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One singular sensation.

Before his AIDS-related death in 1996, brilliant Broadway costumer Howard Crabtree created the season's gayest hit, When Pigs Fly

"Howard could do anything," says Daniel Gates of his lover, the late costumer and performer Howard Crabtree. "But everything he did was one of a kind." Few would disagree. From his early cabaret work to his last and greatest show, Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly, Crabtree created unique costumes that he himself referred to as "Disney on drugs."

According to Gates, who shared his life for eight years, Crabtree desperately wanted to reach a wider audience. "I'm a garment manufacturer, so I make thousands of the same garment," Gates says. "Howard became obsessed with creating a doll or a puppet that we could duplicate."

It never happened. Crabtree died of AIDS complications on June 28, before finishing work on When Pigs Fly, a musical revue in which five actors play everything from showgirls to centaurs, virtually suspending the laws of gravity with their spirited, gay-themed high jinks. Even in a theatrical season that included such queer-friendly gems as Rent and Nicky Silver's Fit to Be Tied, When Pigs Fly is a standout. New York magazine's John Simon called it "liberating, exhilarating, almost ecstatic."

Crabtree set out early in search of his theatrical destiny. Born in 1954 to Southern Baptist parents in Excelsior Springs, Mo., he moved to Las Vegas after high school and found work as a chorus boy in the Folies Bergeres. The experience fueled "a lifelong obsession with over-the-hill showgirls," says Gates. Eventually Crabtree ended up in the wardrobe department of La Cage aux Folles on Broadway in 1987, where he met chorus boys Drew Geraci and Mark Waldrop.

"Collaboratively speaking, we fell in love with each other," says Waldrop, who later wrote and directed When Pigs Fly. "I provided words that put Howard's vision into a context - and his imagination allowed me to go places I never could have gone on my own." Crabtree's influence also went deeper. "I was reluctant to cross the threshold into explicitly gay theater," Waldrop says, "but working with Howard, I had to go there. He taught me that I had to be true to myself."

Crabtree struggled with that lesson in his own life. His early journals are filled with evidence of his artistic ambitions and his love of the work of Wait Disney - as well as veiled references to his burgeoning homosexual-ity. "I wish, more than anything, that I wouldn't be that way," he wrote at age 17. "I pray to God for His help, but it hasn't come...yet." Twenty years later the adult Crabtree annotated these entries, explaining: "[I'm] trying for the first time to deal with that big scary word, 'sexuality.'"

For Crabtree, dealing honestly with that "word" brought him the gift of true love. In 1988 at a New York gay bar Crabtree met Gates. They walked and talked all night. "We were both HIV-positive," Gates says. "We talked about the risks and the possibilities, and we faced that challenge together."

Both former farm boys, Crabtree and Gates moved in 1991 to a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa., where they settled in with a menagerie of hogs, chickens, goats, dogs, and sheep. Two years later Crabtree achieved his first big New York success: Howard Crabtree's Whoop-Dee-Doo! Mounted on a mere $60,000, Whoop-Dee-Doo! starred both Crabtree and his wildly inventive costumes and ran for nine months at the Actors' Playhouse, garnering critical raves and two Drama Desk Awards.

The show also gained admiration from the likes of superstar designer Bob Mackie, one of Crabtree's heroes. Says Mackie: "Howard's costume designs possessed such audacious wit that, frankly, I was jealous."

After Whoop-Dee-Doo! closed, Crabtree's AIDS became symptomatic. He never performed again. Instead he began to work on the dolls he hoped to mass-produce. "He was working on the prototype of a showgirl doll," Gates says, "but I never saw it while he was alive."

Crabtree then shifted his energies to the show that would become When Pigs Fly. A backers audition in January 1996 netted investments of $225,000 - Crabtree's first real budget. As his health worsened, When Pigs Fly became a sustaining mission. Gates remembers making trips to the local Wal-Mart for materials. "Howard couldn't walk, but they had wheelchairs," Gates recalls. "So I wheeled him around as he pulled stuff off the shelves and piled it in with him."

In May his health plummeted, and Crabtree asked his parents to visit. Arriving at the farm, shaken by their son's condition, they focused on helping him work. "The costumes were made of foam sprayed with a chemical that turned it to plastic," Gates says. "It was Howard's father's job to spray the body parts. One day I looked out the window and saw him, this Southern Baptist man, spray-painting 50 sets of tits on the lawn."

After Crabtree's death Waldrop wrote "Light in the Loafers," a song illustrating what Crabtree did for Waldrop - and for untold others. It tells of two Broadway hoofers, always rejected at auditions because they're "light in the loafers" (read gay). Instead of giving up, they decide to "shine it around." When the number is performed in When Pigs Fly, actual lights blaze from the dancers' black shoes.

"So many messages are being sent out into that theater every night," says Stanley Bojarski, a star of the show and one of Crabtree's oldest friends. "We are telling people to be themselves. We're also telling everyone, Hey, we're here. We're not militant about it, but it's so basic: We're not going away."

These days Gates continues to live at the farmhouse in Bucks County, where, not long after Crabtree died, Disney called to offer work. "Howard had waited his entire life for that call," Gates says. "It's hard not to be bitter, but on the other hand, I consider myself a lucky man. When most people lose someone as important as Howard was to me, it's final. But all I have to do is go to the theater - and he's there."

Crabtree's presence is alive in other ways too: One day, foraging through the attic, Gates found a model of an over-the-hill actress accepting an Oscar. "It was a prototype of the show-girl doll Howard had hoped to mass-produce," Gates says. "He'd sculpted it but never got around to dressing it. Instead he attached a note telling me he was sorry he hadn't finished it." Will the doll be manufactured? Gates shakes his head. "Once again Howard had made something that couldn't be duplicated," he says. "His art was like his life: one of a kind."

RELATED ARTICLE: 1996 a year in theater

With a bighearted new musical and high-profile revivals of gay classics, 1996 was a season to remember.

Rent Written by Jonathan Larson, directed by Michael Greif (Nederlander Theater, New York City) April

The most startling aspect of Jonathan Larson's Rent - besides the fact that Larson died two weeks before the show's opening - is its unstereotypical treatment of homosexuality. The play became a sensation, sweeping up Tony awards and a Pulitzer prize, partly because of Larson's ability to convey the gay sensibility of New York City's East Village. Though he himself was straight, Larson's final work advanced our understanding of the gay and lesbian experience. Based on Puccini's classic opera La Boheme, Rent transfers Boheme's 19th-century Parisian artists to contemporary New York. We meet three post-modern couples, two of them same-sex. Our heroes are transvestites, S/M club dancers, and performance artists; almost all are HIV-positive or living with AIDS. With the help of some amazing music, Larson's characters battle their bleak environment to make lasting connections with one another and with us.

The Boys in the Band Written by Mart Crowley, directed by Kenneth Elliott (WPA Theatre, New York City) July

Raucously funny and still dangerous, The Boys were back in the play's first New York production since it premiered in 1968. Before the WPA Theatre's revival opened, gay opinion makers questioned whether Crowley's searing portrait of gay self-hatred run amok would play in these enlightened '90s. Not only did it play, it was a hit.

For many, Crowley's plot is familiar: As a group of gay men celebrate a birthday, drugs, alcohol, and bitchy wit propel the party into a bitter free-for-all and, finally, a homo-shame meltdown. Director Elliott drew powerhouse performances from highly acclaimed solo talents: David Drake as Michael, the party's host; James Lecesne as the ultra-fey Emory; and David Greenspan as Harold, the birthday boy.

Was the play dated? Delighted audiences didn't think so. Intimacy issues, religious conflicts, self-esteem problems, internalized homophobia - these are what The Boys were battling. Aren't we still?

Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls Directed by Tom Booker (Circle in the Square Downtown Theatre, New York City) October

You wouldn't think Valley of the Dolls could get any trashier. Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel was later made into what became a camp-classic film loved by gays the world over. But in the hands of drag performer Jackie Beat, Susann's tale of of Hollywood back stabbing and bitchiness actually went further than camp. It was sublime camp.

In Susann's showbiz drama, backstage treachery rules among the leading ladies, from Neely O'Hara, played here by Kate Flannery (Patty Duke in the film version), to Helen Lawson, played by Beat (Susan Hayward in the film). Rifling on their characters' most insidious traits, this cast played the hell out of the parts for hilarity's sake. The imposing Beat, who's known for films such as Grief and Wigstock: The Movie, didn't really look like Hayward, but her bravado was certainly enough to win believers. The best thing about this staged revision was that we could now laugh at the film's blatant homophobia, reveling in the utter hilarity of lines like "You know how bitchy fags can be!"

Fit to Be Tied Written by Nicky Silver, directed by David Warren (Playwrights Horizons, New York City) November

Great playwrights don't always write great plays. Unfortunately, Fit to Be Tied is a case in point. When it comes to cutting-edge wit, gay farceur Silver is hard to beat. But Fit to Be Tied doesn't quite hang together, perhaps because he's trying to combine the absurd with the sentimental. In this comedy wealthy young New Yorker Arloc (played by T. Scott Cunningham), who has a taste for S/M, manages to snare an angel named Boyd (played by Matt Keeslar), even though he's just the Radio City Music Hall variety. Enter Arloc's mother, Nessa (played by Jean Smart), who's also into seducing angels, and the hilarity begins - sort of.

Starting with his wildly original breakthrough hit, Pterodactyls, Silver has delighted audiences with his vision of a gay-tinged world turned upside down. But here he's also tried to make it warm and fuzzy, and it can't be done. While the actors hold their own, Fit to Be Tied is all dressed up with no place to go.

Present Laughter Written by Noel Coward, directed by Scott Elliott (Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City) December

With superb acting, writing, and directing, this sparkling revival breathes new life into Coward's 1943 drawing-room romp. Relationships and nuances the closeted gay playwright could only hint at 50 years ago are now fully realized. Gay director Elliott has seamlessly imbued this English comedy with sex. As matinee idol Garry Essendine, Frank Langella is a dreamboat - and young playwright Roland, played by Tim Hopper, strips naked onstage in hopes of seducing him. Essendine's a great part, and no wonder. It was originally played by Coward himself. Present Laughter is not one of his more profound efforts, but with Elliott's guidance it's still a frothy delight.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:The Year in the Arts 1996; includes list of gay theatrical works in 1996; Broadway costume designer Howard Crabtree
Author:Baker, James Ireland
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 21, 1997
Previous Article:Screen gem.
Next Article:Gaywatch.

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