The day was September 8th, 1991. According to news reports from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the sun shined bright over the first annual AIDS Walk Atlanta and the subsequent benefit held in Piedmont Park. The event, entitled “From All Walks of Life,” was Atlanta’s first major fund-raiser to combat the AIDS epidemic that had plagued the nation for almost 10 years.
Carolyn Calloway strode onto the stage to perform with Elton John and Brett Lykins, a 10-year-old boy who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion when he was a small child. Clad in black spandex, a blue blazer with giant shoulder pads and fluffy blonde bangs, Calloway plopped down next to the tiny boy as he sat on a set of pink granite steps. Thousands listened quietly as she began to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Calloway asked Lykins honestly, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?” And with his hands clasped around his knobby knees, he looked up at her and smiled.
As the ballad reached its crescendo, Calloway belted, “Fly! Fly! Fly away!” in her deep, syrupy vibrato. At that moment, a group of doves was released into the beautiful September sky.
“Those birds came out and circled the entire park,” Calloway said. “Everyone stood up and cheered and clapped and screamed. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Those birds, they just represented such freedom and such peace and serenity.”
But this was not the first time Calloway used her tremendous voice to help those suffering from AIDS. Nor would this be the last.
On August 24, 1950, Marian and Hasson Calloway welcomed Carolyn into the world, or more precisely, Knoxville, Tennessee. Her dad moved his family to Atlanta’s south side a few years later, to a segregated neighborhood called Cascade Heights.
Calloway (her friends and family never use her first name) largely attributes her love for music to her parents, as they often sang and played the piano when she was young. So it was no surprise that, by the time she was 14, Calloway had landed her first professional singing gig. She played Louisa Von Trapp—alongside Hollywood actress, Ann Blyth—in Theater Under the Stars’ production of “The Sound of Music.”
At 17, Calloway auditioned for Six Flags Over Georgia’s Crystal Pistol Music Hall. And the 61-year-old laughed as she recalled these memories.
“We used to joke that when I was at Six Flags, it was so long ago, there used to be four flags,” Calloway chuckled.
Her nasally chortle was infectious, and even in the crowded Starbucks where I’d managed to squeeze in my first interview with the uber-busy Atlanta realtor, I couldn’t help but burst into laughter myself.
Of course Calloway nabbed a spot in the amusement park’s summer variety show extravaganza, but it wasn’t until she moved back to Knoxville for college that the young singer began to seriously cultivate her passion for musical theater.
In 1968, Calloway was accepted to the University of Tennessee, the alma mater of both of her older brothers, Ron and Maxwell. Her grandparents still lived in Knoxville, and Maxwell had not yet graduated, so the city offered a home away from home. The teenage singer jumped right into UT’s theater scene, and there she met her first gay friend (and current best friend), Jim Allen.
Allen, who now works for the Tennessee Valley Authority, was directing “Camparet,” (a spoof of Broadway’s 1966 production of “Cabaret”) for Miller’s Department Store, and he desperately needed a singer. He remembered the first time he met Calloway, her Kappa Delta sorority sisters surrounded her, and they were all chanting, “Sing! Sing!” Calloway chose a Barbra Streisand song (he couldn’t recall which one), and Allen was so impressed, he cast her in his fashion show as well.
At UT, Calloway landed the lead role of Reno Sweeny in the Clarence Brown Theater’s production of “Anything Goes.” According to the songstress, this was her “first big stage production.” And Allen remembers it well.
“We watched her and realized we were watching a star,” Allen said. “She blew people away.”
It took Calloway five years to graduate because she couldn’t decide on a major. She switched from theater to music to journalism and finally settled on a BS in education. In 1973, she moved back to Atlanta where she taught 7th grade at a school off Cleveland Avenue, but teaching elementary school was not her cup of tea. Calloway found her niche at her second school, Westwood High School (now Westlake High School), and her kids voted her teacher of the year in 1974.
But as rewarding as teaching was, Calloway needed to perform.
“It’s the feeling you get if you’re performing onstage, and the orchestra starts, and you hear the crowd buzzing in the theater, and you know they’re right outside the curtain,” Calloway said. “Then the orchestra starts playing the intro, and you’re about to come out… it’s addictive.”
In 1974, Calloway found an advertisement for a newly opened cabaret theater in the paper. The Workshop Theater, Atlanta’s first cabaret theater, was having auditions. David Sheppard, the current executive director of Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), and his partner, Ben Thompson (who eventually died from AIDS) were the producers. The theater was in a small house off of Monroe Drive, and it was so tiny, to transition from stage left to stage right, Calloway had to crawl out one window, run around the back of the building, and climb in a window on the other side.
For six years, Calloway was a teacher by day, and a cabaret singer by night.
After the Workshop Theater, Calloway performed in several other cabarets including Angelo’s Cabaret and the Manhattan Yellow Pages (MYP), a throwback to New York’s 1920s cabaret theater. According to Calloway, MYP developed quite the cult following, and the audience members would come to show after show until they’d learned all the words.
In 1975, Gene Dale hired her to sing in his restaurant, Gene & Gabe’s (now called Smith’s Olde Bar). Calloway would sing as her pal Harris Wheeler played the piano. The bar was dark and smoky as she crooned the great, tragic love songs like Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” But Calloway loved the drama.
“Whenever Theater of the Stars, or the Fox Theater would have a show, the cast would come to Gene & Gabe’s to have dinner,” Calloway said. “So on any given night, sitting in the audience would be Rock Hudson, Joan Rivers, Paul Lynde and Elizabeth Allen.”
In 1980, Dale decided to open a cabaret theater on the top level of the restaurant, aptly named “Upstairs at Gene & Gabe’s,” and Calloway fondly recalls this period as the greatest time in her life.
Unfortunately, the 80s were also the worst. The close relationships the singer had developed with her fellow cabaret performers, as well as coworkers at Gene & Gabe’s, literally disintegrated as her friends began to get sick and die. Over the next few years, 40 of her friends would die from AIDS.
According to Calloway, when she’d sing at her friends’ memorial services, their parents would have no idea that their sons had been sick, let alone gay. After all, the AIDS epidemic was just beginning.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, was a nameless disease when the epidemic struck the United States in 1981. And one word can be used to describe the national sentiment at the time: panic.
In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scrambled to assemble a task force to name and assess the mysterious killer. According to James Curran, Emory University’s Dean of Public Health and co-director of Emory’s Center for AIDS Research, when the CDC task force attempted to name the disease (Curran led the task force in 1981) they initially considered “GRID,” or gay-related immune deficiency, because so many of the infected patients seemed to be white, “homosexual” men. Ultimately, the team named the virus “AIDS” in 1982.
A stigma already permeated society. People began to associate AIDS with “homosexuality,” and that lead to discrimination and paranoia.
Michael Shutt, Emory University’s director of LGBT life, referred to the 1980s as “the missing decade.” Shutt claims that differences in sexual preference/orientation blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s. But as AIDS garnered a gay stigma in the 80s, people were afraid to talk about their sexuality.
“If you were ‘out,’ you were HIV positive,” Shutt said.
Curran said he believes the stigma grew because there were no blood tests for the first four years of the epidemic. Essentially, a person wouldn’t know he was infected until after he became very, very sick.
“That created a new kind of stigma, both within the gay community and at large,” Curran said. “Because you’d see people walking around like skeletons. And everybody was very afraid of them.”
But AIDS and its precursor, HIV, were not confined to gay, white men. An article written by Ron Taylor, published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December of 1985, detailed the disease’s transition.
“This was the year the fear of AIDS—AFRAIDS as one national magazine called it—found mainstream America,” Taylor reported. “No longer was AIDS a disease buried in America’s subculture of homosexuals…By mid-1985, there were enough rumors and enough confusion to scare everybody.”
All sorts of people, including children, acquired HIV from tainted blood transfusions. Parents were afraid that “AIDS children” would infect their babies at school, the Pentagon threatened to jettison infected service men from the military and religious zealots blamed “homosexuals” for unleashing the “gay plague” upon society.
In the midst of this terrifying crisis, organizations like AID Atlanta sprung up to address the fallout. People began to practice “safe sex” by using condoms, and as Curran noted, the gay community was forced to ‘come out’ as a people.
The most heart-wrenching element of the AIDS epidemic was the fact that suitable medication was not developed until around 1995, said the former leader of the CDC’s AIDS task force. Until that point, testing HIV positive was a death sentence.
After the first AIDS Walk, Calloway, Bill Becker and Jeannine Beane formed “For Our Friends,” an organization designed to raise money for Project Open Hand Atlanta. Michael Edwards-Pruitt founded Open Hand Atlanta in 1988 to help deliver nutritious meals to members of the community who were too sick to leave their homes. Calloway compared this project to Meals on Wheels (but for individuals suffering from AIDS).
During my second interview with Calloway at her spacious townhouse in Atlanta, we watched a video of one of her benefits, in collaboration with The NAMES Project Foundation and “For Our Friends,” at The Roxy Theater in 1995.
Calloway sashayed onto the stage in a teal gown that fell below her shoulders. As she began to sing Barbra Streisand’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” a lump found its way to my throat. Glancing sideways, I noticed that Calloway’s eyes were watering. This was the first time I’d ever seen her perform.
Calloway wrote the next song, entitled “I’m Still Here,” a snarky synopsis of her music career, from a youngster at UT through her cabaret days. As she performed, her silly facial expressions coaxed laughs out of the audience, and she strutted back and forth across the stage with the ease of a seasoned performer. Calloway lightened the mood of a potentially somber event with jokes about how much Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood had changed over the years.
“At that time, the only real hair salon was Connie Sue Day’s Curl Up and Die Beauty On A Budget,” she quipped. “The only fancy eatin’ place was the feed mill.”
The crowd devoured her humor, yet Calloway could barely stand watching herself perform. She jumped up and pressed fast-forward until she reached the “panel section” of the benefit, where a projector screen illuminated several quilt panels dedicated to friends and family members who had died from AIDS. Over 47,000 panels comprise The AIDS Memorial Quilt, and those introduced at The Roxy included segments for children as well as adults (many from Calloway’s cabaret days).
Ronnie Angelet, a friend of Calloway’s who died of AIDS in 1984, opened up to her before he passed. He said the only thing he was afraid of was that he’d be forgotten, but Calloway assured him that his memory would live on.
“Of course we did a panel for Ronnie.” Calloway said. “Ronnie liked his leather. So his panel was red leather and spiky necklaces.”
A few weeks later, I scheduled an appointment with AID Atlanta to see a portion of The AIDS Memorial Quilt for myself. The receptionist showed me to a small conference room in the corner of the building, and then she left me alone to examine the cloth. I was dismayed to see the quilt section smashed between several chairs. But as I pulled them away, I could see the care that went into each panel.
One panel was dedicated to Joe Deitrich from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. He was 28 when he died. A cactus, a cityscape and the outline of Italy were stitched onto a white background. I guessed those were the places he’d visited, or perhaps he’d never had the chance.
Another panel memorialized Jim Hohmann. He died at 34. Two rainbows adorned the corners of the grey panel, and in the middle, his loved ones stitched “thank God we didn’t miss the dance.”
My favorite panel belonged to Scott C. Pealer. He was 29. Written in black marker, Pealer’s mother and father wrote him a poem.
“How we miss your smiling face. How we miss your happy laugh. But most of all, we miss you. You are always in our minds. And always in our hearts. We miss you and love you very much.”
At this point, I was glad to be alone in the conference room. Sinking down to the grimy carpet, I couldn’t imagine the pain Calloway had endured. I couldn’t imagine going through this scores of times.
Back in Calloway’s townhouse, she led me upstairs to her “angel room.” Posters from her benefit concerts hung on the walls, and pictures of all of her friends who died from AIDS adorned several shelves. On an opposite wall, a huge frame encased pictures of a young boy.
When Calloway’s brother, Maxwell, adopted three boys—Alex, Andrew and Austin—from a Russian orphanage in 1997, she went with him. For Maxwell, Calloway’s role as a doting aunt gave him room to breathe.
“She’d pick up the slack when I couldn’t,” Maxwell said.
But in 2008–after struggling with a cocaine addiction, dropping out of school, and attempting to get his life back on track–Alex Calloway’s heart failed (it is not believed that drugs had anything to do with his congestive heart failure). He was 21, and he’d been clean for almost a year. Calloway was used to singing at her friends’ memorials, but she could not sing for Alex. In fact, she hasn’t sung since his death.
In my final interview with Calloway, I asked her why she’d lost her voice.
“People used to ask me all the time, how do you sing at your best friend’s memorial service? And I would never, ever break down” she said. “Those tributes to all those friends, I don’t know, maybe that was my preparation to realize that one day I’ll sing again for Alex.”