Rachel Mason Reopens a World of Memories and Family Dynamics in her Netflix Hit ‘Circus of Books’

MIKE SZYMANSK and Rachel Mason Photo credit: MIKE SZYMANSK

By Mike Szymanski

When I first met Rachel Mason, I was unprepared for the wave of personal emotions, memories and love that would overcome me after first being touched by this talented performance-artist-turned-filmmaker.

Her touching family story is told in “Circus of Books” which thankfully has eclipsed “Tiger King” as Netflix’s go-to odd documentary. It’s a story about her family, but it was also about my chosen family in the world of adult video.

Rachel contacted me because she heard that I held book signings and wrote in the past about the famed bookstore that her parents owned and was now closing for good. In another lifetime, it seems, I wrote about the adult entertainment industry under the nom de porn of Mickey Skee and many of my articles and more than a dozen books appeared on the book shelves in this bookstore in the heart of West Hollywood, and in another off-shoot store in Silverlake. I signed books, read excerpts and did stories about both bookstores, but in all that time never met her very reclusive Jewish parents who owned the shops.

And, that is what her documentary so fully covers. It is about family secrets, about communication within families, about acceptance, or non-acceptance, and about self disclosure. In Rachel’s family, her parents Karen and Barry, kept it a secret that their family business sold and even manufactured porn titles in the adult entertainment industry. With Karen being a devout Jewish follower, and Barry getting arrested on charges of distributing adult material, the secrets were getting tougher and tougher to keep from their three children, including Rachel — a budding bisexual avant-guarde activist.

In the documentary, Rachel’s younger brother comes out as gay and they discuss how their parents, particularly Karen, dealt with it in painful ways at first.

The documentary handles many waves of emotions: hilarity, sadness, hope and regrets. Those are the same emotions I experienced when helping Rachel with some of the research that she ended up using in the film.

By the time she got to me, the movie was pretty much completed. She needed supporting photographs and material, and so we went through dozens of photo albums I had not opened in a few decades and flipped through files of articles I didn’t really remember ever writing.

She used some of my photos of porn stars and friends who frequented Circus of Books and I’m proud to have been credited at the end of the documentary. Particularly, there is the one of Brian Lee, aka Johnny Dawes, who lived just around the corner from the West Hollywood bookstore, and a handsome guy whom I had a short and passionate relationship with and wrote about it.

I published the story about that relationship in The Advocate in the 1990s after he died of AIDS, and detailed how I became lifelong friends with his older sister and his Midwest family who first rejected him because Brian was out as gay. As Brian was in a coma and dying, both of Brian’s worlds collided, and I got to know his conservative family from Ohio and they got to know his wild-and-crazy family from California.

Circus of Books was a key part of that collision. It is where I took his sister, who remains a close friend to this day, through the saloon-like doors to the XXX-rated section of the bookstore to show her VHS copies of adult titles to show her how popular Johnny Dawes really was to the world.

I shared that article with Rachel, and any of the photos she cared to use in her wonderful documentary.

It was also great to see her movie get the just accolades it deserved as it opened Outfest, the world’s most well-known LGBT film festival, and see her at later times at parties, particularly when porn directrix Chi Chi LaRue reopened the Circus of Books building as an adult boutique shop.

Now, Netflix and the producers are pushing Rachel’s masterpiece to get nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards and other award shows, and it will deserve every honor it is bestowed.

Rachel’s movie does re-connect me with many old friends such as porn legend Jeff Stryker, behind-the-scenes Video 10 master Freddie Bercovitz, Chi Chi LaRue and many others. During the Outfest screening I got to hang out with fabulous star Vince Harrington, who as the drag diva Lana Luster, traversed with Mickey Skee as part of the Porn Brat Pack of the 1980s-’90s.

Lovely as usual, Vince and I talked more about what we are doing today, and how good we both look (for our age), rather than all the friends who are gone. Too many, too sad. We also talked about our mutual respect for Rachel and her film.

Rachel is now in a relationship with an amazing female-to-male trans adult performer Buck Angel, whom I knew years before ever first meeting Rachel. Buck, who considers himself bisexual, is also a sex-positive activist and civil rights leader.

Rachel and her family are overwhelmed with the response to the documentary. Even in the movie, Rachel’s mom Karen pooh-poohs her daughter’s questions and filming.

Rachel now says, “Well, my Mom is her usual ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ self, always looking for the other shoe to fall, but its been just an amazing outpouring of love that we’ve received. Letters from all over the world, people telling us how much they appreciated the story in the film.”

Rachel herself is rather astounded.

“I’ve been amazed at how wide and mainstream the appreciation has been,” she says.

The documentary has opened a lot of possibilities for a future for Circus of Books stories, and even a more formalized book.

Having Rachel recount her family story and reveal her family secrets in such a raw way to the world, also caused me to re-open some tender, wonderful and painful memories, particularly of people who are long gone.

Going through the albums with her it was hard not to smile at the ridiculous photos and times when we took ourselves so seriously, and recall the beautiful people who no longer walk the planet. Some of those are in the documentary, particularly Brian with his crazy Dalmatian dog that I helped care for while Brian was dying in the hospital.

Rachel Mason (www.rachelmasonart.com) has 13 albums she has recorded, as well as sculpture, theater performances, multi-visual displays and artwork displayed throughout the world.

She will continue to do incredible work, no doubt, and I look forward to the next chapters of her art.

Interview with  Brian Sebastian, Mike Szymanski and Rachel Mason.