NEW YORK CITY
March 17, 2019
STRANGER: Steve Hayes
LOCATION: Elmo, 156 7th Avenue, New York City
THEME: Chatting with the host of a YouTube series about classic movies
At home near Syracuse, New York, in the 1960s, adolescent Steve Hayes is glued to the television. A Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie from the 1940s is playing; the actor swings through the jungle, his muscular chest heaving up and down as he lets out the character’s distinctive ululating yell. Perhaps he’s off to fight leopard women, or mermaids, or to help the Allies win the war. What’s certain is there’s melodrama, larger-than-life character acting, a feisty score, and witty dialogue. All those elements, so common in classic movies, are what’s keeping Steve indoors.
“I also liked Johnny Weissmuller’s nipples, one of them was slightly cross-eyed,” says present-day 66-year-old Steve, letting out a fire extinguisher of a laugh across the brunch table from me in Manhattan. “I would stare at him on the TV and my mother, kind of sensing something was up, would whisper in my ear: ‘He’s old enough to be your grandfather, go outside any play.’”
That’s the kind of anecdote Steve shares in his joyful YouTube series “Tired Old Queen at the Movies,” in which every month he adlibs for five to 10 minutes about a classic movie. He wants people to get interested in Hollywood history, and figures humor and sass are the way to do that. It’s working, as his follower count inches closer to 10,000 for his 10th anniversary this year.
With an encyclopedic knowledge of movies developed over decades of watching them, Steve talks in macro and micro detail about the films he showcases. In most videos he’s wearing a smart black jacket with a stylish shirt underneath. His handsome, expressive face is topped with a thick, neat head of gray hair. He emphasizes points by waving his hands or occasionally bulging his eyes.
A friend shoots the single-camera videos at Steve’s apartment. The host sits, surrounded by memorabilia from the movie of the month, and he describes its basic plot before veering off on tangents that might include the subtle social themes of the story, or the importance of key moments in the score, or behind-the-scenes intrigue that can change how you view the production.
Or he might just ogle the actors.
He chooses movies he enjoys. Steve tells me over our brunch at Elmo in New York that he doesn’t want to use snarky humor or trash-talk low-budget motion pictures. “I don’t want to criticize, I just get excited, and if I like it, I want other people to like it. And if you don’t enjoy it, that’s okay, but just try it,” he says, then winks at me. “I apply that approach to cake.”
Chatting with Steve is like a real-time episode of “Tired Old Queen at the Movies.” Without warning, a conversation about something innocuous can lead into a thematic connection with an obscure black-and-white feature film, complete with production year, cast, and trivia tidbits. When we first sit down to our table at the packed-to-capacity Elmo, our getting to know you conversation includes chatter about New York, and I make a throwaway comment about the city in the 1970s. Steve takes the conversational crumb and runs with it, and it’s a hop, skip and a jump to an episode of his show before my eyes as he makes a connection to his favorite movie genre: film noir.
“The best film noir movie is Laura, 1944. The dialogue is so witty, so sophisticated. Directed by Otto Preminger. Every actor was on the top of their game. Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney was absolutely beautiful, Clifton Webb is outrageously good,” he says. And then he recreates some memorable scenes, giving his all to embody each role and deliver the lines note perfect.
Much like watching his online series, in person with Steve you can’t help but go along for the ride. The glee he takes in talking about these films, in impersonating the actors and sharing obscure trivia, it’s all so earnest and loving that I’m mentally updating my Netflix queue as we speak.
He might call himself an old queen, but there’s nothing tired about Steve.
Having such constant upbeat, outgoing energy is perhaps to be expected for someone who’s been performing since his childhood upstate in Woodstock, a small rural town near Syracuse. “It was fabulous, sort of like Peyton Place, it never changed.”
Steve knew melodrama even before he saw his first movie. “My mother was an actress without a vehicle. She was bigger than life, everything that she said was like it came right out of a movie, a lot of high drama, no matter whether it was doing the homework or eating my brunch. So I sort of had a Warner Brother melodrama over every day of my childhood.”
When he was a child in the 1960s, television was often his babysitter. Steve says he was hyperactive and his mother would often sit him down to watch old dramas as a distraction. “I would watch something with Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford, or especially Susan Hayward who sort of looked like my mother, and I thought wow, this is just like my life.”
He tells me about the first movie he ever saw in the theater, and can’t resist becoming a human IMDB. “It was Cecil B. De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, it won Best Picture in 1952, he traveled with the Ringling Brothers for three years to make it and it had an all-star cast; Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Betty Hutton, Gloria Graham who I love.”
Instantly infatuated with every aspect of moviemaking, Steve confesses he became “obsessed” with motion pictures. He was a child actor and soprano throughout high school, then studied theater at college. After graduating in 1976 he moved to New York, choosing the city over Hollywood because he wanted to act in the theater. He’d always admired the British tradition of learning the classics on stage before transferring to movies, and wanted to emulate that.
Scouting around for his first gig, he saw an advert in a trade paper for a semi-nude musical review. “Back then I was pretty good looking, I sized myself up in the mirror and thought with the right lighting, who knows? I knew I had to strip for this audition, so I go down to the theater in the middle of January. It’s cold, I’m not getting any cooperation down there,” he says, gesturing theatrically to his groin, “And so I’ve got my hands down my pants trying to get it to make an appearance when I strip. Well, this man walks up and he has this sweater around his neck and he’s holding a script and pipe, and he said, ‘Are you here to audition?’ And I went, ‘Yes!’ and I dropped my pants. And then he said, ‘For the Shakespeare Repertory Company?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ and I pulled my pants back up and pretended to tuck my shirt in. Then I did a cold reading for him and I ended up getting cast and I did Shakespeare for the next three years.”
After treading the boards, Steve started doing comedy and cabaret. When he first arrived in the Big Apple, he says not many men were performing funny character sketches like Lily Tomlin’s routines. He wrote his own show of 12 original characters, performing them on the club circuit. And for years he worked in and around New York as a performer.
He worked solo, then with a partner, then solo again, then another partner. He co-wrote two musicals that have been staged across the United States. The first, Kiss Me Quick Before the Lava Reaches the Village, was based on 1940s movies where Hispanic actress Maria Montez was cast as a Polynesian Princess. The second, Girl of My Dreams, was a tribute to World War II movies.
He’s also done some directing over the years, most recently for the play Almost, Maine. It happens to be the same play that I saw directed by Michael Chamberlin — a magician and director whose version I witnessed in 2009 soon after interviewing him for Dining With Strangers.
Steve developed a reputation as a good actor over the years but he confesses at being lousy in auditions. His roles in shows came about because people would know his reputation and recommend him. That’s how he ended up with a role in Trick, a gay comedy movie from 1999 about two men trying to find a place to hook up. “It became the little engine that could, it became a very big cult film in the gay community. I got to sing a song, ‘Como te gusta mi pinga?’ which translated is ‘How do you like my dick?’ and it got me on the soundtrack. And I got to go to Sundance, I got a Hollywood red carpet premiere, it was just wonderful.”
As a gay man, Steve is also proud of the positive reaction to the movie. People still stop him in the street to compliment Trick. And the creators are working on a sequel. It’s in the development stage, and he says he doesn’t know much more than that.
If Steve returns for Trick 2, he’ll be able to fit it in with the “Tired Old Queen at the Movies” schedule because he shoots several months’ worth of episodes in advance.
Among his friends, Steve is known for his love of movies and ability to give a commencement speech’s worth of information about any chosen production. His friend Vince Cardinal came up with the idea of putting a single camera in Steve’s apartment, handing him a movie, and have him talk off the top of his head about it, with the goal of publishing it once a month.
Steve loved the idea. They just needed a name. “Vince asked me what to call it, and without missing a beat I said let’s call it what it is: ‘Tired Old Queen at the Movies’ — that way if someone calls me that I won’t feel bad because I said it first.”
Every episode is introduced by Steve’s friend Johnny, though he says they’re not romantically involved. “Oh god no!” he laughs. “I travel alone these days. I just thought if I had someone younger and cute introducing me, it’d get the gays to go a little further.”
The show has a large gay fanbase, and Steve thinks they’re drawn to classic movies because they are character-driven stories; full stories with a beginning, middle and end with plenty of histrionics along the way — often from strong female characters played by similarly powerful actresses. Back then, people didn’t go to see movies because of the director, they went because of the star system to see the likes of Bette Davis on the big screen, Steve explains.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do [the show] was to be a mentor to younger gay men,” he adds. “When I first came to New York, the gays old and young always mingled at bars. All these wonderful older gay men told me anecdotes about the movie stars that they loved and gave me a gay history, sort of. They smoothed out my rough edges. And then AIDS came and so many people from that generation passed on. I’ve been very blessed to have survived, all these years I’ve been HIV- and I feel like I was given this gift, and this is a way I can give back to my mentors.”
For people just starting to watch old movies, he recommends tuning in first to his show. But after that, check out Turner Classic Movies and take a chance on whatever’s showing.
When choosing a title to feature on “Tired Old Queen at the Movies,” Steve tries to go for seasonally appropriate films. If it’s summer, he’ll try to choose a movie that’s set outdoors. For Halloween, he featured Alien once, though that was an outlier as he tries to focus his show on movies made before the 1980s. For winter another year, he picked White Christmas. But he generally tries to stay away from movies that are already widely known and popular. He says it’s easy to do a show about a Bette Davis movie like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? that everyone knows, but a better role is her turn in 1938’s Jezebel. “I want people to dig deeper than the classics.”
His skeleton crew films seven to eight videos over one or two days. Nothing is scripted, it’s all Steve talking off the top of his head (although he re-watches the movies before taping). They typically do two takes and then his friend Thomas Meacham edits them together. Steve says Thomas is particularly adept at finding clips in the movie that appear to react to what the host just said.
We pause the interview as our brunch arrives.
Elmo is an American restaurant with typical dishes; lots of eggs, meat and vegetables for a hearty midday meal. Stylish, modern glass chandeliers hang over a dining room whose walls and seats are in colors that pop and catch the eye. The place is clearly popular as every seat was taken, but the acoustics are stellar because it was easy to hear Steve despite the crowd.
He’s eating a cheddar cheese and mushroom omelet with French fries. Steve says he’s a regular at Elmo because he loves the food and ambience, and I can endorse these reasons.
My brunch is the Elmo big breakfast: eggs, smashed potatoes, roasted parmesan tomato, avocado toast, bacon, and sausage. It was a lot of food, and even though it was a basic order, it was all well done. I finished everything, I think somewhat to Steve’s alarm.
But he didn’t say anything mean about my greed. And we get back to talking about his show. While the internet can be a cruel place rife with anonymous trolls, Steve says the worst negative feedback he’s received is limited to people correcting particular facts.
But he doesn’t profess to know everything and is happy to admit when he’s wrong. He just wants to keep making his show and sharing his adoration of old Hollywood. It’s something that Turner Classic Movies noticed, as the channel invited him on for its 20th anniversary in 2014 where Steve met the host Robert Osborne and the two chatted about classic cinema. Steve introduced the 1954 science fiction thriller Them! and his thrill at talking about the movie lights up the screen.
“I used to say I know these movies like straight boys know the World Series,” he tells me. “When I was a kid the first book I owned was Robert Osborne’s history of the Academy Awards. I had it by me bed since 1969 and memorized it. I had him sign it, and we had the most wonderful time. He was so kind and really know how to talk and listen to people. And he listened to what I had to say about movies. So I like that approach, and I don’t take myself too seriously.”
As for modern movies, he does watch them but they don’t fit the theme of his YouTube show. He’s not a fan of superhero movies. “I never looked at a comic book as a kid, so why watch a movie now?” But some of the 21st century films he likes include I, Tonya and anything by the Coen Brothers or David Fincher. And he thinks some of the best writing is being done on television and streaming services, namechecking as gems the shows Ozark and Fargo.
I want to know his thoughts on the #MeToo era, when people are taking a second look at artists and their work in the hindsight of modern standards. John Wayne’s Playboy interview from 1971 recently got a lot of traction for some abhorrent things he said about African and Native Americans. Should today’s sensibilities be applied to movie classics? “Well, I think you have to look at when these movies were written.” Are the old films problematic? No, Steve says, noting that in many, the female characters were the strongest. “I don’t think anybody should be manipulated psychologically or sexually. And if the men slapped them, they slapped back even harder.”
Indeed, if there’s a common thread through many of the movies featured on Steve’s show it’s that many of the female roles, and the actresses filling them, are independent, strong-willed and proud. That’s on show in some his favorite movies, which include Laura, along with what he calls the “seething, passionate” The Letter from 1940 based on a Somerset Maugham novel, and The Bad and the Beautiful from 1952 that he calls “one of the best movies about making movies.”
Being a film noir buff, he says that Alfred Hitchock’s 1958 Vertigo is his favorite movie, but he can only watch it once a year because he finds it too draining as it’s such a “cruel” story. In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a retired detective who develops a psychological obsession for a woman. “I love it because it’s all about obsession and it doesn’t give you a break and it takes you all the way to the bloody end.”
We’re at the end of our (mercifully bloodless) brunch, and it’s time to go our separate ways. Just before we part, I ask which movie he’d remake if he had an endless budget.
“I would want to pick something that was restricted at the time from showing what was really the motivation, for example if sexual things were repressed,” he says. “And so I’d like to do an adaptation of King’s Row. It was the great forbidden novel of the 40s; set in a small town, turn of the century, about all the dirty secrets of the town. It had murder and insanity and rape and homosexuality. They made a movie in 1942 and it’s great and it’s amazing they got away with as much as they did, but I would love to remake it and show off everything.”
But Steve’s clearly happy staying in the audience of a movie rather than making one.
“I get so much enjoyment, I never tire of them,” he tells me, then smiles warmly. “It’s like when you go to the museum and see the same thing over and over again and you see something new every time. Sometimes I watch movies for the direction. Sometimes I watch them for the script. Sometimes I watch them for the cinematography. Sometimes I even watch movies for the score. And when they all come together it’s magical, and then I’m really happy.”