Guest Blogger

Of Windmills & Giants on World AIDS Day

Filed By Guest Blogger | December 01, 2013 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: AIDS crisis, HIV awareness, Mother Cares, Tyler St. Mark, World AIDS Day, Zelda Rubinstein

LA-Cares-mother.jpgEditors' Note: Guest blogger Tyler St. Mark created the original PWA Memorial Bracelet, engraved with the names of men, women and children struck down by AIDS. The first AIDS memorial program in America, over a half-million AIDS bracelets were distributed world-wide during the 80s and early 90s. He is a writer/producer in Los Angeles.

Almost thirty years ago, while working for a small public relations/advertising agency in the future city of West Hollywood, I was presented the extraordinary opportunity to conceive and collaborate upon what would ultimately become the first national AIDS awareness campaign. Funded by the county of Los Angeles and managed by a consortium which included the Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center and a small grassroots group calling itself "AIDS Project Los Angeles" (APLA), our firm was hired to come up with an innovative strategy to promote awareness of a new and deadly disease; to design and implement a county-wide educational program which would appeal to those at risk but not offend or alarm the general public.

The result was the Los Angeles Cooperative AIDS Risk-Reduction Education Service, a multi-media educational crusade initially titled "L.A. Cares like a Mother" and then simply "Mother Cares," which featured a diminutive maternal messenger set within Norman Rockwell-type tableaus wearing a vintage pinafore apron and brandishing a wooden cooking spoon; firmly but lovingly admonishing her "children at risk" to "Play Safely."

By most advertising standards it was a "textbook" marketing campaign with a unique, nonthreatening approach to reach what was then a provocative demographic that had not responded well to other conventional marketing strategies. Convincing adults to alter their sexual behavior wasn't like pitching a new shampoo, and many media experts thought the idea of rousing people to practice "safe sex" was akin to fighting windmills. However, "Mother" was a universally appealing image which could be both steadfast and engaging. Moreover, she could be utilized in mainstream markets to disseminate safe sex messages without, ostensibly, offending the masses.

From the moment it was launched in the winter of 1984 to our last promotion in the fall of 1989, Mother Cares was a marketing phenomenon. The gay community and other demographics at risk instantly embraced our somewhat whimsical "spokescharacter" with her humorous but earnest double entendre messages to "Keep It Clean," "Don't Play with Strangers," and "Don't Forget Your Rubbers." Her trademark "Play Safely" motto quickly became a universal euphemism for practicing safe sex. Mother's surprise appearances in public and at special events stirred sensation and sentiment wherever she went. She even began showing up in political cartoons and product ads.

mother-cares-6.jpgMother was a conventional character addressing an unconventional subject to an unconventional community. Within months, our regional campaign became the model for other AIDS awareness programs; first nationwide and then worldwide. Mother Cares was noted in Time, People, Playboy, and numerous other magazines and newspapers across the country. Our public service announcements were also the first to air nationwide--reaching millions of men and women at risk of contracting AIDS.

During its five-year tenure, countless professionals and volunteers from numerous public and private agencies across the country dedicated their resources and time to helping Mother reach out to millions of people at risk; urging, warning, even pleading to them to protect themselves and their partners from a mysterious, vicious, lethal disease which had, in just a few short years, already claimed the lives of thousands of men, women, and children. Many of "Mother's Helpers" did so at their own risk. Little was known of the AIDS virus in the early 80's and any association with it, even professionally, was greatly stigmatizing back then.

Tragically, many of those courageous collaborators are gone now--many struck down by the disease they strived valiantly to warn others about. For them, unfortunately, the information came too late. And for those of us who have either eluded or endured the deadly virus, the devastating causalities transformed our lives forever. We who have remained after the Public War on AIDS will never forget the true and actual champions upon the early battlefront.

Chief among these heroes was "Mother" herself portrayed by a little-known pint-sized character actress discovered by Steven Spielberg for his 1982 horror film, "Poltergeist."

I encountered Zelda Rubinstein at one of the very first AIDS fundraisers and instantly selected her to be our campaign "spokescharacter." That Zelda was a "little person" (she stood 4'3") was, I felt, an asset to the campaign--it made her, well, larger than life and nonthreatening. Her unique voice, once described by a film critic as "Colleen Dewhurst on helium," was both distinctive and endearing. However, it was Zelda's former job at a blood bank that won my bosses over.

Unlike her tender, maternal campaign persona, Zelda herself was temperamental, irreverent, feisty, and easily offended. She was also compassionate, fearless, gutsy, and deeply committed to making a difference. During the half-decade we campaigned together, I came to realize her unpleasant side had mostly to do with insecurities associated with her childhood. It isn't easy being less than three feet tall by the time you are in high school and so Zelda carried a full size chip on her shoulder that sometimes manifested itself in unpredictable outbursts and misperceived transgressions, particularly by those who simply didn't know any better.

Regardless, at great risk to her budding film career, Zelda was the first celebrity spokesperson to appear on posters, billboards, bus backs, newspaper, and magazine ads on behalf of AIDS awareness. Mother suddenly showed up anywhere and everywhere people at risk might see her and get the message. Wearing her paisley striped apron and waving her wooden spoon, Mother went into bars, clubs, even bathhouses, to spread the word and inspire the weak-willed. Zelda did this unflinching for five years--never accepting a penny for her time and efforts.

Most of all, Mother had an extraordinary affect on instantly altering the perception of both AIDS and the people who were at risk of contracting this mysterious, lethal disease. Mother was caring, concerned and completely nonjudgmental. She wielded just the right amount of authority combined with a precocious preciousness which made her both fanciful and credible. Her constituency easily and heartily embraced her and made her their own champion for unconditional love in a time when those most at risk were already outcasts and disenfranchised.

mother-cares-billboard.jpgHaving made such an extraordinary impact in the media, one might assume that Mother would have become as known and celebrated as the many illustrious celebrities who came after her. Unfortunately, having made her debut within and, therefore, primarily an icon to the gay community, Mother became an "awkward guest" at the higher profile mainstream AIDS fund-raisers. Wanting to avoid the perception that AIDS was a "gay" disease, event organizers began to omit her from these increasingly prestigious ceremonies. Much to her credit, Zelda ignored these petty slights and simply reached out more fervently to her ever-growing "children at risk."

This was no surprise to me. While the physical and emotional strain of campaigning over the years had caused Zelda to be increasingly prickly and moody in her personal life and career, as "Mother" she was another person entirely: unfailingly bright, cheerful, and patient to a fault--particularly with AIDS patients and their caregivers. As increasingly more of her adoring "children" took ill and fell dead around her, Zelda masked her sorrow by plunging even deeper in the AIDS awareness and outreach abyss, unmoved and indifferent to its impact on her professional career.

Indeed, the loss of so many friends and colleagues to AIDS in five short campaign years had taken its toll on both Zelda and me. I doubt either of us had truly realized the full importance of what we were doing or the impact it would have in helping to shape and influence the political and social perception of AIDS or the policies that would be derived from those perceptions.

What we saw, understood, and felt was primarily the human impact of the disease: the random and indiscriminate carnage that literally removed an entire generation of humankind in less than a decade--so much beauty and talent gone in a season--leaving a void that still reverberates today.

Unbeknownst to Zelda or myself at the time, the AIDS epidemic in Los Angeles county (and subsequently Orange and San Diego counties) was a microcosm of all that had happened and was continuing to occur in New York and San Francisco. People, mostly young gay and bisexual men, were falling ill by the hundreds, then the thousands, each month. Some hid their sickness, others flaunted it. Most were socially ostracized by their peers and rejected by their families, either out of fear of the disease or contempt for their "lifestyle." AIDS was yet to be understood or accepted as an equal opportunity offender and little was being done on either a federal or state level to change this perception and so countless patients were cropping up overnight with nowhere to turn.

mother-cares-billboard2.jpgIn truth, I had seen the writing on the wall even before the campaign had launched--after I had inadvertently received research files from APLA which contained confidential CDC projections of future casualties. I was sworn to secrecy by my administrators (citing client confidentiality) who reasonably feared such information would cause needless panic and, besides, there was little that I or anyone else could do by then--the infectious die was already cast. Still, Zelda and I would both experience the profound and devastating emotional chasm between the statistical page and the life-altering reality of the AIDS battleground. Those CDC projections were not just numbers, they were our friends, our lovers, our family, our community. So, Mother Cares hastened quickly to do whatever we could and hoped, perhaps in a naïve and unrealistic way, that it would be enough. Sadly, it wasn't.

I have said before that, while I may have created "Mother," Zelda Rubinstein, who died from natural causes in 2010, forged Mother's legacy. I was proud to stand at her side for all those years and a few more afterward. When our campaign eventually ran its course and there were real mothers of AIDS patients willing to take up the mantle of compassion and caring, Zelda graciously presented them with her illustrious wooden cooking spoon at a press conference held for that purpose and we eventually went our separate ways.

This is as much as most people knew until now because there was, in fact, a second "Mother Cares" campaign. In the late 90s, I was approached by yet another healthcare agency to resurrect Mother, polish her up, and give her a "new attitude." Most importantly, she would address the wider constituency now at risk. I agreed (with a few conditions) and we began preparing a new AIDS awareness campaign that would include both advertising and a few special appearances. We all felt there was only one casting consideration. Although older and certainly wearier, Zelda cheerfully agreed to wear Mother's costume once more--and so we began our work again.

mother-cares-4.jpgRegretfully, this was the last time Zelda would don the "apron stained with a thousand tears" as one official described it while introducing Mother. Indeed, during her tenure, Mother embraced thousands of AIDS patients, their families, friends, and countless health care workers, all whom had lost a brace of kinsmen and, so doing, realized we were always in this together. Many wept openly while she unfailingly comforted them, her tiny arms outstretched as much as possible.

This was also the last time Zelda and I would collaborate. Apparently our campaign battle scars went too deep for comfort, and our emotional temperaments had finally outdistanced each other. I have many extraordinary memories of my years with Zelda, both as colleague and close friend. Most are bittersweet as Zelda was truly an enigma. It was always easy to love her but it was sometimes hard to like her. In the end, as with many of her close friends and colleagues, the full size chip on Zelda's shoulder became too great for both of us and we parted ways for good.

Regretfully, Mother Cares II was never fully launched. The reasons for this are unimportant now. What matters was that Zelda and I were ready, willing, and able to make the effort again and, for the brief time we worked together, it was as if we had never left the battlefield or the home front.

Published here for the very first time publicly are images from the first and only photo shoot for this second campaign. These poignant photos taken by photographer Jay Fraley are a final testament to the feisty, fearless, free-spirited little person who captured our hearts during a particularly dark and tragic time and transformed herself into a fearless but gentle giant before our very eyes. It is a tribute to the Mother who loves her child forever and unconditionally.

It is also an unwitting epilogue to a particularly shining moment of extraordinary collaboration and cooperation between state, county, city, and community leaders during one of America's most dark and tragic epidemics.

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