On an otherwise quiet Tuesday evening in May 2008, Chivonn Anderson paced the floors of the Ritz, her stomach in knots. Though she knew the Alamo Drafthouse cinema’s downtown Austin theater had sold all 170 tickets for the premiere of Hey Homo! – The campy, gay-centric show featuring live performances, entertainers and the screening of a much-loved generational film – Anderson’s nerves were getting the better of her. After all, Hey Homo! was her creation, and if the venture fell flat on its face with theatergoers chucking popcorn and grilled chicken tacos at the screen, it would be Anderson who would have to shoulder the blame.
“I was totally stressed out,” Anderson said. “I knew that if we could pull it off successfully, we’d be able to do the show again. I just really wanted it to go well.”
Luckily, the night went off without a hitch. Austin drag queen Rebecca Havemeyer hosted the show with as much fanfare and flourish as her boozy, playfully irreverent character could muster. (She even wrote a song for the occasion, which she continues to perform when she hosts Hey Homo! events.) Fellow drag queen Nadine Hughes and the always bizarre, ukulele-adorned Stanley Roy Williamson also performed. Then the live spectacle gave way to the main event: the screening of But I’m a Cheerleader, Jamie Babbit’s tongue-in-cheek indie flick about a sweet high-school cheerleader whose parents send her to gay rehab camp because they fear she’s a lesbian.
“Everybody at the Alamo was pretty excited. No one knew what to expect, so we wanted to hit them full force with everything we could,” Anderson said.
“It was a huge hit! Everyone was blown away. Once the movie started, all my stress went away, I had a drink and just felt really good about what we had created.”
The Ritz cashed in that night, selling out the performance and raking in much more in food-and- drink sales than usual for a Tuesday night. Before she could really fathom what happened, Anderson, who had previously worked for years as a server and shift leader at the Alamo, had produced one heck of a gay-loving live-performance movie experience. The Hey Homo! Premiere was so successful, in fact, that a week or two later, Anderson was approached by Alamo Drafthouse’s chief operating officer, Mike Sherrill, who congratulated her and asked for an encore of the event.
Anderson, who is now head programmer of Hey Homo!, devised the concept based on the idea that the Alamo was lacking in gay and lesbian programming. She wanted something that not only appealed to the gay community, regardless of age, but that would be funny, entertaining and encouraged audience participation. Anderson and fellow Alamo employee, film-school grad and movie-editing whiz Kayla Williams spent many a night slugging back drinks at nearby bar the Jackalope, brainstorming about what films to show, which entertainers to invite and how to build a movie-screening event franchise that would continue to draw audiences.
“We literally spent hours coming up with movie ideas, talking about some of our favorite movies and how we could incorporate them and make them even more fun, and trying to figure out the best ways to promote the shows,” Williams said.
The ideas kept flowing, resulting in early Hey Homo! Shows such as the bikini-themed Psycho Beach Party and the brunch-accompanying Mommie Dearest, which also spotlighted a “drag-off” competition featuring Havemeyer and Hughes, among others. By then, it had become clear that Hey Homo! was much more than a flash in the pan.
“After Mommie Dearest, it kind of just ended up sticking. Hey Homo! had unofficially become part of the Alamo’s programming department,” Anderson said, adding that the experience of developing her idea in to a successful enterprise felt somewhat surreal, if not downright wonderful. “I was able to start off running food for this company and now I had created new programming for the Alamo Drafthouse. It was pretty awesome.”
Part over-the-top Vegas review, part Mystery Science Theater 3000, with a little John Waters-inspired battiness thrown in for good measure, Hey Homo! Usually screens comedy films that have some sort of connection to the gay community: they are authored or directed by a gay filmmaker, feature gay characters or are gay-centric in their substance. However, as the series has developed, Anderson and Williams have included other movies that don’t necessarily speak to gay-related issues but that are obvious hits with audiences and that lend themselves to complementary games or gimmicks. For instance, the recent Hey Homo! screening of the film Clue – the loveable and clever John Landis murder mystery inspired by the Hasbro board game – gave Anderson and Williams the opportunity to get even more creative by filming their own pre-show who-dunnit promo in the lobby of the Ritz.
For Anderson, the film series has really enabled her to flex her creative muscles in a way that none of her previous jobs necessitated. She possesses a keen sensibility for what her audiences desire in a movie experience, and has often been exposed to the behind-the-scenes world of filmmaking (her sister has a degree in film and Anderson herself studied theater and communications for a year in college). Simply put, Anderson is well-suited for her job. But she did admit that she “just kind of fell in to film” as a career.
A Philly girl, Anderson grew up with supportive parents and a loving family in Pennsylvania’s city of Brotherly Love. Ambitious but unclear of her career path, she joined the military at age 20 and soon found herself working as a ground mechanic at Hurlburt Field Air Force Base near Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. She remained in the military for four years, and after her release, spent a short stint bar-backing and working as security at emerald city, a gay dance bar in Pensacola she so often frequented, the manager gave her a job. But soon enough, Anderson was back in Pennsylvania, bouncing between her parents’ home in Philadelphia and a job waiting tables in West Chester. However, a quick trip to visit her girlfriend at the time in Austin helped seal her fate.
“I was here two days,” she said, remembering how the moxie and palpable vibrancy of the city spoke to her immediately, “then I went back home and said, ‘I’m moving to Austin!’ I just knew I needed to be here.”
It was a mere six months after she had been released from the Air Force that she moved to Austin, and only another six months before she landed the serving job at the Alamo Drafthouse. it would be another three years and change before Anderson would devise and pitch the Hey Homo! concept.
Now, nearly two years after that first Hey Homo! show, Anderson has her sights set even higher. She’s planning a Web site that will be both entertaining and insightful, and feature her own coming-out story, complete with comments from her parents, among other helpful and supportive stories and information.
“Coming out is hard enough to do, but it’s just the start,” she said. “It’s a lot harder to actually live that life. I want people, especially young people who are struggling with coming out, to be able to relate to my story and find some comfort in it.”
Additionally, Anderson and Williams are brainstorming an idea that would result in their own homegrown, Alamo-hosted film festival, though that project is still in its early stages.
For 2010, Anderson and Williams hope to take Hey Homo! to other Texas cities, with the goal of gaining support for the program while reaching gay youth in communities that may not be as openly accepting as Austin. Expanding the show across Texas may also afford Hey Homo! to pick up some sponsorships that would allow the series to gain even more momentum, a dream Anderson and Williams share for their creation.
“We want to expand Hey Homo! for sure. Myself, Kayla and [Alamo Drafthouse founder] Tim League have talked a lot about doing a Hey Homo! Rolling road show up the east coast,” Anderson said with much excitement. “Though the same structure would remain, I’d want it to be a free show and more of an educational kind of thing that could reach a lot of young people.”
Williams adds that she’d like the road show version of Hey Homo! to include some local elements from the cities they visit, a short piece produced by a local filmmaker shown before the film, for instance. It’s all still in the works, but both women say they’d like to see the roaming Hey Homo! hit the road this year.
It’s all in hopes of reaching a wider audience. But Anderson notes that it’s not just about reaching gay and lesbian audiences. Her philosophy is that the more gay and straight viewers Hey Homo! touches, the more eyes will be opened.
“I like to say that all of us are homos,” Anderson said with a smile, “because all of us are homo sapiens, just some of us are homosexuals, too.”