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Lou Maletta, Gay TV Pioneer, Dies at Age 74

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 4, 2011

Lou Maletta, longtime gay activist and gay-content TV pioneer, died peacefully in a hospital in Kingston, N.Y., near his home in the mid-Hudson River area, on Thursday, Nov. 4.

Some people have colorful careers. Lou Maletta had colorful careers. In an age when people readily allow themselves to be relegated to a niche, Maletta refused categorization.

In his 74 years, he founded the first long-running gay television news show; the first TV show to cover the gay porn scene; and the first TV show to follow the underground leather, fetish and S/M scene. He was an activist's activist, who paired words with deeds in New York and across the Eastern Seaboard and the nation. He achieved a brief spate of infamy in the most scandalous TV advertisement in history. He was an out-and-proud pro-active sexual freedom advocate, who hosted men's parties for several decades.

He was also a loving partner of several decades. He was, for a time, a husband. He was a father to a daughter. And he was the mentor to a generation of gay men, among whom I am proud to count myself one.

Maletta was born in Brooklyn of immigrant parents. He never completely lost his "dese and dose" Brooklynese accent, which, combined with a completely nasal twang, gave his voice such a distinct resonance that a major clothing manufacturer could use it as a commercial voiceover for what may be Madison Avenue's most notorious in-joke.

Maletta had an informal education, although he did attend college. Throughout his life, he had a restless intellect. A glance at his bookshelf would reveal a well-thumbed copy of St. Athanasius' "On the Trinity" next to a collection of vintage gay porno magazines next to a half filled-in calculus workbook. He also had a lifelong fascination with technology. His studios were always filled with the latest bright, shiny objects.

As did so many gay men of his generation, Maletta married young. He and his wife had a daughter, who survives him. They lived variously in New York and Dallas, where he established himself as a printer's rep. As he learned the printing business, he became more and more interested in media.

When he divorced his wife and came out, he moved back to New York, where he worked in various industries. In 1982, he launched "Men in Films" on Manhattan Cable. The show was one of a few to take advantage of a loophole in the cable franchise New York City had awarded Time-Warner that allowed for the showing of pornographic (or near-pornographic) material on its neighborhood Channel 35.

Maletta joined Robin Byrd, a soft-core porn actress whose long-running show featured male and female strippers. "Men on Film" was a review and feature show that covered the gay male porn industry, which had just busted out of the relatively few theaters in big cities into millions of homes thanks to the then-new VCR and VHS tapes.

Soon thereafter, Maletta's attention, as did so many others at the time, was diverted to a burgeoning crisis in the community. Several of his friends began succumbing to mysterious ailments like PCP, an obscure form of pneumonia, and Karposi's sarcoma, a cancer heretofore mostly limited to elderly men of Ashkenazic Jewish or Italian extraction.

In order to cover what would become the AIDS pandemic, as well as the explosion in gay activism following singer Anita Bryant's successful campaign to repeal a gay-rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Fla., Maletta founded the first real all-gay, all-the-time serious TV program.

"Gay USA" premiered with the two hosts who would continue the show into the '00s, activists Andy Humm and Ann Northrup. The show ran on the same channel, Channel 35 of Manhattan Neighborhood Network. At its height, the show also ran in multiple cities in the United States and even several cities abroad, including Amsterdam and Hamburg, Germany.

The show had a brief run of advertising support during the boom in gay indie cinema, when major distributors were actually spending money to court a gay audience, as well as condom manufacturers, in the mid-'90s. But then ads fell off. Throughout the lifetime of the show, Maletta essentially supported production costs through his own pocket.

Maletta finally decided to shut down operations in 2001, but kept the thousands of tape reels in various formats. The 6,100 hours amounted to a treasure trove of gay history during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

"Gay USA" covered early ACT-UP demonstrations, the 1993 March on Washington, New York City Council hearings about the aborted 1984 gay-rights ordinance and many other news events. The show also traveled to major events -- what were soon to be called "Circuit parties," including footage of the Morning Party on Fire Island and legendary parties at clubs like the Pyramid, Area, Tunnel, Limelight and the Palladium.

During the height of his cable-TV run, Maletta also had at least one other show, "In the Dungeon with Slave Dale," undoubtedly the first TV "news" show in the United States and very likely anywhere else to cover the underground leather, S/M and fetish scenes.

"Slave Dale" would be introduced usually tied up or in some contraption or other. He interviewed (usually buck-naked) porn stars, fetish experts and assorted oddballs. The show always looked at the annual Saint-at-Large Black Party as its social center. (For a very few years, Maletta handled the live acts at the Black Party, which guaranteed some unusual "talent.")

By chance, I ran into "Slave Dale" in a bar in Ft. Lauderdale in September. He had moved back to his family's home in Oklahoma several years before and is doing fine.

Maletta stored the tapes of all of these shows in an office building in New York's Garment District, on Eighth Avenue at West 39th Street. He tried to interest various archives and had several archivists and historians, such as Jonathan Ned Katz, look at them. He tried to twin his project with a local Provincetown cable program and "Dyke TV" out of Brooklyn.

But no one was interested. University archives didn't value electronic media storage as much as books, letters and papers, he was told. So month after month, he paid the rent for storage. Finally, frustrated, he allowed New York University to take it off his hands for a nominal fee. The archive is now being slowly digitized in a race against time, as the magnetized tapes erode. The archive will be in the university's Fales Library.

Among the people interviewed for the programs were Quentin Crisp, Vito Russo, a pre-AmFAR Matilda Krim, Derek Jarman and a host of others.

But there was another side to Maletta. He was an out-and-proud sex-positive activist. Like many men who witnessed the explosion of the gay-rights movement in the wake of the Stonewall Riots, Maletta believed that gay liberation was part of a package of human sexual liberation.

Maletta paid for much of his cable activity with men's parties that became nearly as legendary as his TV endeavors. His parties took place over the '80s, '90s and into the '00s at various rented locations in Chelsea and then Hell's Kitchen and Midtown. There was never a door policy; all were welcome.

The parties for many years were held in the same place as the TV studio. So where, earlier in the day, a prominent politician or physician may have been interviewed, later that night turned into a playground.

Maletta slowed down in his later years as his health declined and he dealt with a slew of health issues. In 2008, I wrote on this website about what must rank as New York's most unusual garage sale. Maletta sold his quite extensive collection of fetish gear. (I bought a pair of shit-kicker boots; if you want to see them, you'll have to attend the Black Party.)

When his mother died last year, he had to deal with selling the family home in the Ridgewood section of Queens. He also kept an apartment with his longtime partner Luke Valenti, a now-retired city social worker who survives him, in Chelsea and the house Upstate. In addition to Valenti, he is survived by a slew of good friends, including his near-inseparable companion Alexis Grafov; his daughter; and three grandchildren.

Maletta had one brief fling with fame in 1995. Calvin Klein's ad agency hired him to do a voiceover for an ad that featured young men in a set made to look like the tacky basement rec rooms of cheap porn. With Maletta's gravelly voice asking the models leading questions, the ad quickly became the focus of outrage by the newly emboldened religious right.

The ad was quickly pulled but not before achieving it's real aim: publicity. For those who knew Maletta's voice from "Men on Film," the ad was a great in-joke -- and no one laughed louder than Lou did.

I'm proud to say that I had known Lou for decades. I occasionally appeared on his shows as an interviewer and even as an interviewee. I went to his Chelsea apartment for birthdays and holidays. I always knew him as a kind, disinterested person whose first love was always the larger gay community.

The gay world is the less for having lost him but so much the better for his having been here.

A viewing of the body will take place Sunday, Nov. 6, from 2 to 5 p.m., at the San Jose Funeral Home, 289 St. Nicholas Ave., Ridgewood, Queens. Take the L train from Manhattan to the Wyckoff stop. The funeral will take place on Monday, Nov. 7, at 10 a.m. Lou will be buried at Linden Cemetery in Queens. Lou's friends are planning a memorial service in New York City. Details will be announced on this website when they are finalized.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).