Thursday, March 29, 2018

The OUT50

A super huge thank you to South Florida Gay News for including me as one of its OUT 50 2018. Each year, the newspaper recognizes LGBT members who are helping make a difference in our communities from Key West to West Palm Beach. So I was moved, actually surprised, when they reached out to interview me.

They labeled me as "The Writer." Here is the article in the issue.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Six Neckties a finalist

I'm as happy as a wedding guest about to catch the bridal or groomsman bouquet.

I learned this week that my sixth novel, Six Neckties, is one of the finalists in the Gay Romance category for The Lammys. That's the annual awards in gay and lesbian literature organized by the Lambda Literary Foundation.

I think this novel is probably the most romantic of my six books.

The book brings back Cuban-American journalist Tommy Perez who finds himself being the best man or groomsman at his friends' weddings in Boston, Provincetown and Key West. But with each occasion, he goes back home to Ogunquit with another necktie. (Hence the title.) But when he meets a cute photographer at one of the weddings and then a handsome guest house manager in Ogunquit, Tommy must decide whether he is really ready for love again.

It's a fun summer read and I truly enjoyed writing the story. And I'm excited that it's getting a little love from Lambda reviewers, editors and members. Whether it wins the category or not, I'm just grateful that people have enjoyed the book and have taken the time to read it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Hunks and Ladies of One Day At A Time, 2018

One Day At A Time which was remade last year with a modern and Cuban flavor is back for a second season on Netflix. (The show was just renewed for a third season.)

The show follows a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles where single mom Penelope raises her teen children with help, maybe too much help, from her mom, Lydia, fabulously played by the incomparable Rita Moreno.

Like the original Norman Lear show from 1975-1984, this new version deftly balances comedy with social topical issues. The first season chronicled Penelope, an Army vet and nurse, as she helped her daughter Elena (played by Isabella Gomez) come out and prepare for her sweet fifteen (which she wore a white jacket and pant suit! Go Elena!)

The second season continued Elena's journey as she started dating and experienced her first kiss with Syd, her love interest. Elena's scenes with Syd came off natural and real, like two teenagers figuring out what it means to be gay and the complicated unwritten rules of dating. (Maybe the show should be called One Gay A Time!)

But each of the characters had their moments and stories this season. Tween son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) learned the realities of being a darker shade than his lily-white Cuban sister and how Latino racism exists in Los Angeles after some kids told him to "Go back to Mexico, Beaner!" even though he was born in the US.

Lydia, the "abuelita" character, struggles to let go of some (actually all) her personal belongings and mementos that she's hoarded in the garage since leaving Cuba for the US in 1962. She also struggles with letting go of the Cuba that she knew and left behind as she decides to become an American citizen.

And strong-willed and spirited Penelope, played superbly by Justina Machado, explored dating after finalizing her divorce.

In the new season, viewers meet her hunky former Army buddy Max, a paramedic played by Ed Quinn, who steals her heart (and most scenes he appears in, especially when he's shirtless.)

Max says all the right things. He is funny, warm and kind. Most of all, he is supportive of Penelope's use of antidepressants because of her PTSD and anxiety. And he's understanding of her limited spare time as she juggles a full-time job, her family and going back to school. Hopefully, Mr. Perfect returns in season three.(Are you listening, writers?)

The show has another hunk though. Todd Grinnell plays lovable neighbor and building manager Schneider (another nod to the original series.) Schneider is like a taller and straight version of Jack from NBC's Will and Grace but with more layers to his character. As the geeksome (handsome and geeky) comic relief, Schneider tends to storm into the apartment, says something funny and heads right back out.

But he has also become an unofficial member of the Alvarez family. He learns espanol to better relate to them. And along with Lydia, he decides to become an American citizen. (The Schneider character in this reboot is Canadian.)
The show's writers also deepened Schneider's back story: He is a recovering alcoholic. His sobriety is often referenced as a joke: "I woke up three days later in an alley...and the bowling ball hit me. I was in the gutter for a long time,'' he says in episode 9 this season.

But the character can be serious when he uses his journey of sobriety to help Penelope when she struggles with going off her medications and stops attending her group therapy (which is led by MacKenzie Phillips, another nice touch and tribute to the original series.)  Penelope stops taking her pills and the group therapy because, well, she's embarrassed to tell Max early in their relationship.

In a moving scene, Schneider sits with Penelope on his sofa late at night and reassures her about the importance of taking her medication and continued therapy. Wearing a bathrobe, he tells her, "There's something that I want I can't have for the rest of my life. There's something you don't want you have to have for the rest of yours.''

Yes, laughter and jokes are sprinkled through the show along with some Spanish phrases. Yet it's those dramatic scenes grounded in realism and beautifully written that have helped make One Day At A Time one of my go-to-shows on Netflix. I'm looking forward to season tres, cuatro, cinco...  Thank you to the show's executive producers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce for creating this new version of One Day At A Time.

And thanks to the Snipping Tool on my computer, here are some more screen grabs of Ed Quinn from the second season. I have more screen grabs of Todd Grinnell from last year's blog post.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Manatee Tale

Manatees are everywhere in South Florida yet  they rarely get some media love. Most of the attention and headlines go to the sharks, gators, dolphins and killer whales.

Yet manatees are loved down here. So it was a pleasant surprise to see a new Geico commercial that shows how cute they are.

The spot features three manatees sporting funny shirts, "Did Someone Say Tacos'' and "Come At Me Bro.'' By the end of the commercial, there's a fourth sea cow with a pink T-shirt that says "Let's Cuddle."

Thanks to the commercial and some other recent pop culture mentions including Jeopardy! questions, the manatee is finally having its moment.  (There's even a Manatee festival in West Palm Beach to celebrate a lagoon where they enjoy basking in during the winter months.)

I wrote a feature about all the manatee love in the news lately.

Folks who live down here probably have a story of some type of manatee encounter or another. Growing up in Miami Beach, I've seen them gently bobbing behind condos that face Biscayne Bay. Below the surface, they gracefully glide, seemingly lost in their own world as they graze for cabbage, lettuce and vegetables.

But when they surface, they hang around as if to say Hi. (I like to think they're looking for veggie hand outs.) No matter how many times I've seen them, it's always a surprise when they suddenly appear, like a sweet gift from the universe.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Top stories of 2017

Here's a look at some of my favorite and more fun articles that I produced for the Sun Sentinel in 2017. (Except for the Sun Sentinel barber photo, I shot all the others with handy smart phone.)

Shipping container homes: This is a thing down here in South Florida. People are buying former shipping containers, refurbishing them and making them into homes and AirBnB rentals. 

Miami Marlins barber: The Miami baseball team has its own in-house barber. That's Hugo "Juice" Tandron who trims players' hair (and those of the opposing team) for home games at Marlins Park.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Crews from the Ryan Murphy F/X production descended on Miami Beach to recapture 1997 when Gianni Versace was slain in broad daylight. I got to hang out on set on Ocean Drive which looked like 1997 with in-line skaters and trucks and convertibles from that time.

The Caretaker: My Versace film coverage led to an interview with Fernando Carreira, the elderly caretaker who stumbled upon Andrew Cunanan hiding in a Miami Beach houseboat. Carreira still lives in South Beach, in a studio with walls covered with news articles about the capture.

The return of Que Pasa, USA?: The popular 1970s PBS sitcom about a Cuban family in Miami is coming back as a stage production. I grew up watching this show with my family. At the press conference in November, I got to meet two of the show's supporting characters, Connie Ramirez (pictured below) who played Violeta and Barbara Ann Martin who played Sharon who are returning for the new production.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Lights, camera, incentives!

For a while, it seemed TV show and movie productions were everywhere in South Florida, practically tripping over one another.

Shows such as USA's "Burn Notice" and “Graceland,” HBO’s “Ballers” and A&E’s “The Glades” and movies such as “Ride Along 2” were filmed here, with the region’s gleaming skyscrapers, lush palm trees and Instagram-worthy beaches as backdrops.

But then the state's tax credits, which were given to productions that film here, dried up. And the productions packed up and left or didn't come at all. 

I wrote an article on how Miami-Dade, Miami Beach and other South Florida municipalities are trying to court those productions back to the region.  ("The Birdcage'' and "Miami Vice" were fixtures in Miami Beach back in the day.)

While there have been some recent high-profile productions in town such as filming for the upcoming FX mini-series "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story'', it's a far cry from seeing regular shoots for "Bloodline'' and "Magic City."  

Filming of the FX Gianni Versace miniseries last May on Ocean Drive.  By Johnny Diaz

Monday, November 20, 2017

Remembering Que Pasa, USA? and the gay episode

In the late 1970s, there was a bilingual PBS sitcom called Que Pasa, USA? that truly captured the Cuban-American experience through the fictional Pena family.  Every week on Miami's Channel 2, another slice of immigrant life was told through the multi-generational family of father Pepe, mother Juana, teen children Joe and Carmen, the abuelos, Antonio and Adela as well as their friends and neighbors.

The show is making a comeback of sorts, returning as a live stage production, Que Pasa, USA? Today...40 Years Later." I wrote a story about the show, its legacy, the soon-to-come updated stage version for 2018 and a where-are-they-now with the cast.

Only three of the original cast members are returning for the stage version:  Ana Margo who played daughter Carmen; Connie Ramirez who played Carmen's Cuban amiga Violeta and Barbara Ann Martin who played Carmen's all-American friend Sharon.  I was also able to interview Ana Margo in which she talks about playing Carmen again and the show's enduring legacy.

The show was part of my childhood in Miami Beach. It was probably the first show I saw that looked and sounded like my family.  The hardworking stubborn Cuban father; the mom who was mostly a housewife until she joined the workforce, the daughter who attended a private school and had to be chaperoned on dates; the Spanish-only-speaking grandparents who always chimed in with something old-school but funny to say.

And there was Steven Bauer (sigh) He played the sexy older Cuban son Joe who was always looking for another hot girl to date.

The show launched his career. He went onto a successful movie career that has included 1982's Scarface. He also starred in the 1985 romantic thriller Thief of Hearts and the music video of the same name by Melissa Manchester.

Although I enjoyed all 39 episodes of Que Pasa, USA and watched them with my family and friends,one particular episode has stood out over the years -  "Is Joe Gay?  That episode follows Joe as he starts hanging out with a classmate presumed to be gay who takes him to a dance club called Heaven.

The Penas become suspicious of this chico and they go undercover to the club to see what Joe has been up to. (By going undercover, the grandparents, parents and Carmen all conspicuously don sunglasses inside the club to much comic effect.)

The show was ahead of its time in tackling taboo subjects from santeria and dating outside one's ethnicity to homosexuality.  I remember that gay men and women who were like that were often made fun of in Latin households or worse - not talked about at all. And here was a show in the late 1970s that captured all the different attitudes from the family members but with bilingual humor written so brilliantly by Luis Santeiro (who would go on to write for Sesame Street.)

On a side note, the cashier at the nightclub (see her in the 21 minute mark) was my substitute teacher at the Head Start program at Biscayne Elementary School in Miami Beach. Her name was Caridad Villar (or Mrs. Villar as I used to call her) and she was an actress on the side. If you made it on Que Pasa, USA, you enjoyed some celebrity, at least in Miami.  And even today, my dad and I remember Mrs. Villar from that episode. And I think a lot of gay men and women who grew up in Miami probably remember the episode, too.

Below is the Is Joe Gay? episode.

Monday, November 13, 2017

An Ode to the Ford Pinto from Netflix's 'Stranger Things'

As I binge-watch the second season of the Netflix scifi series Stranger Things, I've noticed a character popping up frequently.  It's not one of the adorable kids who use large walkie talkies to communicate with each other and ride their dirt bikes to get around their Indiana town as they look for (or run from) demogorgons.

I'm talking about an unsung cast member - the 1976 green Ford Pinto, driven by Winona Ryder's character Joyce Byers.  

The car has appeared in almost every episode this season. You see it whenever Joyce rushes to and from work and home or to her son Will's school in panic mode (which is how Winona Ryder has deftly played the mom character in both seasons.)

The car has some dents which may speak to Joyce's current economic situation - a single mom of two.

But the Pinto has caught my attention this season because, well, I think it's cute. It also revs up some auto nostalgia.

Growing up in Miami Beach in the 1980s (just like the main characters of Stranger Things) I remember seeing these little Pintos everywhere. They were mostly driven by elderly residents. Miami Beach was a huge retirement haven for the elderly at the time. And the cars reminded me of a cute turtle on wheels because of their round shape and the big round headlights which looked like a pair of surprised eyes. The car was the ultimate affordable hippie mobile.

The Pintos also reminded me of the bright orange Pinto that was a mainstay on another series, the former ABC primetime detective series Charlie's Angels.  Diehard fans may remember that the car was driven by Sabrina Duncan, the brainy angel played by Kate Jackson and then later by her replacement Shelley Hack who played Tiffany.  If you were a closeted gay kid, you either wanted to be one of the angels or own one of their Fords. As a hardcore car geek with a subscription to Popular Mechanics, I wanted Sabrina's orange Pinto. Really.

And because I was a fan of the show and a fan of small hatchbacks, I wanted one of these vehicles later on in high school.

But I also remember the Pintos were problematic.  In 2012, a Los Angeles Times listed the car as one of the worst ever in the US.

The model was prone to exploding when hit from behind because the gas tank was in the rear.

And according to Popular Mechanics magazine, about 1.4 million of the cars and its sister version the Mercury Bobcat were recalled by Ford so workers could install plastic shields to protect the tanks from catching on fire. (I ended up getting a used 1982 light blue Honda Accord as my first car, in case you were wondering.)

As the years went by, the Pintos faded away, often turning up in junkyards. I rarely see them on the road. About three years ago, I spotted a green Pinto just like the one in Stranger Things on Interstate 95 just north of Providence. It looked like it was in decent shape as it rolled down the highway (I followed it as much as I could to get a better look.)

About a year ago, I saw another Pinto with big sporty tires fueling up at a gas station in Miami's Coconut Grove. I was impressed by how the car had endured all these years. It still looked cool in a retro way (at least to me.) I smiled as it receded in my rear view mirror.

So the Pintos are still around, here and there and online on the Netflix show. I wonder if the Byers' Pinto will return for a third season and what stories it has to tell.