It pops up every year, usually in a roundup of the craziest, most shocking Oscar moments.
The year is 1974: 33-year-old Robert Opel, looking for all the world like a fit David Crosby, streaks naked past David Niven, who was about to introduce Elizabeth Taylor.
After the laughter subsides, Niven lets loose with the second-most-memorialized part of the incident, this quip: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen … But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
Niven got his laugh, but he had no way of knowing how wrong he was.
Streaking, as a pastime — or artform — goes quite a ways back. You have your Adamites, or Adamians, early Christians in North Africa in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries, who steadfastly refused clothing during their religious ceremonies. English composer-turned-Quaker Solomon Eagle (né Eccles) was famous for running largely naked through the streets of London during the plague of 1665 with a chafing dish of burning coals on his head, preaching repentance.
Stateside, the first recorded instance of the practice is by George William Crump in August 1804. Crump, then a senior at what is now Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, was suspended for the remainder of the session for running naked through the city streets; he would later become a congressman and the US ambassador to Chile.
Streaking gained momentum through the 1960s, though it was largely confined to college campuses or the odd hippie-practiced bit of nudity. But by the early 1970s, it had picked up to the point where, Philip Carr-Gomm, a psychotherapist, writer and author of “A Brief History of Nakedness” told the New Yorker that “over 1,500 students [joined] a mass nude run at the University of Georgia, and 1,200 at the University of Colorado. Over a dozen American universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Tufts, now have a tradition of streaking, dating back to this era.” By 1974, pop music, forever society’s mirror, had its own streaker: Ray Stevens, whose No. 1 Billboard hit “The Streak” eventually notched 17 weeks on the chart.
Into this zeitgeist streaked Robert Opel. After dropping a “p” from his family name to distance themselves from his antics, Opel was an LA-area hippie, already armed with a lengthy rap sheet by the time the 1974 Academy Awards rolled around. Active in the gay liberation movement — he was bisexual — and art circles, Opel’s résumé included part-time photography work for the gay newspaper the Advocate and the Hollywood Star tabloid. Prior to this, he was apparently a speechwriter for future President Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in California, and some sources have suggested he was employed as an English teacher at the time of his Oscars run.
His history with streaking predated the ’74 Oscars: As part of his activism, he’d created a suit dubbed Mr. Penis, and went naked at a couple of Los Angeles City Council meetings to protest the city’s ban on nudity at area beaches. He showed up for his trial — after being arrested for his Council stunt — dressed as Uncle Sam.
So. A man ran across the stage, naked. Niven quipped. Fin. But given streaking’s all-time popularity peak at the time of the ’74 Oscars, and the Oscars’ perennially flop-sweated thirst for anything relevant, there are hints that the whole incident was staged.
“I don’t think it was accidental,” Robert Metzler, business manager and general troubleshooter for the Oscars, told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “My wife was here for the dress rehearsal and David Niven asked her out in the lobby if he could borrow her pen. She gave it to him and he sat on a step out there and wrote his ad-lib remark about this fellow’s shortcomings, and then he told my wife how proud he was about this terse line he’d written.” Metzler, who in 1993 was a 40-year-veteran of the Oscars, then added, “and that was two hours before it happened.”
There’s also the fact that, rather than being promptly arrested and black-bagged into obscurity, Opel — who’d gained entry, clad in a sweatsuit, with his press credentials — was actually ushered backstage, re-clothed and given the opportunity to speak to the assembled press.
“People shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public,” he told the reporters, standing in front of a massive Oscar statue. “Besides — it’s a hell of a way to launch a career.”
Launch one it did. Per the Hollywood Reporter, Opel subsequently appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” — where he announced he was running for president as a nudist, quipping, “I have nothing to hide” — and was booked by Allan Carr, who went on to produce “Grease,” to streak at a party for the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But another city council protest left him jailed, and upon his release, he upped sticks to San Francisco, where, in 1978, he opened Fey-Way Studios, the nation’s first openly gay art gallery.
At the time, even in San Francisco, gay art was displayed virtually only in gay bars, and Opel’s gallery was often referred to as a sex shop by papers, when they weren’t ignoring it entirely. But Opel’s work at Fey-Way included breaking two of the burgeoning LBGTQ underground art scene’s biggest stars: He was one of the first gallerists to showcase legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and provided the now-iconic Tom of Finland with his first show in America.
Photographer Biron reminisces about Fey-Way: “I miss those opening nights. The receptions were always fun with the usual booze and a good place to meet interesting people. Robert showed the works of Tom of Finland, Étienne, Lou Rudolph, Rex, Chuck Arnett, Domino, Charlie Airwaves, Rick Borg, Mark Kadota, Olaf, and the Hun, and other artists — all barely recognized as artists in those days even within the broader gay community.
“In addition, Fey-Way was a performance space open to anything queer from the rock poetry of Ruby Zebra to the showing of experimental films directed by Robert and Bill Moritz. And there was, as the poster proclaimed, the first West Coast performance — direct from New York’s Mine Shaft — of Camille O’Grady.”
Opel was hardly a one-dimensional participant in the city’s art scene. He published a sex magazine called “Finger.” He staged a play titled “The Heartbreak of Psoriasis” starring none other than John Waters icon Divine. He held a look-a-like contest to mock Anita Bryant in the wake of the singer’s pivot to anti-gay activism. And, in his final act of provocation, he performed a mock execution of Harvey Milk’s assassin, Dan White — for which Opel dressed in leathers as “Gay Justice” — at UN Plaza during the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 24, 1979, reportedly against the warnings of the city’s police.
On July 8, 1979, Opel was with ex-boyfriend Anthony Rogers and girlfriend Camille O’Grady at Fey-Way when two men, armed with guns, barged in demanding drugs and money. Opel dealt drugs from time to time but didn’t have any in the studio that night, so the men tied up O’Grady and Rogers and ransacked the gallery while arguing with Opel. O’Grady heard a shot, and the men — who made off with $5 and a camera — ran out, promising, “If you see us again you’re dead.” Opel was pronounced dead at 10:40 p.m.
The hold-up men, identified as Maurice Keenan and Robert Kelly, were arrested with Keenan’s wife, Linda Holt, at SFO on July 10 while attempting to flee to Miami.
All sorts of rumors flew after Opel’s death, like that the men were drug dealers after Opel over a debt he incurred from them as a dealer. Or — when it became public knowledge that Keenan had escaped from jail three times before the close of his murder trial — a police conspiracy, to have the outspoken Opel killed and free his killer, was floated. It did not take much for SF’s gay community, already on edge after Milk’s death, to see all manner of boogeymen in the shadows.
It’s taken decades for Opel to outstrip his status as solely “the Oscar streaker.” His nephew, Robert Oppel, created the 2010 documentary “Uncle Bob,” about Opel’s life beyond the ceremony, which features interviews with John Waters, Divine, Danny Nicoletta and others.
In February 2014, Robert Oppel and curator Rick Castro premiered an installation focused on Opel and Fey-Way at Antebellum Gallery in Hollywood, California, and in 2017, Opel was memorialized, along with other notables in the area’s history, by having their names cast in bronze bootprints as part of San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley.
Unfortunately, the bronzed footprint that bears Opel’s name is not bare, as he no doubt would have wanted it to be.
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