Trite as it may sound, the legacy of Chuck Holmes was literally rescued from the garbage pile.
As the story goes, Michael Stabile was in San Francisco reporting on the adult entertainment industry when one of his contacts at Falcon Studios, a major player in gay pornography, reached out. The contact told him that Falcon’s new owners were preparing to junk a large trove of archival material, including photos of the company’s founder, Holmes.
Stabile knew that couldn’t happen, though he didn’t yet know why.
“He started grabbing what he could out of the trash,” Stabile said of his contact. “At first, it was about preserving this history and figuring out what this history means.”
A decade later, Stabile has his answer. It’s the subject of his first feature-length documentary film, Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story, which played the Sacramento International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on Friday.
“Chuck is sort of this larger than life character,” Stabile said.
An all-American type who hailed from Indiana, Holmes made a fortune in gay pornography and spent heavily on democratic causes, including AIDS research. But he also defies easy categorization. He fought against using condoms in his skin flicks during the height of the AIDS crisis and struggled for a kind of mainstream existence that eluded him even after he died, in 2000, from HIV-related causes.
Presented with the comparison, Stabile says Holmes was like a less brash, more refined Larry Flynt, one who didn’t seek out notoriety, but who “fought for a lot of rights, because it was in his business interest” to do so. “Chuck really wanted to fit in and be seen as an important person.”
That never quite happened. And when Holmes died, his legacy almost perished with him. Almost.
During the reclamation project, Stabile studied photos of Holmes, handsome in a Republican sort of way, aboard his yacht, and hobnobbing with the likes of Al Gore. Intrigued, he began piecing together oral histories from those who knew the man. In 2009, Stabile recorded his first on-camera interview for what would become Seed Money.
The journalist-turned-filmmaker jokes about how long it took him to complete the 71-minute documentary, but the obstacles he encountered reflect what it was like to live as a gay person in America during a certain time.
For instance, Stabile was able to track down an old girlfriend, but not many others who were still alive and had solid recollections of Holmes. “They remember wisps. They remember bits and pieces,” he said. Both of Holmes’ parents are dead, as are the grandparents who mostly raised him. And Holmes was of a generation that often didn’t have children to pass their stories to. When they died, their stories and histories died with them.
“Chuck had a real desire to be remembered,” Stabile said. “It’s tragic.”
The director wasn’t entirely unlucky. He located gentlemen like Steven Scarborough, who met Holmes in 1976 and became Holmes’ romantic and business partner.
Scarborough says he’s one of the few people who knows of Holmes’ childhood. He says Holmes was the product of hard-working, blue-collar people, and recalled Holmes crediting his grandfather and uncle for teaching him “how to cuss poetically.”
He also says Holmes regularly donated to his former church in Indiana, as well as to causes that represented at-risk communities, like gay homeless youth. “As long as I knew him, he was always giving to charity,” he recalled. “He thought if he didn’t give back, he would lose everything.”
Superstitious as he was, Holmes also had a keen mind for business and innovation. At the time he was producing his movies, they were typically recorded on 8-millimeter reels than ran 10 to 15 minutes in length. Even so, these reels could run an interested buyer between $80 to $100 apiece. Knowing not everyone had that scratch, Holmes took stills from his movies and sold them at discounted prices as individual photographs or bundled in a magazine.
His little movies—vignettes, really—portrayed predictable set-ups, like a paperboy dropping by andthenSEX or two sailors meet in a park andthenSEX. But they also featured handsome, well-dressed models in nice, clean settings, setting them apart from the grungy competition of the day. Stabile says this gave Holmes’ early reels an aspirational bent, especially in small towns where gay life was even less accepted. For instance, Stabile interviewed an Illinois man who said he grew up closeted in a small town and learned how to dress from Holmes’ movies.
Speaking of movies, Scarborough is satisfied with the one about his partner, saying it captures many of Holmes’ idiosyncrasies: cheap yet stingy, social yet lonely. Scarborough said it also illustrates “the unfairness of dying young, before one’s time.”
It’s a legacy that can no longer be discarded or forgotten.