The Enthusiast: Mac McGinnes and Constance Lewallen in Conversation
I met Mac McGinnes soon after I (and he) moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s. At the time he was working at the Phillipe Bonnafont Gallery. We immediately realized we had a lot in common and thus began our friendship. Quite separately, Bill Berkson, who became my husband, had known Mac from his New York days working at the Fischbach Gallery. The three of us became regular movie buddies and attendees at various cultural events; Mac spent (and still spends) Thanksgiving dinners at our house and invariably contributes some special treat to the meal (one talent not mentioned in the following interview is Mac’s culinary skills). And he was always someone I could depend on for emotional support throughout Bill’s health crises. When offered the opportunity to interview Mac for Open Space, I jumped on it, realizing that although I know Mac quite well, there was a lot I didn’t know about his varied past endeavors. This was my chance to find out. –CL
Constance Lewallen: You were born in Lakeland, Florida, a small town near…?
Mac McGinnes: It’s between Tampa and Orlando, and, yes, it was a small town of less than thirty thousand. When we returned after World War II (my father was in the Navy) we were part of a population explosion. Although our neighborhood had been laid out with cobblestone streets during the late 1920s, it was mostly woods with very few dwellings. Within two weeks of starting to build our house, there were fifteen others nearby. The town experienced another growth spurt after Disney invaded central Florida.
CL: It seems like your first experience with music was 1940s radio — the Andrew Sisters, Glenn Miller, Judy Garland — and the movies.
MM: I loved the movies: Technicolor musicals, cartoons, serials, and even the newsreels! I adored adventure films, especially pirate ones like The Black Swan. When my father was transferred to the Aleutian Islands, my mother and I moved in with my grandparents in Plant City, a tiny town west of Lakeland. My cousins (double-first, since my mother’s sister had married my father’s brother) lived next door; obsessed with movies, they had invented a game of movie star families. We pored over fanzines like Photoplay and ladies’ magazines to cut out pictures of our favorite stars. Each of us created a family (mine was: father, Jimmy Stewart; mother, Jane Wyman; children, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien; pet, Lassie) that would visit one another. We devised all sorts of adventures for them and, since we had so many shots to choose from, our “families” were always suitably attired: bathing suits for poolside barbeques or evening wear for nightclubs or society balls.
CL: And what were you telling me about bubblegum?
MM: I was fixated on bubblegum, or rather, the lack thereof! All latex was diverted to the war effort and there was no bubblegum to be had. But located in the back pages of my Superman and Batman comic books were cartoons for Fleer’s bubblegum. I had fantasies of blowing bubbles as big as the world globe at school. After VE Day the rules were relaxed, and I discovered Bazooka bubblegum for sale at Bruton’s, the local grocery store. Try as I might, I could only produce puny bubbles. If only I could chew Fleer’s… A kid at school told me about a store that sold the real thing. With five pennies in hand, I walked barefoot on the dirt road the ten blocks to the store. There it was: Fleer’s! But it turned out that it wasn’t really that different from the imposter.
CL: You seem to have had a happy childhood. What made you realize that you didn’t want to stay in Lakeland?
MM: Lakeland was a great place to grow up in, but the older I got I began to realize that it wasn’t the place for me. I had always felt a bit distanced from the other kids as well as my family. Perhaps it was because I was gay or couldn’t find friends that shared my interests. I do remember the instant I realized that New York City was where I belonged.
When I was ten, my parents and another couple vacationed in New York while I stayed at home with my grandparents. When they returned we all ran out to greet them. They regaled us with their adventures — Broadway shows, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty — but what stuck in my mind was Coney Island with its parachute jump and especially its big rollercoaster, the Cyclone. I thought, “that’s where I want to live.” And I moved there in the fall of 1959.
During my first northern winter I woke up one February morning and looked out the window. The sun was shining but it was freezing. Nevertheless, I decided it was a perfect day to make the long subway ride to Coney Island. I was astonished to find the amusement park was virtually deserted. Luckily, the Cyclone was running. I bought a ticket and was paired with a young Black kid. As we plummeted down the first steep hill, he threw his arms around me, buried his head in my lap and said over and over again, “Oh, Jesus! Jesus! God!” I thought I had made a new friend, but, as soon as the ride finished, he vanished.
CL: Did you live in Lakeland until you went to college?
MM: Yes, after an emotionally fraught time in high school, I matriculated at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, my parent’s choice, not mine. I was miserable there, except for the time I spent in the theater. Pressures mounted; I felt I couldn’t deal with family expectations. When the semester break came I decided to cash my tuition check and run away to New York. For various reason, my plan failed, I was collected by my father, returned home, and soon found myself hospitalized.
CL: Was it a psychiatric hospital? What treatment did you undergo?
MM: As those places go, it was terrific — on the Gulf of Mexico coast, originally intended as a country club. My doctor, a David Nevin look-alike, was liberal for the late 1950s. He helped me accept my homosexuality rather than trying to change it. Thorazine was the drug of choice then, and I did receive a series of shock treatments. That sounds horrible now, but it worked, and broke down the wall of my depression. After about six months, I was released and continued to see the shrink for weekly appointments.
CL: What were you interested in?
MM: I was mad for the theater. I had worked with the local community theater since I was in high school; at first by hanging lights, since I wasn’t afraid of heights and had no problem climbing up the tallest ladder. And I operated the light board during productions. I also read widely. Theatre Arts Magazine published a recent Broadway offering monthly. Somehow, I chanced upon Eric Bentley’s anthologies; they opened my mind to German theater. The Threepenny Opera had opened off Broadway and I was a fan. While the other high school students were listening to Elvis and the Everly Brothers, my ear was tuned to Lotte Lenya’s Berlin theater songs.
After my hospital stay I picked up my relationship with the community theater, working as a stage manager. The director had a summer theater in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and offered me a job. It was a short bus ride to Manhattan and I ventured in every Saturday to catch a matinee. It seemed like heaven and I decided to stay. I worked in summer stock for the next two summers, supporting myself the rest of the year with a series of temp jobs.
A new interest was the ballet. From my reading, I knew about George Balanchine. But the magnet that drew me to New York City Ballet was Lotte Lenya, featured as the singing half of a schizophrenic girl in the Brecht/Weill The Seven Deadly Sins. (The dancing half was Allegra Kent.) I was hooked by Mr. B’s choreography and the dancers were spectacular. Edward Villella had just been made a principal dancer for his performance in Prodigal Son. Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, and Diana Adams were reigning ballerinas. The ballets were never sold out and tickets, at around $4.00, were cheap. I went three or four times a week.
CL: What was happening to your ambition of working in the theater?
MM: Like all would-be show-biz types, I scurried around taking acting classes, going to auditions, picking up odd jobs to pay the rent. In 1965, I landed a gig as the production manager for The Playwright’s Unit, a workshop that staged new works by emerging writers. Since it was funded by Edward Albee and his producers, we were inundated with scripts; I must have read five hundred hopefuls. The first I worked on was by Sam Shepard. Productions were usually at the Cherry Lane or a theater on Van Dam Street (equidistant from Leontyne Price and Paul Taylor’s houses), for a limited run. We also had access to well-known performers and I got to work with the likes of Elaine Stritch, Viveca Lindfors, and my all-time favorite, Nancy Marchand. Our biggest commercial discovery was The Boys in the Band; our production moved off-Broadway for a long run.
CL: How did you get involved with art world?
MM: My interest in theater was beginning to wane when a friend from an acting class, whose partner was an artist, started working at Fischbach Gallery. They needed some extra help and I started working there. My attention was drawn to contemporary art early in my New York life — I made my initial visit to the Museum of Modern Art on the first day I moved to the city. I also ventured into galleries both up- and downtown. I knew the names of the major players, but working at Fischbach gave me entry to the social and business life of the art world. One of the first exhibitions I worked on was of Alex Katz cutouts, including One Flight Up, a huge table piece with about thirty heads of artists and poets. Many of them became lifelong friends.
CL: I know you spent time in Chicago after you left the gallery. What took you there?
MM: Eleven, an actor friend of mine from Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, had moved to Chicago and founded the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe. For their second production he wanted to stage Tobacco Road. He played Ada, the wife, and I was Sister Bessie, the sex-starved lady evangelist. We worked at the Kingston Mines Theater, the venue that launched Grease. I liked the city’s energy and decided to stay there.
When I moved to Chicago, many New York friends said I should meet Dennis Adrian, an art historian, teacher, and one of the critics that championed the Chicago Imagists. I soon became fast friends with Roger Brown (Dennis’s next-door neighbor), Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, and practically all of the younger painters in Chicago, as well as dealers and collectors of their work. Together with videographer Anda Korsts, Dennis and I documented studio visits with ten of these artists.
I had deep interest in artists’ designs for the theater. Being involved in both worlds gave me the opportunity to experiment. Ed Paschke created a fabulous world for Godzilla’s production of Charles Ludlam and Bill Vehr’s Turds in Hell at Kingston Mines. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, I directed two telephone one-acts: Sorry, Wrong Number, with décor by Roger Brown, and Le Voix Humane, with set by Barbara Rossi.
Chicago’s off-Loop theater was burgeoning. Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theater was a great success. David Mamet was beginning to mount his works at the St. Nicholas. Steppenwolf Theatre Company was just starting. Along with six other actors/directors, we founded Victory Gardens Theater, which is still going strong.
CL: How long did you stay?
MM: About four years. I was missing New York and heard about a job working at Cart and Crate, an art packing and shipping company. It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done. Arranging for a crane to lift a Pollock fifteen stories high or trying to locate a thirty-foot crated Kenneth Noland painting that had mysteriously gotten lost at LAX. No thanks! I also worked as a gallerist for Droll-Kolbert. About that time, Ada Katz and I started talking about starting a theater company to produce plays written by poets and designed by artists.
CL: I didn’t know that Ada was interested in theater.
MM: Ada is interested in everything! She was immersed in the art world and shared Alex’s deep interest in poetry. And, don’t forget, Alex’s cutouts made an early appearance as the set for Kenneth Koch’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware. We needed another board member and were joined by Roy Leaf, who worked for the Skowhegan School. We assembled a glamorous advisory board and raised funds for our first production, which I directed. City Junket was an elaborate collaboration between Kenward Elmslie and Red Grooms. It opened in 1980 and had a limited run at Playhouse 46. Mounted at St. Marks Church, the second production of Edwin Denby’s Four Plays, was noteworthy because it was where director Bob Holman met Elizabeth Murray, who designed the setting. They married, and the rest is history.
CL: Where were you living?
MM: I initially lived on the Upper West Side, but eventually moved downtown. I had a place on Thompson Street in the Village and a wonderful apartment straight out of Rear Window on West 11th Street.
CL: Where did you meet Bill [Berkson]?
MM: I first met him at Fischbach openings and parties, but he moved to Bolinas about this time. Our next contact was in the early ’80s while he was living out in the Hamptons. I moved to San Francisco in 1982; the first week I was here I picked up a Bay Guardian and noticed Bill was giving a reading at New Langton Arts. Our real friendship developed then, especially since I worked at the Philippe Bonnafont Gallery, down the hill from the San Francisco Art Institute where Bill taught. I enjoyed meeting a new group of artists here and discovering their work. When I arrived in the Bay Area, the art scene was small in relation to what it is today. Basically, local artists were championed by Paule Anglim, Diana Fuller, Rena Braunstein and — to a lesser extent — John Berggruen’s gallery. New Langton Arts and The Lab were two active alternative spaces. The DeYoung had barely started to collect/exhibit contemporary art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s space near City Hall was limited. Thankfully, Connie, the Matrix Program you curated for the Berkeley Art Museum was flexible enough to exhibit up-to-the-minute work. An artist’s life is still hard in San Francisco in terms of selling work, but at least there are more venues for work to be seen.
CL: As I recall, the gallery specialized in architectural drawings.
MM: We said “art related to architecture.” That gave us some leeway in what we showed. We exhibited local architects like Larry Halprin and Stanley Saitowitz as well as international stars like Mario Botta and Zaha Hadid. Jill Manton was a part-time employee. When she left for a position with the San Francisco Art Commission (where she still works), she was replaced by painter Amy Trachtenberg, who became one of my closest friends. I also met filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, who had moved to San Francisco from New York. I didn’t know them there, but we had about seven thousand friends in common.
CL: You love opera, too, and I believe you worked at the San Francisco Opera for a while.
MM: I do and did. It was another dream job. For five years I wrote grant proposals as part of the development office. Because of my musical knowledge and theatrical background, I wasn’t shunned like other members of the department, but was welcomed by artistic staff, production personnel, and singers. Plus, I got to see operas as often as I wanted, free…
CL: You have a wide range of interests: theater, film, art, music, poetry… And you have an interesting art collection.
MM: I don’t think of myself as an art collector. Over the years, things seemed to attach themselves to me. I mostly have art made by friends. I have several drawings by Colter Jacobsen. When I first went to Colter’s studio he was so otherworldly — practically giving his works away for twenty or thirty dollars. I would always double his asking price. Luckily at Fischbach I received an employee discount. That’s how I acquired the self-portrait by Alex Katz. I actually saw him paint it while he was a visiting artist one summer in West Virginia. My other Katzes were gifts.
I’ve always been a cultural polyglot. This inclination is easy to indulge in San Francisco since the communities are so small.
CL: What about your involvement with the local Poet’s Theater?
MM: I met Kevin Killian around 1995 after seeing Diamonds and Rust, a wonderful piece about window decorators and angels. From time to time, he casts me in one of his productions; always a treat for me. I also directed several plays for the annual Poet’s Theater festival: two short eclogues by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch’s Bertha, and a series of dialogues by Maxine Chernoff. I participated in filmmaker Konrad Steiner’s entertaining “benshi” project, where sections of movies were re-narrated and performed live while the film was projected. My first venture was of the costume ball sequence in Franju’s Judex, with new dialogue by Norma Cole. Konrad and I also collaborated on a film version of James Schuyler’s Love Before Breakfast.
CL: You’ve written two essays for Open Space — a recollection on Eva Hesse’s Untitled or Not Yet, based on your friendship with Hesse when she showed at Fischbach, and a piece on Nathaniel Dorsky’s seven-film series, The Arboretum Cycle.
MM: Yes, I really enjoyed writing those pieces. I have also been toiling away on an autobiographical piece called My WWII, which chronicles my life up through age seven.
CL: You have moved around a lot in your life, but not so much now. Do you miss traveling?
MM: Yes, it is simply a question of money; I live on a tight budget. But I’ve resolved to take at least one trip a year — to New York or someplace else.
CL: Will you stay with the Katz’s?
MM: Yes, I usually stay with his son Vincent and Vincent’s wife Vivien Bittencourt, as well as their twin sons Isaac and Oliver, so I don’t disturb Alex’s work. I really admire Alex and Ada; they live in the same simple way in a loft where they have been for decades. I think they’ve bought one new piece of furniture (a leather sofa) during the fifty years I’ve known them. They are not at all materialistic.
CL: When Bill and I visited them in Maine, we were struck by how small the yellow house is that Alex paints so often.
MM: It is small, but he did build himself a large studio.
CL: Yes, and he “curated” the forest around his house. What do you like or don’t like about living in San Francisco?
MM: The city looks great, the weather is terrific (though I’ve become a weather wimp, not happy if it is too hot or too cold), it is easy to navigate. Most of all, for its size, it has a wealth of cultural resources. On the negative side, I miss my friends from the East Coast, attitudes in the city are often parochial, and — like anyone who has been here for a while — I don’t like many of the changes time has brought.
I do have a new obsession: the Salesforce Tower. I have a splendid view of it from my living room windows. Though I enjoy Jim Campbell’s play of light on the top — it keeps me jumping up at night to see what’s going on — my favorite view is in the late afternoon when the setting sun hit’s the beveled edge, giving it a Barnett Newman “zip.”
CL: What would you say your main interest is now?
MM: I am an observer: art, music, opera, ballet, museums, film… I love them all.