On the Chartreuse Couch: Gene Elder Interviews Ken Slavin

Gene: Ken, here you are at last. On the couch where you belong. Now, I want you to just lie down and make yourself comfortable and just say the first thing that comes to mind. What do you think of when I say, “Artists giving their art to fundraisers and musicians playing for free at events and not getting paid for their contributions and then treated like third-class citizens, especially in the state of Texas?”

Ken: Hi, Gene! First of all, let me tell you that I am thrilled to finally sit upon your legendary — and some say “infamous” — couch. Wow! It’s beautiful! And what a sheen! Is the fabric damask? And what about those gorgeous matching drapes? I can’t help believing that some folks reading this interview will be positively green with envy to learn that you have invited me to chat with you in such comfort and splendor. As for giving away art and playing for free, I must say that I believe doing so is part and parcel of being an artist or performer. However, it is important to be smart about what you give away. There’s an old adage: “If you don’t value yourself, nobody else will either.” Since the beginning of my singing career more than 25 years ago, I have donated my talent and time to organizations that speak to me in some way, ranging from the Human Rights Campaign and the San Antonio AIDS Foundation to children’s charities and to fundraisers for musicians and other friends who are battling serious illnesses. In nearly every case, my contribution was noted and appreciated — and in many cases we were able to raise a lot of money and public awareness for the organization or cause, which made me very happy. I happen to believe that giving back to the community is both an honor and a responsibility. However, there is a danger of giving away too much and having some people walk all over you. So that is why I weigh each request for a donation of talent and time very carefully. Sadly, there are some folks out there who will try to take advantage of your good nature and place no value on your talent at all. They just want to use your name and sort of “fill a slot” at an event. I can usually spot such people right away and generally steer clear. However, every now and then, I still get sucked into something that I regret doing. For example, a couple of months ago, I donated my talents as a master of ceremonies for a nonprofit organization’s fundraiser. Not only was I not even introduced to the audience, I was never thanked for my work or my contribution of time and energy. I’m still waiting for a basic thank-you note, but it’s evident that it will never come. That recent experience left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. Such an occurrence is rare, though. I am always happy and honored to help people and organizations in need.

Gene: Well, I see you have thoughts on this matter as do I. Here, let me give you this fan. You look flushed. I was hoping to ask you to do a fundraiser for the Chartreuse Couch. Well, moving right along. You were recently in New York City for a performance. We want to hear about that.

Ken: It was absolutely wonderful, Gene! It was my fourth time to sing at the world-famous Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. It was like performing on a national TV program, but I couldn’t see the eight cameras that were positioned all around the room, from ceiling to floor. They were those very tiny digital cameras that nobody sees — rather like the ones at traffic intersections … Since I didn’t see the cameras, I didn’t feel nervous, even though I was performing in front of thousands of people on the internet — plus an audience of about 80 paying customers in the room itself. We had viewers log in from all over the world. In fact, as a result of that show, I now have a fan in Macedonia! Isn’t that fascinating? It doesn’t get much better than that.


Gene: Yes it does. On the Chartreuse! Would you like a glass of wine?

Ken: No, thank you. Could I have a vodka martini? Well, when I saw the playback the next day, it was like watching a jazz concert on PBS. I loved it! The theme of the show was “Cocktails with Ken: A Saloon Jazz Mixology.” The audience was incredibly warm and receptive. I recently reprised the show here in San Antonio at the Olmos Pharmacy. We plan to do that again — maybe in July.

Gene: Bharmacy.

Ken: Actually, it has gone back to its original name … and it was a standing-room-only crowd.

Gene: That is great to hear. I want you to sign the couch before you leave. And you have a new CD, too.

Ken: Yes, the CD is a live recording of my New York debut, also at the Metropolitan Room, which happened on Halloween Night of 2013. That debut and the CD resulted in three more shows in New York and several radio interviews around the country. San Antonio jazz pianist and all-around musical genius Barry Brake did all the production work and my good friend Paul Boskind executive-produced the album. It has received some very positive reviews and has been selling briskly online. I’m proud of how it turned out. And now, Barry and I are starting pre-production work on a new studio recording which will feature many of the songs from the latest New York show and will have the same title, Cocktails with Ken

Gene: How is Paul Boskind?

Ken: He’s doing great, Gene! I had cocktails and dinner with him during my last trip to New York. He recently married a wonderful man and seems very happy. And, of course, he remains active in many excellent causes, including the fight for gay rights.

Gene: And you work for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation now.

Ken: Yes, I began working for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation in January. I am the new vice president of communications and I am responsible for all branding, media relations and community outreach. And I help produce special events. I am really happy to be working for an organization I have admired for many years. We are the oldest and largest HIV/AIDS service organization in San Antonio and South Texas. I’m proud to be a part of the team. It’s especially exciting we are commemorating 30 years of service in 2016.

Gene: Thank you for that update. We seem to forget that AIDS is still a problem. How much did the foundation get from Cornyation this year?

Ken: Ray Chavez did call to let us know that we would be receiving $85,000. Fiesta Cornyation is a major fundraiser for several local nonprofit organizations and we are very fortunate and grateful to receive generous contributions from the organizers every year.

Gene: And you were an emcee one year for Cornyation.

Ken: You certainly do your homework, Gene! Yes, that was in 1998. I was actually the co-emcee. It was the final year that the show was staged at Beethoven Hall. I loved being behind the scenes and learning first-hand that Cornyation is a remarkable world unto itself —  absolutely uproarious! That year, one of my dearest friends, the late Rick Hunter, was King Anchovy. His costume —  a gorgeous and sexy take on Zorro: The Gay Blade   was electric! Literally! His entire tailor-made matador outfit became ablaze with twinkling white Christmas lights from head to toe after he licked a giant saber from hilt to tip! It was spectacular! And I nearly fainted when I saw him do it on opening night. I have the official video of that show. Would you like to see it?

Gene: Yes, I would. And Rick Hunter was a member of Kings Anchovy for Social Change. Well, now let’s talk about some San Antonio gay history. You came to San Antonio when?

Ken: I have lived here twice. The first time was in the spring of 1968 when my father, who was born and raised here, brought Mom, my brother and me to San Antonio to live near his family while he went to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam. He bought a house here just in case anything should happen to him in the war. Thankfully, Dad came home from the war the following year. We then moved away to various duty posts for the next 10 years. I came back here in the summer of 1979. After graduating from high school in Alaska, I enrolled at St. Mary’s University. And aside from a couple of short-lived moves to Austin and Houston, I have remained here and have come to regard San Antonio as my home.

Gene: And it is your home. During that time did you go to the San Antonio Country?

Ken: Why, yes, I did! It was the first time I ever went to a gay bar.

Gene: Along with many others.

Ken: During my freshman year at St. Mary’s, a group of college friends and I went there and we were attacked on the street by a group of gay-bashers as they sped by in a car. They threw huge chunks of ice at us and screamed, “faggots!” I didn’t go to a gay bar again for two years. My friend Christopher Wallace took me to El Jardin Downtown and then to the Bonham Exchange when it first opened. I didn’t really become comfortable with being “out” and in gay bars until many years later. I was a bit of a late bloomer.

Gene: Well, our gay garden has many different kinds of flowers. And they all bloom when they get good and ready. How do you think the gay community has changed over these years?

Ken: San Antonio’s gay community is better than ever, more cohesive and inclusive. And we are far more demanding in terms of being heard and respected. I wish I could be a younger man in today’s San Antonio.

Gene: You will have to tell us your beauty secret.

Ken: That’s awfully flattering of you, Gene, but then it wouldn’t be a secret, would it? Seriously, though, the era in which I came of age seems so secretive and repressed by comparison. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for young gay San Antonians.

Martini poster

Gene: Well, look! The phone is ringing and that means someone is calling with a question. Who can it be? Hello, the Couch speaking.

Phone: I am glad Gene is interviewing you! I remember my early interview with you for On Stage with Margaret Stanley, my radio show on KRTU. That was a long time ago, but I recognized your talent right away. At that time, your desire was to sing in New York. Now you’ve done that — and been a hit. How are audiences at the Metropolitan Room different than those in San Antonio?

Ken: Hi, Margaret! I’m so happy to hear from you! And I will never forget how you took me under your wing and invited me to be on your show! I also remember all of the huge international stars of opera, jazz and ballet that you brought to our city during your career. To answer your question, the audiences at the Metropolitan Room differ a lot from here. Above all, they are true “listening” audiences. There is no talking during the shows. The performances are, in fact, 70-minute concerts. The people pay a lot of money for the cover charge and the drink minimums, so they expect quality in return: a polished show with structure. They take their nights out on the town very seriously. They are also much more interested in classic jazz and the Great American Songbook. The two seem to go hand-in-hand with Manhattan in a way that doesn’t happen in Texas. As an entertainer, there is no feeling comparable to winning over a New York audience. It’s euphoric! Only three places where I have performed in San Antonio had a similar vibe and gave me that feeling of happiness: Jim Cullum’s Landing on the River Walk, where Jim would invite me to sit in occasionally; the Polo Lounge at the Fairmount Hotel, where I headlined for three and a half years; and the Boardwalk Bistro, where I sang off and on for more than 20 years. All are gone now and losing those venues was a sad blow to the San Antonio jazz community. 


Gene: Thank you, Margaret. Well, now I have to ask: Have you have ever seen a UFO?

Ken: No.

Gene: Well, okay then. I always like to know about favorite restaurants? Yours?

Ken: My favorite is Piatti at the Quarry. The creamy tomato basil soup is the best anywhere. How about you? Do you have a favorite?

Gene: I will not go back to any restaurant that does not understand acoustics. When I dine with a friend I want to be able to have a pleasant conversation, and if the noise gets so loud that I have to yell over the noise, that is where I draw the line — which is why I like to meet at Jim’s on Broadway. The food is fine and they understand eating without noise. These new restaurants do not understand creating a mature atmosphere. So I don’t go back. I see the phone is ringing again. Who can it be?

Phone: This is Anonymous, and my question is: Which singers have influenced you the most and who are your favorite singers? Inquiring minds want to know.

Gene: Thank you, Anonymous.

Ken: Several singers have influenced my own music career and they really run the gamut in terms of style and eras. I focus on classic jazz, of course, so within that genre, my favorite singers are Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman. I love and admire many others — especially Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, Nancy Wilson and Harry Connick Jr. —  but Sarah, Joe and Johnny touch me on a very deep level. I love their phrasing, tone and musicality. Among classic pop singers, my all-time favorites are Connie Francis and Tony Bennett. [Connie Francis] and I have become long-distance friends, actually, and we have talked on the phone a few times and exchanged letters and emails. She even sent me a beautiful gold and stainless-steel ID bracelet that I wear at gigs for good luck.

Gene: Well, I see our session on the couch is up. So you get to ask the last question.

Ken: Before I do that, I want to thank you so very much for inviting me to the Chartreuse Couch. It has been an unforgettable experience. You are not just a gracious host, you are a total delight to talk with! As for a parting question … hmmmm … let me see … okay, here goes: What are your long-term plans for the Happy Archives? I am fascinated by your tireless work to preserve the gay history of San Antonio, so I would love to know if there is a long-term vision for what you have accomplished. Also, if there’s room for a second last question, I’d like to take the Barbara Walters approach: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Gene: The goal of the Happy Archives is to give a gift to a future gay, lesbian and transgender community. That gift is a history lesson. They will want this. They will find this era of gay liberation fascinating — particularly the period between the Stonewall Riots and the Supreme Court marriage decision. Everyone should have an archive if it is only a shoebox in the closet. Pictures are important. George Washington didn’t fight the Revolution all by himself. The American Revolution is still in progress. We are part of it. And, if I could be a tree, I would be a Christmas tree. And thank you for being here on the Chartreuse Couch.

For more about Ken Slavin and the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, visit kenslavin.com and sanantonioaids.org.


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