Playwright Gregg Barrios and the late Candy Barr sure have a lot in common. Get this: both are products of Victoria, Texas. Both are “sexual outlaws” whose provocative work has raised ire, eyebrows, and erectile tissue from Texas to Las Vegas to L.A. Both spent time in federal facilities (Barr as an inmate in Huntsville, Barrios as an airman at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin). Both unabashedly like men … and neither is a natural blond.
I recently spent the evening with Barrios, whom the Current profiled last fall `see “Queering the movimiento,” October 8, 2008`. We watched the Provincetown `Massachusetts` Theatre Festival production of his play Rancho Pancho, and his gorgeous, notorious, and seldom-seen Warhol Factory-assisted short, “Boys of New York,” starring a young and poetic Gerard Malanga and a pre-Basquiat Rene Ricard — sure to be an instant classic if and when its auteur decides to screen it. We grabbed tacos across the street from his eccentric, art-packed house (actually, Gregg ordered the kids’ hamburguesa plate), and I listened to story after story of Barrios’s New York period, his tenure in Los Angeles as a teacher and as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, his ambitious and painful adolescence, and his artistic, mysterious father’s role in the colorful sexual underworld of 1940s and ’50s South Texas.
We talked about his writing, too. Barrios is an undoubtedly prolific playwright, having completed, just in the past few years, an astonishing number of scripts: The Indian Fairy Book, about Native Americans and LGBT soldiers in the Vietnam-era military; an expanded version of his 1977 play about drug lord/folk hero Fred Gomez Carrasco, entitled ¡Carrasco!; Dark Horse, Pale Rider, about Texas novelist doyenne Katherine Anne Porter and her artistic/erotic fascination with young men of color; Rancho Pancho, which recently garnered some Hollywood attention(!); and ID-J, a meditation on the alternative music scene and its intersection with identity politics and Queer culture, which had a one-night debut at Our Lady of the Lake in 2005 and is coming soon to a stage at the Bonham Exchange.
What I wish were coming soon to a stage near you is Hard Candy, Barrios’s tribute to his fellow South Texas liberta. Apparently it’s too raw for some of our more mainstream local theaters, having been passed on by one SA company in its present form. It does contain a scene during which the character of Candy dissects the actual stag film Smart Alec as it plays onscreen — Barrios has her deconstruct her role as an underage porn performer. Hard Candy puts Candy Barr in the driver’s seat of her own life, a particular consciousness instead of a roadside attraction in the JFK tragedy, a kitschy pinup of yesteryear. Barrios got to know Candy in her retirement years, earned her friendship, and viewed her with respect and affection. In an era wherein the display of female flesh saturates damn near everything, navigating the life story and agency of this woman has the particular potential to empower. Here’s what Barrios had to say about her.
When and where did you first hear of Candy Barr?
Well, I was probably 10 or so years old — it was in Victoria. I remember my father and some other men who he used to be friendly with talking about strippers who’d be performing in Victoria. Lili St. Cyr and Candy Barr were the names I remember.
And then how did you come to interview her?
I was writing for the Los Angeles Times, and I’d just always sort of kept tabs on Candy Barr, because she’d always fascinated me. I told my editor at the time that I was going home to Victoria to spend the holidays with my mother, and that I’d really like to interview `Candy Barr`, and my editor said, ‘Well, all right, if you can contact her, Gregg, we’ll run it.’ So I had contact information `through a reporter in Edna, Texas`, and through him finally got `a telephone number for Candy Barr`. And I got her on the phone, but she claimed to be somebody else at first. I knew it was her, but she said, “This is Juanita. Candy Barr is dead.”
Yikes. But Juanita was Candy Barr’s real name?
That’s right. So I explained that I was a writer with the Los Angeles Times, but that I was from Victoria originally, coming home for the holidays, and that I was very interested to interview Candy … and I think she could tell I was respectful, and she warmed up to me, and she finally said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” You know, as Candy, no longer as Juanita.
And this switch from Juanita to Candy just went unremarked by you, and by her?
Oh, absolutely! So she asked for a number where she could reach me, and I gave her my mother’s phone number. A couple weeks went by, and then my mother told me, “Some woman called for you.” … And when I got home to Victoria, `Candy` called back, and she chatted with my mother on the phone `laughs`. You know, they were just two South Texas ladies gossipping! I heard my mother saying, “Oh, does your brother-in-law still work for so-and-so? My cousin used to know him,” that kind of thing `laughs`.
So that by the time you talked to `Candy`
Oh, she was very friendly. We were familiar, then, she trusted me. … So `a photographer` and I went up to Brownwood, Texas, to visit her. And she met us in this stretch Cadillac, you know … but when we pulled up to her house, it was just this little lean-to! ... We ended up spending the night with her, too, which was fun.
How was she, as an interview?
Wonderful. She was so much fun. I mean, you barely had to interview her, she was so smart and funny, and just ready to talk. She’d just tell story after story `laughs`, just like I do. And she was a tremendous flirt! She’d flirt with me, made me sleep in the bed with her!
Did she know you were gay?
Yes, but that didn’t stop her. I mean, she wasn’t thinking we’d have sex, she just had fun. Wanted me to hold her boobs.
`Laughs` Which was fine. I wanted to see if they were worth their weight in gold! Oh, she was something else.
She had a daughter, right?
Oh, yes, but she was already a grandmother by the time I knew her. Yes, she had a daughter with `second husband Troy` Phillips. She shot him in the balls.
Yes, I read that she was arrested but not charged … Wait. She shot him in the balls?
In the balls! `Laughs` Well, in the groin. But she was aiming for the balls! `Imitating Candy’s voice`: “He was the only man I ever loved.” But he was abusive, so she figured, you know `imitating Candy again`: “A big man like him, beating up a defenseless woman. I’ll show him defenseless!”
That’s just so Texas, somehow.
Oh, yes, it really, really is. And I’ve always been fascinated by Texas women like Candy who come from such incredibly tough odds against women, and go on to achieve great things: like Janis Joplin, like Katherine Anne Porter, of course, like Ann Richards, and Molly Ivins … this comes back to something we were talking about earlier, “Is Texas the South,” which is debated about. And I say yes, yes it is, because of a lot of reasons, but the gender `norms` in Texas are very Southern, that a woman should be beautiful but not say much. Women who defy that, they’re my muses. And Texas women are in a class by themselves.
You’ve mentioned that if Candy Barr had been born later, she might have been as admired and reviled in a big way like Madonna.
Yes. And in `Hard Candy`, I have her very self-aware, and dissecting the blue movie, onstage, that stag film she became so famous for … they called `the films` “smokers” because they’d be shown in these all-male environments where everybody was smoking … you know, like the Elks and all those other male clubs named after strange animals ... Candy Barr narrates the whole thing! You know, she may have come out of abuse, and she may have made `the film` under … questionable conditions, but I also have her owning it, on some level, not just a victim of it. She has feelings and opinions about everything that happened to her, she wasn’t passive. You know, it’s like Traci Lords, whom I’ve met. Another very smart woman, who should be seen as `more complex than` just a victim. As a gay man, I really identify with these women. How do you fight the stereotypes? Where does comedy come in, as well as tragedy? Anybody who’s a sexual outlaw, which any outspoken woman or gay man is, well, that makes for great drama. Katherine Anne Porter, Pancho `Rodriguez, Tennessee Williams’s lover, who’s portrayed in Rancho Pancho), Candy … even Jane Fonda! She may not be from Texas, but I’ve still skinny-dipped with her in the moonlight! •
Barrios’s play I-DJ is currently in pre-production for a run at the Bonham Exchange. Rancho Pancho is available online at amazon.com. We fervently hope that Hard Candy will be produced very soon (are you reading this, San Pedro Playhouse, Overtime, Jump-Start … ?)
18 facts about Candy BarrThe legendary gunslinging, pastie-wearing, Cold War-era Texas burlesque performer
1. Her real name was Juanita Dale Slusher, and she was born just outside of hotbed-of-weirdness Victoria, Texas, on July 6, 1935.
2. Candy ran away to Dallas at age 13, and married for the first time at age 14.
3. Candy Barr appeared in Smart Alec (1951), a 20-minute underground pornographic movie, and as a result has been called (somewhat inaccurately), the “first porn star.” She was 16 at the time, and claimed later to have been drugged for her performance.
4. She was very fond of chocolate bars, which is how she got her stripper name.
5. Candy Barr was arrested in 1959 for posession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
6. She was the mistress and, briefly, the fiancée of gangster Micky Cohen, who in 1959 sent Candy and her young daughter to Mexico in order to evade her prison sentence.
7. Cohen also arranged for Candy to have her hair done by “hairdresser to the stars” Jack Sahakian. Candy quickly returned to the U.S. from Mexico, threw Cohen over for Sahakian, and married him. She said of Cohen, “He was a nice guy, but we just weren’t meant for each other.” She divorced Sahakian too, though. He was her third husband out of a total of four (her daughter’s father was husband number two).
8. Candy entered Goree Prison Farm for Women at Huntsville in 1960 (leaving her daughter with her then-husband) and served three years of her 15-year sentence. She said at the time, “I always wanted a brick house of my own, and it looks like I am going to have one.” She began to write a volume of poetry while in prison, titled A Gentle Mind … Confused, which was eventually published in 1972.
9. Candy Barr had become friendly with club owner Jack Ruby while performing in a nearby theater in Dallas in the ’50s. They remained friends until his death, and after her release from prison in April 1963, Ruby gave Candy a pair of daschshunds and encouraged her to become a dog breeder.
10. Twelve hours after Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald (which was two days after Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy), the FBI showed up at Candy’s home in Edna, Texas, and questioned her about her friendship with Ruby.
11. In her FBI interview, which appears in the Warren Commission Report, Candy affirmed her friendship with Ruby, and maintained that she had never seen or heard of Lee Harvey Oswald before seeing his picture after the Kennedy assassination.
12. In 1964, Candy Barr was an on-set technical advisor and choreographer to Joan Collins during the making of Seven Thieves. Collins (or whoever wrote her autobiography) later wrote of Candy, “She taught me more about sensuality than I had learned in all my years under contract.”
13. Candy was arrested again for possession of marijuana in 1969, but the amount was so infinitesimal that the case was tossed out of court.
14. After a Playboy interview, several burlesque performances and a nude photoshoot for Oui magazine in 1975, Candy Barr retired from the adult entertainment world for good.
15. Ryan O’Neal planned to direct a biopic about candy starring fellow-Texan Farrah Fawcett, but it never
16. In 1984, Texas Monthly hailed Candy Barr as a “perfect Texan,” along with Lady Bird Johnson.
17. Candy also volunteered in Texas prisons, sometimes teaching poetry workshops as a means of self-expression.
18. Gregg Barrios, acclaimed journalist and playwright, has written a play entitled Hard Candy: The Life & Times of a Texas Bad Girl (a tragicomedy) about Candy Barr. He also interviewed her at her home in 1985, and wrote her obituary in the Los Angeles Times in March 2005, after she died of pneumonia at the age of 70.