Thursday, December 25, 2014

Babes in Toyland: Tommy Kirk and Coming Out

Babes in Toyland was Disney's 1961 Christmas film, hyped in amazing Technicolor.  It was directed by Jack Donohue, produced by Walt Disney himself, and distributed to theatres by Buena Vista Distribution. Its stars included Ray Bolger as Barnaby, Annette Funicello as Mary Contrary, Tommy Sands as Tom Piper, and Ed Wynn as the Toymaker, and Tommy Kirk as Grumio.

The film was based upon Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland. There was a classic version of the operetta filmed in 1934 with Laurel and Hardy, and three television adaptations prior to the Disney film.  But Disney's was the most elaborate and costly. However, the film was a flop.  Irreparably damaging this version was its 180-minute length...over twice as long as the Laurel and Hardy version, and not even half as good in terms of storyline and songs. What is most memorable to many about this movie is that the toy soldiers would later appear in Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Christmas parades.  The sets specially built for the film at the studio were so unique, they also found a temporary home at Disneyland after the films release in 1961 up to 1963, and people could actually see them up close inside the Opera House on Main Street.

In 1954 Tommy Kirk, then aged 13, was discovered by Disney agents while performing in a Pasadena Playhouse production of  "Ah, Wilderness." In no time at all Tommy Kirk became a Walt Disney contract player. Tommy was the All-American Boy.  His clean-cut good looks, honest face and wholesome roles set a standard.  After a stint on "The Mickey Mouse Club," Kirk was given a starring role opposite Clint Walker in the Disney hit western "Old Yeller" (1957).  In 1959 another dog film followed...Disney's very popular comedy classic "The Shaggy Dog"....and in 1960 Tommy  starred in his favorite Walt Disney feature film, the action-adventure "The Swiss Family Robinson."  He also starred with Fred McMurray in "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961) and later in the sequel "Son of Flubber" (1963).  In 1964 Tommy Kirk starred opposite former mouseketeer and then-current teen queen of the beach party movies Annette Funicello in "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones."  Tommy seemed to have it all, and Disney had invested a lot of money in grooming their male star (indeed, Disney had also made a ton of money off of his work).

There was only one problem, Tommy was gay.  It's reported that during the early years of his stardom Tommy Kirk's sexuality had been kept secret and even at the height of his popularity many of his fans did not know he was gay. It was in 1964 when Walt Disney found out that Tommy Kirk was having an affair with another male actor. The studio had dealt with actors having potential scandals in the past, and this was certainly a "situation" that could have been dealt with.  But Tommy didn't want to live a lie and hide in a closet, like so many other gay male Hollywood stars were doing. 

According Kevin Minton’s in-depth interview "Sex, Lies, and Disney Tape: Walt’s Fallen Star," Kirk knew his sexuality would create problems with his career as well as with his strict Baptist parents: Kirk later described his early sexual explorations as "desperate and miserable....back alley kind of things....When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change. I didn’t know what the consequences would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career. Disney was a family film studio and I was supposed to be their young, leading man. After they found out I was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney."

It was 1964 and Kirk was twenty-three and found himself "box office poison." His movies now would range from cute, campy fluff such as Pajama Party in 1964 to cheap cult movies like Mars Needs Women. Kirk explained "After I was fired from Disney, I did some of the worst movies ever made and I got involved with a manager who said it didn’t matter what you did as long as you kept working." Tommy’s personal life also took a downward spiral, getting mixed up with drugs. "I wound up completely broke. I had no self-discipline and I almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times. It’s a miracle that I’m still around."

Tommy eventually discovered life outside of show business. "Finally, I said, to hell with the whole thing, to hell with show business. I’m gonna make a new life for myself, and I got off drugs, completely kicked all that stuff." Kirk started a carpet and upholstery cleaning business.

The studio that once fired him for being gay in the early 1960's turned the corner and Tommy Kirk was inducted as a Disney Legend in on October 9, 2006, alongside his old co-stars Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran.

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