in The New York Times
October 16, 1992
A Would-Be Star Tells The Stories of His Life
Before dying of AIDS in June at the age of 33, Jeffrey Strouth,
the subject of Reno Dakota's documentary portrait "American
Fabulous" lived several lifetimes' worth of frenetic
adventure. Proudly and flamboyantly gay, Strouth also learned
how to tell, and perhaps how to embellish, a good yarn.
"American Fabulous," which opens today at the
Joseph Papp Public Theater is a crudely edited autobiograohical
monologue that was videotaped two years ago in the back
of a 1957 Cadillac while driving around in Strouth's native
territory, southern Ohio. Although growing up gay in small-town
America must have had its traumas, in Strouth's recollections
the experience becomes a grotesquely funny personal odyssey
whose pungency is enhanced by the twangy lilt of his delivery.
Strouth's insistently comic tone only partly camouflages
the pain and desperation of his short, frenzied life. His
horror stories of his father, a brutal, alcoholic man and
sometime Elvis impersonator, are capped by his memory of
the time Strouth tried to asphyxiate his father with bleach
fumes. When Strouth, at the age of 14, was sent to live
with his father in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., he was left alone
for weeks at a time and forced into prostitution to feed
himself. Characteristically, Strouth claims to have rather
enjoyed turning tricks.
Beginning with Miss Earl, a tootthless transvestite who
was his first gay friend, Strouth's memoir is peopled with
the kind of larger-than-life eccentrics one often finds
in Southern Gothic fiction. One of many outrageous stories
he tells on himself is of accidentally running a car out
of control, while high on drugs and booze, into the apartment
of a 400-pound drag queen and burning the place down.
His most elaborate story details a cross-country hitchhiking
jaunt that he and a friend made, carrying a little dog and
a caged bird. In his most harrowing tal, he recalls being
dumped naked at a highway rest stop in the middle of Utah
after escaping possible death at the hands of a psychopath.
Rescued by the police, he was held in jailfor two days,
forgotten, without food or water. Later, he was taken under
the wing of the Salvation Army and washed dishes to raise
money to return east.
Strouth, who had always dreamed of being some kind of a
star, eventually wound up in New York, dressed as a caterpillar
in a display case in the fashionable early-1980s nightclub
Area, and sleeping in a friend's car in his costume to keep
warm. When he finally found an apartment, his roommates
were drug dealers for whom he played "nurse,' administering
everybody's daily heroin fixes, including his own.
The same streak of defiant eccentricity that colors Strouth's
adventures on the road extends to his narrative's rare moments
of outright sentiment. He describes in exquisite detail
the funeral he arranged for his troubled younger sister
after she committed suicide. For the event, he bought her
a white Victorian gown, redid her makeup and strewed the
casket with flower petals to make her look like an angel.
"American Fabulous" offers an indelible portrait
not only of Strouth, but also of a type he represents, which
might be described as a tough Southern queen who take no
prisoners. Impossible in some ways, endearing in others,
he emerges as a flaming creature who was well worth memorializing.