How a Salvaged Home Movie Is Unlocking the Secret History of Gay St. Louis

A still from the rare footage discovered at a Central West End estate sale. (Photo courtesy of Geoff Story)

Most of the details of April 27, 1996, have melted away in Geoff Story’s mind, but he rightly remembers it being a Saturday. His Saturday ritual in those days was to scour the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for notices of estate sales. He loved estate sales. They allowed Story, then a 27-year-old advertising creative, to indulge in an unusual hobby: collecting the discarded family portraits and home movies of strangers.

Even as a child, such mementos had captivated him. He would stare at antique photos and ask adults who the subjects were, only to be told, “Nobody knows.”

“The concept of someone becoming anonymous and erased within a generation or two,” says Story, “that was so intriguing to me.”

On that April weekend, the newspaper ad that caught his eye began like this:

Complete contents of CWE mansion [for sale] including art work, marble sculpture and pedestals, large period dining table, demi-lune tables, Paul McCobb dining set, sofas, beds, mirrors….

There was no mention of old films, but what stood out to Story was the address: 5615 Lindell Boulevard. The home sat just steps from the Missouri History Museum — smack in the middle of the two-mile stretch of stately residences that line Forest Park’s northern edge. Estate sales there were always top-shelf.

“A lot of times, it was wealthy individuals who had really wonderful and tacky stuff,” he says. The ad further listed “much, much” miscellanea, “priced to sell.” Story was in the market for old-school cameras and 1950s neckties, too. He decided to go.

An undated photo of 5615 Lindell Boulevard. (Courtesy of Geoff Story)

Inside the mansion, he climbed the staircase to the third floor. Wandering into a room that felt like an attic, he noticed a box with canisters of 8 mm film. He carried one canister over to the dormer window, unspooled the leader and held some title frames up to the light.

The title: “A Gay Party.” Story, who is gay, felt a flutter of curiosity. The film stock looked decades old. He wondered if it dated back to mid-century, when “gay” meant “jolly” but still served as code for “homosexual.” Hoping for the latter, he kept that reel, grabbed a second one, picked out some Kodachrome slides and descended the stairs. All three items totaled something like $3.

But when he finally watched the reels, which added up to 22 minutes, he realized he had stumbled on a treasure. These home movies captured dozens of men splashing, lounging, dancing and laughing around a swimming pool somewhere in the countryside. It’s clear from their gestures and physical affections — and, in some cases, drag attire — that they’re gay men.

What makes the film so poignant is its historical moment: Several clues suggest it was shot during and soon after World War II — an era in which the vast majority of homosexuals remained in the closet (which would explain why some are wearing wedding rings). The pool, it appears, was a place where dozens of them could just frolic and be themselves.

“In terms of length and time period,” says Dr. Wil Brant, director of the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in Chicago, WWII-era footage like this “would be extremely rare,” even in gay hubs such as San Francisco.

Michael Bronski, the Harvard University professor who authored the 2011 book, A Queer History of the United States, agrees. He has been allowed to watch the film and calls it “a remarkable find.”

The film sat on Geoff Story’s shelf for many years, but last April, he resolved to turn it into a documentary (see the project website here). He pitched his idea to a production company in Hollywood, which showed great enthusiasm.

There was only one hitch. Before the project could proceed, Story needed to pin down basic facts about this secret gay pool party. The task began to consume him, and turned into an obsessive quest to answer three main questions.

Where was this pool? Who were these men? And, most urgently: Are any of them still alive?

Geoff Story at a screening. (Photo by Nick Schnelle)

Geoff Story, now 48, is a highly functional daydreamer. His bristled brows and sleepy eyes give him the air of a professor at bedtime, though his real job is creative director at TOKY, a branding firm in Midtown.

He remembers how, as a giddy 27-year-old in 1996, he bought the 8 mm film and rushed it across the river to his parents’ house in Belleville, Illinois.

Story’s father, in addition to being a retired teacher and amateur genealogist, was also a collector of knickknacks. He frequented flea markets and would pull over the family car to pick up interesting objects on the roadside. In his possession was an old-fashioned Bell & Howell projector.

When Story showed up at his boyhood home, he and his father set up the old projector on the living room carpet. The first shot was a doozy: It showed a man wearing lipstick, a pearl necklace and leopard-print bikini top sashaying toward the camera.

Story, who had yet to come out to his parents, sensed his father’s confusion. He abruptly shut off the machine.

But he was, nevertheless, electrified. He borrowed their projector and hurried it back to south St. Louis. That night, in his flat overlooking Benton Park, he watched the rest and thought, “This is gold.”

Another still from the found footage. (Courtesy of Geoff Story)

The film (which is actually several scenes spliced together) shows men sunbathing and socializing around a small in-ground pool in a bucolic setting. Their swimsuits have belts; the automobiles look like boxy 1940s models. Some men shy from the camera, but others camp it up with towels worn like skirts, headscarves à la Rosie the Riveter, wide-brimmed hats and dresses. They swing dance. They sing. They make out. They splash and tease each other. They sip on St. Louis-brewed beers such as Falstaff and Griesedieck (one man leaps off the diving board naked, then covers his crotch with a bottle of Griesedieck—“the joke that never gets old,” says Story).

Perhaps the most arresting image, though, is the close-up of a soldier in service dress who seizes a man’s face with his hands and plants a long, passionate kiss on his mouth. Then he plants one on another man.

The soldier’s cameo points to the possibility that at least some of this action transpired at a pivotal moment in gay history.

On the eve of World War II, around 43 percent of all Americans were still living in rural areas. Gay men had to hide their urges back then, according to Allan Bérubé’s seminal history Coming Out Under Fire. Homophobia lurked “quietly below the surface of everyday life,” Bérubé wrote, “coming into view only in sporadic acts of violence, arrests, school expulsions, firings or religious condemnations.” Gay men were kept “invisible, isolated, silent, ignorant and trivialized.”

Yet the war mobilized massive swaths of people, helping gay men find each other in military bases and war-boom cities, far from the watchful eyes of their families and neighbors. They fought in battles together, drank together, had sex and taught each other slang and signals and how to blend in.

The daring, live-for-today spirit of the war would soon give way to the rigid conformity and moral panic of the postwar era. But the mid-1940s were a heady and, in some ways, hopeful time for gay American men. The men in Story’s reels may have converged at their swimming pool at precisely that moment.

Story didn’t realize all this at first. He intuited that he had something special, but he didn’t examine it closely. For sixteen years, the film collected dust.

Then, in February 2013, Story’s father passed away. In the process of organizing the family’s 8 mm home movies in the years that followed, Story realized he still had his pool-party reels. He sent them to Cintrex AV, a Maryland Heights shop that digitizes old film.

When he got the digital version back in the winter of 2017, he was struck by how well it preserved a moment in time.

“It was so quintessentially mid-century,” says Story. “The colors are slightly magenta, slightly cyan. The wardrobe, the quick cuts, the light leaks — it almost looked staged by an art director.”

Inspired, Story re-edited the shots using iMovie. He cobbled together a soundtrack, which includes “Where the Boys Are” and “Secretly,” a pop-country No. 3 Billboard hit from the late 1950s with the lyrics:

Wish we didn’t have to meet secretly,

Wish we didn’t have to kiss secretly,

Wish we didn’t have to be afraid

To show the world

that we’re in love.

And he added the following title frames as an introduction: “A group of gay friends gathered for a picnic in the country… They swam. They danced. They drank too much. For one summer day… they lived like no one was watching.”

Geoff Story holds a screening at his home in LaSalle Park. (Photo by Nick Schnelle)

The first cascade of discoveries began on the evening of April 29, when Story invited more than a dozen friends to a screening at his home in the LaSalle Park neighborhood.

He lives in a refurbished 1864 brick row house with high ceilings and tall windows (he lit up the latter with rainbow lights for the occasion). He set out cinema-style boxes of popcorn and candy on his dining room table. Guests carried their treats along with drinks upstairs to his bedroom, which he had converted into a mini-theater.

The goal was to see if the footage captivated his friends as it did him.

“I stood in back of the room, just watching reactions,” he recalls. “People didn’t get emotional, but it was affecting them. Nobody was checking their phones. Then afterwards, there was such curiosity: ‘Who were these guys? What lives did they go back to?’”

One of the attendees was Beth Prusaczyk. A 31-year-old Ph.D. candidate in social work at Washington University, she only knew Story in passing. She had come to the screening after being fascinated by the stills he’d been posting online. Afterward, she gushed on Facebook.

“I still have goosebumps,” she wrote. “It was one of the most moving and amazing things I’ve ever seen.”

Story thanked her, and then the next day, alerted her to a major find. Two attendees at the screening had helped identify a man in the film with blond hair: Elvin “Buddy” Walton. Walton had grown up near Potosi, Missouri, and became one of St. Louis’ elite hairdressers. His clients ranged from several first ladies (Roosevelt, Truman and Bush) to European royalty. For 35 years, he ran a hair salon at the Chase Park Plaza and owned six more salons, including four in Florida.

Prusaczyk responded, “OMG INCREDIBLE!” An hour later, she messaged Story with an obituary from the Post-Dispatch: “This article says Elvin Walton owned a mansion on Lindell with his ‘longtime companion Sam Micotto.’”

Micotto too had an interesting backstory. He had been one of thirteen kids. The construction business owned by his large Catholic family had helped build the St. Louis Hills neighborhood. Micotto had served in the U.S. Army during the war, then later operated his own dog-grooming business at the Chase: The Poodle Palace.

Prusaczyk found a photo of him and sent it to Story. He had a flashback: At the estate sale, he had noticed the mansion’s outgoing resident, an elderly man with brilliant white hair. That must have been Micotto, Story guessed.

Indeed it was. After checking property records and other sources, they established that Micotto (the dog groomer) and Walton (the hairdresser) had been a couple for decades and had lived in the same Lindell mansion where the estate sale was held.

Buddy Walton (a hairdresser) and Sam Micotto (a dog-groomer) lived as a couple at the Lindell mansion and appeared in the footage. (Photo courtesy of Geoff Story)

Unfortunately, both were already deceased. But Prusaczyk kept digging compulsively online for more info. Story drafted her into his project.

“You are so much better at this than I am,” Story wrote to her. “Do you have time to research it? Or give me pointers? Would love to collaborate.”

“Definitely!” she replied.

They have been in close contact ever since, communicating several times a day. In their division of labor, which emerged organically, Prusaczyk is the organized spreadsheet-maker with a mind for facts and figures; Story is the artist with the big ideas and helpful contacts in the gay community.

He also has a knack for facial recognition. While studying the men in the footage, he noticed that Micotto resembled a younger fellow in certain scenes. After consulting a yearbook from Chaminade High School, he confirmed it: Both Micotto and his younger brother, Charlie, were at the pool party.

Meanwhile, Prusaczyk developed what she calls “a borderline obsession” with locating the swimming pool. She had to move to Nashville in June for professional reasons, but after work each night, she would curl up on her couch for hours, ignoring her husband and poring over the film, often with her laptop’s screen just inches from her face. She even dreamt about the pool. (At one point, she noticed a wartime gas ration sticker on one of the car’s windshields, which helps date the footage, though not conclusively.)

The path to the pool really narrowed after Prusaczyk made contact with Buddy Walton’s family. She found his niece, who led to his old friend, who mentioned that the Micottos once owned a farm near Hillsboro. Prusaczyk paid a freelance assistant to search Jefferson County land records. He found a plot of land of about 30 acres purchased by the Micottos in the late 1930s. Still, she couldn’t find any trace of a pool on Google Earth.

But then she discovered a website full of vintage aerial photos, and there it was: a beautiful rectangular pool, right there on the Hillsboro acreage. Her three-month search had ended.

“The world was silent,” she recalls. “It was such a release. But I was sad, because it was over!”

Beth Prusacyzk, producer/director of research, and Geoff Story, director. (Photo by Nick Schnelle)

Even with the basics of the pool party nailed down, a far tougher challenge remained: exploring the inner lives of the partygoers, including Micotto and Walton, who lived together decades before it was widely accepted.

The filmmakers found sources last summer to fill in some gaps. Carol Stevenson is a former nurse who had a client in common with Walton. She befriended the hairdresser and his partner, and recalls their large social circle as far back as the 1960s. “A lot of wealthy women wanted to go around with [Buddy] and Sam,” she told the filmmakers, “because Sam was so attractive — he looked like a movie star — and Buddy was cute too with his blond hair.”

The couple had myriad gay friends too, says Stevenson. (She remembers being derided on occasion as a “fag hag.”) Once, when she tried to visit the pool on a whim with her four kids, she encountered a group of men lounging outdoors, some nude. Mom and kids beat a hasty retreat.

In Stevenson’s view, the animal-loving Micotto was a homebody who took care of the household, while Walton, the flamboyant salon magnate, kept spending time out with friends.

Carol Stevenson, left, and Buddy Walton, right, were friends as far back as the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Geoff Story)

During their twilight years in the late 2000s, both men suffered health problems. They got into nasty fights. According to Susan Seagraves, Walton’s niece, Micotto would sometimes get so furious he would cuss out his partner in Italian. But still, they appreciated each other.

“They had a deep feeling and mutual respect,” says Seagraves, “otherwise they wouldn’t have stayed together all those years.”

She adds that some family members approved of their situation, while others didn’t. But in at least one respect, Walton and Micotto were more fortunate than many gay couples of their time: As wealthy men, they had a free pass to live openly together. Their income, drawn from businesses they themselves owned, shielded them and gave them entrée to “respectable” society.

The last place they lived together was a house in St. Louis Hills. After they died — Micotto in 2007, Walton in 2009 — Seagraves found a cedar chest there with a stack of photographs. Some photos were risqué, and she threw out the entire collection, a decision she now regrets. (“I don’t know what I would’ve done with them,” she offers, apologizing.)

With each passing day, the filmmakers grow more fearful that the pre-1960s history of gay St. Louis is being discarded in shoeboxes and forgotten as witnesses pass away. Thus Story and Prusaczyk are desperately seeking out the pool-partiers. But so far, they have not crowdsourced this task to any online community. One reason is practical: Brian Graden Media, the production company in Hollywood that’s interested in the project, has advised them not to release precious material. Another reason is philosophical: Doing so would run the risk of “outing” 95-year-old men.

The filmmakers have created a website asking anyone with knowledge of gay life in St. Louis in the 1940s and 50s to get in touch. In the meantime, Story is working his network of friends in hopes of making IDs. One such interview has already proved fruitful.

Last July, Story and his videographer visited the home of Jerry Birkhead, an 80-year-old gay resident of University City. Birkhead watched the footage mostly in silence, but at one point, the videographer asked if anything was jogging his memory. “The one guy in the swimming pool looks like Harry Smith,” Birkhead replied.

The late Harry Smith and Russ Grenzebach, who ran The Ranch, a gay-friendly weekend getaway in Winfield, Missouri, both appeared in the footage. (Photo courtesy of Geoff Story.)

And indeed, it turned out be Harry Smith, who had died in 1974. Smith’s family had owned a grocery store in south city. Smith himself played the piano at the Chase, and he and his late partner Russ Grenzebach (who also appears in the film) had managed “The Ranch,” a gay-friendly weekend getaway in Winfield, Missouri.

The filmmakers tracked down one of Smith’s surviving family members: a nephew, Guy Smith, who lives near Union. They carpooled out to interview him on November 4.

Smith’s trailer sits at the end of a small loop off a state highway. An American flag fills the front window. Smith is a Vietnam vet, a Trump supporter and, in some ways, socially conservative. But he also considers himself a “Jeffersonian” with a live-and-let-live philosophy. And the love he still feels for his late gay uncle is obvious.

“He was the father I never had,” Smith says from his recliner, in between cigarettes. The videographer’s camera is trained on him. The filmmakers have just shown him the old footage of his uncle Harry and are trying to draw out any emotion it rekindled. Smith explains that his father always worked long hours, so Harry took the initiative to invite him out to movies and shows, introducing him to “the finer things in life.” Smith remembers him as being a very “discreet” and “private” individual.

Story asks him: “Do you think that was hard for your uncle, to always have his guard up and be careful what he said?”

“I’m sure it was,” Guy replies. “It was good to see him laughing and joking in that film and everything, because I don’t ever remember him being that jovial and happy like that around his parents — my grandparents. He was more reserved.”

Story asks Smith what he would tell his uncle right now if he could.

“I missed ya,” says Smith. “I wish you would’ve lived longer.”

Story held another screening on November 4. (Photo by Nick Schnelle)

Hours after interviewing Guy Smith, Story held another screening at his house — his third. About a dozen people came, including some of Out in STL’s staff.

Like every audience who has seen the film, this group was charmed. Afterward, they peppered Story with questions and offered suggestions on how to find the survivors.

“Seeing all these people get together and having a good time, it really reminded me of my friends,” said Kage Black, 34, who attended with his husband, Out in STL editor Chris Andoe.

Others had shared the same sentiment at earlier screenings: that these men from 70 years ago seemed so familiar — the main difference being that while their behavior would raise few eyebrows today, back then they had to drive 40 miles outside of St. Louis to feel so liberated.

“Everybody in the movie has passed away,” Black continued, “but they made that their moment. It made me realize, we may only be here for a blink of an eye, but this is my moment. And whatever is happening right now, I need to just make it what it is.”

Black and his husband did not linger long after the screening. They went out to a bar and met up with friends.

Nicholas Phillips is the managing editor of Out in STL and a freelance reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].