By Chelsey Stuyt
It’s 1969 and times, they are a-changing. Men walk on the moon and John Lennon and Yoko Ono spend their honeymoon holding a bed-in for peace. Amongst all this, a new kind of theatre was emerging. With an emphasis on realism and raw emotional intensity, the loosely termed “Alternative theatre” movement thumbed its pert little nose at everything that had come before. In Vancouver, that alternative torch was taken up by The Gallimaufry; a literal jumble of people and ideas that came together intending to introduce our fair city to the wonders of American and European alt-theatre works. Their work shook the boundaries of their post-war parents and called into question the very nature of “moral obscenity.” Naturally, this did not go over well with the established authorities.
In 1969, The Gallimaufry staged famed Beat writer Michael McClure’s play, The Beard. It’s a metaphorical “what-if” scenario where outlaw Billy the Kid and legendary screen seductress Jean Harlow meet, clash, and …erm.. come together, if you catch my drift. The expletive laden script culminates in a scene of staged cunnilingus where even a strategically set G-string couldn’t save the actors from being hauled off the stage and into the police van. It happened in the original run of the show in San Francisco and it happened again here in Vancouver.
But here’s the thing. This production of The Beard was a re-mount. The play had originally been performed by The Gallimaufry at the Arts Club to critical acclaim. Another production by a different company was performed at the Vancouver Art Gallery and no one said boo. So why this time? Why raid the Riverqueen and not the VAG? Well, it’s just as they say, “location, location, location.”
The Riverqueen (1043 Davie, now home to the Banana Leaf Restaurant) was a coffeehouse with a caveat. While it was open to the arts, it was also open to pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. The police were constantly in and out of the Riverqueen, so when a complaint came in about an obscene production, they pounced. The police raided the production on Wednesday, November 5, 1969 and arrested both actors, their stage manager, and the Riverqueen’s owners, Ronnie and Shirley Small. Gossip says the audience applauded the actors and booed the police as they hauled them out the door. After a long night in jail they were charged with presenting an obscene performance, a charge that would lead to a trial that would not be resolved until 1971.
The Beard’s trial was a doozy. Two years after the production closed, the actors, stage manager, and coffeehouse owners were all convicted of obscenity and fined $1,250 (with inflation that’s over $7,000 today). But in keeping with the times, the case of censorship versus obscenity was far from closed. Immediately after the conviction came down, the BC Civil Liberties Union leapt into action and launched an appeal, and then another appeal when the first one failed. Finally, in 1973, the charges were reversed by the highest court in the province—marking the end of the VPD’s morality squad and finishing the last obscenity trial in Canadian history.