Nearly a century ago, two out-of-work actors came up with an idea to make money. They would pose as gay men looking for sex in public restrooms, thinking a police department would hire them as a way to cut down on vice. KPCC's Steve Julian talks to playwright Tom Jacobson’s about his latest work, "The Twentieth Century Way," which examines this lurid moment in California’s history. (The adult content of this story may not be suitable for everyone.)
The LAPD turned them down, but Long Beach Police officials liked the idea. Over the course of a month, the two actors helped police nab 31 men on sex charges.
“This is the first instance of entrapment that I had ever read about, and it was two actors that were doing it," said Jacobson. "It seemed ripe with metaphor.”
For Jacobson, every metaphor led to a puzzle:
“Were they acting when they were pretending to be homosexuals in the restrooms at the beach, or were they acting when they were being the policemen who were arresting them and entrapping them?"
The question, he said, is one we can ask ourselves: Which of our roles is truly us? Any of them? All of them? And what do we get when we strip away the parts of us that aren’t honest?
“The one really funny thing about these two guys is that one was considered roughly masculine and the other sort of pretty.”
That made them "attractive" to police as a viable team.
“They would appeal to men that liked more effeminate guys and men that preferred someone rougher.”
I’ll spare you the details about what had to happen for the arrest to take place. But here’s one point of information: “the twentieth century way” is a sexual term that has nothing to do with entrapment.
Jacobson says that in 1914, society was still adjusting to the word "homosexual" – coined in Germany in the late 19th century. News media back then paid close attention to homosexual behavior.
“The Sacramento Bee sent an investigative reporter to dig up dirt on these sins, this vice, in Southern California. They’d already found lots of people to arrest in various ways in Sacramento.”
Playwright Tom Jacobson described the Sacramento Bee’s owner, Charles McClatchy, as obsessed.
“They reported about it any time there was a gathering near the river in Sacramento. That was where boxers went to have sex with each other. All kinds of very strange attention.”
The negative publicity proved unfortunate for Long Beach, a city that wanted to clean up its beaches and promote itself as a safe place for families.
“It wasn’t like celebrating this purge of vice, it actually was, ‘Oh, look at all the vice there is lurking in Long Beach.'”
Actors Robert Rommana and Will Bradley, who recently appeared in Camelot at the Pasadena Playhouse, perform multiple roles in "The Twentieth Century Way." The show opens tomorrow at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena.