Photo: Billy Green
The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band has contributed their talents and awesome energy to the Bay Area and beyond for nearly 40 years. Between all three of SFLGFB's contingents, their concert band, marching band, and pep band, they have played pretty much every type of event imaginable. Perhaps their most beloved event is Dance-Along Nutcracker, where the audience is invited to dress up, dance along, and put some of that giddy holiday spirit to good use. This year's production, Nutcrackers of the Caribbean, has an especially star-studded cast, including Joe Wicht, Ruby Vixen, Zelda Koznofski, Dee Nathaniel, Leigh Crow, Marilynn Fowler, and Flynn DeMarco, who also directs the show.
Currently serving as President of the Board, Doug Litwin joined the band in 1985, just in time to perform in SFLGFB's very first Dance-Along Nutcracker. He's been a proud participant in the seasonal production, and in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band ever since. Nutcrackers of the Caribbean happens at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum on Saturday, December 9th at 3pm and 7pm, as well as on Sunday, December 10th at 11am and 3pm.
Wendy: The Dance-Along Nutcracker always has a theme; this year your theme is Nutcrackers of the Caribbean. How did you decide upon it?
Doug: In it's first couple of years, the show didn't really have a theme. We played holiday music; we played the music from The Nutcracker ballet; we invited people to get up and dance. Probably about the mid-nineties, or earlier in the nineties, we noticed a lot of families with kids were in the audience. The show evolved before our very eyes; our daytime shows were mostly kids, all dressed up and dancing around, having a great time. Our one show [per run that we we do in the] evenings is more adult oriented. We started coming up with a theme around that same time to tell more of a story. The music from The Nutcracker is always in the show; that's always featured and the audience gets to dance to it. Everything else, we start from scratch every year and come up with a new theme, write a whole show, and choose other music to go along with it. It is a lot of work. It would be so easy if we were like the San Francisco Ballet and did the same Nutcracker every year! A lot of people like to go, but I wouldn't want to be an eight year old, having to sit on my hands for two and a half hours, when I could go to this event where I can dress up and dance along!
Wendy: Of course it's fun dancing, but it's not a requirement to go to the show.
Doug: We tell people, "You don't have to dance. Sit in your chair and see the dancers go by, and be totally entertained by just doing that." A lot of people come to the event with the intention of [not dancing], and before you know it, they're up on the dance floor, spinning around! For those people, in the back corner of the hall, we have our Tutus R Us boutique, where they can rent a tutu or buy a little tiara, a little magic wand, or any one of a number of accessories. This year we're gonna have pirate bandanas, and little swords and eye patches. A lot of people who have come to the show many years come prepared. The little kids will come all dressed up in their pirate outfit that they worked very hard on to show off. It's quite a sight to behold.
Wendy: Tell me about some of your past themes over the years.
Doug: Last year we did one all about super heroes; it was called The Fantastic Adventures of Captain Nutcracker. Super heroes are super popular these days, and that was a very successful show. We did one that was a cross between Frosty the Snowman and The Nutcracker, and we went to Hawaii; it was called Frosty's Hawaiian Holiday. We did one that was Hollywood themed, show-biz, tinseltown Hollywood. Twice we've done shows where we go into outer space. We did a western one called Blazing Nutcrackers. Another really unique one that we did was a Summer of Love themed show, which would have been a good one for this year because it's the 50th anniversary. It was called Clara's Magical Mystery Tour (Clara is the lead character in The Nutcracker). It was hilarious; the tie-dyed stuff was everywhere. We've gone around the world; we did a take-off on a Grimm's Fairy Tales one year; we did one that was all about the rats; the rats were the stars.
Wendy: You've been there for all of them too, because you have been with The Nutcracker since 1985, when it started.
Doug: I joined the band in 1985, shortly after the Pride Parade that year in June. The first rehearsal I attended was in the fall of that year, and it was the first rehearsal for the first Dance-Along Nutcracker.
Wendy: The Dance-Along Nutcracker began as a fundraiser. Is it still?
Doug: It is. It's our biggest production of the year, with the biggest budget by far, of anything we do. As I'd said earlier, it takes a lot of work to create a new show every year, and it's hard to make money when every year you have to make new props, new costumes, and new musical arrangements. This year, for the first time, we said, "What if we had a revival, redid one of our shows?" That's what we're doing this year; Nutcrackers of the Caribbean was originally done in 2013. There are some changes in the show, but it's the same theme, same basic story line, etc. It's interesting because one member of the band, named Heidi Beeler, is an awesome writer, and she has written ten of these shows. She wrote this year's show. She's not retiring but she's probably not gonna write anymore of these shows. Our artistic director, Pete Nowlen, said, "Why don't we open it up? We've got all these band members who have been around forever and have seen all these shows; maybe some of us can come up with some great ideas for future shows." There have been about eight or ten submitted, including mine; I submitted two ideas. By the time we do our show on Saturday, our plan is to choose the theme for next year's show so that we can announce it to the audience.
Wendy: In the same way that you have welcomed your band members to write a show theme, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band also seems so open and welcoming in it's overall membership requirements. You invite people to come and play at least on some level; you have the marching band, pep band, and concert band.
Doug: We've never had an audition and we don't plan start doing that anytime soon. We have a very low threshold; we don't want to turn anyone away. Every now and then, there might be a person who comes along that's really a beginner; we encourage them to get a lesson or two, and we try to help them with that. We have everybody from people that have played professionally on down to people who haven't played an instrument in 30 years when they joined.
Wendy: For anyone who doesn't play, there are so many volunteer possibilities as well.
Doug: For example, we had a guy join who plays the oboe, a very good oboe player. Remember in 2015 when Super Bowl was here in the Bay Area? The game was in Santa Clara but they had Super Bowl City down by the Embarcadero, and our band played there one day. As far as I know we were the first openly gay group ever to be invited to be part of the Superbowl. The guy who played the oboe was taking pictures, which was great; we have some great pictures. He said, "This marching band is so much fun, but I play the oboe!" I said, "Don't let that stop you. Join the percussion section!" Now he plays in the marching band at every event. That's the kind of thing we encourage.
Wendy: Going back to what you had said about being the first openly gay band to play the Superbowl, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band was the first openly gay musical association of any kind in the world.
Doug: Yup. Jon Sims founded it all. In June [in the seventies] he had moved here from a small town in Kansas, and he [went to the Pride] parade. He said, "This parade is great but it's missing something. There's no marching band! Gotta do something about that." He created this band, and about a month later he created the Gay Men's Chorus. He created a lesbian/gay chorus; he created a number of other groups. All of the hundreds and hundreds of LGBT+ musical organizations around the world can trace their roots to what this one guy did. That's pretty amazing.
Wendy: Your 40th anniversary is coming up in 2018. Do you have any special plans to commemorate it?
Doug: Well of course we do! Since the band was founded to march in the Pride Parade in 1978, it was originally named after the parade. The original name was the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band & Twirling Corps. If you wanna try to put that on a tee shirt or a banner.... and we did. The parade subsequently changed it's name several times; the band eventually did change it's name to what we have now. Because it started at the parade, we know that a very big part of our 40th anniversary celebration will be during the parade next June. About two weeks ago we had a meeting with the executive director of San Francisco Pride and the manager of the parade at their offices to talk about this. They want to work with us to make sure we are properly honored during the whole weekend, and we are still putting together the details. in fact, our marching contingent could be a joint one with the Gay Men's Chorus, since they're also celebrating their 40th anniversary next year. A lot of ideas are kicking around, but one of the things I think is most exciting is that we are planning to commission a new piece of music, a new march that we would debut at the parade. It would be something that we play all the time in the future, and we're planning to dedicate it to the memory of Jon Sims, who founded the band and all these other groups.
Now that is the marching band; the concert band usually does three or four major concerts a year. We're planning a big 40th anniversary concert on Saturday, April 14th at Everett Middle School. Everett Middle School was chosen because that's the same place where the band did it's very first concert in December of 1978. Among our guest artists will be the Gay Men's Chorus, [who will] sing with us. It's gonna be pretty awesome.
Then, on Wednesday night of Pride week, June 20th, we're gonna have a big 40th anniversary gala dinner. We haven't finalized our location and we haven't determined exactly who all the entertainment will be that night. It will not be a band concert, but members of the band will be there, and of our smaller musical ensembles may perform.
We're gonna have another concert in the fall, in October; I believe on October 6th. That's the weekend of the Castro Street Fair. Then, we will do our Dance-Along Nutcracker in December, and that's the show we'll be choosing the theme for in the next week!
© Castro Courier 2014