Through Striptease and Song, Jerry Mitchell Bares All and Brings Safe Sex Appeal to Broadway

Before he was a Tony Award-winning director-choreographer, Jerry Mitchell was a Broadway chorus kid who turned his art into activism during the height of Broadway's AIDS crisis with the creation of Broadway Bares. In a Broadway career that spans over three decades, Mitchell looks back at his mentors including the late Michael Bennett, the friends he lost and a desire to give back to his community.

Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

When The Will Rogers Follies premiered on Broadway in April of 1991, Jerry Mitchell didn't expect to be standing center stage again, especially not in a tiny loincloth with a G-string up the back, a Native American headdress atop his head and bells on his ankles.

Jeff Calhoun, who today is the Tony-nominated director-choreographer of Broadway's Newsies, was assisting Tommy Tune on his latest Broadway musical at the time, The Will Rogers Follies. He and Mitchell had become friends during the shooting of the movie adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Calhoun was in search of a very specific type of male dancer to join the cast of The Will Rogers Follies.

"Look, I need someone who can do an Indian dance, and you've gotta sing in this quartet, but you gotta be in great shape," Mitchell recalled Calhoun saying. "I remember when he asked me if I was interested, I pulled up my shirt and said, 'Look at me! I'm just out of a relationship. I'm in the best shape of my life. This is my revenge. Get me on stage!'"

Months later Mitchell was back in the spotlight, showcased as "Indian of The Dawn" in The Will Rogers Follies. "Ring those bells baby," Mitchell laughed referencing Tune's choreography for the sequence. "And I did. I rang those bells to the tune of Valentino sending me a diamond and sapphire cross backstage. I was the modern-day Ziegfeld Girl."

But the eight-show-a-week grind and all the attention, not to mention the diamonds and sapphires, were enough to keep Mitchell distracted from what was going on within the Broadway community and the gay population in New York City. After leaving the cast of On Your Toes in the mid-1980s, chorus-kid Mitchell was ready to retire from the line. He had four Broadway shows and a movie musical under his belt and followed his time in the chorus as an assistant to legendary director-choreographer Michael Bennett.

It was Bennett and co-choreographer Bob Avian who first saw Mitchell at an audition for A Chorus Line during college and gave him a job in the first national tour of the musical on the spot. He joined the tour two weeks later, immediately following his sophomore year of college.

But by the time The Will Rogers Follies opened in 1991, Bennett had been gone for four years, losing his battle to AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987.

A scene from the 1997 Broadway Bares
photo by Anne Lowrie

"When I came to New York in 1980 AIDS hadn't hit yet, not in the way that it was about to hit," Mitchell said. "It was close, but it was just beginning and it wasn't quite as widely spread yet. And I was very young. So, it was just life was usual. Whatever that meant in 1980."

In a few short years Mitchell would lose his first friend to AIDS: a fellow performer named Brian Whorley who studied musical theatre with Mitchell at The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in St. Louis. By 1984-85, within two to three years of Whorley's diagnosis as HIV positive, he was gone.

"Of course by the mid '80s I had lost a lot of friends, and I knew a lot of people who would become HIV positive," Mitchell said.

Those friends were never far from his mind, and by the time Mitchell was appearing in The Will Rogers Follies, the Broadway community had begun fundraising for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS through the Easter Bonnet and the Gypsy of the Year competitions.

Mitchell in the original cast of Will Rogers Follies
Photo by Martha Swope

"I was licking stamps at Gay Men's Health Crisis, but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to do more," Mitchell said. When one of the Will Rogers cast members with whom he shared a dressing room suggested, "Why don't you go dance on the bar at Splash in that Indian costume and make some money for our Easter Bonnet Competition?," a lightbulb went off. Within ten days Mitchell had gathered a group of male dancers who were also in the choruses of Broadway shows to head down to the now-closed gay Chelsea nightclub for what would be the very first Broadway Bares.

"We were only going to do one show at 9 PM, but there was such a long line outside and the bar was packed," Mitchell said. "You couldn't get any more people in. [The owners] said, 'If you do a second show, we'll kick everybody out. We'll bring up the lights. We'll make them stand in line if they want to get back in and pay for a second show, and we'll have twice as much money.'"

After two sold-out performances, and a round of tequila shots (now a Broadway Bares tradition), the night ended with Mitchell holding a pillow case filled with cash. "I didn't even know what we made," he recalled. "I had a pillow case full of wet dollar bills, soaking in beer and sweat and water from the showers. I took it to [BC/EFA], gave them the pillowcase and said, 'I don't know what's in here, but put it towards the Will Rogers Follies Easter Bonnet Competition fundraising. They called later and said it was $8,000."

Mitchell at the 2010 edition of Bares
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Before he even knew what he and his fellow Broadway gypsies had raised at the first Bares, Mitchell was conceiving the next event. "I thought, 'I can do this better: I'll add girls!' Six months later I did the second Broadway Bares at club called Shout in Times Square. We made $17,000."

Broadway Bares just completed its 24th edition, Rock Hard, which steamed up the Hammerstein Ballroom June 22 to the tune of $1,386,105. Since 1992, the event has raised over $12.6 million for BC/EFA and Broadway Bares has turned into its own cottage industry with productions in Las Vegas and London, as well as a coffee table book, a DVD and an album. Every cent raised has gone to BC/EFA, Mitchell proudly points out.

"I was always one of those people who was raised to participate in your community. I did back at home when I grew up," the Michigan native said. "My parents were very much a big part of the town I grew up in. I think charity is something that you're taught. And generosity is something that you're taught. And I had great teachers in my life, my parents and my grandparents."

In addition to raising money for his community, Mitchell also found himself in the business of raising spirits across Broadway. He pointed out that many within the theatre community at the time attributed the lack of dance on Broadway in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the sudden loss of many choreographers to AIDS.

"It was absent because dance ultimately is a sexual experience. Dance, touching someone, relating to someone physically, it's hard not to be sexual even when you're wearing a pink tutu doing a number from Crazy for You. You know, it's a sexy way of communicating. There was no dance on Broadway. There was no dance because everyone was afraid to be sexy." It was 1990 when I started Broadway Bares," he said. "I was in the dating scene. I was 30. I was in the best shape of my life, and I was dating a lot of guys. And I was being incredibly safe. But I realized in those dates, in those experiences, in those intimate relationships, that people were afraid."

Mitchell created Broadway Bares with several goals in mind. The first was to create an event in which everyone could afford to buy a ticket and participate regardless of how much they made. "I was getting invited to every benefit in town and it was $500 to go to them. I didn't have that kind of money to spend while being a gypsy in a Broadway show. That is where the $10 ticket was born and still, we have $40 tickets for the community [to attend Broadway Bares]."

He also wanted to let people know that it was ok to be sexual in the time of AIDS. "I wanted to encourage people to be sexual as long as they were being smart and responsible and having safe sex," he said. "That's a message that I wanted to get out and it's a message that we still talk about in every Broadway Bares that we do – and will continue to talk about."

A scene from 2006 Broadway Bares
Photo by Gary J. Cooper

Despite the changing nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in an era of powerful anti-viral medications, Mitchell says that there will always be a reason for the Broadway community to gather in support of one-another. "Hopefully, the AIDS epidemic is something that we are seeing people live with and have fulfilling lives," he added. "Being HIV positive is not a death sentence, but there will always be the need for drugs and care for people and families who are dealing with HIV because it is still very, very expensive to be HIV positive... The money that we raise will go to where it is most needed with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS supporting not just ourselves and the people in our industry, but millions of people in our world who we will never meet and will probably never see a Broadway show, who need it more than we do."

From seven chorus boys in 1991 to over 170 performers at the latest June 22 edition, Broadway Bares has entrenched itself as a rite of passage for the Broadway community from gypsies to above-the-title stars. "Look, when Broadway Bares began a lot of people were afraid to be in Broadway Bares because it was a strip show. So ultimately, I had to lead the charge and do it myself," Mitchell said. "And I learned something about myself as an actor and as a director and as a choreographer. If I was able to get up there and remove my clothes and project that kind of confidence, which is all stripping is about, [everyone could]. Sexuality is about confidence, to me. Yes, you're stripping, but more importantly than that, when you do this and you succeed at this, and I will help you succeed, you will learn something about yourself and have contributed to your community in a way you never thought you could."

Another aspect of Broadway Bares that Mitchell said gives him a great sense of pride is that it puts the often unrecognized members of the chorus front and center. "Gypsies are often the hardest-working people in a show who have the least gratification from what it is they're doing. And sometimes the most talented people on the stage are in the chorus. I wanted to be able to give them a chance to shine. I knew those people. I danced alongside of them. And I wanted to be able to share their gifts on another level. Broadway Bares has strengthened this community – particularly the youth of this community because it's the first thing they want to sign up to do."

Broadway Bares comes full circle for Mitchell, who, after directing and choreographing the proceedings for over a decade, has since given the reigns over to other choreographers who now have the chance to showcase their work before thousands of their peers. "I wanted to give young up-and-coming choreographers the opportunity it gave me, which was the chance to just fly."

When asked to reflect on the late Michael Bennett, who first gave Mitchell the chance to fly in the late 1970s, Mitchell's voice wavers and his eyes fill with tears. "It's hard for me to talk about Michael and Jerry Robbins who were two of my big teachers. Bob Avian is around and I call him often. It's hard for me talk about them, because in part, I'd done [ Broadway Bares] for Michael and for my friends. I know that they would be upstairs with a drink in their hands and screaming and having the greatest time. That's what it is. It's a celebration of life. And that's all we can do is celebrate life."