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The visionary

AIDS took Hap Veltman early, but his legacy -- from Blue Star to the River Walk -- discoes on

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courtesy
Kenneth Garrett, Gene Elder, Wade Strauch and two friends with the AIDS quilt in Washington, D.C. in 1987.

 

Here in San Antonio, you hear about Arthur P. “Happy” Veltman Jr. all over the place: as a downtown real-estate developer and restaurant and nightlife entrepreneur; and as an arts advocate, historical conservationist, and celebrated man-about-town. He’s still a hell of a presence, a mix of uptown sophisticate and true-blue hometown hero, part Renaissance Medici (sans poisonings), part Studio 54-era Steve Rubell (without the tax-dodging), part Lone Star pioneer, making his stand. Or maybe he’s better described as a kind of reverse conquistador: Hap was a New World guy who traveled repeatedly to the Old World, where he gobbled up ideas to help him shape this city into the world-class, yet human-scale urban landscape he knew it deserved to be. Deserves to be.

You can glimpse Hap Veltman in the evolution of the Paseo del Rio, our endless waterfront-improvement project, which began (arguably) in the early days of the 18th century, grew through the Depression glory days of the WPA, and where, by the time Hap opened the storied Kangaroo Court bar and restaurant in 1968, there had been very little new activity since Casa Rio opened in 1946. Hap went on to develop numerous riverfront properties, including a grungy complex of tire-filled warehouses known as the Blue Star Distribution Center. After buying that mess with partner Bernard Lifshutz in 1985, he donated its use as a center for cutting-edge local art, which helped birth San Anto’s current contemporary-arts bonanza and the concomitant creative explosion of Southtown.

“He was tireless; he ran on endless energy,” says his friend and general counsel, Lewis Tarver. In addition to acting as Veltman’s attorney, Tarver worked to bring the first curated show to Blue Star in 1986, after a short-sighted San Antonio Museum of Art peremptorily canceled its planned run there. “He really loved the creative process, and thought outside the usual pattern, outside the usual approach, in every way.” Of the current developments on various San Anto fronts — the river, the arts, Southtown, new reclaimed housing from old complexes downtown, Tarver enthuses, “Hap would love it. Absolutely love it. He could see it coming together, even then.”

Veltman’s is a remarkable legacy, all the more notable for the tragically truncated time he was given to build it; just over 20 busy, groundbreaking, visionary years. This December 3 marks the 20th anniversary of Hap Veltman’s death from HIV/AIDS. But Hap’s isn’t just an AIDS story, any more than it’s just a real-estate story. What he accomplished, and what he nurtured others in accomplishing, transcends business and biographical fact.

“It’s goddamn inspiring, is what it is,” says Debbie Maltz, Hap’s longtime friend and real-estate partner.

“I still miss him every day,” sighs Maltz. “He was funny, he was kind, he was forward-thinking, and he could relate to so many different kinds of people — artists, politicos, the business community … he could communicate with all of them and make them share his enthusiasm. He had such a vision for our city. To have that kind of drive, and to share it like he did; I mean, he could really negotiate. He could soften the blow, but he also always stood his ground. In addition to having a hell of a good time.”

The St. Mary’s strip bears Hap’s imprimatur, too: witness the Josephine Street Theatre, which he helped save from demolition, after establishing the legendary “San Antonio Country” — at once San Anto’s LGBT premier gay bar, discotheque, and hip hangout — at 1122 North St. Mary’s.

The San Antonio Country, alas, is no more. But Hap preserved and developed the historic Casino Club Building, the Albert Maverick Building, helped rescue the Aztec theater from becoming a parking garage, and bought and restored the Victorian oddity at 411 Bonham, which he renovated and opened in 1981 as the still-boogying Bonham Exchange. And just as he worked to protect architectural jewels, he worked to protect people, battling for human rights as a civic leader and as an unapologetic, openly gay man. While friendly with city officials, Hap Veltman didn’t tolerate unwarranted shows of authority. After a scandalous invasion and spate of arbitrary arrests by a cadre of military police of San Antonio Country patrons — straight and gay — Veltman went to court to prevent future incursions, and to reinstate the Country as on-limits for military personnel. He won.

Hap’s partner, Kenneth Garrett, is preparing a commemorative show of Hap’s photographs for the 20th anniversary of his passing. Kenneth is the primary heir to the Veltman estate, still lives in their shared home on River Road, and still owns the Bonham, where I met him recently. Kenneth is quick, funny, and utterly unselfconscious, still boyish and slender, still loves a good time. He’s somewhat reclusive these days. But for the photography show, he asserts that he “know[s] how to throw a party.”

Kenneth has kept Hap’s grand, disheveled old office in the Bonham relatively unchanged since Hap last sauntered out: an ornate, greenish spiral staircase salvaged from the downtown Frost Brothers still climbs up through the high ceiling to the roof above; antique light fixtures cast a soft yellow glow, and masculine wooden paneling lines the walls, one of which is taken up almost entirely by an enormous bookshelf crammed with everything from queer treatises to oversized art books to volumes on world history. The large den feels like a natty men’s club frequented by Charles Foster Kane and Truman Capote. A couple of red plastic cups resting on Hap’s desk (itself crafted from old doors from the original Milam building) are the only evidence of recent activity.

“I was playing in here on [Halloween] night,” Kenneth explains, with a conspiratorial grin.

Garrett was 22 years old during Fiesta 1973, when he came down to San Antonio from Waco to go to NIOSA with some friends.

“We went to the square and danced around and acted like fairies, because we were from out of town,” he laughs. “I saw Happy walking around, getting people to come in [to the Country], and I said, ‘Now, that’s what my boyfriend should look like!’”

A nearby framed photo of Hap from his days as a young officer in the Navy (!) reveal a man anybody would hope their boyfriend should look like. Tall, fit, and fine-featured, with a strong jaw and dark-lashed brown eyes, he resembles a young Gregory Peck … only better-looking. Another, later photo featuring Hap wearing a San Antonio Light gimme cap, beaming a toothy grin from under his fashionable disco-era mustache, reminds me of Freddie Mercury. Next to him in this photograph is Wade Strauch, another of Hap’s partners, and together with Kenneth and local artist/activist/archivist Gene Elder, the members of Hap’s close-knit family. Wade, like Kenneth, was elfin and blond, with a wide-open, guileless smile.

It would seem Hap had a “type.”

Which is something Gene Elder, Hap’s best friend and, at the tender age of 23, the original general manager of the San Antonio Country, knew very well. “I saw Kenneth walk into [the Country] that night in 1973,” he’d mused to me earlier, “and I told Happy, ‘I know who you should meet tonight.’”

I relate Gene’s memory to Kenneth, who snaps back, “Well, I was Happy’s type, but then Gene was trying to work me, too. So was Happy’s ex-boyfriend … it was the ’70s! You know, all that circle circled around. Everybody was …,” Kenneth pauses, then opts for a genteel word: “ … flirtin’!”

Garrett had come to San Anto to enjoy Fiesta and “see the new queer bar,” and has stayed for 35 years. He moved in with Hap and “Girl,” Hap’s blue-point Great Dane. Though Kenneth’s background and Hap’s couldn’t have been more different — Kenneth repeatedly asserts that he’s not a “college-type boy,” whereas Happy attended the tony St. Andrew’s prep school in Austin, and earned a BA from Rice, a business degree from UT, and studied law at St. Mary’s — but they were riotously happy together for 15 years.

“We just got along. He was just somebody you wanna be around,” Kenneth says. “Handsome, easy to meet, talk to, a good guy. Truthful, helpful, helped people all the time, helped people get a job, helped them get a little money. Happy was just a good, kind man.”

Kenneth and Hap especially loved to travel together, “all over the United States,” Kenneth recalls, “and we used to go to Acapulco all the time. You used to be able to fly, just take your ID, and it only took two hours on the plane to get there!”

They traveled in Europe as well, Kenneth remembering, “Once we were on the French Riviera, and they brought this granite-bowl type thing. It had tiers full of every kind of seafood and shellfish, from the big ones to the little bitty ones, and the waiters were just amazed, just watching how Happy was just eating every last thing — the waiters would come and talk to us and just laugh.” Kenneth laughs, too.

Hap was always taking pictures as they traveled, always concocting plans to implement back home.

“He loved San Antonio,” Kenneth says, suddenly serious, “and he was able to see its potential — how the downtown could be, you know, and he wanted to save it! All the historical bullshit, too,” he adds, and chuckles.

Historical bullshit meant a lot to Hap Veltman. In addition to the buildings he saved, he established the HAPPY Foundation, a loosely constructed organization whose primary mission was to establish an LGBT historical archives on the premises of the Bonham. He named Gene Elder its director before he died, and Elder continues to preside over it [see sidebar, page 16].

uckish, fit, and smiling, still bohemian-preppy in his 50s, his courtly manner betraying his well-brought-up Dallas origins, Gene is an exuberant, knife-sharp, and endlessly amusing storyteller. A few hours spent with him and you absorb a fractured encyclopedia of LGBT, personal, San Antonio, and Veltman history.

A beautiful old photograph of the original San Antonio Country staff at the HAPPY Archives reveals an earnest-looking young Gene in a pith helmet. Another photograph, of Elder along with the other “Fall Fairies” from his 1973 original ballet Fairies’ Fiasco (“I was so angry about the injustices of the time that I just had to write a ballet,” he intones), shows him wearing a dainty tiara. “I cast the whole staff from the San Antonio Country in that show,” he muses. “We did it three nights, and raised money for the Free Clinic … but since everybody was in the show, there wasn’t anybody working the bar! Shows you what kind of bar manager I was.”

When asked about the politics of 1970s LGBT San Antonio, Gene credits the singer and former Florida Citrus spokeswoman Anita Bryant with witlessly igniting a consciousness revolution. And, no, he’s not kidding. As it turns out, Bryant, while on her cross-country, anti-gay-rights “Save Our Children” tour (during which she quipped, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children”) made a stop in San Antonio in 1978.

Hap was appalled, and even took out a full-page ad in the Express-News to try to forestall her appearance. Gene shows me a copy from the Archives. Written by Veltman himself, it reads:

“It is an individual decision to fight for human rights for every citizen in this nation. Those rights were meant to exist under our Constitution, for without them, we begin the forfeiture of an equal opportunity under the law for designated groups. May enough individuals speak out against this injustice, and play a positive role in overcoming a tragic turn from liberty.”

A crucial sidenote: I’m so impressed by the measured, Lincoln-ian tenor of Veltman’s prose, that I read it to Debbie Maltz on the phone a day later. “He was brilliant, just brilliant,” she sighs. “I mean, he had such passion, was so eloquent — heh, I sound like I’m talking about Obama, here. But you know what? He wasn’t always so serious. He also liked to say things like, ‘Honey, don’t stick your dick in the cash register.’”

n any case, the late ’70s/early ’80s marked a dawning political consciousness in San Antonio’s (and the nation’s) LGBT community. Rallies, protests, and court battles ensued. Hap became increasingly aware of the important era in which he was living. “I don’t want to go overboard comparing him to [Harvey] Milk,” Debbie Maltz says. “But he knew how historical the times were, how huge the changes could be.”

Listening to Kenneth and Gene talk about the San Antonio Country and the early Bonham days, remembering Hap and Wade, regaling me with stories of glamorous parties, travel and art and hijinks, seeing them smiling in photos, you get the clear impression of buoyant, beautiful young men who believed they had all the time in the world. And were changing the world — free at last! — for the better.

This was an empowered, LGBT-community-wide consciousness that was both painfully tested, urgently necessitated, and ultimately strengthened by the losses, bravery, and dark absurdities of the AIDS crisis. It is bruising to consider that had Arthur “Happy” Veltman hung on just a few short years, he might have benefited from the protease- inhibitor cocktail that began dramatically lengthening the lives of PWAs in the mid-’90s.

But he didn’t.

Kenneth says of Hap’s final days, “Happy didn’t get sick but four or five times, got a fever — he was in the hospital maybe one or two nights over that last couple of years. We had parrots in the house, and they kept giving him a fever — ‘parrot fever,’ they call it. Finally there was a fever he couldn’t fight off, but he didn’t want to go [to the hospital]. But finally we took him, got in the Porsche and zooooom — got up there, slammed on the brakes and ran … they put him in ICU. He was there just barely over a week.”

After Hap died, seemingly suddenly, shocking his city (tellingly, his New York Times obituary lists the cause as “lymphatic cancer”), he wasn’t the last of Kenneth and Gene’s losses. Not by a long shot. Wade Strauch, their best friend — bright, funny, able, organized — grew sick soon after. And Wade was sick for much longer. He died four years after Happy, in 1992. Kenneth took care of him, too. “Wade was the one; he was sick for three years, in a wheelchair, ooh! That was a trip. Talk about not wanting to go to the hospital … in the last little-over-three months I was up there 14, 16-hour days every day with him in the hospital. We didn’t leave him alone, no —” Kenneth’s voice grows quiet. “And he deserved that.”

Now Kenneth and Gene are what’s left of this joyous, nontraditional family. Still close after all these years, still “best friends,” they both tell me, they occupy adjoining, yet slightly different domains within Hap’s complex, ongoing, bittersweet legacy. Gene’s the memory-carrier, the artist, the witness whose sacred duty it is to collect and dispense history. Kenneth keeps the disco going (with the help of the Bonham’s very capable manager, Niecy), continues to sparkle, cracks risqué jokes. It’s easy to see what Hap saw in each of them; what he wanted (for the lack of a better word) to develop.

Kenneth sums it up: “We were a family. You couldn’t break us up. You couldn’t come between us. And we’re still here!”

As for the rest of us, strolling the River Walk (which in its cyclic way, is beginning to seem relevant again), looking at (or showing) art at Blue Star, bitching about the conservatism, the provinciality, the sprawl of San Antonio, maybe Hap’s lesson is to get off our asses. If only to dance. •


Happy memories...

I first met Hap in 1977 … I was living in King William and earnestly pursuing my meandering path of “self-discovery” and awareness — and in those days all paths sooner or later crisscrossed through the cavernous San Antonio Country. The Country, owned and founded by Hap, was more than just a gay bar — at the time it was San Antonio’s answer to Andy Warhol’s Factory, Studio 54, and the Bar at the Algonquin rolled into one. If you were even slightly “cutting-edge” in 1970’s San Antonio, you danced, drank, made out, made scenes, made up, and cruised the Country. It was all we had but it was wonderful! Today it’s an AT&T parking lot, but back then it was one of the magical/mythical bars of the era. Being young, blond, and fairly guileless, Hap took me under his wing. He began showing up at the restaurant at odd hours, eventually asking me to house-sit at his (to me) very glamorous home on River Road. Hap and his partner Kenneth had what I considered the ne plus ultra of bachelor pads. The latest records (CD? What’s a CD?), books, furnishings, magazines, good food, good wines, good taste — what was not to like? Hap was the first person I knew that was both a devotee of health foods and a serious gourmet. He was the first person I knew who jogged daily. After the grungy/hippy ’60s Hap was the first male I knew who kept an impressive supply of shampoos, conditioners, skin elixirs, and exotic colognes all on display in his bathroom. It was like gliding through the men’s cosmetic counter at Frost Brothers. Did I mention Hap could be intense? When he decided to focus on something — a person, the River Walk, the Country, the Bonham, Kangaroo Court, Blue Star, Royal Street Crossing, on and on and on — he became a man on a mission. There was simply no one around with his intelligence, vision, taste, capability, stamina, and accomplishment level … Anything new, fresh, irreverent — even impractical — excited Hap.

San Antonio has never had quite the same package as we got in Hap Veltman, before or since his passing. He was the “better angels” of Philip Johnson/George Hamilton/Diana Vreeland/Casey Donovan and Donald Trump all rolled into one. I eventually moved from San Antonio and we lost touch. I never saw Hap again before his death. I did attend his River Road Memorial Service in Allison Park and I was amazed at the gathering. The “best and brightest” of S.A. cognoscenti, all come to pay their respect. Hap attracted clever people effortlessly and joyously. Everything was perfect — the weather, the balloons, the food, the people, the very “rightness” of the moment. Hap would’ve approved immensely.

Bill Sibley, author of the novel
Any Kind of Luck and the play If You Loved Me

The first time I met Happy was in the summer of 1970. I was the youngest cast member of The Drunkard, which was playing at HemisFair Plaza’s Melodrama Theatre. One night after the show I was taken to Kangaroo Court …to have a plate of “Mountain Oysters.” Well, out of the kitchen came this tall, gorgeous, lanky, animated, adorable guy who had a big grin from ear to ear, chatting us up about how he was gonna put a mirror ball in the restaurant and start playing “disco music.” I was so mesmerized by this guy and his enthusiasm, I knew I wanted to know him. … One winter, maybe ’79/’80, I partied at a Victorian … Happy and a few others, and in walked his beautiful boyfriend, and I was smitten again. Long hair, creamy skin, fab. Of course [Kenny] is still with us, and enjoying a happy time at the Bonham after years in seclusion … My dear friend Danny Geisler, who died two years ago November 7, had great stories of Happy crawling around under the Blue Star complex when it was dilapidated and saw the future there …Yes, Happy was a gay man, yes, he brought the gay scene from NY to SA. But he was also and more importantly a visionary. And he was soooo cute ... and sweet, I know everyone misses him, as I do. Hell, I miss that time altogether.

Dawn Brooks, local diva

When Hap died there was a formal service at St. Mark’s, where the mayor and dignitaries came. That afternoon in the park across from Hap’s home his restaurant had tables of food and drink, passed out balloons to the accompaniment of live music, and his many friends from all walks of life came together. As one of his oldest friends who was at his side when he died, I got up on a stepladder to offer a kind of “who Hap really was” kind of eulogy. As if on cue, when I said, “You are not here because you loved Hap. You are here because Hap loved you,” everyone let go of their balloons, and in silence we watched them rise up, come together, and float out of sight as if he was on his way. Then everyone joyously celebrated his life.

Walter Starcke, spiritual teacher, entrepreneur, and author of The Gospel of Relativity, It’s All God, and Joel Goldsmith and I

I knew Hap in the early 1980s. I had just returned to hometown San Antonio after living a decade in San Francisco as a professional psychotherapist, writer, and gay activist. I quickly connected with Michael Stevens and his partner Patrick Kerr; Michael had been denied tenure as a political-science teacher at UTSA for coming out as gay, and he set out to use his political skills to further the gay cause. Michael formed the San Antonio Gay Alliance in early ’81. I met them and joined SAGA later that year. And met Hap Veltman in the course of meeting the active, out gay community of San Antonio.

By the end of 1982, the Gay Alliance was well established; Michael and Patrick were running a small newsletter called The Calendar as an adjunct to SAGA; I was secretary to the Alliance and Hap was on the Board. For a couple of years, the San Antonio Gay Alliance Board of Directors met monthly at Hap’s office in the Bonham Exchange.

I remember Hap as being proud of his service to the City of San Antonio in having helped spearhead the River Walk Development as a bar and restaurant owner of several establishments on the river. I also remember him as being proud of his openness about being gay, of being a gay activist and a kind of elder in the gay community. He claimed quite a badge of honor for having fought — and won — a battle against the local Military Police, which used to routinely raid gay bars to intimidate closeted soldiers and the gay populace in general. Hap challenged the right of the MPs to enter his bar without a legal warrant; the court upheld his decision to keep them out.

As an activist and community builder, Hap Veltman was a good example of how unintimidated individuals can stop systemic oppression simply by telling the truth. San Antonio benefited greatly from his life. He was a jewel of the gay community of the ’70s and ’80s.

— Toby Johnson, author of Things Our Homosexuality
Tells Us About the Nature of God and the Universe

and Plague: A Novel About Healing

He changed my life, and taught me a sense of freedom and adventure. I opened the Big Bend restaurant with him on the River Walk, but I started out knowing Happy when I was a waiter in the late ’70s at the Kangaroo Court. I also lived in his Casino Building for 13 years; I saw him buy it, saw him develop it; it was amazing what he could do. He was a dear friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. And he lived up to his name — he was always happy! I wish he’d lived long enough [to get protease inhibitor cocktail treatment]. I’m a survivor of 22 years. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. Especially if I see certain “magical” numbers, like 1122, the date he incorporated, or 411, the address of the Bonham. When I see those, I think, “Hi, Happy!” and I can hear his voice saying “You can do it, boy,” and his great laugh. He was just an incredibly bright light.

Elton Moy, innkeeper, Taos, New Mexico

When I first met Hap, it was during the San Antonio Country days. After a while I started working there, and he treated me with respect, and I really respected him. Because he was a gifted, intelligent person, and also —whether you were gay, straight, a man or a woman, whoever you were — he was respectful. Also, Happy was just really fun to be around — oh, he was funny; he was excited about things! He loved good food, too. His passing was hard, very painful for everybody. On that day, I was sitting here in the office, and I could just feel something go through me. I just knew what was happening. I couldn’t tell you what religion Hap was, but he had a lot of faith, and a lot of spirit. I can still feel it.


Arthur P. Veltman Jr. left behind a large legacy of photos he took throughout his lifetime. Happy was a visionary and his dreams changed San Antonio and our lives. It is hard to believe it has been 20 years since he left us. We have chosen to honor him by having an eclectic photo exhibit of life through Happy’s eyes.

Gene Elder and Kenneth Garrett

7-11pm Dec 3, Free, The
Bonham Exchange, 411 Bonham St., (210) 224-9219

See Also

The archivist in Art 11/26/2008

The visionary : AIDS took Hap Veltman early, but his legacy -- from Blue Star to the River Walk -- discoes on 11/25/2008

The visionary : AIDS took Hap Veltman early, but his legacy -- from Blue Star to the River Walk -- discoes on 11/26/2008

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