eylau, Bowie County, TX. We had a KMart, an abundance of fundamentalist churches, a Dairy Queen and a minimum security Federal Prison. But at least my neighborhood existed on a dirt road and we enjoyed such luxuries as our own ground-water well, party-line telephones, and all three major non-cable television networks. The air was filled with an unforgettable stench that can only be produced by the combination of a pickle factory, a paper mill, epidemic poverty, and a rabid fear of higher education in the liberal arts.
Now, I was not alone in this land that time forgot, and many people (my parents and two younger siblings among them) seem to be perfectly content in a place where subtitled films are as unheard of as a female bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. But I was different. Odd. Special. Queer even. Yes, I landed on this planet predisposed to loving and being almost exclusively attracted to people of my own gender. I was gifted with the love that dare not speak its name. So, now you see why my environment may not have been conducive to a childhood of fun, frivolity, self-actualization, and safety.
Adulthood took me far from my humble (and in some ways humiliating) childhood to Arkadelphia, AR (a college town), Dallas, TX (an urban area), Hagerstown, MD (a rural village only 60 miles from Washington, DC), New York City (4 and a half years of a dream come true - almost Paradise), and now Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Each of these places have been far superior to the town of my birth and upbringing.
HOWEVER - to be fair, I must confess moments of utter delight growing up. Mae West movies. Campy Batman television episodes (especially the ones with Batgirl and Catwoman). Bewitched. Hollywood Squares with Paul Lynde. The Match Game with Charles Nelson Reilly. Strong, powerful women. People who were "different" yet gifted and beautiful and powerful ("witches"), and flamboyant semi-out gay men (Lynde and Reilly). These televised friends gave me hope that someone like me had a place in the world and that I could and would find my way and even enjoy most of the journey.
So when the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival announced that it would be showing "The Life of Reilly," an autobiographical show about and performed by Charles Nelson Reilly, you bet your ass I was going to see it. And see it I did.
Charles took me back to a time when he was subliminally telling me over the airwaves that I was OK and that I would flourish once I found "my" environment. He also validated every little queer boy from Helltown as he told of his less than perfect childhood that led him right to Broadway and eventually to my childhood living room to give me hope that I didn't even realize I was experiencing at the time.
CNR performed "Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly" to packed houses across the U.S. and finally filmed a live performance for the independent film that is now called "The Life of Reilly." At 75 years old, Reilly is still a story-teller, a comedian, an actor, a survivor, a charmer, a teacher, and an old friend inviting his audience to laugh at him, themselves, and the craziness of life. And in the laughter, one is bound to find release and maybe even empowerment.
A sissy from the Bronx grew up to help a sissy from the boonies know that a full, fun, and brilliant life is possible for the different, the queer. Thank you, Charles, for your odd sense of humor and queer courage that helped me find my own. And thank you for sharing a story that still needs to be heard.