One home movie shows a telegenic group of men on a getaway at a shoreline cabin in the Bay Area town of Vallejo, in 1947. The friends sunbathe, laugh together, mug for the camera with more than a touch of theatricality. A man picks some orange flowers and tucks them behind his ear; another wears a grass skirt and dances the hula.
Another movie, from 1946, shows a house party where guests in suits and ties smoke cigarettes and drink from dainty glasses. Men dance in pairs, hands clasped, a head against a cheek. One giddily air-claps to music the viewer cannot hear.
Both of these films, and numerous others like them, are part of the private home-movie collection of Harold O’Neal, an amateur filmmaker who spent much of his adult life in San Francisco. Born in Stockton, California, in 1910, he was a reserved, somewhat shy man who worked as a rehabilitation officer for the Veterans Administration and later in personnel for the Army Corps of Engineers. Like many gay men and women of the time, he kept his sexuality closely guarded. But over the years O’Neal made dozens of home movies—of house parties, drag performances, skinny-dips, travels with his partner—many of which captured the rhythms and intimacies of gay social life long before it was allowed to flourish in the open.
O’Neal’s home-movie collection spent decades in obscurity, as home movies often do. Then, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, a San Francisco filmmaker, Peter Stein, put an ad on local television soliciting historic footage for a documentary he was making about the Castro, and O’Neal responded. Only a few minutes of his footage, showing parties, San Francisco street scenes, and O’Neal standing atop Coit Tower, ended up in the film, but Stein realized that O’Neal’s recordings were valuable artifacts of San Francisco gay history. Stein alerted Susan Stryker, who was the executive director of the city’s GLBT Historical Society, and on the drive home from a vacation Stryker stopped in Washington, where O’Neal had relocated, to ask him to donate his films. O’Neal was ambivalent. As Stryker was packing up to leave, O’Neal’s life partner, George Torgerson, walked out to the car and handed her paper shopping bags filled with reels. “He wants to let go, but he can’t let go, so I’m letting go for him,” Torgerson said. Read more and watch clips via The New Yorker