As a child growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the 60’s and 70’s I was an avid TV watcher. I loved all the various sitcoms, as well as the daily 4:30 pm movies that introduced me to so many wonderful classic films.
The movies that were filmed in NYC particularly piqued my interest–the congested streets, bumper-to-bumper traffic, cultural diversity. One of my favorite films was Barefoot in the Park where I became enamored with fifth-floor walk-ups and cracked skylights. I later wanted to be in Mr. Kotter’s class of misfits on the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. The show’s opening theme seemed to capture the gritty side of NYC–graffiti marked elevated trains, tenement buildings, scenes from El Barrio (Spanish Harlem), bodegas overflowing with cultural offerings, things I had never seen before.
Another NYC sitcom favorite was The Odd Couple, where a fabulous upper West apartment across from the famed Central Park was featured. I also adored the hilarious cop show, Barney Miller, where I learned about the city’s Bellevue Hospital, which appeared to be home to the undocumented, uninsured, and certifiable. I also learned how NYC detectives were addicted to bad coffee, donuts, and bagels.
I grew up knowing that someday I’d actually venture out to follow my dream of living in the Big Apple. In May 1980, the film Fame hit theaters. I could not get to my local movie house fast enough to see the film. It was mesmerizing! I was in total awe of the dancing, songs, chic street fashions, my simple midwestern mindset went on NYC overload! There was one main character who stood out above all of the other actors, his name was Gene Anthony Ray.
Yes, I had fallen in love with the bad boy dancer in the film, Leroy Johnson, who was portrayed by Ray. I remember the opening of the film when he stole a friend’s dance moves for an audition with New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Ray performed a sexy dance to singer Linda Clifford’s Red Light. I even taped the movie’s newspaper advertisement on various pages of my journal. I had an intense love affair with an exciting city, and an actor, Ray, whom I had planned on pursuing with steadfast conviction.
In 1985, I actually got myself into gear and made a move to grand New York. A friend knew of an available job as a photo art coordinator at ESSENCE Magazine which was based right in midtown Manhattan. Life could not have been sweeter! I flew to NYC, interviewed for the job and landed it. I was floating on cloud nine with a posh job, and even managed to secure an apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Oh yeah, life was real good! So, next on my agenda would be to find my future husband, Gene Anthony Ray!
Even after moving to New York City, then settling in, I had not forgotten about my love for Ray. Surely, someone in my circle of art directors, writers, photographers, editors, and graphic artists had a Ray contact, damn it! One day, during a casual conversation with a male colleague, I mentioned my Ray obsession. The co-worker gave me an odd look for a few seconds, then laughed out loud. I wondered what was so funny about my quest in finding my soulmate. Well, according to this bubble-buster, my Gene Anthony Ray was, in fact, a gay man living in Harlem!
Wait, WHAT! Come again?!
Well, I had to brace myself against a desk upon hearing the news. I looked at my co-worker, who was admittedly, a gay man, and half-heartedly listened to how he had actually met Ray. I did not want to believe that my husband-to-be was not interested in women! Lies lies! Well, my co-worker, who laughingly referred to me as ‘colored’ and ‘country’ did not understand the impact his news had on me.
Suffice it to say, I was devastated that the love of my life was a gay man, now what? Well, I remained in NYC even thoug, I actually never got to meet the man of my dreams.
I recently stumbled across a Facebook posting that mentioned the film Fame. I reposted the story on my Facebook page and received so many positive responses about the movie. The posting reminded me of how the film had actually changed the course of my life.
Apparently, I was not the only one who adored Ray, who co-starred in both the Fame film and TV show. At one point, the performer, who had never professionally trained as a dancer, would reportedly receive some 17,000 fan letters per day at the height of his career. I also later found out that the actor’s life had been fraught with turmoil. He was raised by a mother and grandmother who had both been arrested and convicted of selling heroin and cocaine. Rumors also swirled around Ray and his use of drugs and excessive drinking.
Ray’s last video project was an April 2003 one-hour BBC Fame reunion documentary entitled Fame Remember My Name. In 1996, Ray was diagnosed with HIV. On November 14, 2003, at age 41, Ray passed away from complications of a stroke he had suffered in June of that year and complications from AIDS.
When Ray died, I remember feeling distraught by the loss of such a talented soul. Ray’s death also triggered memories of my youth and total naiveté. I will always remember Ray’s dancing as he just oozed sexuality. I loved the way he flexed his perfectly toned muscular and sweaty frame. Oh, have mercy! The man was gifted!
Gene Anthony Ray will forever be remembered as the person who gave me the nudge I needed to come to NYC, and for this, my–maybe-coulda-been-husband will always have a special place in my heart.
Here is Gene Anthony Ray’s Red Light audition video: