banner-optimized_0_0.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Regional Interests

As ‘Dynasty’ Turns 40, Reflecting on Soap’s LGBTQ+ Legacy at Peninsula Estate Where Early Epis

Pride month is in full bloom at Filoli, a country estate built in 1915 by a gold mining magnate nestled in the hills about 25 miles south of San Francisco.

There are extravagant floral arrangements, rainbow flags and — perhaps surprisingly for visitors unsteeped in the world of 1980s TV soap operas — an exhibition and other related programming related to “Dynasty.”

Although the prime-time TV series, which turns 40 this year, was set in Denver, the earliest episodes were filmed inside and outside Filoli. The iconic estate rests in the hills west of Redwood City, surrounded by the lush greenery of a 23,000-acre natural preserve.

Following the yo-yoing fortunes of a wealthy Denver oil family, “Dynasty” began to resonate strongly with the LGBTQ+ community — and the gay, men-identified community in particular — not long after the show debuted in 1981.

“The original version of ‘Dynasty’ was a predominantly gay male phenomenon during the 1980s,” said J. Reid Miller, an Oakland-based philosophy scholar affiliated with Haverford College who studies queer representations in culture, and whom KQED spoke with recently over video chat. “With the reboot in 2017, however, I think the entire LGBTQ+ audience rediscovered the original, and have since incorporated it under the umbrella of queer fabulousness.”

Between introducing one of the first out gay characters to mass audiences and offering up scenes of the kind of unforgettable camp oft-celebrated in drag performances — like over-the-top catfights, enormous shoulder pads and cutting one-liners about stereotypically frothy topics like cosmetic surgery and caviar —  “Dynasty” achieved iconic status.

“It was a time of great capitalist excess, you know, that was really represented in this legendary global show,” said Celine Parreñas Shimizu, director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University, and incoming dean of the arts division at UC Santa Cruz.

Watch parties popped up across the country, inspiring drag outfits to match the colorful characters, especially those of rivals Alexis Carrington Colby, the show’s arch villainess, and the comparatively docile Krystle Carrington.

David B. Schively (from left), Joe Olivier and Timothy Larson attend a ‘Dynasty’ dress-up event at Filoli gardens on June 3, 2021 in Woodside. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Back in 1981, I was really kind of a young, innocent person. And ‘Dynasty’ was a great way of getting a sense of my community and my tribe,” said Joe Olivier, who watched the show regularly soon after coming out as gay while attending college in New Orleans. KQED spoke with the 60-year-old at Filoli’s “Dynasty”-themed party earlier this month. “The Bourbon Pub down in the French Quarter had big-screen TVs. Everyone was there. It was packed. And they started the show and everyone was hooting and hollering.”

“We watched ‘Dynasty’ in bars, and cheered the show on as if it were a football game,” said David Schively, 59, of San Jose. Like some of the other guests that night, he came decked out in costume: a flowing jacket from the 1980s and glittery shoes.

“Why do I like ‘Dynasty’?” said 60-something Oakland resident Mary Joan Kealy, who also attended the event. “Because it has great clothes and is pretentious, honey.”

‘Dynasty’ fan Mary Joan Kealy sits by the pool at Filoli gardens during a ‘Dynasty’ dress-up event on June 3, 2021 in Woodside.

San Francisco’s Drag Alexis Visits Filoli

Dressing up in 1980s regalia is just a part of the appeal of “Dynasty” for D’Arcy Drollinger.

The San Francisco-based performer, director and writer first produced a stage show, “Bitch Slap,” spoofing many prominent “Dynasty” characters, scenarios and lines at the SOMA drag club she owns, Oasis, in 2017. In the show, Drollinger plays Diana Midnight, a character based on Alexis Colby.

D’Arcy Drollinger (left) plays Diana Midnight in the ‘Dynasty’-inspired soap opera spoof ‘Bitch Slap.’ (Mr Pam)

“Alexis Carrington Colby is the highest camp on television,” said Drollinger. “She’s the juiciest character, and the most drag.”

Dressed in Alexis-style red patent stiletto heels, a tight red and black power suit, and a voluminous black wig, Drollinger recently joined KQED for a special after-hours tour of the house to hear about its “Dynasty” connections.

Despite the drag artist’s special affinity for the soap opera, this was Drollinger’s first-ever visit to Filoli.

“I’m so excited!” she said. “It feels like going to the motherland to see it in the flesh.”

The character of Alexis, played by glamorous British actress Joan Collins in the original series, didn’t appear until season two. By that time, production had moved from Filoli to a soundstage in Hollywood. But that fact didn’t stop Drollinger, channeling not just the look but also the spirit of Alexis, from acting like she owned the place.

“I’m here to check on my house!” said Drollinger, as she sashayed through the mansion’s imposing front doors.

Filoli’s ‘Dynasty’ Connections

Local news media helps tease out the show’s legacy. According to a 1984 article in the San Francisco Examiner, the show’s co-producer, Esther Shapiro, saw Filoli on screen in the 1978 screen comedy “Heaven Can Wait” and decided to use the venue for “Dynasty.”

On the tour, interpretation manager Willa Brock pointed out where various scenes from the TV series were shot, like the massive, chandeliered ballroom.

The Filoli ballroom. (Beth LaBerge/ KQED)

“In this room, a pretty pivotal scene happened early on in the series, which is when Blake and Krystle got married,” Brock said.

The dining room, presided over by an oil painting featuring a dead hare suspended from one of its hind legs, was also used as a setting.

“In the first couple episodes, they have a pretty strained family dinner in here,” Brock said.

Then there’s the library, with its dark, oak-paneled walls and shelves laden with antique books.

The Filoli library. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“In ‘Dynasty’, this was Blake Carrington’s office,” said Brock.

Brock said the Filoli library was the site, in 1981, of the groundbreaking coming out scene between oil titan Blake Carrington and Steven Carrington, his misunderstood son.

Drollinger said this was one of the first appearances of an openly gay central character in a prime-time TV drama. Up to that point, the few gay characters that there were stayed firmly in the closet or played for laughs, like Billy Crystal’s character Jodie on the comedy series “Soap.”

“And even then, that was still a huge, huge thing,” said Drollinger.

There was a small precedent for Steven Carrington, though. The rival prime-time soap “Dallas” featured a dramatic, gay character for two episodes in 1979 named Kit Mainwaring.

But scholar J. Reid Miller said Steven Carrington wasn’t just out, but was also integral to the series.

“This is the first time that you get this character who is explicitly gay, and there for the long haul,” said Miller. “You can’t just get rid of him after a couple of episodes. You can’t write him out of the storyline, because he’s part of the family.”

As a result, Miller said, Steven was more than just a character that appealed to the LGBTQ+ community, or even gay men specifically. His presence challenged heterosexuals to figure out how to integrate gay people into their world.

“He’s a character for everyone,” said Miller. “He’s a character that’s saying, ‘We’re here and we’re not going away.’ ”

Yet Miller said Steven Carrington, who over the course of the show’s nine seasons ended up being played by two different actors (Al Corley and Jack Coleman) and was romantically connected with both men and women at various times, was usurped in the eyes of the LGBTQ+ community by some of the show’s other charms.

“There’s Joan Collins and the drama and the costumes,” Miller said. “And it’s become so patently gay that a kind of gender-conforming homosexual male is not in any way the gayest part of the program anymore.”

The ‘Dynasty’ Legacy for LGBTQ+ Audiences

Back at Filoli, the tour is coming to an end. Standing in a leafy courtyard under the iconic window where Krystle Carrington, played by Linda Evans, looked out wistfully on her wedding day, Drollinger sums up “Dynasty’s” impact.

Filoli interpretation manager and tour guide, Willa Brock (left) chats with D’Arcy Drollinger about ‘Dynasty.’ (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“Not only was it so pivotal in having a key gay character that had a real arc, but it also took this high camp, this almost drag quality, to a new level on television,” she said.

Drollinger said “Dynasty” didn’t end up presaging a major rise in gay TV characters or roles for gay actors. The change would come about slowly, starting with shows like the 1990s sitcom “Ellen” starring Ellen DeGeneres.

“Even looking later on when gay characters were in television shows like ‘Melrose Place,’ they didn’t have as much character development as Steven did,” said Drollinger.

And she added the 2017 “Dynasty” reboot paled in comparison to the original, even if the newer version did include a transgender character.

“It just didn’t have the magic,” said Drollinger of the reboot. “There was a beautiful, over-the-top naiveté in the original ‘Dynasty’. It was forging new ground.”

Copyright 2021 KQED