Just over 40 years ago, a monumental event took place in the world-famous Hollywood Bowl. “The Star-Spangled Night for Rights” was the extravaganza produced by Bette Midler’s manager Aaron Russo, held on September 18, 1977. The night was conceived and promoted by Save Our Human Rights Foundation, a group based in San Francisco comprised mostly of gay professionals.
The foundation was assembled in response to the Save Our Children anti-gay crusade launched that same year by Christian fundamentalists in Florida. Singer, former Miss Oklahoma and Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson Anita Bryant—who wore her hair high no doubt to be closer to her prejudiced notion of God—was the public face of the oppressive, backwards campaign.
The Save Our Human Rights Foundation hoped “to educate people, but in a nice glossy way.” An impressive roster of performers signed up for the rally: Midler, War, Helen Reddy, Lily Tomlin, Tanya Tucker, Tom Waits and Richard Pryor. During the planning of the Star-Spangled Night for Rights, a comedy act was nixed when it became apparent Anita Bryant would be mocked. One aspect of the group’s mission was to grant “human rights” to all, even to Bryant.
The show was packed to the rafters with 17,000 in attendance, predominantly gay men. Many celebrities were seen in the audience—Paul Newman, Olivia Newton-John, LeVar Burton, Rona Barrett, Valerie Harper, Christopher Lee, Robert Blake. Credit needs to be given to those on and off the Hollywood Bowl stage, as there were serious threats surrounding the festival. California State Senator John V. Briggs vowed to blacklist celebrities and politicians seen attending the show. The following year, Briggs would sponsor Proposition 6, aka the FAILED Briggs Initiative, that sought to fire all gay or lesbian school employees and their supporters.
That hateful cloud probably caused the foundation to adopt the hushed policy that the word gay or anything suggesting gayness would not be used in connection to the Star-Spangled Night for Rights, whether in promotion or during the performances, even though participants like Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler were already gay icons. Human rights became the safe euphemism for gay rights, making it “an evening of unspoken assumptions.” In her standup of the night, Lily Tomlin cleverly went “there” when she humorously expressed a longing for the 1950s “when sex was dirty…and of course, no one was gay, only shy.”
Richard Pryor wasn’t happy with the expectation he should dance delicately on eggshells—his form of comedy was controversial, possessed of “a biting edge, addressing topics of racism and inequity head on,” and his delivery often seethed with anger and blatant autobiographical honesty. Pryor, whose name and legacy have been in the news lately due to public declarations by Quincy Jones, had been observing overt racism behind the scenes of the rally prior to his turn on stage. He watched as the black dance group the Lockers were declined help by stagehands who later fell over themselves to assist a pair of white ballet dancers. Pryor saw the fire marshal berate one of the Lockers dancers for using a small explosive special effect as part of their presentation, while the show promoters stood by and did not defend the dancer. During the Lockers Herculean dance number, the predominantly white audience barely clapped, while the ballet dancers were enthusiastically applauded.
Perhaps the Lockers were not the “glossy” cup of tea the promoters and audience would have preferred, but to participate in a benefit usually means you don’t get paid, a concept not likely lost on Pryor. Such a gathering calls for camaraderie, inclusion and appreciation. He grew pissed as he waited for his turn. What happened next is best described in the words of his biographer Scott Saul:
“When he finally walked in front of the audience, Pryor didn’t speak for a little while; he prowled back and forth like a pent-up animal. Then he pounced: ‘I came here for human rights,’ he said, ‘and I found out what it was really about was about not getting caught with a dick in your mouth.’ The crowd erupted in laughter.
‘You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick, and that’s fair,’ Pryor continued. ‘You’ve got the right to suck anything you want!’ With three sentences, Pryor had outflanked all the other performers on the bill—some of whom, like Tomlin, had open ties to the gay community—by stripping away the airy talk of ‘human rights.’ He had brought into the open the basic demand of the gay struggle: sexual freedom in the face of police harassment.
“‘I sucked one dick,’ he said from the stage, drawing his audience back into a scene from his red-light district childhood. ‘Back in 1952. Sucked Wilbur Harp’s dick. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t deal with it. Had to leave it alone.’ The crowd roared. ‘It was beautiful because Wilbur has the best booty in the world. Now I’m saying booty to be nice. I’m talking about ass-hole. Wilbur had some good ass-hole. And Wilbur would give it up so good and put his thighs against your waist. That would make you come quick.’ With that confession, Pryor became perhaps the first major Hollywood celebrity to talk graphically about his own positive experience of gay sex—and certainly the first to do so in front of tens of thousands of people.”
Pryor went on about sincere romance with Wilbur (“I was the only motherfucker that took Wilbur roses.”) to the delight of the audience. Then something snapped. Pryor was heavily under the influence of something or somethings, at the same time angry and sad when he said softly, “How can faggots be racists?”
It all erupted badly from that point. Pryor complained to the audience about the Lockers shoddy treatment before turning his wrath on the audience.
“I hope the police catch you motherfuckers and shoot your ass accidentally, because you motherfuckers ain’t helpin’ niggers at all.”
He went on to express his disdain for the double standards about “human rights,” calling out the crowd as “self-serving faggots” who “didn’t give a damn about” the Watts Riots and the reasons for rebellion.
The whole tirade was booed mercilessly, though he ended it by showing the audience his rear, telling them to “kiss my happy, rich black ass.”
The show was in tatters after that, although headliner Bette Midler inspired cheers when she took the stage, asking “Is there anyone here tonight who wants to kiss this rich white ass?”
Pryor was derided for weeks after the “meltdown,” mostly by commenters in the Los Angeles Times as the publication covered the event extensively. Some condemned his “street” talk, others called his opinions about the inequity between human-rights movements inaccurate.
However, another Los Angeles Times commenter wrote:
“Being a black homosexual and living here practically all my life, I can say that the California homosexual is the most extreme of bigots. He hates blacks, fats, women, and himself most of all. Pryor’s actions were crude, but sadly true. If one refuses to believe, let any person who is fat, black, ugly or female try going to a gay club alone.”
Other defenders of Pryor’s words concurred. Lily Tomlin stated that gay men were oftimes dismissive of lesbians, and she “appreciated how Pryor had asked everyone to consider their prejudices,” a quote that is still, in the present era of rampant intolerance, a profound and timeless adage to reflect on.
Photo credits: (Lennox McLendon/AP: Pryor header composite, Pryor on stage and cast curtain call) (Kenn Duncan Photograph Archive/NY Public Library Digital Collection: Better Midler header composite, Lily Tomlin header composite, Midler on stage, The Lockers)