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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
Summer in the City
It's one of those very rare summer days without the slightest insinuation of a coastal breeze. At 6 in the evening, the sun is still high in the sky and robust enough to offer an unusual opportunity for after-work natural tanning. In the Castro, folks scramble to set up lawn chairs on the sidewalks outside their flats.

"Just getting a head start on the weekend," says a brawny man in cutoff jeans as he stretches out, lazily stirring a vodka tonic with his pinkie finger. "This is the life." He adjusts his sunglasses and gazes at the parade of bare thighs and tank tops making its way up 18th Street.

There are fewer cars than pedestrians today, and the city is bright and strangely quiet. It's as if common rush-hour noises have been absorbed by the persistent blue above: You can hear laughter coming from an apartment down the block, and shouts of hot-weather jubilation spilling out of the neighborhood bars, but the blaring auto horn at the corner seems to fall dead on the hot asphalt. A modest man in skintight blue bathing trunks and diving goggles glides past with a snorkel hanging out of his mouth and a hot-pink inflatable pool toy wrapped around his waist.

"It's perfect beach party weather," says Justin McShann as he rounds the corner and makes his way toward the Castro Theater. Feigning a heavy SoCal accent, the 26-year-old market analyst shouts, "Cowabunga!" when he finds his friends already waiting in the long line that stretches from the theater down Castro Street. He passes around a bundle of bright pink leis, but from the look of the crowd some festive beachcomber has already beaten him to it. Everyone is geared up for Marc Huestis' "Summer Beach Party" with Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee. Bathing trunks, bikinis, straw hats, visors, Hawaiian shirts, miniskirts, pooka shells, leis, sunglasses, and coconut jewelry are in plentiful supply.

"This is very, very exciting for me," says Doreen Osadechy, a 52-year-old Los Gatos resident who grew up in Orange County loving Donahue with all her pre-pubescent heart.

"I'd still do him," says Daniel Plesnarski, a 42-year-old San Francisco resident who grew up in St. Louis also loving Donahue, "but I'll settle for an autograph."

Like many fans, Plesnarski has brought a stack of movie memorabilia for the stars to sign, including a Grease movie poster already scribbled on by Olivia Newton-John.

"Sandra Dee's the real thing, though," says Plesnarski. "With that spunky ponytail and button nose, she was adorable."

Inside, the upstairs mezzanine is decked out in palm fronds, beach balls, and surfboards. Bare-chested boys in sarongs serve glasses of rum-laced punch to a healthy crowd of stalwart fans willing to plunk down 50 bucks for the chance to mingle with their teen idols before the show. At 62 and 56, Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee -- born Merle Johnson and Alexandra Zuck, respectively -- are no longer "glamorous youths on the threshold of romantic maturity," but their fans don't give a stitch. Despite a well-publicized bout with alcohol and drugs, Donahue still cuts an impressive figure with his slender build, well-tanned face, and ice-blue eyes. Dee's more highly publicized bouts with alcohol, anorexia, and Bobby Darin have left her a little shaky, but eager to please.

"My heart was just going pitter-patter when I met her," says 54-year-old Ken Cross, a healer from San Rafael. "I asked her for a hug, and I was still so nervous after all these years." Cross received his hug from Dee, as did Kathi Cross, Ken's wife of 30 years. Strangely appropriate, since it was Dee who brought the couple together in the first place.

"I married Sandra Dee," says Ken, beaming at his wife. "I first saw her in Gidget. I was 14, Sandra was 16. It was a life-changing movie. I fell completely in love with that combination of blond hair and brown eyes. That's what I wanted. Sandra Dee was so cute and perky, and full of life. Kathi had that same wonderful combination -- blond hair and brown eyes. When I first saw her, I knew instantly that I was going to marry her. It was a movie moment. 'Stop cameras, that's my wife.' "

"We grew up in the Southern California beach scene," says Kathi, now a brunette with tiny sunglasses dangling from her earlobes. "But we met in Aspen."

In the sold-out theater, a montage of surf movies from the '50s gives way to Gidget's ocean-sprayed face. She concentrates very hard on riding a wave created on a studio sound stage. Her wet ponytail bounces jauntily, and the crowd roars. Below, on the lip of the Castro stage, several go-go boys and a few oily muscle men strut their stuff in relative synchronicity with the film clips.

Someone foolishly drops a half-dozen large beach balls from the balcony for audience members to bat around. Squeals and balls fill the air, until an aggressive beach bum in tight blue-and-white-striped shorts spikes a ball off the head of a drag queen with precarious blond pigtails. (There are few things more disconcerting than an angry 6-foot-3-inch drag queen wearing a bikini and 4-inch heels on a very hot day.) Things look like they might turn ugly when Lady Bunny -- Wigstock star and eternal queen of New York City nightlife -- arrives on the scene in a zebra-printed pool ensemble. Without provocation, she bursts into a vigorous dance routine that finds her in the aisle accosting men old enough to be her older brother, after which she invites contestants onstage for the "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" competition. It's no contest. The five towering bikini-wearing drag queens (who enter as one contestant) easily beat out the good-looking go-go boys with potatoes in their trunks. Lady Bunny offers consolation prizes in her dressing room.

After a pictorial history of Donahue and Dee, KRON film critic Jan Wahl invites the stars to join her onstage. Amid a standing ovation, the alpine Donahue leads Dee doddering to the stage. At first, it is not entirely clear if Dee has forgotten her glasses or if she has been drinking since her makeup call earlier in the afternoon. But slurred, meandering answers spoken into a slightly skewed microphone soon begin to paint Dee as a deeply insecure, fiercely vulnerable former child star who has not yet learned to do her own hair and who only recently overcame an eating disorder brought on by an overbearing mother. Donahue, on the other hand, keeps things carefully in check, stealing the spotlight at will while maintaining a gentlemanly air toward his co-star. He works the Castro crowd, proudly announcing his 16-year sobriety while bouncing around evocative questions about Tab Hunter -- the actor and friend who co-starred in three pictures with Divine and who is still often confused with Donahue.

When Wahl asks what Sandra Dee thought the first time she saw herself in Gidget, Donahue answers first, saying, "I thought, 'Boy, I'd like to make a movie where I knock Gidget up.' " Sandra Dee answers, "I can't stand to see myself. I never could." It is a wrenching moment, one of several. Wahl speaks for the entire crowd: "I wish that you could see yourself for a moment the way we see you. I wish that for you."

In the end, the stars are led out of the theater during a long, heartfelt standing ovation. As the credits begin to roll for A Summer Place -- another ridiculous seaside tale of juvenile love that inadvertently influenced John Waters -- Donahue falls into the arms of his girlfriend, local opera singer Xiang Chow, and with a face as wide open as a child's he asks, "Did I do OK?"

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By Silke Tudor

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