Corbett Reynolds' Red parties were legendary, drawing thousands to the spectacle of music, light and art that pulsed 'til morning. In 2002, just months before the 25th installation, he died of a heart attack. This vibrant artist, who lent his signature color to the parties that made him famous, was gone. His legacy lives on, though, in the city's gay community, in the revival of Victorian Village, in the art scene and in the ongoing fight against AIDS.
Corbett Reynolds needed an elephant.
The Columbus artist had to have a life-size replica of the beast for decor at one of his legendary Red parties, the elaborately designed all-night affairs he had hosted in various incarnations since 1977. He explained his dilemma to his friend Michael Chevy Castranova.
"I mentioned to him, as my parents live in northeastern Ohio, that off the turnpike there was a shop that sold essentially large lawn ornaments," Castranova says, "and that I seemed to recall they had this really big elephant."
That was all the encouragement Reynolds needed.
"Corbett wanted to know exactly, precisely where this place was as best I could remember, so I told him about it," Castranova says, adding, "I obviously didn't remember the name of the place, so he couldn't just call them." A few days later, Reynolds and his friend and fellow artist David Borchers headed north to somewhere near Canton, found the elephant and hauled it back to Columbus.
In the carriage house behind his home on Neil Avenue, Reynolds painted the entire thing Red Party Red, his signature color. "If you were in another room and you closed the door," Castranova says, "and turned the lights out, you could still see it, red."
But the finished piece refused to be crammed inside the door of the Valley Dale Ballroom, where that year's Red party was being held. So Reynolds cut its head off with a chainsaw and put it back together later.
"I think what it shows, other than being kind of a charming, adventurous story," Castranova says, "is that when he had a vision, that's what he was going to do. And by golly, that elephant was going in there. It was going to be part of the show."
Even in the freewheeling '60s, Reynolds was ahead of his time. Longtime friend and interior designer Monty Baus remembers when he first encountered Corbett in those years. "One day, we were walking down the street and, lo and behold, there is a small vintage clothing store on one of the side streets," Baus says. "This is the late '60s. Vintage clothing stores were not a big thing in Columbus, Ohio." Reynolds, the one-of-a-kind shop's proprietor, made a lasting impression.
"You always knew where Corbett was," Baus recalls, "because Corbett had bright red leather boots that went to his knees, and he wore them with his pants tucked in."
It was not just his inimitable style that set Reynolds apart. A trailblazer in the gay community, he opened a nightclub in Franklinton, renovated a mansion in Victorian Village that he called home and hosted his theatrical all-night parties at the Valley Dale Ballroom, all while maintaining a prolific career as an artist. He died of a heart attack in 2002, but his memory is being revived by the AIDS Resource Center (ARC) Ohio, which hopes to raise $225,000 at its first-ever RED Columbus gala on Sept. 7 at the Landmark Aviation Hangar at Port Columbus.
In years past, ARC Ohio's Dayton branch has held a RED ("Reach, Empower, and Dream of a World Without AIDS") fundraiser. But when ARC Ohio's Columbus branch decided to alternate its biennial Art for Life fundraiser with RED galas, organizers knew that the title, with its coincidental reference to the Red parties, gave them a chance to honor an artist who was an early and enthusiastic contributor to Art for Life.
"Corbett's pieces have sold for really, really high prices at Art for Life," says Emily Toney of ARC Ohio. "We know those people who were his friends and his family are in our community as well. We're excited to sort of tie that all together in a neat little red ribbon."
Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1944, Reynolds arrived in Columbus by way of Kentucky, where he spent much of his youth. "Corbett had a very heavy Kentucky accent," remembers Tom Queen, another longtime friend, who now manages Reynolds' archives. Reynolds attended the Columbus College of Art & Design and first garnered attention in the early '70s as a designer of hand-painted textiles and wall coverings. "He had an opportunity to go to New York for a really great position with a company that made wall coverings," Queen says. "As Corbett told me, he decided that he wanted to stay in Columbus and just be a big fish in a small pond. He felt like he could make more of a difference here than he could going to New York and being just one of many."
In 1977, following a two-year renovation of the art-deco Avondale Theatre in Franklinton, Reynolds opened Rudely Elegant. Some called it the Studio 54 of the Midwest. "This was in a time when, in the Midwest, for gay clubs, that meant a gray-painted steel door in a back alley with a bare light bulb hanging over the door," Baus says. By contrast, Rudely Elegant had a street presence. (Today, a Lev's Pawn Shop fills the space.)
"The facade of that theater was still there, and it was very obvious on a weekend when you drove by that there was something going on there with the people assembled outside and the bouncers and so forth," Baus says.
Gay and straight people patronized the club, reflecting Reynolds' own philosophy of life. "People from all walks of life were his friends," Queen says. "He used to have drumming sessions in his backyard. Everybody from the next-door neighbors to the parish priest would come to these wonderful, spiritual drumming sessions."
Inside Rudely Elegant, the music pulsated-"lights flashing and lots of pounding," as Baus remembers it. "At that point it was disco. That was right before the concept of house music." The dance floor occupied the space where the theater's seats had been.
"There were a lot of natural elements about the bar," says Steve Shellabarger, a retired schoolteacher who knew Reynolds. "It was kind of an art-deco space in itself, but in his collecting he brought together lots of things and added to it." About once every three months, Reynolds would host themed parties-one tropical, another space-age-and altered the interior of the club accordingly. Those who attended had to alter their appearances, too.
"I remember one Christmas there was an Army party, for some reason," Baus says. "He didn't want to do a Christmas party, so he did an Army party. So a bunch of my friends and I went to an Army/Navy store and bought World War II helmets that still had the mesh netting over them, and we stuffed those with holly. You had to go in costume in those days! You didn't dare go in street clothes. There was a whole troop of us that went with these huge, big helmets full of holly. Corbett loved that kind of stuff."
Rudely Elegant was where Reynolds began throwing red-themed parties in 1977. "Red was Corbett's favorite color. It was the color of passion and the color of love," Queen says. Very quickly, word spread. "People would come in from all over the country for some of these, and people would spend weeks in advance getting ready."
Part of the appeal was the variety of B-list celebrities Reynolds brought in, including Paul Lynde and Grace Jones, as well as Divine, the star of John Waters' "Pink Flamingos." "Divine and Corbett were good friends," Queen says. "Divine had gotten really heavy later in his life. Rather than Divine having to struggle down the stairs-because the kitchen of Corbett's house was in the basement-they actually brought lunch out onto the big front porch."
Friends describe Reynolds' house, on Neil Avenue between Third and Fourth avenues, as a living artwork. "It wasn't the typical Victorian Village renovation inside or out," Baus remembers. A blue neon Christmas tree was perched in a front window, and Reynolds filled the house with items he had accumulated, ranging from Fiestaware to bowler hats. "You would walk into one of the guest bedrooms, and all these bowler hats were laid out on the bed," Baus says. "It was an installation. It wasn't just a matter of, 'Gee whiz, I don't know what to do with my collection.' "
Castranova, then editor of Columbus Business First, got to know Reynolds in the late '80s when he wrote about Reynolds in several local publications. "He spent a lot of time and a lot of money at flea markets. He would travel all over-I mean, like across several states-and buy frames that he liked," Castranova says. "He would generally paint them black, and then he would do his own paintings within."
Much of Reynolds' art involved repurposing found objects that might not otherwise have value on their own. A friend had given him the shell of a Volkswagen Beetle that popped up in various shows. He bought religious statuary from Catholic churches. In one of his most famous series, he made Roman-style busts in which the crowns of the heads were left open. "He would mount things into the head," Castranova says. "I own one that has essentially an old TV tube in it … You'd be like, 'Isn't that beautiful? What's this, now?' He just did a broad range of things." Reynolds donated one of his busts, titled "Total Liberation of the Unconscious," to ARC Ohio's inaugural Art for Life event in 1989.
Following the closure of Rudely Elegant in 1985, Reynolds went to work on one of his most acclaimed projects, "Thru My Eye-The Journey," an hours-long installation which was put on twice in galleries in the Short North in 1987 and 1989. The installation commingled live performers, made up in body paint and positioned (mostly) motionless in specific stations within a larger environment. "I remember a mixture of sort of natural materials, like branches, and manmade, like neon lighting, that would weave through," says Joan Gavaler, a professor of dance at the College of William and Mary who was among the performers in both installations. "It began and, three hours later, it ended! It was great because existence was the performance."
Queen recalls that as visitors made their way through this space, they "were each given a printed mask that had Corbett's face on it and the eyes were cut out, and you were to walk through the installation holding the mask over your face as if you were looking at it through his eyes." The point, Gavaler explains, was "this sense of belonging to the environment and being joined with the environment through color."
Starting in the early '90s,Reynolds decided to resurrect his Red parties as stand-alone events. Theywere held on the first full moon of each September continuing until 2001, theyear before Reynolds died.
"They were at different places for a while," Castranova says. "Eventually, he settled on Valley Dale, a big World War II-era club"-which was usually filled to the brim, and then some. "This one year, there were probably 4,000 people in Valley Dale, which is far greater than the number of people that are supposed to be in there!"
Beyond the music and dancing, what set the Red parties apart for the busloads of guests who flocked to Valley Dale each year was the care and planning Reynolds put into designing and staging them. Famous DJs from around the country were brought in. Lighting experts were hired. During a circus-themed party in 2000, the red elephant Castranova found for Reynolds turned up, as did actual circus performers. "He had a snake charmer, he had a fire eater, and he even had a member of the Cirque du Soleil cast, who was an acrobat on the draperies," Queen says.
In a party tied to Greek and Roman mythology, the famous Volkswagen Beetle showed up again, this time, Queen says, painted "to turn it into a chariot, which was tethered to a fully gilded life-size horse, up on pedestals over the dance floor." Celebrities returned, too. Mink Stole, another of John Waters' performers, appeared. Holly Woodlawn, who starred in Andy Warhol movies, was featured prominently on a gender-bending Red party poster. Tammy Faye Bakker Messner hosted the final Red party.
Reynolds relished his role as the impresario of the goings-on, which usually got underway around 10 p.m. and went into the morning. At one party, Castranova had made his way to an area quiet enough to could hear himself think, when a short person in a mask started tugging at his shoulder. "He asks me to help him fix his cape, and I realize it was Corbett, with this mask and this costume," Castranova says. "In other words, the host would come to his party in disguise. He could kind of move through and see what people were doing and see what they liked and see if they were having a good time."
As a self-employed artist, Reynolds relied on the Red parties to supplement his income, maintaining a liquor license from his days owning Rudely Elegant so that he could afford to charge only a modest admission fee (figuring he would make money on the alcohol). "Many times when Corbett was preparing for Red parties, he would go out and buy things," Queen remembers. "Then it got time to raise money, and I will tell you he had the most amazing yard sales in the city of Columbus. I helped him with one or two of those. There would be Philco Predicta TVs and amazing, beautiful vintage objects of all sorts laid out on the yard."
The parties also gave the Short North a boost in the pocketbook, even if the party itself was near the airport. "If you were coming in from out of town, there were brochures he put together and flyers and invitations that would go out to his incredibly growing mailing lists," Castranova says. Reynolds also included information about hotels offering discounts and restaurants serving special buffets. Partygoers arrived in the city in time for dinner before the event, stayed the night and spent more money at restaurants and shops the next day.
In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic hit Reynolds and his circle hard. "The big thing in those days, I remember, is when you would ask about someone you hadn't seen for a while, and the phrase passed on was, 'They moved home,' " Baus says. "You knew what that meant. They moved home for care-giving. That was ongoing, week after week, month after month and year after year."
While Reynolds' parties provided a much-needed therapeutic respite, some of his friends had mixed feelings about them. "We would go to party and totally forget for a while that this was happening around us," Baus adds. "I think a lot of us then the next day felt guilty, because we had forgotten about it; we had forgotten about our friends and our acquaintances for a little while."
Even though ARC Ohio's evening includes a dance party and is designed as a tribute to Reynolds, complete with a video presentation and displays of his art, it's not by any means a re-creation of a Red party. For his part, Baus thinks Reynolds would understand the need for a more sedate affair. "I think he would look at this and say, 'Yeah, let's be a little playful, but I understand the times, and I understand that the AIDS fundraising has now gone to a broader group,' " Baus says. "My business is interior design. I have a client who has purchased a table because her brother died of AIDS. That would have never happened in the late '80s or early '90s. It's a whole different time, and I think Corbett would understand that."
The final Red party was held in 2001, the year before Reynolds died. But by then, some friends say he was looking to return to art-making that didn't involve having a liquor license. "The parties were starting to be maybe more of an energy drain for him," Queen says. "I think he wanted to get back into just creating art itself and not have all the other aspects that the party brought onto him."
Regardless of the medium in which Reynolds worked, his legacy suggests that anything, including a nightclub or a party, can be art in its own way. Going to galleries or shows with Reynolds, Castranova recalls: "He'd come up behind you, and he'd whisper, 'Now, Mikey, why is this art?' And sometimes he meant he didn't think much of it. And sometimes he meant, 'Look at this. And why would this be art? What do you see? What are you thinking about?' And I will tell you, to this day, anytime I look at any kind of art, I hear Corbett's voice, and I think, 'Why is this art?' "
Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.