- Home / Not Home:Centering American Studies Where We Are
Back in the 1990s I spent several Christmas Eves at San Francisco's Castro Theatre for the annual "Home for the Holidays" concert of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.1 My brother, David Warrior, was a member of the chorus for a short time in the months before he died of AIDS in late September 1992.2 He never got to sing in the chorus's holiday concert, but going to that concert after he died became a way to connect with his memory and also to connect with the community, the place, and the people who had offered him and so many others a home in the midst of the first decade of the AIDS crisis.
The signature song of those concerts, which continue into the present, is the Robert Allen and Al Stillman American holiday staple "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays," made famous by Perry Como. The chorus's arrangement, by its director, Stan Hill, begins with an introduction that invokes Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz through an instrumental piano solo of the phrase "If pretty little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow why oh why can't I," from Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg's "Over the Rainbow," followed by multipart harmonic repetitions of the phrase "There's no place like home."3 The song begins in earnest with the chorus singing the opening melody "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays" augmented by a counterpoint phrase "San Francisco." The little echo "San Francisco" is sampled from the title song of the 1936 Woody Van Dyke film San Francisco, starring Spencer Tracy, Jeanette MacDonald, and Clark Gable. Set in San Francisco in the time leading up to the 1906 earthquake that leveled much of the city, the film was the top-grossing film the year it came out, perhaps because of the note of optimism it sounds at the end for theater audiences experiencing the height of the Great Depression—at the end, the film's earthquake survivors link arms and march out of their tent city in Golden Gate Park singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
That counterpoint to Allen and Stillman's holiday classic from the San Francisco theme song typifies what I found so compelling and fun about those [End Page 191] Christmas Eve performances. Singing "Home for the Holidays" is a counterpoint of its own, of course, a confident and comforting assertion at the top of the chorus's holiday show that the Castro, the Castro Theatre, and this auditorium packed with LGBTQ people and music lovers were home. The reference to the campy film San Francisco and its lavish production numbers is counterpoint to the counterpoint. All in fun, of course, but at the same more than that, too. The possible meanings are myriad—we're here (and … home for the holidays), we're queer (in San Francisco), get used to it (and for god's sake, enjoy some Christmas music). But for me, that Christmas Eve show became what those first two lines offer for a lot of people in the audience—here we are at home for the holidays rather than someplace else. Being at home with the Gay Men's Chorus meant we were not home, as well—as in, not home at the house where we grew up, or with the family we grew up in, or at church, or sitting alone looking for something on TV that doesn't have holly and ivy on it.4
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This personal story is one part of an American studies narrative I want to lay out this evening in relation to this year's theme, "Home / Not Home: Centering American Studies Where We Are." My enhanced memories of the [End Page 192] San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus holiday concert provide a familiar account, I hope, for those who have worked in American studies over the past two decades...