Back in the early 1980s I remember my mother (who was born in the 1920s) saying this about the word gay: “They stole and ruined a perfectly good word.” I pondered on this at the time and never forgot. How could someone steal and/or ruin a word? My mum was not homophobic. She was a dancer in her youth and told me stories of sharing an apartment with a gay couple in the 1940s-50s, which must have been quite progressive… I imagine that for her growing up with that word bringing fond innocent childhood memories… then being used for militaristic sexual and political activism must have been a shock. I thought, as far as words and labels go, why can’t something mean something different for everyone? Why must we have black and white thinking? Why not allow more color in our interpretation and expression? Why not a, “yes… and…” approach?
What a funny word and phrase? Land ho? Gung ho? Ho hum? Ho ho ho, merry christmas? Tally ho? Heave ho? Ho Chi Minh? Habitual offender? And what about… she’s such a ho? Isn’t it amazing how a word can shift and be misconstrued and morph in meaning? This is how the Gay Grape was born. By a reimagining of how a word could be repurposed with a greater intention and make people from differing worlds collide and smile.
The etymology of the word “gay” goes back to the 1200s and possibly earlier. It expressed a certain joy of living. Somewhere in the 1300s, the word, also embraced the idea of shiny-showy and sometimes overtly festive dress. The “Gay Nineties” were not filled with rampant homosexuality. They were deemed ‘gay’ due to the exuberant and joyful time of the Belle Époque and specifically, the 1890s. Although there were bank panics in the 1890s, these were still pre-income tax years often filled with frivolous spending by wealthy families of upper society. It may also refer to a devil-may-care attitude all the way up to being totally uninhibited. Up until the 20th century, gay generally simply meant light-hearted, carefree and frivolous. This can be seen in the lyrics of the 1922 jazz song, Running Wild.
Runnin’ wild, lost control
Runnin’ wild, mighty bold
Feelin’ gay, reckless too
Care free mind all the time, never blue
Eventually by the early 20th century, the slang meaning had homosexual overtones known only within the gay community, and unknown to outsiders. It was the movie, Bringing Up Baby, the screwball comedy from 1938 when this underground world bubbled up to the surface. Movie star Cary Grant lost his pants and as a result, he put on overtly festive dress: a feather trimmed negligee robe, to answer the door. When he is asked why he is wearing such a ridiculous outfit, Cary Grant responds, “Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!” Now, this would have flown over the heads of most movie goers of the time. They would have assumed he was referring to the flamboyant dress and silly carefree leap he made while saying the line. But to a certain sub-culture audience, it would have been jaw-dropping scandalous… and hilarious.
Gayly We Go
The use of gay for homosexuality continued to remain mainly underground. The song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sung by Judy Garland in 1943 suggested we should, “Make the Yuletide gay.” Even up until 1972 the word still retained its original meaning as can be seen in Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song, Alone Again. “To think that only yesterday, I was cheerful, bright and gay.”
But eventually, the word came about face in the mainstream to mean homosexual when it was openly embraced with the birth of Gay Pride movement of the mid 1970s. And now of course, it covers a whole slew of alternative LGBTQ lifestyles AND more, including… a derogatory word loosely meaning, out-of-fashion.
The giant part of the story all started when I fantasized about creating an oversized roadside object. The pursuit of them has been a passion of mine. I had a copy of Jim Heimann’s book, California Crazy, and once volunteered to save a giant roadside windmill on top of a Van de Kamp’s restaurant on Route 66. I have traveled specifically to see, and taken side-trips to experience, the world’s largest artichoke, hotdog, chili pepper, Jolly Green Giant, cherry, pistachio, eraser, painter’s easel, silver fork, jackrabbit, elephant, duck, dinosaurs, roadrunner, numerous types of chairs, pine cone, cow, cowboy boots and cowboy hat, spur, tepees, teapot, coffee pot, musical fountain, kazoo, thermometer, tire, pirates, Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyans, Big Tex and many more giant men.
On one road trip, I was attending the Heirloom Festival in Santa Rosa, CA, in the heart of California Wine Country. I wondered why on earth there was no giant grape or wine bottle to celebrate the area??? I began to dream about getting a tiny plot of land in the Russian River Valley to construct a giant grape of my own. I drew up a picture. He had a couple of cartoon-y arms and a grin like an old valentine I had seen. (I bought the domain name in 2016 with this intention.) I thought, he looks very happy in an old-timey way. He looked positively gay! Yes. He was a very happy and carefree gay grape.
Unfortunately, or in the grand scheme of things, quite fortunately, land in wine country is a wee bit expensive. So what with being so attracted to exceptionally large things, is it any wonder I landed in Texas? Flash forward to 2021. I acquired plot of land on the Highway 290 – in the heart of Texas Wine Country and on the literal Texas Wine Trail, surrounded by wineries and breweries. I knew it was only a matter of time before a giant grape grew there. That time is now approaching.
The Gay Grape
So now I have a vision AND land on a major thoroughfare. (http://www.seedoftexas.com) The next is to attract a builder/helper of things unusual. I plan to get a used door and window or two. Then frame up with standard lumber. Then cover with lath and plaster. Then a final coat or two of paint and waterproofing. I am familiar with this type of building process, just not on this huge scale yet! Here is a plaster sculpting from college days and then a commissioned sculpture piece for the SHAG Store in Palm Springs from Josh Agle’s initial concept art to scale model maquette to undercarriage frame (my friend, Frank Bassi, welded up the aluminum base) to the final installation and its final resting place in Las Vegas.
For a giant grape, I can follow a similar process. The prototypes are there for to model. I have researched the historic roadside oranges of California and Florida… as well as a giant blueberry.
Back in the old days, a slang term for homosexuals was “fruits.” So the grape is another tongue-in-cheek tribute to the humor within language.
The interior of the grape will include a collage of some rare ‘happy’ photos of my mother with her two gentlemen ‘roomies.’
My hope is that the Gay Grape can be a lesson in diversity. We can have room for all meaning of all words: happy joyful, as well as the modern alternative meanings. And if words can live together in peaceful harmony in the structure of a Giant Purple Grape, then well… why can’t we?