Terrence McNally dead, yet Anita Bryant lives — thus runs the world’s cold calculus. And yet, we may take solace in the fact that McNally’s plays live on, and Bryant is at best a Trivial Pursuit question.
Bryant was a former singer and beauty pageant winner who became the national spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission in 1969. A decade later, her militant stance against various gay rights initiatives blew up in her face and she lost everything. I was 15 when Bryant was deposed from her lofty perch atop the orange tree. I’d grown up seeing her in television commercials for o.j. and other products my entire life. She was the personification of the Nixon era square. Astoundingly, she was the same age as John Lennon (born 1940)! She seemed decades older than she actually was. Ironically her national disgrace meant she was gone from the public sphere just as Ronald Reagan gained the White House.
Who the hell was she? you have probably always wondered. Born and raised in the Sooner State, Bryant was Miss Oklahoma 1958, and second runner up in Miss America 1959. She’d sung on the radio since childhood. She actually had a few hits: ‘Til There Was You” (#30, 1959), “Paper Roses” (#5, 1960), “In My Little Corner of the World” (#10, 1960), and “Wonderland By Night” (#18, 1961). Beatlemania and Motown altered the musical landscape and the culture after that, and her beat became more along the lines of Bob Hope’s Vietnam U.S.O. tours, singing at the Superbowl, and, increasingly, Fundamentalist Christian activism.
Things began to heat up for Bryant in 1977 when she opposed an anti-gay-discrimination initiative in Dade County, Florida. She called her movement “Save Our Children”, for it was based on the outrageous, scurrilous hallucination, still harbored by some, that the gay community has an agenda of recruiting and corrupting the underaged (or anyone at all, for that matter). This initial fight was successful for her, so she was emboldened to oppose other such initiatives around the country. It backfired. For obvious reasons the entire show business world vocally turned against her. People began boycotting the products she was hired to endorse, so she was summarily dropped from her job as a high profile orange flack…and everything else.
The unkindest cut of all, if a delicious one, was when an activist ambushed Bryant with a cream pie at a public event in 1977. That image is probably what most people remember best about her today. Whether or not there was egg in the pie, there was definitely egg on her face.
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on pies in the face please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.