Two controversial television movies broadcast during the 1970s – Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, and Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn – gave viewers a peek into the dangerous world of teenage prostitution.
Both teledramas attempted to forewarn youth on the dangers lurking in the big city, but for this small-town boy who met a fate similar to Dawn and Alexander, it became my preview of a sordid alternate world.
Eve Plumb, known to audiences the previous five years as Jan Brady (The Brady Bunch, ABC-TV, 1969-1974), shed her wholesome image for that of a fifteen-year-old prostitute on the streets of Los Angeles.
This startling transformation aired on NBC September 27, 1976, bringing to middle-America a rarely seen reality faced by runaway and homeless youth. The girl next door faced a coming-of-age that no young person should ever experience.
The following year a sequel would expand on Dawn’s romantic interest, Alexander, the boy next door who also found himself jailbait on America’s inner-city streets.
A ratings success, this story of a middle-class heterosexual teenager who finds himself hustling for survival, was both ground-breaking and eye-opening. Broadcast May 16, 1977, the telefilm revealed aspects of street and gay life which Americans weren’t normally exposed to.
Despite the taboo subject matter, both Dawn and Alexander paint an authentic portrait of troubled youth and the obstacles faced; the challenge when attempting to secure housing, navigating the criminal justice system, and need for emotional/mental health counseling.
Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn also casually exposes gay-for-pay and male inter-generational relationships.
“Alex is presented as a young middle-class heterosexual…unwittingly lured into prostitution by unscrupulous older men…His lack of responsibility in his own downfall and the threat to his heterosexuality would have served as a point of identification with middle-class viewing audiences anxious over involvement of homosexual men in the corruption of runaway boys and the breakdown of the traditional family.”John Phillip Lay, Dangerous, Desperate, and Homosexual: Cinematic Representations of the Male Prostitute as Fallen Angels (May 2008), University of North Texas
Depiction of gay men in the made-for-television drama are generally masculine, from Alexander’s first friend on the street (who introduces him to hustling), to a gay psychologist (who takes him to a gay community center), and the former football star (who gives him a place to stay).
“Alexander veers into very unusual territory by presenting the gay psychologist as a masculine, straight-acting professional (played by Earl Holiman in a no-nonsense, stolid style, and not some Paul Lynde-style mincing queen).”The Bootleg Files: Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (February 1, 2013), Film Threat Independent Movie Guide
Although Alexander’s experience is predominately homosexual, two scenes in which he is used sexually by older women also takes place.
What led Dawn and Alexander to flee home is told in flashbacks. Dawn, escaping a divorced, alcoholic, and abusive mother; Alexander, kicked out by his homophobic father.
It wasn’t long after seeing both films that I too would hustle, when I ran away and became homeless. On and off for years on San Francisco’s Polk Street, and briefly on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard.
Similar to scenes in the docudramas, the moment I stepped off a Greyhound bus the predator spotted me, following me out of the terminal. “Hey, where you going? Got a place to stay?” the guy asked. I kept walking.
I’d already learnt on the streets of San Francisco that unlike girls, boys don’t have pimps, we were independent.
I walked towards the Hollywood sign, from Sixth Street downtown Los Angeles to the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, almost eight miles. It took hours. Sitting on a bus bench, only a few minutes passed before a car pulled up, and just like in the movies…
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the corner of Santa Monica and Highland was as notorious as Polk. A boy could find dates day or night.
Similar to snowbirds, hustlers (from as far north as Seattle) would head south for winter; to southern California, escaping the cold concrete of northern cities.
The streets of L.A. were much different than those of San Francisco. In the City of Angels hustlers were pretty, in the City by the Bay they were butch.
It wasn’t until I began writing memoir that I realized the influence and impact Dawn and Alexander had on me. Had they prepared me for a nocturnal reality?
Fortunately, like the wayward teens portrayed in the sensational teledramas, I too escaped the seedy underworld, scarred but not broken.
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Watch Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, and Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn on YouTube.
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What can you do?
San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Services began as a drop-in space and outreach in the early 1980s, which decades later has evolved into a successful path for homeless youth in transitioning off the streets to rebuild their lives.
I first learned of Larkin Street by word-of-mouth, from other hustlers, years before it became an official organization in 1984. Young people who found themselves destitute and alone could seek out Larkin for basics, such as coinage for laundry or a few bucks to buy a meal.
Since its inception, Larkin Street has helped over 75,000 runaway and homeless youth. Please consider contributing to this vital non-profit in helping young people escape the streets for a better life.