A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
Shifting nervously from foot to foot, David is wearing only scholarly glasses and Birkenstocks, and seems somewhat embarrassed by a compliment on his thoughtful article on nudism and the Bible.
BY AL RIDENOUR
It’s part of our vanishing wilderness. Elysium Fields, a place where an aging counterculture has long roamed wild, shaggy, and free of clothing, will soon be disappearing from Topanga Canyon. No, they’re not closing; they’re only moving and sick to death of correcting that misconception. But what really ticks them off are questions about sex around the whirlpool.
Managing director and retired censor for ABC, Betty Meltzer recites the rules to a group about to embark on an introductory tour. “We don’t have rules against touching, but we ask that you take your sexual practices home.” She runs through further prohibitions: no car alarms, cell phones, ghetto blasters, and then returns to the sexual ban. A sun-cured 65, silvery blonde, and clothed (for work), she speaks in well-rehearsed soothing measures.
The tour includes the sauna, whirlpool, yoga rooms, and of course — volleyball courts. Sculpted ahnks everywhere reinforce the ’60s vibe. There are several dozen people swishing around the pool or crashed out under eucalyptus trees. Mostly men, most easily past 40, a few younger, and a handful of children.
Though the date for leaving this sylvan retreat remains unannounced, escrow was opened on a new site in Malibu on July 23. The new location includes a 3000-square-foot house, more than twice the acreage, larger pool, and ocean view.
What Elysium will lose in transition is something of the presence of its founder, Ed Lange, whose ashes were scattered over its meadows back in 1995. Upon Lange’s death, ownership passed to his daughters, from whom the club now rents the land. When the heirs hired non-nudist managers, membership began falling to around 500, roughly half of what it once was. The property was put up for sale, but the club couldn’t afford the $2.6 million tag. Under the guidance of a board of directors organized last July, a search for a new Shangri La began. Meltzer is managing director along with co-director Gary “Morton” (last name substituted upon request).
“When I talk to the press, I look like this,” Morton says slapping on a set of Groucho Marx glasses. The 50-something businessman is not alone in opting for a first name basis; it’s club protocol. Outsiders, he says, can have dreadful misconceptions about what they call “nudist colonies,” and Elysium is neither “nudist” nor “colony.” It is a “clothing optional resort.” The word “colony,” he says, “makes it seem like secret society. We’ve got nothing to hide from the truth.” (By this time he has removed his plastic nose and glasses.)
Waving toward the lawn strewn with baking flesh, he says, “What you’re seeing here is about one third of what Elysium is all about,” (the other two thirds being the holistic workshops). “This is the laboratory, where we put all that into practice. Comparing Elysium’s utopian vision to that of the Puritans (of all things) he says, “This country was founded on the concepts of religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of speech. That’s what we fled Europe to achieve, and we are just the logical extension of that sense of freedom.”
Even as he speaks, Gary and a half dozen others are monitoring the meadow, ready to eject or reprimand anyone showing an inclination toward sexual predation or even prolonged staring. “It’s like a flower bed,” Meltzer says, referring to the basking nudists, “Everything is beautiful and going along fine, but if somebody is misbehaving and makes anybody uncomfortable we know about it immediately.” A “red sunflower” she says, is easily spotted. You can almost hear the snip of gardening shears in that mechanically sweet voice. “We don’t have to accept anyone here who we feel will be inappropriate,” she says.
Meltzer offers up a careful selection of interviewees since reporters are never permitted to wander the grounds freely. Her desire is to “co-create” an article about Elysium. Interviews are to take place on the porch — conveniently within earshot of her office window. Not quite the let-it-all-hang-out environment I’d expect.
Thankfully, not everyone is reticent when it comes to controversies. One tattooed and pierced member recalls the furor over body piercings around 1990. “Letters and manifestoes” flew back and forth, he says, but “ultimately they decided not to institute the ban. The idea was that it was sexualized, especially breast or genitals piercings, and that it drew untoward attention to those areas of the body.”
When asked whether he attends the Esalan-style workshops, he chuckles. “This place has different roads leading in and out, and that road we don’t travel.” He and his wife regard Elysium simply as a place to get an all-inclusive tan. “That’s what it is for most people.” He regards the classes as a remedy against dwindling membership, something “to get people here who would not normally come or who would worry about what coming here might say about them.”
Most of those interviewed don’t attend workshops, but John and Sheila met at one. Sheila, a hefty schoolteacher wrapped in a colorful sarong, says that she’s been a swinger for the last 35 of her 53 years. She’s involved in a group marriage (not with John but with fellow Unitarians from her church) and belongs to a swinger’s group called Family Synergy. The swingers hold a couple of yearly workshops here (where she and John met) and enjoy special discount days. “There’s a lot of parallel pathing, I think, between the two,” Sheila says, “and of course a lot of members in common.”
At this point, Meltzer comes flying out of the office, her face more taut and grave than ever. Silencing the couple with a seemingly endless disclaimer about sexual activity, she concludes, “I wanted to make sure that you know in the interviewing all these beautiful people that most of our members are very indifferent to polyamory.”
All this protesting naturally raises questions that otherwise might’ve gone o unasked. Noel, a 71-year-old masseur provides some answers. Describing Elysium’s evolution, he refers casually to “changes” that occurred “when the Aids thing came, and because the facilities that were available were closed.”
“Well, there were facilities,” Noel explains, “the room I’m staying in. That was what gave Elysium a bad rap initially. Well, some activities… There was sexuality.” He seems confused about what information has or has not been released.
“Who said there was no sexual activity?” he sputters. “I’d try not to get to specific, but I don’t want people to think this is a monastic retreat!”
God bless Noel! May his privately rented room long be used as privately rented rooms everywhere are used. Who cares? Whether or not there have been feuds with neighbors, Elysium in this day and age is not, in fact, surrounded by a torch-bearing mob of Puritans. Furthermore the sprawl of bodies here is about as erotic as something out of National Geographic. So why keep the past so teasingly concealed? And why the fear of salacious bogeymen today?
Typically Topangan, Elysium is haunted by ghosts of the ’60s. In 1968, the year it opened, Elysium, itself began egging on contemporary squares with peeping-Tom periodicals like Sundisk #1, featuring a nude teen cover girl opening her crotch for Ed Lange’s camera only inches away. (A censorial graphic overlay promised “Sex and Social Intercourse.”) Elysium’s 1970 Teen Beauty Calendar hawked “Females in the Full-blown Flower of their Lives! Sweet! Sassy! Ripe!” Sundial #18 (another of the dozens of nudie rags published by Elysium, Inc. and/or its founder) coaxed domination fantasies from non-nudists with the kinky headline “Nudist Park Visitor Behind Bars.”
In fact, this is what kept the resort alive, financing its endless legal battles. Morton admits that Lange’s ability to fight his way up to the Supreme Court was due to the fact “he had deeper pockets because of the magazine business.” But were these magazines documentation of a swinging past or pornographic exploitation of innocent naturists? Meltzer won’t talk. “This whole idea of what is porn and what isn’t is a much deeper issue or a separate issue than what we’re talking about in this interview.” She reiterates the party line: Elysium’s founder was a heroic crusader for the wholesome acceptance of the human body. No more questions? Good.
It’s a relief on the way out to bump into the current editor of Elysium’s Journal of the Senses. Shifting nervously from foot to foot, David is wearing only scholarly glasses and Birkenstocks, and seems somewhat embarrassed by a compliment on his thoughtful article on nudism and the Bible. He says that the desire for innocent Edenic nudity seems to be buried almost universally in the human heart, and mentions certain Christians who believe that “the whole point behind the last two books of Revelation is seeing undone everything that went wrong in the garden of Eden. So some believers take it one logical step forward and assume that the afterlife will be a nude place.”
Elysium, named for the ancient Greek’s paradise, now seems to be in a similar process of undoing some original sins of its own creation.
Mrs. Disney: A Tribute, however, occupies higher ground. It’s about clearing Walt’s name, and thanks to Creighton’s identification with Disney, it’s also about defending the playwright and his beliefs. Though not all the empathetic parallels are detailed in the play, Creighton is clearly walking in Walt’s shoes. Even a brief interview reveals many (almost) uncanny correspondences: Disney molded young minds; Creighton is a teacher. Disney endured labors on his father’s farm; Creighton sometimes works on a family ranch in Nebraska. Disney’s genius originally went unrecognized by financiers; Ted Turner said no. Disney’s father was a socialist; Creighton’s father was a Democrat. And both overcame their upbringing to become adamantly Republican.
In Mrs. Disney: A Tribute, the politics heat up as a “communist agitator” among the play’s Mouseketeers begins strumming a guitar singing, “Look for the union label when you are drawing a duck, horse, or mouse.” The audience is witnessing Creighton’s interpretation of one of Hollywood’s greatest strikes, the screen cartoonist guild walkout of 1941. Disney’s rant against the process whereby union votes are solicited erupts with such volcanic sincerity that it doesn’t seem like acting — and it isn’t. It’s a real-life flashback for Creighton.
“What I’m referring to in that scene,” he says, “is back when I ran for Vice President of the Teachers Union in 1998. I never got my ballot in the mail, and then I noticed that here in the West Valley, where there was a large constituency against the incumbent, that a lot of people who didn’t get ballots, and that’s just too suspicious!”
Creighton traces his relationship to Disney on the political family tree through Barry Goldwater. Though too young in 1964 to get on the Goldwater presidential bandwagon funded by Disney, Creighton can at least say (and readily does) that he’s driven Barry Goldwater’s car (while working in the offices of Congressman Barry Goldwater, Jr.). As a second-generation teacher, Creighton originally had mixed feelings about Governor Reagan but grew to respect him as he ascended to the Presidency. “Walt and Reagan” he recalls, “were definitely hard-nosed about the communists. Reagan’s Star Wars broke them, broke their economy,” he chuckles. “They couldn’t support their huge nuclear arsenal.”
“My main thesis in the play,” says Creighton, “is to show how politically involved Walt actually was and how he indirectly ended the Cold War by getting Reagan started on his way to becoming President.” And by crushing the red regime, the old boys have also cleared some land for that Russian Disneyland young Francis envisioned. The prophecy of that portentous encounter is nearly fulfilled. The King of the Magic Kingdom still works through earthly avatars. One day Ted Turner will repent.