Features

The Dianas (Part Two)

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Dianas_Weaver
Tim Weaver attends the 1980 cast party.

Reaching for the heavens and touching the stars: the nation’s oldest continually active gay organization.
by Brandon Wolf

Last month, OutSmart presented the first in this two-part exclusive series telling the story of the Dianas (“The Dianas”), now the oldest continually active gay organization in the United States. Part One took us from the embryo that became the Dianas—a 1952 cocktail party, organized to watch the Academy Awards on television—up through Diana 26 in 1979, when the Diana Foundation was a three-year-old 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and its ever-expanding annual funfest was held at the downtown Sheraton Lincoln Hotel.

Against a backdrop of police repression and the necessity of maintaining heterosexual images, founder David Moncrief and driving force Charles Hebert gave the Houston gay community a unique annual event. Mixing a roast of friends’ dubious personal “performances” during the preceding year with viewing of the annual Academy Awards, they created the most popular and anticipated social event of the year for gay men and lesbians.

It’s a special cachet for Houston’s gay community that an organization of national significance emerged from our midst, but the Diana Foundation’s 57-year history is a story that, until now, has not been told. To write this story, nearly 100 people were consulted: 55 Diana members, past and present; 30 people with knowledge of Houston’s history and/or Houston’s gay history, and 10 people familiar with national gay history. We reviewed some 4,000 photographs, 12 videotaped Diana Awards shows, 35 souvenir programs, and nearly 500 pages of documents currently housed at the Charles Botts Collection archive.

 

From this research comes a view of the Dianas that chronicles their 57-year evolution, their origin, the challenges they have overcome, and a perspective on their iconic importance.

From the beginning the idea was to have a little fun, roast a few friends, toss down a few drinks, and watch the Academy Awards together. But once the word got out, the crowd grew exponentially, and finding a large-enough venue became the Dianas’ biggest challenge. In the early 1970s, organizers changed the event from Oscar night to the Saturday night nearest the Oscar award show. The focus had shifted; the Diana Awards and the entertainment that accompanied them had room to grow, and grow they did.

For the group who originally organized the Diana awards as a night of fun for a few good friends, it was a dizzying climb to heights no one had dreamed of—sold-out performances at the Tower Theater and then the Wortham Center. Yet even as their successes continued to mount, tragedy lay waiting in the wings. First, the AIDS crisis struck the gay community. Then in the summer of 1987, the Dianas were forced to face an unthinkable event.

The 1980s

Exceeding All Expectations

In 1980 and 1981, the Diana Awards continued to pack the ballroom at the downtown Sheraton Lincoln Hotel. Between 300 and 400 people quickly snapped up the opportunity to attend, responding immediately when the coveted invitation arrived. The Diana Awards had become the social event of the year in Houston’s gay community.

“Those tickets were like gold,” says Michael Kemper. “We had people flying in from cities like New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York—even from South America—to attend the event.”

Those associated with the Dianas were always determined to notch up the production values, year after year, challenging themselves to make the shows more exciting than the year before. The annual show was expanding exponentially, but Diana Foundation President Charles Hebert was able to keep up with it all. He made it a point to visit each work committee regularly, monitoring the progress and offering guidance when difficulties arose. People who worked with him described him as calm and focused. No one can ever remember hearing him raise his voice or call someone down in front of their colleagues.

Amateur talent had always been enough for the Diana shows. It was, in fact, this amateur aspect that gave it a warm and cozy atmosphere. But as the musical numbers became more involved, it was obvious that additional talent would be needed. Hebert’s partner, Tim Weaver, placed ads in the local gay media for singers and dancers who wanted to join the cast. Dozens of volunteers showed up, eager for the opportunity to perform before a large audience.

Auditions were followed by weeks of rigorous nightly and weekend afternoon rehearsals. Emcee Linda Mele worked with the dancers, but the demands on her time became too great, and in 1981 local choreographer Glenn Hunsucker was hired to take charge of the dancers, a job he kept for the next 10 years.

Weaver himself became part of a new group of male dancers named the Musclettes. His passion for rollerblading often found him skating in downtown Houston after business hours. He became friends with several people in the local leather skater group, The Urban Animals, and through this relationship discovered Mary Hooper, a young woman with great dance skills and a wonderful voice. She gladly joined the volunteer cast and rose quickly to star status.

The souvenir program grew to dozens of pages, and Randy Ruhlman, a commercial artist with fresh and unique ideas, began to work with it, turning it into an amazingly professional publication. Ads in the programs brought in additional revenues.

Diana 27 in 1980 included an outrageous takeoff on the Houston Oilers, complete with the Dianas own Derelict Dolls and football players with limp wrists. The audience cheered when the players stripped down to sequined jock straps and flashed their backside flesh. An energetic and rousing number from Chorus Line ended with synchronized high kicks that brought a thunderous applause from the guests, some even jumping onto chairs as if a standing ovation alone was insufficient.

In 1981, Diana 28 began a new tradition of a show theme. The inaugural theme was “The Gayest Show on Earth,” featuring a mini-circus on stage and, among other musical numbers, a tribute to sex goddess Mae West.

 

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Charles Hebert joins the curtain call at the conclusion of the 1981 Diana Awards, at the Sheraton Lincoln Hotel.

Hitting the Big Time

In 1982, Diana organizers made yet another important decision—to move the annual show to the Tower Theater at 1201 Westheimer, which offered more than twice the seating capacity, roughly 1,100 seats. And for the first time, there was a professional stage. This venue would serve them well through five more Dianas—29 through 34, from 1982 through 1987. The themes for those events were Diana Follies, That’s Entertainment, La Cage Au Diana, Olympiad of Entertainment, Sexquicentenial, and Anything Goes.

As always, the heart of the show was the awards, and each year the successful trio of Charles Hebert, Bob Fields, and Linda Mele kept the jokes coming and presented the newest round of awards. The evenings began with a wild and energetic opening musical number. Following, Moncrief introduced himself as Pricene Waterhouse and welcomed special guest Angela Lynnesbury, Hebert’s drag persona. As Hebert entered, the Diana Orchestra played Mame. Descending into the audience, he shook hands and exchanged air kisses. Then it was back on stage for a round of one-liners about everything from the latest occupant of the White House to current events and the latest from Hollywood and Broadway.

As Angela disappeared behind the curtain, Bob Fields made his entrance to the tune of There She Goes, Miss America. Each year, sporting a different outrageous chapeau, he was introduced as Louella Phoebe. After his round of opening jokes, he introduced the stud bull rancher for wayward bulls from Lesbianola, Texas, Linda Mele. Mele made her entrance to the song “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.” After Mele’s act, Hebert reappeared in tux, with a Dynel blond, surfer-boy wig.

If one reads a Diana award, it might seem overly bitchy or even mean. But the delivery made the difference. Hebert always sounded tongue in cheek; Fields would sometimes gasp, “They are going to assassinate us,” as he read the lines; and Mele used a deep drawl, startled facial expressions, and long stares at the audience with an uplifted eyebrow. Winners usually enjoyed their triumphant walk to the stage, but few offered more than an embarrassed “thank you,” followed by a quick exit.

The awards were not simply announced. They were introduced with a lead-up of teasing innuendo and hints that began subtle and proceeded to obvious. Squeals of laughter emanated from friends of the soon-to-be-recipient as they recognized the target. Laughter continued to build, accompanied by howls and shrieks, until it broke into a crescendo of applause as a winner was named.

Sometimes winners tried to outdo the presenters, but it rarely succeeded. When Bill Massey received an award, he looked at Hebert and said, “I’d kiss you, but I just washed my hair.” Hebert shot back, “Well, you could always take it off.”

One particularly memorable award went to a local physician who went to a Montrose costume party dressed as a butterfly. At one point in the evening, he decided to slide down the banister of the main staircase. He failed to account for a small landing in the staircase, and lost his grip, falling to the floor below. He was rushed to a local hospital, where the emergency staff was surprised to be treating a large butterfly for contusions. They were even more surprised when they took his mask off and realized he was a doctor on the staff of their hospital.

The Tower Theater years were glamorous and spectacular. Casts of up to 150 were organized to present musical numbers that brought audiences to their feet time and again. Costumes glittered and gleamed against a backdrop of magnificent sets, as the Diana Orchestra rose from a lowered pit. The production standards were set so high, all the singers recorded their songs before the performance and lip-synched their own words, in order to achieve the best possible sound for the audience.

Behind the scenes, volunteers worked like bees. Harry Guyton supervised the building of the sets. Night after night, workers gathered in his driveway to build increasingly more complex backgrounds. Volunteers gave their time to work, but refused to sacrifice the weekly episodes of Dynasty, so a TV set was plugged in outside so they could work and watch. Guyton remembers there was so much glitter on his lawn that, after a rainstorm, the street glittered for blocks with the sparkling flakes. Some sets were so big they had to be built in sections and assembled inside the Tower.


For the 30th Anniversary show in 1983, an astonishing set was built. “That starburst with an inner circle of pearls and green was built in my driveway,” Guyton recalls.“Each of the points from the starburst was separately attached to the basic unit and was assembled behind the curtain at the Tower.Myflower bedsstillyield emeraldgreen glitter. We painted the background the same color as the glitter in case any of the glitter came unglued. It was amazing what a bunch of young, energetic, talented-but-untrained people could do with foam core, carpet tubes, Mylar, plywood, paint, and glitter.I guess it turned out so well because we had such fun doing it.Randy Ruhlman would generally come up with the basic opening set, but ideas for execution were readily and gratefully accepted. Of course the finished products weighed tons and took an army to move.” In 1984, the sets committee numbered 32 members.

Usually things went off without a hitch. But there was one accident when a flash-pot touched off a small, unexpected blaze. And during the rehearsal of a tribute to Dynasty, the actor playing Alexis fell off the back of the riser, during the stage blackout when the cast members changed their on-stage positions.

Guyton remembers holding his breath during one particularly adventurous production number. “A cast member was dressed as Joan Crawford. She was beating a group of ‘children’ with a wire coat hanger, when they turned against her. To escape, she jumped onto a giant coat hanger dangling from a rope, which then began to ascend above the stage. I knew that coat hanger was held together by only one bolt and nut. We made sure the entertainer wore a wrist strap attached to the rope, just in case the coat hanger gave way.”

Musical production numbers over the years lampooned a wide variety of targets. When the Academy Awards snubbed a particular favorite movie, such as Mame, the Dianas honored it as the Most Un-nominated Movie of the Year. When Kathy Whitmire mounted her first campaign for mayor, she was featured as The Woman of the Year. Once Whitmire was in office, the Dianas celebrated her similarity to Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie.

Houston City Council member John Goodner’s antigay attacks were set to song in “The Referendoom.” The Dykettes dressed as toreadors and sang a tongue-in-cheek version of “Bullbusters,” with Gail Gerrard singing lead. Erotic overtones permeated “Fleshdance” and “Hepatitis Eyes.”

The annual awards singled out victims everywhere in the community. State representative Debra Danburg was given a Best Supported Award. Marion Coleman was teased as “the do-gooder from Provincetown, who managed to keep her picture running in the Montrose Voice every week.” She gamely walked to the platform and accepted her statuette.

Member Sharon Lord was characterized as “someone who has smiled her way through life, mostly because she never had any idea what was going on.” When the Ripcord won an award, emcee Bob Fields sighed, “I was at the Ripcord once. I was handcuffed, tied to a pool table, and ignored for the whole evening.”

On opening nights, klieg lights swept the skies outside the Tower Theater. Many of the guests rented limousines to make an especially grand arrival at the site. Sharon Lord remembers people bringing folding chairs and watching the scene from nearby sidewalks. When celebrities like David Susskind or Carolyn Farb entered the Tower, they applauded.

The Diana Awards production numbers were impressive by anyone’s standards, but what made them even more impressive is the fact that the annual show was not produced by entertainment professionals. It was a masterful work of coordination—thousands of hours of volunteer labor freely given. People with 9-to-5 jobs gave up their evenings for weeks to learn show business finesse.

Besides volunteer labor, Diana members were able to secure beautiful gifts from major department stores and the hospitality industry to use for their raffles. Lucky winners went home with items from Tiffany’s, Gump’s, Neiman-Marcus, and Cartier. Others won expense-paid trips to exotic vacation spots and dinner parties for up to a dozen people at some of the city’s nicest restaurants.

Other businesses gave donations “in kind,” offering moving trucks, storage space, and rooms to produce costumes or hold dance rehearsals. The annual programs included congratulatory ads from Mayor Kathy Whitmire and other elected officials.

The programs themselves reveal historical perspectives. By 1985, the souvenir publication was 150 pages long. In 1986, the terrible impact of AIDS was obvious—on one of the first pages of the book, the names of five Diana members lost to the epidemic were listed. In subsequent programs, full-page memorials were devoted to special friends who were now gone.

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Dancers at Diana 30 in 1983 dazzle a sold-out audience at the Tower Theater.

Connecting with the Community

With the enormous success of their annual shows, interest in the Dianas reached its zenith during the 1980s. Membership was capped at 100, but more than 200 people were expressing an interest in membership. A separate organization, The Friends of Diana, was set up.

Becoming a Diana was hard work. Pledges had to work for at least three years on the annual shows, before being considered for membership. New members were admitted only when openings occurred within the cap of 100. Those who had worked the hardest during their pledge years were the most likely to be admitted into membership.

The Dianas were also becoming a year-round organization. As a fundraiser, members now sponsored a summer “June Is Busting Out All Over” party at an outdoor venue near Katy. “New Member” parties were also held each year. For several years an Academy Ball was held on Halloween. Cast parties, pre-show gala fundraisers, post-show jazz brunches, video parties, and various other events were organized.

In 1986, a special “Shamrock Aloha Party” was held to mark the passing of the famous Shamrock Hotel. The party was one of the last events held in the historic facility before the wrecking balls began their work. In 1989, Diana members attended the Texas Renaissance Festival together.

Still hoping to dispel notions that they were snobs, the Dianas reached out into the community. In 1982, they reprised musical segments from their Tower show at Numbers, as a fundraiser for a local organization. In 1981, 1982, and 1983, sets from the Tower shows were recycled to make floats for the annual Gay Pride Parade. In 1982, one of the Diana members, Cassandra McCory, was decked out in feathers and sequins as a showgirl on the float. “When my picture showed up in the newspaper the next day, I was identified as a drag queen,” she laughs.

The Tower years were golden in people’s memories. But they were also filled with pain as AIDS began to spread through the community and through the ranks of the Dianas. Facing the health crisis, the Dianas responded generously with the proceeds from their shows.

Mark Brown says that the Dianas donated $5,000 to help seed AIDS Foundation Houston. Guyton adds, “We supported Stone Soup Kitchen. We helped with a hospice that became Alpha Omega House. We paid the rent for McAdory House. We funded the first pentamidine treatments for AIDS-related pneumonia at the Montrose Clinic. We provided the seed money for the Bering Omega Foundation.”

Ken Malone, former director of the Assistance Fund remembers, “When DIFFA [Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS] and The Assistance Fund split, DIFFA issued a challenge grant in funding The Assistance Fund.The Dianas were the first of the community groups to raise money to keep people with AIDS’ COBRA insurance intact.They raised approximately $30,000, an enormous sum at the time, which ensured TAF’s success.The Assistance Fund went on to become one of the leading organizations in Houston to provide financial services to people living with HIV disease.”

Guyton was Vice President of Group Health at American General Life Insurance Company at the time and recalls, “People were losing their jobs because they were gay and sick, but there wereextension-of-benefits provisions because of disability in most policies.By keeping insurance in force, we ensured high-qualitymedical treatment by physicians and hospitals.”

In 1984 and 1985, the Diana Foundation joined with other community groups to sponsor a Walk for Unity, to raise money for AIDS organizations. In 1985, the Diana Foundation Board inaugurated an award for meritorious service to the gay community. Their first such award went to Mayor Kathy Whitmire.

The Dianas had been a semi-closeted organization since its inception; then in 1984, they showed evidence of their willingness to be more visible in the community. For the first time since the souvenir programs had been printed, committee lists used real names, instead of drag nicknames. The Dianas had come out.

Realizing that the impact of AIDS was cutting deep into their community, the Dianas opened up the Tower Theater the night before the Diana Awards, so that people living with AIDS could watch the final dress rehearsal, at no charge. For both the cast and the audience, these were nights of special warmth and love.

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Dianas founder David Moncrief hugs the original Diana statue. Moncrief passed away in 1987.

The Passing of a Legend

In early 1987, Dianas founder David Moncrief died. Diana 34, the last show at the Tower, was dedicated to his memory. Perhaps it was a portent of things to come that the original Diana statue, which had been at the first Diana Awards in his apartment, disappeared from the stage props at Diana 33 in 1986, replaced by a rather generic garden goddess that bore no resemblance to his Diana.

That original plaster statue from Sakowitz’s window dressing department had been through a lot. Over the years, she had been transported to all sorts of locations and suffered nicks and knocks. The quiver on her back was damaged and ultimately removed. Members were constantly replastering broken chips. Rumors still abound that she suffered a fatal fall down an elevator shaft at the Sheraton Lincoln, but photographic evidence doesn’t support those claims. It’s possible that the rumor was started as a hoax, to garner a statuette win for one of the production teams.

More likely is the story that Diana once lost her head, taking an accidental fall from a dolly while being loaded onto a freight elevator at the hotel. The head was glued back on, but ended up at a slightly different tilt than her original stance. The goddess Diana and Moncrief had come through a lot in their 33 years together. They had watched with awe and wonder what a simple party gag in 1954 had ultimately produced. At the time of his death, the original Diana was stored in Moncrief’s garage. Today, her final fate is unknown.

At the 1987 awards show a new character, Henrietta Block, took over the envelope-handing duties that Moncrief’s Pricene Waterhouse had performed. The show went on, the awards as biting as always, and the musical segments lush, lavish, and entertaining. Despite the loss of their founder and the disappearance of the legendary statue, the Dianas moved forward.

The Unthinkable Happens

In the 1987 program, Hebert wrote an emotional appeal to the Dianas and the community at large:

Today, in the face of growing needs, Diana is responding with a greater effort. Diana has decided to focus its fund raising efforts on bringing the dream of a Montrose care facility to reality.

 

Diana realizes that the dream is ambitious. But so is the need. The dream will take time to realize which is why it is important to start now. Diana will not be able to do the job alone. But the Foundation can take the lead in starting. It is not just a Diana effort. It is a community effort for the benefit of the community. Diana is asking other individuals and organizations to join in that effort. Because together we as a group can achieve dreams which would never be possible individually. The Diana motto summarizes the Foundation’s purpose: “Achieving together that which cannot be done alone.”

Even for an organization that never failed at anything it set out to do, this project was a daring idea—but Hebert and the Dianas seemed to thrive on dares. The bold idea, however, would never come to fruition because shortly after the release of that open letter to the community, a tragedy occurred that would leave the Dianas stunned and shattered, taking the dreamer of dreams from them.

On the evening of July 7, 1987, Charles Hebert, the man who had made it all happen, was attacked by an assailant in his townhome on Mason Street and died from multiple blows to his head. Hebert’s partner Tim Weaver, in a state of deep shock, called his friend Cassandra McCory. She hurried over to the Mason Street townhouse and helped him try to come to grips with the situation.

Sharon Lord remembers listening to her television that night. At first there was a bulletin that a murder had occurred in a townhouse on Mason Street. “Oh God, I thought,” says Lord, “don’t let that be Charles.” When a later newscast followed and she heard Hebert’s name, she sat down, buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

Weaver remembers little of the numbing period of time that followed. His close friend Leonard Tharp, then Houston’s premiere florist, took charge of the funeral plans. A service was arranged at Palmer Episcopal Church. On the altar, Tharp placed Hebert’s urn and two simple vases filled with yellow-blossomed branches. The church was filled to capacity, and a large group of friends stood outside the doors in an overflow area. Mayor Whitmire arrived with an entourage shortly before the beginning of the service. McCory remembers Slade Brown playing the organ, while June Terry, a soloist friend of Hebert’s, sang “I Did It My Way.”

After the service, a reception was held at the home of John Sibley, not far from the church. “Linda Mele cried the whole time,” Lord recalls.

Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward

Harry Guyton, who had worked with the sets for so many years, had the unenviable position of First Vice President. Upon Hebert’s death, he automatically became the new president of the Diana Foundation. Following in Hebert’s footsteps would be a difficult job for anyone, but Guyton worked hard to pick up the pieces and move forward. He finished out his term and was elected to a second term in 1989.

Houston’s new Wortham Center in downtown Houston was now ready for occupancy, and the Dianas decided to book the Cullen Theater, which had relatively the same seating space as the Tower Theater. The stage equipment at the Wortham was state of the art. “For the first time we could ‘fly’ the backgrounds of the sets,” Guyton says. That meant they could all be hung beforehand and then raised and lowered for scene changes. At the Tower, backgrounds had to be manually moved on and off from the stage.

Fields had dropped out as an emcee after 1986, and Mele retired from her role after 1987. For nearly 20 years, the familiar faces of Moncrief, Hebert, Fields, and Mele had given the Diana Awards a sense of continuity. Now their faces were gone from the stage, as was the familiar Diana statue. An era had truly passed.

For the 1988 show, Bob King, David Greiss, and Doug Tomas were selected to serve as emcees. King was a long-time awards writer, and Greiss and Tomas were current Diana officers. They played their roles straight, dressed in black-tie attire. The program took on a new look that resembled the Oscars—hosts in black tie guided the show along, introducing past winners to present awards to new winners. Girls appeared out of nowhere to hand the envelopes and awards to the presenters.

The 1988 show moved at a fast pace. Fields returned to the stage to present one individual award near the end of the evening. When he asked for the envelope, a Tarzan-like bodybuilder in a sequined jockstrap walked out and handed it to him. Later, as he turned to make his exit, Fields was scooped up into the arms of the hunky extra and carried off stage, waving. “There is a God!” he was heard to say.

In 1988 and 1989, Diana 35 and Diana 36 played to nearly full houses at the Wortham. The themes were “A Night to Remember” and “What Becomes a Legend Most.” Guests continued to arrive in limousines, dressed in black ties and evening gowns. The orchestra, the dancers, the awards, and the glamour were still there. Guests laughed and cheered, gave a standing ovation to a Madonna routine, and took in the wonder of the newly opened Wortham. Joe Russell and Michael Kemper debuted as additional emcees in 1988, roles they maintained well into the 1990s.

Continuing their emergence from the closet, in October of 1988 the Dianas transformed the Galleria Neiman-Marcus into a Florentine villa for an AIDS fundraiser. The evening included a Missoni Uomo style show, with live music throughout the store during cocktails and the dinner hour. Champagne, dessert, and dancing followed. For the host committee, Frank Campisi gathered an illustrious group of prominent Houstonians who assisted in making the event a great success. A proclamation from the Texas State Senate saluting the Diana Foundation was read by State Representative Debra Danburg.

But for the Dianas, Hebert’s 1987 murder was still painful to endure, and its effect would take time to fully sink in. Hebert had been the heart and the soul of the Dianas, always the glue that held it all together. Whenever there had been a serious problem in the past, the answer was to seek out Hebert for a solution. Now on the cusp of a new decade, the Dianas realized they were truly on their own.
The 1990s

A Letter from Barbara Bush

Dianas_AIDSQuilt
The Diana Foundation AIDS quilt panel.

 

For two years after Charles Hebert’s death, Harry Guyton kept the Dianas together as their president. He oversaw the production of Diana 35 and Diana 36 in 1988 and 1989 at the newly opened Wortham Center. In 1990, longtime member Frank Campisi succeeded him as president.

In January 1990, a kickoff gala for Diana 37 was held at Galleria Sakowitz. The party included a cocktail buffet and a fashion show using both professional models and Diana members. Robert Sakowitz, the store’s CEO, welcomed the group and praised their charitable gifts to the community.

Diana 37 in 1990 was presented at the Wortham Center with the theme “The Legend Continues.” Joe Russell and Michael Kemper continued their runs as emcees, which they had begun in 1988.

President Campisi read a letter addressed to the Dianas from First Lady Barbara Bush. The hand-signed letter was dated May 2, 1990, and ended with the words: “I salute the good work being done by the Diana Foundation and I am so grateful for your efforts on behalf of others.” The letter was a grand beginning for a new decade, and the Dianas were pleased at the recognition.

That same year, the membership voted to present a Diana Community Service Award at Diana 37 to Houston philanthropist Carolyn Farb for her work with AIDS fundraising during the preceding several years. Looking back at that award, Farb recently commented:

For more than five decades, The Diana Foundation has generously supported a myriad of issues relating to improving the quality of life for all with its focus being health, education, cultural, and social issues. The Foundation has addressed needs making a difference in the community and empowering volunteers.

 

I chaired Houston’s first successful AIDS fundraiser in 1987 called “An Evening of Hope,” an event that united our city in support of people with AIDS.The stigma of the disease began to fade in our community, and people were given life-saving health care. Ibecame involved in the early days.They were challenging, and donors I normally looked to for support turned a deaf ear on the project.Thankfully, those attitudes have changed as public awareness has grown.I am happy that the care that was made available from that eventhas been greatly expanded.When I received the Diana Award in 1990, I was deeply honored and touched.

The surface image was heady and it seemed that the past successes of the Dianas would continue to grow in fertile ground in the years to come. In reality, the most turbulent years of their existence lay ahead. Much had changed for the Dianas, but they were just beginning to sort it all out.

Their spectacular awards shows were still being produced each year, and the newly opened Wortham Center provided a dramatic and beautiful setting. Riding up the expansive steps of the tall escalator from the ground floor to the main lobby, passing under the huge metal sculptures overhead, it still seemed a bit surreal for many guests that gays had come so far in their lifetimes.

But the cracks around the edges were starting to reveal themselves. During their days at the Tower Theater, every show had been sold out. Though the first event at the Cullen Theater in 1988 was well attended and nearly sold out, the audience began to shrink each following year. In 1989, there were whole rows of empty seats. In 1990, whole sections were empty; nearly 20 percent of the seats had gone unsold. It was a humbling sight.

For years, Charles Hebert had been the writer, director, and producer of the annual shows. Up to the time of his death in 1987, he still held the final say about what would be included in the productions. Hebert had regularly flown to New York with his partner Tim Weaver to take in every new show on Broadway. He knew good theater first-hand.

Hebert had also continued to be one of the three major emcees for the shows until his death. Playing before packed audiences year after year, he had an instinctive feel for what audiences liked and didn’t like. He utilized all this wisdom to put together popular shows that audiences continued to enjoy and return to. Despite the fact that top-hated chorus lines appeared every year during the Tower Theater days, he could see that audiences were delighted by them. His shows were a clever and careful mixture of Broadway, Las Vegas, and gay camp.

Although he had a sense of adventure and was open to new ideas, he was careful to keep to a basic formula of crowd-pleasing musical numbers, comedy lines, and emcee antics. Without Hebert’s judgment calls, the shows moved continually away from his successful formula.

One of the most enjoyable portions of the Hebert shows was the opening monologue of his alter ego, Angela Lynnesbury. Harry Guyton remembers Hebert backstage as he was dressing for his big introduction of the evening: “He was so nervous, I’d have to hold his face and put his lipstick on.”

But once Hebert walked through the curtain to the tune of Mame, he was in his element. His role never got old, never became a burden. It had always been a labor of love that he savored. His eyes sparkled and his cheeks dimpled as he laughed along with the audience. A man who had been bigger than life was now reduced to a black-and-white photograph in the program. He was gone and his magic was gone with him.

A Multitude of Issues

If the Dianas had been facing a particular issue at this time, it could have been analyzed and a solution found. But they were faced with a multitude of issues, all of which had surfaced over a relatively short period of time.

The most obvious issue was the 1987 loss of Hebert. He had been the driving force behind the Dianas for more than three decades. And he had been a man of unusual talent and skill, always the glue that kept it all together. For some members, the loss of Hebert brought an end to their interest in the organization and an end to their involvement.

As in any organization with a strong leader, the loss of that leader creates a vacuum and power struggles begin. The Dianas, once cohesive, became factionalized. This created yet another exodus of members.

AIDS had taken a heavy toll on gay men in the 1980s. By 1990, the Dianas had lost upwards of 20 percent of their membership to the disease. People living with AIDS now had to deal with disability and loss of income. Those who were not infected were being drawn more and more into AIDS support work and had little free time left to devote to social organizations.

The mainstreaming of gays during the 1980s saw the rise of countless new organizations, and there was tremendous competition within the community for gay dollars. With a standard ticket price of $150 for the Diana Awards shows, the competition was even steeper. It was hard to compete with the graduated ticket levels beginning at $25 for their closest rival, the Miss Camp America Pageant.

The glamour of the 1980s, reinforced by the Reagan Hollywood White House and the success of TV’s Dynasty, was quickly on the wane. The country was now watching Roseanne and taking interest in a presidential candidate who wore blue jeans on the campaign trail and showed up on the Tonight show playing his saxophone.

The energetic young people who had thrown themselves into the spectacular productions at the Tower Theater were growing older. They had hoped that a new generation of younger members would take on the responsibilities they had shouldered for years. But that wasn’t happening.

There was the emotional impact of dealing with death in volume for years. The back section of This Week in Texas regularly held 8 to 12 pages of new obituaries each week. There were no significant advances in the medical treatment of AIDS. Memorial services were becoming a way of life.

Not the least of the issues was the increase in production expenses with the move to the Wortham Center. The Wortham was a union shop, and much of the production work could no longer be done by volunteers. And despite its grandness, the Wortham seemed remote. The Tower Theater was located in the heart of Montrose. Leaving there, guests walked right into the pulsing gay life of Houston. Now they descended into a submerged parking garage and exited to the sight of an otherwise lifeless downtown.

A Move Back to Smaller Venues

Despite problems from every angle, Diana members weren’t used to accepting failure. Those who stayed on were determined to keep the organization active and the show running. But they accepted the fact that changes would have to be made.

In 1991, Rick Biehl followed Campisi as president. Diana 38 was presented that year at the smaller Scottish Rite Temple with the theme “Singular Sensation.” The set crews continued to work hard, preparing beautiful sets and backdrops that changed throughout the shows. But 1991 was the last of the lavish staging.

In 1992, Bill Poplin, who had once pulled curtains and managed bevies of chorus girls at the Tower Theater, took over the role of president and carried those responsibilities through 1995. During his first year, 1992, the awards show moved to the Good Tastes of Texas Restaurant, where Diana 39 bore the theme “39 and Holding.” One permanent set for the evening was built and there were no backdrop changes. The size and scope of the entire production was greatly reduced.

In 1993, Diana 40 moved to the Majestic Metro Theater, with the theme “Forty and Fabulous.” Tom Osborn, the Diana’s diva for nearly two decades, returned for one more performance, despite crippling arthritis. Age and health complications limited his moves, but he echoed the year’s theme by looking fabulous. He ended his number with a reprise of Hello Dolly, the song he had wowed audiences with 25 years before at the Village Theater in 1968.

Sharon Lord was chosen to present one of the awards that evening. What followed was probably the lengthiest award in Diana history. Cracking up the audience with ad-lib one-liners, Lord inadvertently became the evening’s feature entertainer, finally presenting the statuette for Best Supported Actress after what seemed like an eternity.

The Best Foreign Film award in 1993 went to a member who had asked his father to loan him the down payment on a townhouse he wanted to purchase. The father was not pleased that his son was “living a gay lifestyle” and offered him the loan in exchange for spending a night with a group of Mexican hookers in a local hotel room. It’s doubtful that the hookers got anything that night except their payment.

Once again, there was one small-scale permanent stage that was used that entire evening of Diana 40. Rather than the Broadway-style shows of the past, the show had begun to look like a mini-version of Miss Camp America—filled with big-haired drag queens and leather boys in halters. This turnabout had a stinging edge to it; Miss Camp America was now pulling in the audiences that the Dianas were losing, and it had replaced the Diana Awards as the top ticket of the year.

In 1994, Diana 41 made a sentimental return to the Tower Theater. Diana humor was evident in their chosen theme, “Dianasaurous: Geriatric Park – Just When You Thought It Was Over.” The roasters proved they could even roast themselves.

Diva Tom “Ava” Osborn returned for one final performance in I’m So Gay Tonight and then hung up her dancing heels and boas forever. The show continued its scaled-down look with a permanent stage design and small production numbers. If the Dianas were looking for a place to play out their extinction, the Tower Theater would have been a fitting place for it to amble off into the sunset. Instead, it just continued to amble.

The Swan Song of an Era

In 1995, Diana 42 chose the theme “Glamour Is Everything.” Their venue was the 101-year-old Houston Club. By this time, Michael Kemper had grasped the realities of the Dianas’ new world, and he put on a show that was surprisingly slick, sleek, and entertaining.

The entire stage looked like a duplicate of an Academy Awards show, even featuring a large Diana statue situated and lit to resemble an Oscar. Bearing no resemblance to Moncrief’s original Diana, the new statue was a life-size version of the tiny Diana statuette awards. Admittedly, she bore a stronger resemblance to the goddess Juno, but nevertheless she reigned regally over the festivities. She was also easy to transport.

The presenters moved with precision, bringing winners from past years back to present this year’s awards. A faux Elizabeth Taylor brought star quality to the ceremony, and simple but creative dance routines filled the gaps between awards. Kemper invited his longtime friend Jan Glenn, from his local TV “Makeover” days, for additional star quality. Glenn helped present a special Star Award to Rich Arenschieldt IV for his work with the Pet Patrol.

Former writer and emcee Bob King made a one-night return from retirement to present a special award to the Bering Omega Dental Clinic. Local entertainer Jerry Atwood was presented the prestigious Diana Award for Community Service for his annual fundraising Christmas Songfest.

Instead of the Academy’s gowned and nameless girls who escort winners here and there, Diana 42 had three bodybuilders wearing go-go dance straps and western boots to help people up to and down from the stage. In a novel twist, “nominees” for an award were called to the stage before an award was read. As the narrative unfolded, it became obvious who the winner was. For the first time at a Diana show, the audience got to see the winner’s growing embarrassment and final humiliation as the award was read and presented. Even Sharon Lord was fooled into co-presenting an award, only to discover that she herself was the winner.

Dianas_NeimanMarcus
(L–r) Rick Biehl, Carolyn Farb, Dianas then-prez Frank Campisi, and Ben Crump attend a Dianas fundraising Orefors Party at Neiman-Marcus October 1990.

Organizers imported Lypsinka, a current off-Broadway hit, as the evening’s main entertainment. She presented a fast-paced sketch of ringing telephones answered with lines culled from famous movies. Other entertainment included a comedy dance quartet, Camp Baroque.

Longtime music conductor David Daniels had succumbed to AIDS just shortly before Diana 42; his name was even listed in the program as a participant. In his memory, an athletic and contemporary pas de deux was performed to Elton John’s version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” It drew the largest applause of the evening.

The show ended with a sparkling touch of humor and the old Las Vegas style of Hebert’s productions. The names of the nominees for Best Movie were read, but the Dianas ignored the nominees and instead decided to award their own choice for best movie—with a rousing musical romp inspired by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Reporting on the event for the March 30, 1995, Houston Press, writer Alison Cook quipped her way through an article titled “Old Boys at Play”:

“They must have no business here at night or they’d never have let us in,” cracked one veteran Diana member as he surveyed the cocktail-swigging horde, whose number included such prominent personages as a jeweler, a TV weatherman, a model czar, a publicist, and a small herd of doctors. If the Dianas started as an in-joke, then their evening at the Houston Club may have been the biggest in-joke in its history.

It was a joke not universally appreciated. As the revelers filed into the Texas Room for the musical extravaganza that is the evening’s raison d’être, Houston Club staffers lurked on the sidelines, their lips twitching with bemused, incipient smiles; the eyeballs of one venerable African-American waiter rolled back in his head.

When the first of many lip-synching numbers struck up—complete with a gaudy chorus of dragsters aping Liz Taylor, Joan Crawford and “God knows who else,” as one onlooker put it—a small, hair-netted woman with a pre-Columbian profile emerged from the kitchen and stood staring, as if she had a front seat for the end of the world.

Here, in a relic of a Houston that is no more, another band of survivors had gathered. They had lived through an era when you couldn’t admit you were gay, only to find themselves in an era when being gay meant seeing your friends die by the score. Perhaps it made the jokes even sweeter, just as the worm-has-turned setting did.

 

“When you lean down from the barstool to adjust your wedgie and see nothing but old cocktail straws and old confetti on the floor,” President Bill Poplin recalled from a 1985 appearance at the Dianas by Waylon Flowers’ famous puppet Madame, “you know the parade done passed you by.” It was one of the most raucous applause lines of the night.

The show was captured on videotape by a video professional, and a souvenir copy was made available shortly after the awards night. The tape was handsomely produced and captured the evening with color, sentiment, and humor. What the makers of that tape did not realize was that they had unknowingly captured something else historic—the last Diana show of its kind.

Returning to Their Roots—Fellowship, Humor, & Philanthropy

In 1996, Ben Crump took over the position of president and held the job through 1997. During his first year in office, the organization looked desolation in the face; for the first time in 43 years, there was no Diana Awards Show. “I take full responsibility for it,” says Crump. “It happened on my watch.”

It’s doubtful that Crump needs to bear the weight of the cancelled show and the resultant talk of disbanding the organization. Changing times and the advancing age of the membership had made the annual awards show something other than the joyful labor of love it had once been. Somewhere, somehow, something had to give.

On April 23, 1996, long-time member Ogden Robertson wrote an open letter to the Diana members:

I am saddened by the cancellation of this year’s Diana Awards. To me, the Diana Awards is the Diana Foundation. Without the Awards, the Foundation will lose its identity. I hope that something positive will come out of the cancellation and that we can regain our sense of humor and fellowship. I also hope it is not too late.

The Awards should be kept small, for members and their friends. The affair should be held at a location that is of the appropriate size, has good service and some style.

The entertainment parts of the evening should be performed by local people. There might be some live music, such as a combo to play during dinner.

 

My hope is that this letter leads to constructive discussions about the future of the Awards show. Am I the only one who would hate to see it go away?

Robertson wasn’t the only person who would have hated to see the demise of the Dianas. His ideas became the basis of discussion and eventually provided a new format for the awards shows that would save the Dianas from threatened extinction.

Those who still had a passion for the excitement and color of staging and performing moved to other organizations such as Miss Camp America or the Krewe of Olympus. But for the rest of the membership, the decision to eliminate the production numbers was a positive and realistic change.

In 1997, Diana 43 was held at the beautiful La Columbe d’Or in Montrose. The theme was “An Evening at Le Grand Salon.” Freed from the efforts of producing a stage show, members were able to sit back and enjoy being served a gourmet dinner at exquisitely decorated dining tables. Local entertainer Jerry Atwood provided the music for the event. Local television weatherman Dan Meador served as the emcee.

Long-time members may have glanced next door as they entered and left for the evening. Twenty-five years had passed since they had gathered at the Palace Club atop 3400 Montrose in 1972 for Diana 19. Perhaps at those moments, they became uniquely aware of how far the Dianas had come since that night and what an exciting ride it had been for them. Perhaps too, they realized that they had now returned to their roots of intimacy, partying with people they knew well and loved.

In 1998, Tom Mays began a two-year term as president. Under his leadership, Diana 44 in 1998 was booked at the Four Seasons Hotel. The chosen theme was “Fairy Tales.” Jerry Atwood was joined by Sharon Montgomery to provide the evening’s entertainment. The emcee was popular radio host Dayna Steele.

In 1999, Diana 45 was held in the Crystal Ballroom of the beautifully renovated Rice Hotel, with a theme of “High Society.” Samantha Samuels entertained the guests, and another local television weatherman, Frank Billingsley, served as the emcee.

After a turbulent decade, as the millennium drew to a close, the membership left behind an era of grand Broadway-style productions. But they had rediscovered their roots—smaller parties with friends, amateur entertainment, clever roasts, and philanthropy. Had they risen to the very top and fallen? Or had they merely come full circle?

The 2000s

 

Dianas_Clinton
Kate Clinton headlined the 2003 Diana Awards 50 year Jubilee Celebration.

Preparing for a Jubilee

In 2000, Bill Green took a turn at the duties of president of the Dianas and served for two terms. The organization was smaller than it had been in years past, but once again it was stable and running smoothly. The Warwick Hotel was selected as the site of Diana 46 in 2000, with a millennium theme of “MM – A Celebration.” Sharon Douglas and CC Ryder entertained the guests in the posh ballroom of the historic hotel.

Plans for 2001 brought the Dianas back to the Warwick, with a theme of “Fasten Your Seatbelts.” The theme turned out to be prophetic. Somehow, during the planning efforts, the hands of time sped up and the awards were given the number Diana 48. The number now represented the age of the Dianas instead of the numbering of the shows. For the entertainment that year, guests enjoyed Sharon Montgomery, Charlene Wright, and Sam Anderson. Then they danced into the night to the music of Cuba Libre.

In 2002, Earl Krieger was elected Diana president and served for the next three years. In his first year, Diana 49 in 2002 was presented, with the Warwick Hotel once again the chosen venue. The theme was “Venetian Carnival,” and for entertainment the organizers brought in famed entertainer Jimmy James.

2003 marked the Golden Jubilee year, Diana 50. Guests dined once again at the Warwick Hotel and enjoyed gay entertainer and comedian Kate Clinton. Miss Texas 2000, Tara Watson, also appeared at the banquet.

Members of the Dianas presented several musical sketches, including a crowd-pleasing version of “Money” from Cabaret. For the 50th anniversary of the organization, it was another return to their roots, the simpler routines that relied on cleverness and humor—friends entertaining friends. There was an interesting lesson that had been learned: the larger a production, the more distance it puts between itself and the audience. The Jubilee entertainment was intimate and heartwarming.

Kreiger finished out his term as president with the presentation of Diana 51 in 2004, themed “Still Crazy.” Dinner was served in the lobby of Stages Theater, and then guests enjoyed a full-length stage production of Stages’ current show, Always, Patsy Cline.

In 2005, Frank Staggs took over as president and served one term. Diana 52 in 2005 was held at the Bella Terrazza Restaurant, and the theme was “An Evening at the Moulin Rouge.” Community photographer Dalton DeHart says the decorations that year were “just about the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, the most beautiful color red.” A jaw-dropping red windmill was a central focal point of the party. Music was provided by local entertainment favorites, Jerry Atwood and Ricky Comeaux, with special numbers by CC Ryder. Frank Billingsley once again served as emcee.

A Stumble, Near Fall, and Determined Effort to Survive

In 2006, Bob Briddick was elected president and served one term. Diana 53 in 2006 found guests returning to Bella Terrazza Restaurant for an evening themed “The South Will Be Haute Again.” Ricky Comeaux provided the evening’s entertainment.

Of his year in office, Briddick says, “It was a very difficult year, but I’m proud to have brought the organization through.” Almost as if a 10-year “curse” had begun to plague the Dianas, the organization experienced internal issues that nearly threatened to end the 53-year-old organization. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and personality clashes ended with a deeply felt rift, and a significant loss of current members. “There was talk once again of disbanding the organization,” Briddick recalls solemnly.

But John Heinzerling was one of the members who determined that the Dianas should continue. He was elected president in 2007 and is currently serving his fourth term. A man with a cheerful disposition, deep dedication, and good diplomatic skills, he worked hard to ensure cohesion in the remaining group and set out to rebuild the membership ranks.

Diana 54 in 2007 was held at the Houston City Club in the Galleria. The theme was “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.” Singer Hedda Layne entertained members and their guests. In a high-tech departure from tradition, the 2007 souvenir program was a CD with several of Layne’s songs on it, and program notes were miniaturized and inserted into the jewel case that held the CD.

The Houston City Club also served as the site for Diana 55 in 2008. The theme was “The Show Goes On,” and singer Linda Petty provided entertainment. For Heinzerling, the theme may have had a sense of personal irony. He had worked hard to attract new members to the depleted organization and, like a show-biz trouper, determined that the Dianas would continue despite the challenges they had recently faced.

The evening also included the campy roast awards that had always been a part of the Diana Awards. One member received an award for grabbing his partner’s car keys during an argument, backing the car out of their driveway at high speed, right into a flatbed parked across the street, sending a forklift on it sailing to the ground. No matter what else had changed around the Dianas, people were still doing the same silly things in 2008 that they had been doing for the past 55 years.

The former 14 roast awards have been replaced with only four awards, and the writers are careful not to cross the line from humor to hurt. Hebert had always maintained a careful control over the tone of the awards, but after his death, members began to complain that the former restraint was missing, that the awards were beginning to get out of hand. One night they finally did. The winner walked to the stage, grabbed the award, walked out the door, and never returned to the organization. Since then, the awards have regained the sense of control Hebert had practiced.

The Dianas now balance roasting with toasting. The Diana Community Service Award was begun in 1985 as an award of honor. In recent years, the group has added the Golden Bow award for the Diana member who has done the most work for the organization in the past year. Additionally, a Director’s award now goes to the member who has been exceptionally helpful in producing the annual show.

Dianas_HoustonZoo
Diana prez John Heinzerling (l) awards Best Supported Actress to Carlos Obando, the 56th annual Dianas, May 2009, at the Houston Zoo.

Celebrating New Beginnings

In March of 2009, the Diana membership had been rebuilt to its 2006 level. Heinzerling had worked hard to attract new talent and younger faces, and his efforts had paid off.

Program Chair Mark Brown looked for a unique site for Diana 56 in 2009 and chose the Houston Zoo. The theme was appropriately “Serengeti Nights.” Guests in black tie enjoyed a social hour, sit-down dinner, a sea lion show, and dancing under the stars, as zoo residents provided an exotic soundtrack to the fun. Animal handlers strolled among the guests during cocktail hour with gentle-spirited creatures to pet and pose for photos with.

The Dianas also unveiled their new Diana award, a stunning reproduction of Diana the Huntress on a dark wooden base. Not only is the award impressive, but it’s now mythologically correct. The life-size Juno statue that copied the former statuettes was nowhere in sight. It was positive, visual evidence that the Dianas were serious about changing their image and moving forward with a new beginning.

Diana 56 raised $12,000, which was split between beneficiaries Pet Patrol and Bering Omega Community Services. Tori Williams, who represented the Pet Patrol at the 2009 dinner, reflects back on how the Dianas have been helping the community over the past decades:

When The Pet Patrol started in 1986, it was the first program of its kind in the country.Helping people keep their companion pets by paying for vet care and pet food was unique, and funders weren’t sure that itfit within any of their typical funding categories.The Diana Foundation made one of the first and definitely one of the largest gifts to The Pet Patrol during our infancy.I am not sureThe Pet Patrol would be here today if it were not for the generous support and enormous kindness of The Diana Foundation.

Thinking Outside the Box

As the Dianas head into their 58th year of existence, members are actively reflecting on the future of the organization. Longtime member Michael Kemper, who holds a record of winning seven Diana awards, notes, “The Dianas originally reflected the bitchiness and wit of The Boys in the Band, but we have learned to adjust to our times and change. We are reaching out to other community organizations to collaborate. Recently we sponsored a Sunday morning brunch with members of the Executive and Professional Association of Houston [EPAH]. We are encouraging younger people to join. I think the Dianas are headed in an entirely new direction. We’re having our socials and mixers in member residences once again; there are cocktails and food and laughter. That’s what it was when the Dianas first started. We’ve come full circle.”

Program Chair Mark Brown adds, “We’re thinking outside the box. We have eliminated the big production numbers of the past. This allows us to give nearly all our proceeds to charities. We have moved from acid-tongued barbs to camaraderie.”

Looking ahead, President Heinzerling says that the Dianas will focus on the social aspects of the organization as they move forward into the future.

The Diana Foundation is open to people of all sexual orientations. The current membership is largely gay, but also includes heterosexuals.

Remembering Charles Hebert in a Special Way

One of Charles Hebert’s memorable social events was his annual “Dog Days of Summer Country Supper,” begun in 1963 and last held in 1986 just prior to his death. Hebert enlisted nearly 100 friends, who helped him put together a giant dinner of country food that was served either on his deck or in the garage area beneath. This event was Ben Crump’s inspiration when, in 1992, he inaugurated a fall event titled “Miss Angela’s Country Dinner.” Crump chose the name in memory of Hebert’s role as Angela Lynnesbury at the annual Diana Awards. The first three years the dinner was held as a Diana Foundation fundraiser in the yard of Bill Bridges’s house, in Montrose. Then it moved to the Houston Polo Grounds, where it continued to be held for nearly a decade.

At one of the dinners in the 1990s, Crump decided to wear a campy, Western denim skirt with square-dance petticoats. Late in the evening, he sat down and nodded off to sleep. The cigarette he was smoking ended up setting the petticoats ablaze, causing a mini panic as other members sought to rescue him. It was, of course, an accidental but exceptional tribute to Hebert—exactly the kind of thing he would have thought was deserving of a Diana Award. Sure enough, the next year Crump received a Diana statuette for “Best Child Actress.”

Crump holds a special place in his heart for Hebert. “I learned from my work with the Dianas, and I went on to join the boards of the Alley and Theater Under the Stars,” he says. “I was also president of the Alley Guild. If I had not learned a sense of organization under the Dianas, I would have been intimidated by those people. At first I was sitting there with Lynn Wyatt, and being a little boy from Winniewood, Oklahoma, I wondered what I was doing there. Without the Dianas, I never would have made it that far.”

Recently, the Dianas expanded the dinner to an entire Round-Up Weekend, held in October of each year. A social is held on Friday night, the Country Dinner on Saturday night, and a late brunch on Sunday. It’s a special way that the Dianas still keep Hebert’s memory alive.

Why People Join the Dianas

The simplest and most direct way to understand why the Dianas is an organization that is still important and relevant in our community is to hear why the newest members of the group have joined.

“I attended several Dianas events before I joined the organization,” states new member Nic Messana. “I found that its members were respectable, fairly educated, welcoming gay professionals. I thought that I had a lot in common with such a crowd.”

Bruce Cain states, “The first Diana show I attended was at the Tower Theater.I had attended many of the shows and functions over the years, but had never felt the compunction to join.My favorite movies are those of redemption.I admire the obstinate nature of theFoundation, refusing to allow setbacks to be the death knell of the organization.I admire the determination of the officers and members to continue to grow, while making certain that the Foundation is still a viable and valuable asset to the community.I have foundthe members to be truly caring and philanthropic—not to mention the fact that when I joined,one of the members said something to the effect that it was good to have some young blood in the membership.Good Lord, I am50!”

“There are 60 plus reasons (the 60+ Diana members) why I joined the Dianas,” says Clifton Vanover. “I am getting old, and over the years I have never known members who are so friendly. From the first meeting I attended, I loved the way I was treated.”

Mike Reynolds says he joined the Dianas “because of the fellowship, revelry, andemphasis on contributing tothe GLBT community.As with any organization, the people are what make it truly special.”

“I joined the Dianas after meeting a group of the members at several other events,” states Bill Barrow. “I learned of their long history and things they had done to help the gay community. I felt that it wasmy time to become more active in working to do things for the gay community and saw the Dianas as a great chance to get more involved.I was able to becomechairman of the decorations for the 2009Awards Dinner, under Mark Brown, during my first year as a member and learned a lot. I look forward to a long relationship with this group.”

“I am the youngest member,” states Carlos Obando, “and from the minute I went to my first social event with the Dianas, I felt at home. The Dianas introduced me to a unique kind of brotherhood—one that portrays professionalism, sincerity, and philanthropy, all in one. The friendships that I have built in such a short amount of time will last for years. The courage, wisdom, and support I have gained from such a fine group of individuals will allow me to accomplish a variety of goals in my life and truly make a difference for Houston.”

What the Dianas Have Given Us

In the 1950s, the Dianas gave their group of friends a gay enclave with its own culture, where they could feel secure and good about themselves regardless of mainstream social attitudes.

In the 1960s, that spirit continued, as they helped each other defy in private the very society that placed heavy emotional burdens on them.

In the 1970s, the Dianas opened their closet door and marched out, celebrating the new freedoms that emerged from the Stonewall riots.

In the 1980s, the spectacular Diana shows of that era showcased the very best of what creative, determined, and energetic gay people could accomplish, and made people proud to be gay.

In the 1990s, the Dianas weathered the effects of time and disease and emphasized the importance of intimacy and friendship in a rapidly changing world.

And in the 2000s, the Dianas have emerged as triumphant survivors, proving that you just can’t kill a good idea.

Any successful organization will have its share of criticism and praise. Despite the perceptions of others, the two most important things to the founders of the Dianas were the friendship of others and a willingness to donate time, effort, and creativity to events that bring people joy and laughter.

Truly, the Dianas have always been good for a dare. Past President Bill Poplin says, “The one thing you don’t want to say to a Diana member is that they can’t do something. Because they will turn right around and prove they can.”

One might argue the specifics of what the Dianas have done or how they did it during their 57-year lifetime, but one can’t argue with their survival. They’re still standing, after all these years.

Why the Dianas Have Survived the Longest

We are tempted to think that the oldest gay organization in our country would be a carefully chartered political organization from one of the major gay epicenters of New York or San Francisco. Instead, it’s a group that started with a spontaneous moment of humor and continued for 23 years before ever having a formal membership list.

Longtime activist Ray Hill says he isn’t surprised that the Dianas emerged as the oldest gay organization in the country. “I’ve always felt that the gay movement was a social one, not a political one. Political groups get mad and split. But social groups tend to get mad and make up.”

Activist Jessica Wicks isn’t surprised either that Houston is home to the oldest gay organization. “The South has always had a sense of warm hospitality. Houston was the perfect place for such an organization to grow and thrive.”

Gulf Coast Archives and Museum (GCAM) curator Judy Reeves notes, “The Dianas didn’t overwhelm their members with rules and regulations and make the Dianas the only important thing in their lives, so members were able to enjoy their involvement.”

The very fact that the Dianas have been basically a social organization and not a political one may well be the reason that they have endured. Being in a city away from the epicenters of gay culture has probably been an advantage, too. Epicenters attract lots of passionate people, but people also tend to move in and out of such areas with regularity. Continuity is more difficult to achieve.

At 57 years of age and still going strong, the Dianas are clearly an institution within Houston’s gay community. Over the decades, the list of people involved in the organization reflects a multitude of names that are familiar both to Houston history and to the history of Houston’s gay community. Many have remained members of the organization.

Many former members still live in Houston and are still active in the community in new roles. A particularly large group of former members has migrated to Palm Springs, California. Bill Massey’s former apartment complex at 1418 Vermont is almost entirely filled with present and former Diana members.

As LGBT people, we are well on our way to our goal of equality. But we are still facing the challenges of cultural and religious prejudice and of the reality of countless legal battles.

We are also facing the challenge of preserving our past. Every day our histories are fading away as those who remember are lost and physical records are destroyed. This story, then, has been a small step in preserving an iconic part of Houston’s gay history and of our nation’s gay history—the 57 years of the Dianas.

New York has its Tonys. Hollywood has its Oscars. And hopefully, Houston will always have its Dianas.

The author of this article wishes to thank the following individuals for their role in the preparation of this article, without whose help the story could not have been told: Christine Doby, for countless hours of interview transcription, copy editing, and research assistance; John Heinzerling and Harry Guyton of the Diana Foundation; Jo Collier, Joel Draut, and Charles Stephenson at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library; Art and Lynn Graeter at House of Glass; Larry Criscione and the volunteers at the Charles Botts Archive; and numerous members, past and present, of the Diana Foundation.

____________________________

Also See:

The Dianas Part One (OutSmart March 2010)

More on the Dianas (including Programs, links, contact info, etc.)

Where the Dianas Were Born

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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