There’s a wonderfully nostalgic exhibit of the show business photography of Kenn Duncan running at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library through Oct. 25.
Duncan was not the greatest photographer in the world — most of his stuff was studio work done with rather flat lighting — but he left behind an amazing record of the theater, film, TV and recording scenes in Manhattan during the period from roughly 1968 through 1980.
Those years are now considered the bad old days — in terms of crime and financial distress — but it was a pretty great time in other ways. Movies (and theater) were shaking off their last conservative restraints, so revolutionary material seemed to open every week — from “Hair” (left) to “Midnight Cowboy” to “Deep Throat.”
The Duncan exhibit is a classic demonstration of the high/low arts scene of New York City — with glossy shots of Broadway stars such as Angela Lansbury juxtaposed with Andy Warhol “superstars” like Joe Dallesandro.
It was the period when a bundle of talent from Hawaii named Bette Midler (a favorite Duncan camera subject) could launch her career by singing in the cabaret space inside a gay bathhouse (a feat immortalized in Terrence McNally’s mid-1970s play and movie, “The Ritz”).
Because of the sexual explosion in the city (and the country) at the time, Duncan shot a lot of nudes but he gave them the same high gloss treatment he afforded to the big mainstream star portraits. In retrospect, Duncan can be viewed as a pioneer in the merging of commercial entertainment and porn that is now central to our pop culture.
Much of Duncan’s work appeared in a rather bizarre magazine called “After Dark” which presented itself as a mainstream entertainment magazine but was loaded with barely sublimated sexual content. It was a sign of the times that stars like Lansbury and Chita Rivera would grant interviews — and sit for Duncan’s photo sessions — for a publication carrying ads for the porn films that were just starting to get commercially exhibited in New York (the “porn chic” era launched by “Deep Throat” in the summer of 1972).
Anyhow, as I walked through the exhibit, my mind flashed back to the wildly enthusiastic reviews a woman named Norma McLain Stoop used to write for “After Dark.” Norma never saw a movie she didn’t like and she helped spread the name of her magazine by being a pioneer in the quote-whoring that now fills ads for new movies.
Few people read Norma’s reviews — I was off in a college town in Pennsylvania and then in a small beach resort in Delaware during her peak years — but her quotes were everywhere in the early and mid-1970s. She would give distributors enthusiastic comments so far in advance that her name would appear in the trailers for art films that were distributed around the country. Norma was so hyperbolic — and so unknown outside New York — that audiences in arthouses around the country would crack up when her name (and her gush) appeared on the screen. Who the hell was she?, we wondered.
I hadn’t thought about Stoop in 30 years, but the Duncan show had me rushing back to my computer to see what had happened to this movie advertising pioneer. Sadly, I found out that she died in May of last year, but here is a terrific tribute from the nameless movie industry blogger on a site called “Zoom in Online”:
“…It got me thinking about the critics who love to be quoted, the critics who labor to not to be quoted, and the publicists who spread exclamation points like sprinkles on an ice cream cone. Caught up in my reverie, I suddenly thought of the greatest quote-seeker of them all, a woman who turns the other quote-seekers into mere pretenders.
Norma McLain Stoop was a very slight, elegant woman of a certain age (late 60s? 70s?) who provided us with quotage on a regular basis in the Seventies. She was the film and dance critic for the entertainment nightlife magazine ‘After Dark’ (not officially gay, but really really gay). Before our films came out she would send us these neatly typed copies of her upcoming reviews. (I think they were made with carbon paper.) You didn’t have to wait for the new issue of ‘After Dark’ to come out; you didn’t have to bug Norma to send you something like other critics. Her quotes were deposited at your door as reliably as the Sunday Times, and were ready for immediate placement in your ad! Somebody once said, ‘If Norma McLain Stoop didn’t exist, someone would have to invent her.’ Well you didn’t need to invent Norma because Norma invented herself and she did a damned good job.
Norma was a kind of graying version of a Factory Girl. Rail-thin, she was proud and stately like the other legendary Norma, Norma Desmond (if Norma Desmond hung out at Studio 54). She was immersed in the gay-tinged world of the performing arts. She had New York attitude. She loved NY culture with all her heart and soul, and if people wanted to laugh at her because she was a bit too promiscuous with her affections, then so be it…She was aware of how people perceived her and she didn’t care…Norma is gone now, but her quotes live on. They shout out from the posters in vintage stores; they charm on 70s DVD covers.”