A still shot from footage of a gay pool party in Missouri.
During an estate sale in the late 1990s, Geoff Story was sifting through one of the grand old houses across from Forest Park when he discovered an intriguing canister of 8mm film.
It was titled "A Gay Party." Story bought it and took it to his parents' house, where he borrowed his father's projector and glimpsed for the first time a long-hidden pocket of gay life in 1940s Missouri.
The aging footage showed young men lounging around a pool, drinking beer, joking, embracing. Some mugged for the camera in light drag. In one clip, a uniformed World War II-era soldier plants a big kiss on another guest.
Story initially watched only a few moments. Then in his late twenties, he was not out to his family at the time, and he was instantly flustered when his father looked in on the scene unspooling on his home movie screen.
Story snapped off the projector and set the canister aside, until one day, he decided to look again.
"I didn't think this whole world existed," he says now.
But Story is still hoping to reach others who might provide clues about the rare footage. In some ways, he has already been surprisingly successful. He now knows the names of five of the men — including party hosts Buddy Walton and Sam Micotto, who once lived in the Lindell Boulevard home where Story attended the estate sale — and the rough outline of the gatherings at a farm in the countryside outside of St. Louis.
But so many mysteries remain, and time is running out. The men in the footage, which was apparently spliced together from multiple parties, would be closing in on a hundred years old and are likely dead. Whatever details of their lives that remain are slipping away as even their surviving relatives and acquaintances grow older.
Beth Prusaczyk attended one the private screenings of the footage that Story has held as he attempts gauge interest and unearth investigative leads. A healthcare researcher, she was fascinated and soon joined the project as the director of research.
Prusaczyk is confident that someone knows more about the men and the parties — but she worries they won't be able to reach them in time.
"I think there are people out there who know who these men are, but they don't know we're looking for them," she says.
In the past two years, she and Story have been able to pin down key details using the sparest scraps of information from the film — a 1943 gas rationing sticker on a car in the footage, beer bottles from a bygone era, markers on the soldier's uniform. Old aerial maps of farmland near Hillsboro show the pool, which has since been filled in and all but erased.
But there is only so much they can get from the film. They need help, and are making a last push to reach anyone who might have information.
COURTESY DIRECTOR GEOFF STORY
The documentary makers are still hoping to identify men filmed at the parties.
Many of the most interesting discoveries have come from relatives of the men. Prusaczyk made a key breakthrough when she wrote a letter to Walton's niece, who was delighted to learn about the footage and has eagerly supported the project, supplying stories of her uncle's life. Walton had been a wealthy hairdresser in St. Louis with clientele comprising celebrities and socialites. His longtime partner, Micotto, ran a successful dog grooming business at the Chase Park Plaza. It was Micotto's family's farm that served as the backdrop to the summer gatherings.
The Chase seems to have played a large role as a social connector among at least some of the party goers. One of Walton's six salons was located there. Another of the men identified by Prusaczyk and Story played piano at the iconic hotel, and the filmmakers suspect many of the party guests were wealthier or charmed their way into similar social circles.
In the footage, the men appear carefree, and there is a disarming sweetness to their pranks and horseplay. It counteracts a narrative of a grim, straight-laced Midwest during wartime. In interviews with relatives, Story and Prusaczyk learned that the majority of the men they have identified maintained long-term, if low-profile, relationships. And while they might not have openly discussed their sexuality, it was not exactly secret, either.
"A lot of these families, they weren't putting Pride flags on their porch, but they knew, and they loved their uncle," Prusaczyk says.
Still, the filmmakers have proceeded with caution, cognizant of the moral pitfalls of outing even dead men. Some of the party goers were filmed wearing wedding rings, suggesting the trips to what they referred to as "the farm" were a clandestine departure from another life. But Story and Prusaczyk say they have been encouraged by the surviving connections — relatives and friends who have supported the in-progress documentary as a tribute to their loved ones and the nuances of their lives.
The filmmakers are racing to find others as they target 2020 film festivals for the documentary's release. They have created an online gallery of still shots from the footage, showing images of men they still hope to identify. And they ask anyone with information to contact them through the website, even if they are only willing to have an off-the-record conversation.
Whatever they ultimately find, Story is grateful for this window into a world that was almost lost to time. The men, captured so candidly in their youth, were probably enjoying one of the few places where they felt totally free to be themselves.
Story feels a little sadness as he watches them linger near their cars, preparing to set off for less-accepting environs, or even war.
"It's bittersweet," he says. "Because you see how happy they are, and you wonder what they came home to."
We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at email@example.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.