Play Examines Boise Sex Scandal

Boise, USA is a new play that tells the story of the Boise sex scandal of 1955. Playwright Gene Franklin Smith likens the fear instilled in the citizens of Boise, Idaho, to that stirred up by the federal government after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Even as California has begun recognizing gay marriages, a new play in Los Angeles questions how far the country has come. "Boise, USA" tells the story of an infamous sex scandal that rocked the Idaho capital in 1955. More than 50 men were questioned over allegations of improper relations with teenage boys. Sixteen of the men were formally charged. The story made national headlines. It later led to an Idaho State Supreme Court case, a book and a documentary film. Iris Mann reports.

IRIS MANN: The play "Boise, USA" opens on Halloween night.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "BOISE, USA")

U: Chief Brandon just arrested three men. They were caught in immoral situations with teenage boys.

U: Immoral?

U: Lewd and lascivious conduct.

U: How old are the boys?

U: Eldon Alverson(ph) and Hal Baker are 17, but they say they were first assaulted more than a year ago. The third boy is 15.

U: Fifteen? My God.

MANN: The boys in question are teenage prostitutes. Two of their johns are respectable Boise citizens. In 1955, the investigation proceeded slowly, says playwright Gene Franklin Smith, until Time magazine got word of the scandal.

MANN: Religion was very strong in Boise at the time. It had been a Mormon city, but there were a lot of Christian families. So they had this belief about their community, that they were safe, they were protected, they were religious. And then when Time magazine came out on December 12th and called it a homosexual underworld, they were humiliated.

MANN: Smith says that the investigation shifted from men who were involved with minors to all men who were suspected of being gay. In one scene, he recreates a town hall meeting that took place on December 15th, 1955.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "BOISE, USA")

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

U: I assure you that our investigations are ongoing.

U: But how do we keep our children safe?

U: You got to lock up these child molesters.

U: And the damn homosexuals.

U: We have already sent six men to prison, and I promise you we'll be sending 20 more.

U: When, boss?

U: Yeah. When, boss?

MANN: "Boise, USA" is not a docudrama. The playwright combines several characters and invented certain plot points. And, Smith says, it was personal.

MANN: I am also working through the play my own issues with my own parents, and how they initially reacted when I came out to them.

MANN: How old were you when you came out to them?

MANN: I was quite old, actually. I was 20 or 21, I believe.

MANN: Was it a shock?

MANN: To them? Yeah. Yeah, my mother actually ran out of the room and locked herself in the bedroom and cried until my father, you know, my father talked very calmly, trying to keep it together, because I'm sure, emotionally, he was also going through a difficult time with it all.

MANN: Smith grew up in the 1960s in New Jersey. He says that based on his research, the Boise of the 1950s was even more intolerant. One of those who saw it first hand is June Schmitz. She was a night club singer in Boise at the time and still lives there.

MANN: This witch hunt was going on, and people were getting nervous. Who was going to be next? John Corlett said that sometimes two men would be afraid to walk down the street together. And John Corlett was the big political writer for the Idaho Statesman at the time. Even he said later on that he thought that it was greatly exaggerated.

MANN: But it was the Idaho Statesman that was largely responsible for inflaming the citizens, according to Seth Randal. Randal wrote and directed the documentary film about these events called "The Fall of '55."

MANN: The Idaho Statesman was running these really, really emotional editorials with lines like crush the monster, and this mess must be removed. When the arrests first started happening, they had a little bit of momentum. However, the ball really didn't get rolling until the Idaho Statesman came out with its second editorial, really imploring the community to take action against this menace, as they viewed it.

MANN: Those newspaper articles are projected on the back wall of the stage during the performance of "Boise, USA." But playwright Gene Franklin Smith says it's not just about what happened in 1955.

MANN: I think the intolerance is still here. I don't think it's really gone away. I mean, I think we can all walk around and say that we have gay friends and be tolerant of different lifestyles, but I do feel that in a great part of this country, the intolerance is there.

MANN: Smith and others involved in the play say it's also about fear and the way those in power can use fear to manipulate the public.

U: People go to work, mow their lawns, tend their gardens. They take comfort in that.

U: As if it never happened.

U: It did. It will again.

MANN: For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.

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