A largely-unsung giant of the LGBTQ rights movement, Pat Rocco was truly a Renaissance man. A singer on a popular TV series, a self-taught filmmaker, a gay rights pioneer and a homeless advocate, Rocco died November 8. He was 84.
He was born in 1934 in New York, and as a child, sang to entertain his family and friends. After his family relocated to Southern California, he was featured on local radio. Outed at sixteen to his high school principal and mother, Rocco was unapologetic, never denying his authentic self. In his twenties, he toured the country with legendary song and dance act Marge and Gower Champion and was a featured singer on “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show” in the late 1950s.
In 1966, while operating Hollywood’s first psychedelic “head shop,” Bizarre Bazaar, he answered an ad in the Free Press for a male-nude photographer. At the time, gay erotica consisted primarily of bodybuilders in posing straps and naturalist, aka nudist, “health” mags. Rocco’s beefcake photos were an instant hit. He started to bring along an 8mm movie camera to capture more of the action. He later began a mail order business to sell the pix and flicks. Soon, he was approached by a theater owner who invited him to screen his short films. Audience reaction was ecstatic and Rocco churned out several more softcore, nudie-cutie films. During his heyday, he directed over 100 films. In addition to his gay erotic shorts, he shot many historically significant interviews and documentaries, capturing the burgeoning queer rights movement. He recorded gay rights marches, instances of police harassment, demonstrations and campy theater extravaganzas, many of them pre-dating the Stonewall uprising.
In his later years, Rocco reflected, “the filmmaking became a platform for the activism.”
In a February 1970 review, Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas stated that his most recent collections of shorts, Mondo Rocco, “has far more sociology than erotica and includes one documentary that is a record of a landmark in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity…” Thomas called Rocco’s documentary short “Homosexuals on the March,” “outstanding.” The film was a record of two protests led by the Metropolitan Community Church minister, The Rev. Troy Perry. Seeing the brave protesters with interlocked arms marching through the streets of Los Angeles chanting, “Say it out loud. We’re gay and we’re proud” is still profoundly moving.
Some of Rocco’s other notable films include: Disneyland Discovery (a gay love story shot clandestinely at the Magic Kingdom which ran afoul with Disney’s army of lawyers), A Breath of Love (male nude dance across the Hollywood freeway), Meat Market Arrest (male nude dancer arrested in sting operation at gay bar), A Night at Joani’s (a costume ball inside a North Hollywood bar featuring female impressionist Jim Bailey as Barbra, Judy and Mae.)
In 1974, it was Rocco who proposed a 3-day festival to coincide with the Pride parade. Other major cities soon adopted the weekend-long event.
He started the Society of Pat Rocco Enlightened Enthusiasts (SPREE) as an alternative to the bars. The group hosted movie nights, published a newsletter, produced theatrical parodies, held outings to various SoCal tourist destinations and was active in festivals, marches and demonstrations.
Rocco’s tremendous filmmaking output slowed in the mid-’70s as the demand for hardcore gay porn exploded. His films were undeniably sexy, but he had no interest in making XXX features.
In 1977 he founded Hudson House which provided shelter, food, clothing and job assistance for homeless lesbians and gays. It was the first of its kind in the nation. Hudson House joined forces with the United States Mission in 1981. The aid organization ran for decades. Rocco considered the homeless outreach to be his greatest accomplishment.
Rocco and his partner since 1972, David Kirk Ghee, moved to Hawaii in the 1980’s. There, they ran various businesses (movie theater, video shop, restaurant) and continued to engage in community activism. Rocco returned to an old love, his music career, recording several albums of covers and original tunes.
The couple had recently moved back to Southern California.
The lifelong artist and activist said he didn’t need permission from others to follow his heart. His personal motto: “Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Just do it.”