Sunday June 8, 2008, 7:00 pm
At the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood
Los Angeles Filmforum presents
Tearoom, a document presented by William E. Jones
Followed by a discussion with Jones and Bruce Hainley
Tearoom consists of footage shot by the police in the course of a crackdown on public sex in the American Midwest. In the summer of 1962, the Mansfield, Ohio Police Department photographed men in a restroom under the main square of the city. The cameramen hid in a closet and watched the clandestine activities through a two-way mirror. The film they shot was used in court as evidence against the defendants, all of whom were found guilty of sodomy, which at that time carried a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in the state penitentiary. The original surveillance footage shot by the police came into the possession of director William E. Jones while he was researching this case for a documentary project. The unedited scenes of ordinary men of various races and classes meeting to have sex were so powerful that the director decided to present the footage with a minimum of intervention. Tearoom is a radical example of film presented “as found” for the purpose of circulating historical images that have otherwise been suppressed.
More on the film can be found here.
The book Tearoom, available now from 2nd Cannons Publications, contains many historical texts relating to the Mansfield cases, as well as over 100 frame enlargements from the video.
Screenings of Tearoom: 2008 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente de Buenos Aires, Argentina; InDPanda International Short Film Festival, Hong Kong; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Eyedrum, Atlanta
William E. Jones grew up in Ohio and now lives and works in Los Angeles. He has made two feature length experimental films, Massillon and Finished, several short videos, and the feature length documentary Is It Really So Strange?. His work has been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Oberhausen Short Film Festival, Pacific Film Archive, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His films and videos were also the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern, London, in 2005. He was included in Biennial Exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993 and 2008. He has published two books, Is It Really So Strange? (2006) and Tearoom (2008). He teaches film history at Art Center College of Design. More can be found on Jones on his website.
Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor at Artforum and teaches in the MFA program at Art Center College of Design. His has written for Frieze, Bidoun, Parkett, The Nation, and The New York Times. His recent books include Foul Mouth, published by 2nd Cannons, and, with John Waters, Art – A Sex Book, published by Thames & Hudson. He is at work on a book to be called Sturtevant’s Eclipse, which will be the first monographic examination of the American artist, Sturtevant.
REVIEWS OF TEAROOM:
Felicia Feaster, “Tearoom: Arresting Development” Creative Loafing (Atlanta) February 20, 2008, p. 39.
Sometime in the early 2000s, Los Angeles artist William E. Jones came across a degraded copy of a 1964 instructional film called Camera Surveillance. And like so many things stumbled upon during an Internet troll, the content was deeply disturbing.
In the grainy video an array of men – black and white, young and old, white collar and blue collar – can be observed engaging in sexual activities of every sort in a Mansfield, Ohio, public restroom. They wear expressions of mild anxiety and restlessness, their eyes diligently trained on the bathroom door, wary of interlopers. Dressed in porkpie hats and ties, or lumpen and macho, the men suggest a blue-movie version of The Honeymooners. In their variety, these wildly diverse men are a revelatory vision of closeted gay life circa 1962, when the actual surveillance footage was shot.
The footage was part of a police bust meant to capture “sex deviates” in the sensational vernacular of the city’s Mansfield News-Journal. Dozens of men were arrested in the sting operation, their lives irreparably changed. Jones was able to obtain the original surveillance footage from Atlantan Bret Wood (in full disclosure, my husband). Wood had included the footage in his documentary about highway safety films, Hell’s Highway.
What might have struck some as a creepy cultural oddity inspired Jones. Camera Surveillance was rich fodder for an artist who has often worked with found material and with gay themes. He slightly modified the surveillance footage and dubbed the film Tearoom, slang for a public bathroom where men meet for sex. Tearoom was selected for the prestigious 2008 Whitney Biennial in March.
Jones grew up in Massillon, Ohio, just an hour away from Mansfield. For Jones, the footage was evidence of everything beneath the surface of his own Midwestern reality. It is a document of America’s secret history and a sexual subculture where “toilets in department stores, in parks, along public highways and even in county courthouses were hotbeds of tearoom trade.”
“Tearoom may be the truest documentary of public sex before the gay liberation movement,” Jones says.
Felicia Feaster, “William E. Jones: The Secret History” creativeloafing.com, February 20, 2008.
Los Angeles artist William E. Jones will debut his 56-minute film, Tearoom, at Eyedrum, Friday, February 22, at 8 p.m. The film, which will appear at the March 2008 Whitney Biennial, is a found document of a 1962 Mansfield, Ohio, police bust. Ohio police set up hidden cameras in a Mansfield public restroom hoping to catch sexual activity. What they found was men from all walks of life engaged in what in the early ’60s constituted a furtive homosexual subculture. I had a chance recently to speak to Jones about the film he has made based on that police footage.
FELICIA FEASTER: How do you think Tearoom’s acceptance into the 2008 Whitney Biennial will change its reception?
WILLIAM E. JONES: I think it’s great that the Biennial curators have chosen to include a found object in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Something comparable happened when the Rodney King beating video shot by George Holliday, who was not a professional artist, appeared in the 1993 Biennial. I was also in that Biennial, and my entry in the catalog comes right after George Holliday’s. Fifteen years later, I am back at the Whitney Museum presenting a document of another of law enforcement’s excesses, though not one that caused an uprising. I can’t predict how Tearoom will change in this context, though it may make an interesting addition to an art-world institution often criticized for eschewing politics and ratifying decisions already made by the market.
FEASTER: Where and when did you first see the film on which Tearoom is based? How did you get a copy? There is an Atlanta connection?
JONES: I originally found some of the footage on the Internet. On the Planet Out website, in alphabetical order immediately before my own film Massillon, was an entry called “Mansfield, Ohio, Tearoom Busts.” There was a degraded copy of a film called Camera Surveillance. Produced by the Mansfield police and intended as an instructional film, Camera Surveillance demonstrated how the department had set up a sting operation in the tearoom under the central square of the city. The voice-over narration, as illiterate and hateful a text as I have ever heard committed to film, attested to the police’s unenlightened attitudes. While I knew that these attitudes existed – indeed, they still do – in Camera Surveillance I saw that they were not only acknowledged as official policy, but held up as a standard for other police forces to imitate.
Camera Surveillance inspired me to produce a work about the busts. I chose to re-edit the material I found and to present it silent, without commentary. I considered the voice-over narration distracting and the images powerful (and self-explanatory) enough to stand on their own. Since that time, Camera Surveillance has vanished from the Internet, while Mansfield 1962 can be seen on my website.
While I was at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, doing post-production work on other videos, I continued to research the cases relating to Mansfield 1962 at the Ohio Historical Society. Someone at the Wexner put me in touch with Bret Wood, the director of Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films. Part of that film deals with the tearoom busts, since Highway Safety Foundation in Mansfield lent the police the equipment they used to shoot the evidence footage. Hell’s Highway includes very brief excerpts of this film. Unlike the source of Mansfield 1962, this material is in vibrant color. I asked Wood where he had found the footage, and if I could use it for my own work. He had gotten it from a former Mansfield chief of police, who had been storing the film in his garage for years. The two of them donated the film to the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Wood made a video transfer of the film before giving it to Kinsey, and it is a copy of this tape that he generously allowed me to use to make Tearoom.
FEASTER: You initially thought about using the footage for a documentary project, but decided to just show it “as is” to some extent. Why did you decide to exhibit the film this way? Have you manipulated the film in any way?
JONES: Aside from opening and closing titles, I changed the footage in one way. I took the last reel of the footage, which contained images of the location and of the police walking through the restroom where they did their surveillance, and placed it at the beginning of Tearoom, so that it could function as an establishing sequence. I present the surveillance footage as it was shot and assembled in chronological order by the police.
I don’t want to obscure the actions of the police by imposing my own decisions on the material. The footage was not the product of an automatic camera. It required people to operate it. While shooting this footage, the police cameramen, Bill Spognardi and Dick Burton, made many decisions about camera position, camera movement, duration of shots, perhaps even choice of subject. The decisions regarding what and when to shoot were effectively judgments of which men – and indeed, which parts of men’s bodies – were worth scrutinizing. I want to preserve the cameramen’s decisions so that spectators can take a look at them and form their own ideas about what was going on. Tearoom is evidence of men engaging in criminal activities under the eye of the law, but it is also a record of men hiding unseen and photographing others masturbating and having sex.
When law-enforcement figures made use of the evidence footage, they accompanied it with an excess of words, in the form of prosecutor’s statements or voice-over narration. The images served as an instrument of domination, and the people who watched them were told at all times how to see them. I present these images unedited and silent so that spectators can have a respite from authority’s attempts to direct their thoughts.
I have to say, having seen the film before, what I found most disturbing was the look of utter detachment and lack of emotion on the men’s faces. It’s not a vision of sex you’d call “joyful” or even cathartic. What about the video piqued your interest and made you want to create an art object out of it.
Tearoom may be the truest documentary of public sex before the gay liberation movement. Certainly no one in it is performing for the camera. I was talking about the detachment you mention with the artist Charlie White only recently. He sees the expressions and postures of the men in Tearoom as being indicative of the era before porn taught men how to have sex, or at least how to look and sound while they have it.
Someone watching and listening for intruders can hardly get much obvious joy from furtive sex, at least in the moment. But these experiences acquire another flavor in the retelling, as the men who have contributed to the journal Straight to Hell remind us. Those who engage in public sex have a special body of knowledge. They have proof that many men are not as “normal” as they would have us believe, and they are in a very good position to understand their society’s hypocrisy.
FEASTER: I heard you were unhappy with how one of the screenings for Tearoom went, at the Warhol Museum. Was it shown in a different context than you would have liked? Can you talk about that?
JONES: I think Andy Warhol – as director, not as producer – was a great filmmaker, and his films constitute the most remarkable part of his achievement as an artist. I presumed to give Tearoom a Warholian title – impersonal, generic, yet evocative in one word – as a tribute to him but also as a way of raising the question of his work’s relation to my own. To present Tearoom at the Andy Warhol Museum was a wonderful opportunity, but the screening turned out somewhat differently than I had hoped.
After showing Tearoom, the curator, who did so with the best intentions, also showed Camera Surveillance and another instructional film that includes Mansfield footage, The Child Molester. These other films have repugnant, overdetermined soundtracks, and they made the audience very angry. The question-and-answer session turned into a forum for spectators to express their opinions on a local crackdown on public sex and on the impropriety of me showing police evidence footage in public.
Though the event was a film screening in an art museum, none of the questions I took from the audience directly related to film or art. People lost sight of the pure fascination of the film, the experience of watching ordinary men have sex with each other in a recent, yet somehow remote, historical era. After the Warhol Museum screening, I decided to avoid presenting Tearoom in screening programs with other works. It is a unique document, and it deserves to have its own context.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the Pittsburgh audience’s reaction. My works tend to be controversial. This leads to all sorts of interesting discussions, some of them quite heated. Confounding conventional expectations is a worthy goal for a filmmaker, but the consequences can be personally uncomfortable.
FEASTER: You have worked in documentary, video art and photography. How does Tearoom deal with themes in your other works? You work a lot with found footage. Can you talk about what this kind of footage intended for use in one arena, and appropriated for another, means to you?
JONES: Of all my works, Tearoom most closely resembles the first, Massillon, so there is the sense of my practice coming full circle. The project of researching legal aspects of sex is over for me, at least for now. In my previous films and videos, I had always avoided sexually explicit images, but in Tearoom, spectators finally get to see sex, albeit in a way that may not please them.
Quite a lot of film criticism since the 1950s concentrates on the notion of directorial style, especially visual style. I wish to question what it means to have a style, and whether it is even necessary to have one. In my first works, I felt compelled to emphasize that I was making an artistic statement. I now want to see what happens if I forgo that effort. Perhaps simply choosing an artifact and providing it with a new context is enough. I make no claims on the genre of the found footage film, but appropriation is a word that interests me very much. I suppose I am simply applying to film a strategy that artists have been using for decades. I am a slow learner.
There are also practical aspects of these decisions. I started what is conventionally known as a career with the notion that I could be an experimental filmmaker. People still pursue this activity in the U.S., but they tend to be what was once called “mechanically inclined” or they have the institutional support of a school where they teach. Neither of these conditions really apply to me, so I have had to adapt.
Partly due to circumstances beyond my control, and partly as the result of guile and tenacity, I am now being embraced by the art world. I think that this environment may be the best one for sustaining the practice I have developed over the years.
FEASTER: What does the title Tearoom mean?
JONES: A tearoom is a public restroom used for brief, anonymous sexual encounters. The origins of the term are unknown. The word possibly derives from British slang use of the word “tea” to mean urine. No one can specify the historical origins of meeting in bathrooms to have sex, but the practice is certainly nothing new. Before every large American city had a selection of legal, safe gay bars, the tearoom was the main meeting place for men who wished to have sex with other men. According to the testimony of many older gay men, sexual activity in restrooms was widespread and constant in the Midwest of the early 1960s. Toilets in department stores, in parks, along public highways and even in county courthouses were hotbeds of tearoom trade.
FEASTER: As many have pointed out, anonymous gay bathroom sex hasn’t gone out of fashion since 1962, as Idaho Senator Larry Craig recently reminded us. And Atlanta police have also recently been doing undercover sting operations at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Is Tearoom part of this larger matter of public sex, or is it tied in your mind, to the past?
JONES: Public sex is never going away, though bars, bathhouses and now the Internet provide convenient venues for many people to make contacts. Mansfield, Ohio, I should point out, still has no gay bar. Even men in urban areas with strong gay communities frequent tearooms, if they are looking for anonymity and danger. And of course, the closet still holds an appeal for a few die-hards.
I think it is important to respect Tearoom as an historical artifact. Presented in the aftermath of Senator Craig’s recent publicity, Tearoom appears to be the forerunner not only of contemporary surveillance culture but of a media landscape saturated with cynicism and moral panic. When the Mansfield police shot the footage and disseminated some of it in an instructional film, their work was unique. No other police department could afford such a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. In a way, Mansfield’s film is isolated in history. Digital video, fiber optics, night vision and the like have made such an operation a practical possibility, but it may no longer be legal. Most of the success with this kind of surveillance has actually been in observing company locker rooms, where union organizing, rather than sexual intercourse, tends to happen.
FEASTER: Obviously Tearoom ties in to your past in Ohio. Can you talk about that aspect? Do you think Tearoom might mean something different to you because of that Ohio backdrop?
JONES: The Mansfield tearoom busts may not be especially well-known, but they have a personal importance for me. I was born in 1962, during the period between the arrests in the case and the first appearance of the suspects in court. Mansfield is an hour’s drive away from my hometown of Massillon, Ohio. While I was growing up, no one ever talked about the dozens of men convicted or the tactics used to round them up. I knew nothing at all about the case until I happened to find Camera Surveillance on the Internet.
The most emotionally intense and memorable sequence in my first film, Massillon, is a tearoom scene. It sets a tone and provides an introduction to the final third of the film, an analysis of laws proscribing sexual activity in the United States. At the time I made Massillon, I was not yet aware that another tearoom scene, this one with catastrophic legal consequences, had transpired so close to home.
When I learned about the Mansfield tearoom busts, I felt as though I had found, among other things, a confirmation of what I had written about in Massillon. I think that the case must have cast a pall on what there was of gay life in the region. The witch-hunt atmosphere that encouraged the police in their actions, and possibly remorse for the results of them, also had an effect on the moral teachings of my upbringing.
FEASTER: What kind of responses has Tearoom inspired in audiences?
JONES: It’s still a bit too early to define a trend, since few audiences have seen Tearoom. In San Francisco, there was an engaged and friendly audience; in Pittsburgh, an engaged but not so friendly audience. Screenings in Argentina, Ecuador and Hong Kong took place without me. For screenings in the United States, I insist on being present to answer audience questions – and there are many – after screenings of Tearoom. I have had to make an exception for the Whitney, because they will be showing Tearoom once a day for a period of three months. It isn’t practical for me to take up residence there, so in time for the opening of the Biennial, I prepared a book, also called Tearoom. It gathers all of the writing I could find about the cases and the film, as well as my essays about the work. It is available from an independent publisher in Los Angeles, 2ndcannons.
Ryan Lee, “Jailbait: Tearoom Exposes Hidden, Persecuted Gay Oasis in 1962” Southern Voice, February 15, 2008, pp. 23, 32.
Situated in the middle of a Mansfield, Ohio, street in 1962 was a public restroom with the aura of a prison. Submerged beneath the sidewalk, the small cellar had dreary gray brick walls, a pair of stalls with no doors, a row of five full-length urinals — and covertly, a heavy law enforcement presence.
In actuality, it was more of a holding cell, since many of the men who frequented the restroom “all had one thing in common,” according to Mansfield Police Chief John P. Butler: “They were all going to jail.”
The imprisoning essence of the Mansfield restroom goes beyond aesthetics. It was a place that welcomed arrested souls, where men who had sex with men — not many of them were called “gay” back then — fled for reprieve from a smothering world.
“The restroom where they met was literally, and in a more general sense, underground,” says William E. Jones, a gay filmmaker who chronicles the Mansfield restroom in Tearoom, a documentary comprised exclusively of footage collected during an extended undercover police raid of the facility in 1962.
Jones comes to Atlanta for a February 22 showing of Tearoom at Eyedrum Gallery.
“What the men did there was not sanctioned by the city above, but this space permitted them to act on their desires,” Jones says.
The hour-long movie transports viewers back to the bustle of the “tearoom trade” – a circuit of public spots popularly known as places where men could hookup. A transfixing silence serves as the film’s only soundtrack, part of the unfiltered, undistracted view audiences get from the time the police department installs a two-way mirror to catch a stream of hurried, forbidden rendezvous.
Jones explains his decision not to add any sound, commentary or unrelated footage to his film.
“It took me quite a while to realize that there was almost nothing my intervention could do to improve it,” he says. “I used it, essentially, as found.”
The cast of regulars who frequent the Mansfield tearoom reveals the remarkably egalitarian nature of the busy meeting spot, considering the racially charged times. White men of every age, class and body type — some of whom might otherwise be hostile to the rise of Negro rights outside the tearoom — are willing to masturbate with professional black men, or pay a young black hustler for a blow job.
Whatever their differences in the streets above the restroom, together the men found a bunker where they could explore the urges they hated and fought against for decades, a place where even society and sometimes, their own self-loathing could not overwhelm their truest desires.
“These acts had a utopian aspect, provoking people in power to close the place down and punish the participants,” Jones says. “The way that sex makes the mixing of various ages, races and classes possible — and that ordinary men availed themselves of the opportunity to explore this — shocked Mansfield’s city fathers, and the policemen who were their servants.”
Despite the relative diversity in the Mansfield restroom, there is much about Tearoom that captures the conservatism of 1960s America. The films features a ubiquitous flow of starched white dress shirts, black ties, square-framed glasses, and cigarettes being puffed on as men exit the restroom and return to their camouflaged lives.
There are also some deliciously explicit scenes that are simultaneously stimulating and deflating. It’s the most graphic parts of the movie that are the most disheartening. They capture the extent of the dehumanization gay people endured during that era.
The empty sex itself isn’t most dehumanizing, but rather the culmination of the fear and desperation the men lived in as they tried to reconcile their conflicted desires.
Fear is in the eye of nearly every man who walks into the Mansfield tearoom. During sex, most of the eyes are concentrated on the bathroom’s front door, the men visibly terrified of what it would mean to themselves, their families, their jobs, their marriages, even their status among the living, if they saw feet or shadows approaching the entryway.
When the Mansfield Police Department finished its lengthy surveillance of the underground tearoom, about 60 men were arrested and prosecuted under Ohio’s sodomy law.
An Ohio native, Jones first learned about police footage of the Mansfield bust first in a “truly awful” police training video about camera surveillance, then in the movie Hell’s Highway by Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood. The original footage now resides at the Kinsey Institute for Research of Sex, Gender & Reproduction, and serves as visual evidence of how much gay life in America blossomed during the last half of the 20th century.
“What younger people often fail to understand is that in 1962, the very notion of being gay was simply not considered a topic worthy of public discussion in most parts of the U.S.” says Jones, who is also releasing a book entitled Tearoom.
“There has been an enormous, irreversible change in consciousness within the period of a single person’s lifetime,” he adds. “The present debates, as unappetizing and frustrating as they can be, are a definite political advance over the erasure and silence of the past.”
For all of the internal pain the men in Tearoom apparently suffered, the raw footage also captures the euphoria, however fleeting, some men were able to experience before the gay rights movement began in earnest.
“When I presented Tearoom in San Francisco, many of the people in the audience were gay seniors,” Jones says. “I expected them to be quite critical, but I got the impression that they were glad to see images that reminded them of the early 1960s.
“After the first showing, a sweet old man regaled me with tales of his own tearoom experiences, including one involving sheriff’s officers in the basement of a Midwestern county courthouse,” he says.
The issue of public sex dominated news headlines just before the release of Tearoom, following the arrest and guilty plea of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) last summer. As much as he’s asked for his opinion on the Craig situation, Jones says he wishes he could come up with a witty response, “but really, it’s all too sad and grotesque for me to crack a joke about.”
Asked his thoughts on why some men continue to cruise public restrooms in more liberated times, Jones suspects it’s a similar, primal motivation that inspired the men of the Mansfield tearoom. “There are many men who feel that some pleasures are worth grasping, in and of themselves, just for the hell of it, regardless of the risk,” Jones says.
Skot Armstrong, “Bunker Vision: William Jones,” Artillery, January 2008, p. 45.
If Andy Warhol went to heaven on a mule, then his tinsel wings must have been flapping extra hard on the night of December 14, 2007. That was the night they screened William Jones Tearoom at the Andy Warhol Museum. In one of those cases where life is far stranger than art, the Mansfield Police Department in 1962, decided to go into the movie business. The result is a sort of perfect lost Warhol film. Having identified a certain public restroom as the location of a lot of gay sex, they kitted out a storage room behind a one way mirror with a 16mm camera. The only smile that one ever sees during the 56 minute running time is the face of the officer assigned to document the proceedings, when he is occasionally reflected in the glass through which he is filming. The couplings that are captured are as joyless and perfunctory as animals mating on a nature special. An added bonus to whatever horror or pity might be evoked by this sad spectacle, is the fact that every recognizable face you see will have served at least a year in prison and if living, will still be a registered sex offender. It took the Mansfield Police Department to make sex look uglier than Warhol did. But thanks to the repurposing of this relic by Mister Jones, it is being shown in his museum.
Jason Shamai, “Urinal Kinds of Trouble: William E. Jones Proves That in America, the Mirror Looks at You,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 24 October 2007, pp. 66-67.
In his research for a planned documentary about the 1962 convictions under state sodomy laws of men engaged in public sex in a Mansfield, Ohio, restroom, Jones came into possession of 16mm surveillance footage captured from behind a two-way mirror. This footage is being presented with minimal editing as Tearoom. What is on offer here is a fascinating and important historical document of societal and particularly sexual repression and the stone-faced, eyes-on-the-door gay subculture it created. The film is at once much less viewer friendly than Massillon (the best-kept secret about cruising is the dullness factor) and much more in step with contemporaneous American media consciousness, thanks to the recently exposed indiscretions of so many throbbing pillars of moral authority.
Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, and Larry Craig, all subjected to the philosophically corresponding charges of both the right and the left, have provided an unbeatably complex backdrop for the viewing of Tearoom. The dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed is now shakier than ever, and to watch the film is to be torn between angered solidarity with the subjects and feverish speculation about the varying levels of hypocrisy on view. There’s a queasiness too in further exposing men – the younger of whom are still alive – who didn’t ask to be surveilled then and may very well not want to be celebrated now. The film’s moral ambiguity puts it on board with the new queer cinema’s ambivalence.
Michael Sicinski, “Tearoom (William E. Jones)” academichack.net, April 2007.
Far and away the most historically revelatory work of art I’ve encountered all year, William Jones’s Tearoom is an act of media defiance, an excavation and appropriation of footage generated with the most oppressive of intentions. Tearoom is a video comprised entirely of unaltered film footage shot in 1962 during a long-term sting operation by the Mansfield, Ohio police department. In the opening shots, the cops establish the scene (a pair of underground public bathrooms in the city square), a quasi-structuralist introductory passage detailing the number of steps down into the men’s room, the height and length of the compartment behind the mirror and sink, and a waving cameraman alerting us, the viewers, to his presence. After this, the remainder of Tearoom provides just under one hour of visual documentation (with slight camera movements and some thematic / category-based groupings, presumably edited by police personnel) of virtually everything that can possibly happen in a men’s bathroom. First, it’s just pissing and shitting, hand-washing and checking hair in the mirror. But before long, the footage shows various men, mostly middle-aged or older, having sex: handjobs, blowjobs, anal sex, the works. As Jones’s website details, the sting was successful. Based on the evidence collected on film, these men were convicted of sodomy, an offense that carried a mandatory sentence of at least one year in the Ohio state pen. The material, then, is about as close as one can get to an absolute artifact of the Foucauldian state surveillance apparatus. These representations destroyed lives. And yet, with his exposure and preservation of this footage, Jones has turned it into something almost redemptive. These men – men who look like and may well have been our fathers and grandfathers, uncles and family friends – are, for the most part, gone. And this footage not only captures (against their will) the sole evidence of their desires, for some of them maybe even of their entire existence. It documents their passage through a single time and place, their couplings with other men whose names they probably didn’t even know. The asshole cops of Mansfield produced Tearoom (or more precisely, the found object that Jones wisely presents in its original form) because they, and the culture that authorized them, hated gay men, and perhaps held a particular hatred for those “unmarked,” closeted gay men and bisexuals who walked among them, sat with them at O’Malley’s Bar or next to them at a baseball game. Years later, Jones allows us to remember the particular circumstances of their entrapment. But he also allows them to come back to life, to be safe and even beautiful in a future where they, at least, are no longer under siege. Jones’s Tearoom is a loving preservation of a kind of gay heaven. These angels wear Van Heusen, have beer bellies and hornrims, and never have to be afraid again.
TEXTS RELATED TO THE MANSFIELD TEAROOM BUST
Donn Gaynor, “Hidden Movie Camera Used by Police to Trap Sexual Deviates at Park Hangout, 17 Arrests Climax Probe,” Mansfield News-Journal, vol. 78, no. 169 (August 22, 1962) pp. 1-2.
Spurred by a sex deviate’s confession that he wantonly murdered two little girls who cried out for help when he attempted to molest them, Mansfield Police are completing one of the most spectacular investigations of homosexual depravity ever undertaken.
County Prosecutor Rex Larson yesterday and today filed sodomy charges against 11 Mansfield and area men, has issued warrants for two more. Four additional men are being held for investigation of sodomy and other arrests are expected.
These men were arrested Monday and Tuesday following a months-long investigation directed by Police Chief Clare W. Kyler in which homosexual activity in the men’s washroom in Central Park was photographed on color movie film by a hidden camera.
The public toilet, long suspected as a meeting place for male sex deviates, has been permanently closed. Officials said although they suspected such activity in the toilet facility, no one expected to witness the bestial scenes which the cameras recorded.
The hidden camera, manned by police officers, also hidden from view, watched everyone who entered and left the men’s room for nearly two months. But no photos were taken unless the visitor or visitors remained for long periods of time or acted in an abnormal manner. Some of the men reportedly spent as long as two hours in the underground toilet room.
CAN’T BE PRINTED
The things which some of these men did cannot be printed. They break the laws of Ohio, of decency and of humanity.
Chief Kyler said the investigation of male sex deviates began shortly after the killing of nine-year-old Jean Bertoch and seven-year-old Connie Lynn Hurrell near North Lake Park Saturday, June 23. Jerrell R. Howell, 18, a youth with a past record of molestings, confessed the double killing in which he reportedly “stomped” the girls to death with his feet, is waiting grand jury action in county jail.
Having learned that the Central Park restroom was reputedly a gathering place for deviates, Chief Kyler, working in cooperation with Park Superintendent Frank Burton, arranged to have a camera hidden in the room and worked out methods of getting officers in plain clothes in and out of the room to spell each other on “shifts” behind the camera.
The hidden officer would notify an outside man via radio when an abnormal act had been witnessed. The outside officer would then follow the offenders and obtain identification in various ways.
Police soon began compiling a list of the offenders and double-checking identities.
The daily investigation continued until the attempted molesting of a young boy occurred. After the arrest of the would-be molester, Chief Kyler ordered the toilet closed “for the protection of the citizens of Mansfield.”
A round-the-clock roundup of suspects began Monday. Suspects were interrogated and in some cases shown the films which had been taken of them. Most of those charged have been transferred to county jail to await court action.
Chief Kyler also commended the men of his department for “one of the best investigations I have ever seen in over 30 years of police work.”
Some of the suspects reportedly seemed “relieved” at being caught.
Officials said one man said he was glad it was over. The suspect reportedly stated he may have been subconsciously attempting to get caught by police. The particular suspect, a married man with children and a respected man in his community, is reported to have said he did not know why he committed such acts, except that he sometimes got “an urge.”
He stated that he would despise himself at the conclusion of a depraved act, had consulted a minister and made other attempts to straighten himself out, but to no avail.
A number of those arrested are married and most of these married have children. One suspect reportedly told of “talking over our affliction” with another deviate whom he had arranged to meet at a secluded place outside of the city. He stated that after finding out that his “date” was also married and had children, the two lost interest in each other and just went home.
Prosecutor Rex Larson said today that the law requires persons charged with sodomy to be given a psychiatric examination.
Conviction on a sodomy charge calls for a sentence of one to 20 years in the penitentiary.
Charged with sodomy and taken into court on bills of information in which they agree to plead guilty are: Vernon Sheeks, 51, of 565 Arnold Ave.; Christ Alamanteoff, 33, of Shiloh; Lawrence Burge, 58, of 3731/2 Grace St.; Paul Henry Downey, 25, of 99 West Luther Place; Troy Leon Grant, 45, of 120 1/2 Hedges St.; Roger Elwood Pifer, 28, of Mansfield R. D. 1; Samuel Gail Kuhn, 55, of Mansfield R. D. 1, Taylortown Rd.; Frank Joseph Thomas, 36, of 594 Warren Rd.; Edward John Walton, 45, of 173 1/2 Vale Ave.; Francis Clarence Bowman, 36, of 1051 Seminole Ave.; and Frederick C. Birmelin, 28, of 479 N. Mulberry St.
In addition, Larson has issued warrants for the arrest on sodomy charges of Lawrence L. Kellogg, 35, of Galion and Roger Lee Plummer, 22, of Crestline, R. D. 2.
Richard Amos Eberly, 41, of Monroeville, whom police reportedly observed attempting to molest a young boy in the restroom, was also arrested and faces a felony charge of indecent exposure.
Charges are expected to be filed against the four men still being held in city jail for investigation, and additional arrests will be forthcoming, according to police.
Chief Kyler said today, “The investigation is an outcome of the brutal murder of two little girls in North Lake Park. This is to be a continuous investigation to assure that this type of subject is not permitted to run at large in the City of Mansfield. These men are from all walks of life, not just one class of society. Any sex deviate may be a potential killer.”
The chief also urged the public to cooperate in cleaning abnormal sex activity from Mansfield by reporting persons acting suspiciously around children, parks and playgrounds.
W. Cleon Skousen, “Sex Deviates: A Review of a New Film,” Law and Order, vol. 11, no. 11 (November 1963) p. 72.
The Mansfield, Ohio Police Department has just produced a new film which is a pioneer in its field called Sex Deviates.
This film is a shocker for anyone who has not worked on a vice squad since it presents evidentiary films taken at the scene of the offense. The Mansfield Police Department successfully prosecuted a large number of perverts as a result of the investigative techniques depicted in this film.
For obvious reasons, the film is restricted exclusively to the use of the police profession and can only be obtained through official channels.
Police executives have realized for some time that the growth of homosexual cults throughout the country is creating a new and baffling challenge to law enforcement. The seriousness of the problem is aggravated by the fact that some of the worst sex crimes against children involve sex deviates. In fact, in Mansfield, Ohio, it was the brutal torture slaying of two little girls by a teen-age pervert that led to the action depicted in the film. These murders demonstrated that every deviate is a potential perpetrator of far more serious crimes and it is the responsibility of each department to identify its deviates and see that they get appropriate disposition.
Captain J. P. Butler was given the task of identifying the deviates in Mansfield, Ohio. The favorite rendezvous spot for perverts was a downtown restroom so he concentrated on that. Captain Butler and his associates succeeded in constructing an appropriate viewing port through which colored 16mm motion pictures could be taken. They then employed two-way radio to communicate with officers on the outside so they could contact the deviate under pretext and thereby learn his identity and address. Only after practically all of those who frequented this place had been identified and the evidence obtained did the Mansfield Department initiate any arrests. In this way the Department was able to make a clean sweep without tipping off any of the subjects in advance.
This is no doubt the first of a number of films which will be produced on the deviate problem. The Mansfield Department has made an important contribution to the police education field.
John P. Butler with Peter Mars, The Best Suit in Town. (Punta Gorda, Florida: Royal Palm Press, 2001).
Chapter Eighteen: No Discrimination
The one place in the city where there was no discrimination, where both black and white, the elite and the derelict, came to meet with few words spoken was Central Park. From college professor and church organist to truck driver and prison parolee, all had one thing in common—they were all going to jail.
The best of attorneys and spin-masters could not change this one. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” were the norms of the community and were in full force and effect whenever two consenting adults agreed to participate in abnormal activity.
The laws had not yet been changed. The due process, the procedural steps from arrest through conviction conforming to established rules and for the protection of the individual, was followed to the letter. No one was acting under duress. The evidence was legally presented before a court. The continuity of the evidence was established. Real evidence, also known as demonstrative evidence, was exhibited before the judge and jury. This was evidence that speaks for itself and provides not only credibility but proof to what police officers, who were eyewitnesses, gave as direct evidence to what they had seen.
The crime occurred on public property which was open and accessible to the citizens of Mansfield. The person responsible for this investigation was a young man being held for the murder of two small girls, Jerrel Ray Howell. While being interviewed by officers, Howell stated, “You guys don’t know nothin’, you ought to take a look at the men’s room in Central Park on the square, that’s where I first had oral sex with a man.”
We took up his suggestion and started to work on a plan. A key was obtained from the park superintendent which allowed us into the passage between the men’s and women’s rest rooms. What became obvious to us was something that went beyond what the Mansfield Chamber of Commerce had in mind when they touted our city as “The Fun Center of Ohio” and downtown “Central Park—our ‘town square’ with its statues and patchworks of flowerbeds—a pleasant green valley that offers excellent ‘recreational’ opportunities.”
A requisition was given to the city auditor to purchase a two-way mirror. This prompted an inquiry from one of the women in the auditor’s office as to what this was being used for. The chief was contacted and I was advised to tell her a lie as we did not want word of what was being investigated to leak out. Our only other cost was for the painting of the men’s room with a lighter gray color and the installation of stronger light bulbs.
The paper towel rack with a mirror was moved to the wall adjacent to the passageway after cutting a hole in the wall and replacing the mirror with the new device which would allow the investigator to look into the men’s room. All the work was done at night when the rest rooms were locked up.
Because we did not have money available to us for the cost of the camera equipment we needed to film the suspected activities taking place on a regular basis in the restroom, the Highway Safety Foundation was quick to assist. They furnished us with a 16mm camera and film. Later we had to get a court order from the state’s attorney in Chicago to get the developed film back from Eastman-Kodak as they had said it was too obscene to be released.
The camera recorded men masturbating each other, blacks and whites were exchanging blows. This was not with their fists. Others were playing leap frog. After reviewing the film you would better understand what giving a person the finger means; or the expression of “up yours” means. The only place they did not have their penis was under the other guy’s armpit. There was no color barrier down there, or class distinction. These people were all the same class—no class at all. Dogs have more class than these participants. Many men were dressed in suits and looked like successful business people. Some were dressed casually and others were dressed as laborers. As I stated earlier, there were college professors and prison parolees. No doubt the ex-prisoners learned much of this behavior while in the joint. There was even the organist from one of the local churches. Only this time it was his own personal organ that was being played. From all walks of life they came to meet here. And they came in all sizes and shapes. Their only purpose in being in this toilet facility—perverted sex.
When we started the investigation at the rest room, we did not confer with the prosecutor and did not know that there was a mandatory sentence to the pen for sodomy. The law stated that sodomy was defined as “placing the sex part of a body into any part of the body other than the sex part of the body.” Obviously, according to that definition, two women cannot commit sodomy.
As the rest rooms were underground, we were required to run a wire with an antenna outside so that we could use our two-way radio, which was a large portable unit.
A room was obtained for free above one of the places of business on the square where the restroom and outside parking area could be observed. This was a three man detail. One man was secreted in the passageway where he could film the activities. Another man watched where the described subject was going as he left the underground facility. And a third man was usually on a three-wheel bike. His job was to stop the man in his car or, if he was walking, to identify the subject and get full information about him.
When we first prepared to set up the “sting” we needed not only to find the best place to locate the camera recording equipment, but we also needed to see what we would be dealing with as far as the restroom facility was concerned. We discovered that holes had been cut into the sides of the partitions which separated the toilets from the urinals. They were cut there for only one purpose—to be able to sit on the crapper and look at other men’s penises as they urinated.
Bill Spognardi and Dick Burton were the cameramen. They worked daylight hours as the rest rooms closed each night in conjunction with the downtown places of business. Spognardi, who was an Army vet and who served in the occupational army in the Pacific right after World War II, said, “How low can you go on this job—I’m being detailed to work in the crapper.”
The detail ran for about three weeks and was stopped when Spog had to come out of the passageway and grab a guy who started to mess around with two young boys who were playing in the restroom. The restrooms were closed after this investigation and later were filled in with dirt. Of the 70 men arrested, 69 were convicted and went to the Ohio State Penitentiary. One colored man was found not guilty as the film did not show his facial features clearly.
Mansfield was the fun city of Ohio with lots of recreational opportunities. Only a comedian would find humor in this as he might say, “It’s my mouth and I will haul coal in it if I want to.”
If some of these people had as many pricks sticking out of them as they had stuck in them, they would look like a porcupine. And we wonder how AIDS gets spread. Add to that the fact that the “feel-good” public elects people to public office who admit that they would like to visit the rest room described here or have visited this room for that purpose, and we wonder why some lawmakers want to change certain laws and make the introduction of certain evidence in court almost impossible.
The sodomy laws in Ohio were changed. Most of the arrested men were released after doing one year in the pen. One man was later killed in a stick-up in Mansfield.
Keep in mind, at this time, numerous houses of prostitution were in operation, and like the restrooms, they were open to the public.
The Highway Safety Foundation later released a 16mm color sound movie labeled, “The Sex Deviate.” The film was used nationwide by the FBI for sex crime training of police officers.
I wish to acknowledge Bret Wood; The Ohio State University Law Library; and the Ohio Historical Society, Columbus for making the documents above available to me.