It’s April in St. Louis, and you know what that means—it’s time for QFest, your chance to watch some of the best LGBTQ films around without leaving our fair city. This year, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, the festival is entirely virtual, but that does have its advantages. Two come immediately to mind: all films are available throughout the entire festival run (April 16-25), you can watch them from the comfort of your living room, and many films include bonus content like recorded Q & A’s with the filmmaker.
One of the challenges in researching GLBTQ history is the relative dearth of archival materials—because when who you are and/or what you are doing is illegal, and to many people is also immoral and/or embarrassing, the common-sense decision may well be to keep your identity private. What’s more, your family may choose to destroy any traces of your gayness, be it letters or photographs or anything else. So, when a cache of hundreds of letters from members of the gay and female impersonator community of the 1950s were discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2014, it was a real find. The letters were written to “Reno Martin,” who under his given name of Ed Limato became a well-known talent agent, and reveal a far fuller picture of the female impersonator community than can be found in another primary source of contemporary information from this period—arrest records.
In P.S. Burn This Letter Please, directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera take the cache of letters to “Reno” as a jumping-off place to explore the lives of female impersonators in the 1950s (an early title card cautions the audience not to make any assumptions regarding the identity or practices of anyone who appears on the screen, and there’s also a discussion of terms like “drag queen,” “female impersonator,” and “femme mimic”). The film includes clips from the letters (read and spelled out on screen over marvelously colorful graphic designs) and interviews with the now-elderly letter writers and others who were there, augmented by contemporary archival footage. The letters themselves are the real gems of this documentary—they’re funny and insightful and uninhibited in a way that people can be when they know they are writing to someone who will understand, and whom they can trust.
The 1950s were not a great time to be a female impersonator or a drag queen—not only did a man wearing women’s clothing risk arrest, and the clubs in which they performed tended to be owned by the Mafia, but the gay male community wasn’t necessarily all that friendly to people some within it saw as embarrassing. But there’s precious little gloom and doom in P.S. Burn This Letter Please: instead, the focus is on people who managed to survive and thrive when a lot of people would prefer they would disappear. And, as the saying goes, who’s got the last laugh now? Clearly the people who were true to themselves, stayed sassy, and looked fabulous while doing it. | Sarah Boslaugh
QFEST runs April 16-25, with programming only available in Missouri and Illinois. Tickets to single films are $14 for general admission and $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students. Once you begin watching, a film remains available for 48 hours, and several passes are also available. Further information is available from the QFest web site.