Two controversial television movies broadcast during the Seventies – Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, and Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn – gave viewers a glimpse into the dangerous and degrading world of teenage prostitution.
Both teledramas may have attempted to forewarn or deter small-town youth on the danger lurking in big cities, but for those of us who met the same fate as Dawn and Alexander, it became a preview of our sordid alternate world.
Eve Plumb, known to audiences the previous five years as Jan Brady from the ABC sitcom The Brady Bunch (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. Suddenly, the girl-next-door faced a coming-of-age that no teenager 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 indeed ground-breaking and eye-opening. Broadcast May 16, 1977, the telefilm revealed aspects of street and gay life Americans weren’t normally exposed to.
Despite the somewhat taboo subject matter (for that era), both Dawn and Alexander paint an authentic picture of troubled youth and the obstacles faced; including the challenge when attempting to move from the streets to permanent housing, navigating the criminal justice system, and the need for emotional/mental health counseling.
Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn also exposed compensated dating and inter-generational relationships (alternate hetero and homosexual lifestyles which still exist today).
“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 the 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 the gay psychologist (who takes him to a gay community center), and the older 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 Holliman 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, a scene in which he is used sexually by a much older woman, also takes place, causing him further confusion.
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. Social ills the result of failed parenting which still resonate four decades later.
It wasn’t long after seeing both films, that I too would hustle, when I ran away, when I was homeless; on and off for years on San Francisco’s Polk Street, and West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard.
Similar to Dawn and Alexander, the moment I stepped off a Greyhound bus the predator spotted me, following me outside the terminal. “Hey, where you going? Got a place to stay?” the guy asked. I just kept walking, towards the Hollywood sign.
I walked from Sixth Street in downtown Los Angeles to the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, almost eight miles. It took hours, I knew no one. But after a few minutes sitting on a bus bench, a car pulled up, and just like in the movies…
In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, the corner of Santa Monica and Highland was as notorious as Polk Street. A boy could find dates day or night.
Not unlike snowbirds, hustlers (from as far north as Seattle) would head south for the 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 impact and influence Dawn and Alexander had on me. Had they prepared me for a nocturnal reality, or did they instill an option for survival?
Fortunately, like the wayward teens portrayed in the sensational teledramas, I too escaped the seedy underworld scarred but not broken.
. . .
What can you do?
What began as a drop-in space and street outreach in the early 1980’s, evolved into a successful avenue for homeless youth to transition off the streets and rebuild their lives.
I first learned of Larkin Street Youth Services by word of mouth, from other hustlers, years before it became an official organization in 1984. Teenagers who found themselves destitute and alone would seek out Larkin for basics, such as coinage for laundry or a few bucks to buy a meal.
Since its establishment, Larkin Street Youth Services has helped over 75,000 runaway and homeless youth. Please consider contributing to this vital non-profit, towards its effort in providing healthcare, housing, employment, and education to young people seeking a better life.