Pat Rocco (1934-2018) was a pioneer gay filmmaker and activist. Though he was popular and well-known during his heyday he is hardly remembered today.

Whitney Strub, in an essay (2014) published by the UCLA Film and Television Archive on its website, called Rocco “a pioneering figure in the cultural wing of the sexual revolution, but his work goes too little remembered today.  

Though on a technical level he was no cinematic virtuoso, between 1968 and 1976 Rocco built a truly remarkable body of work. His erotic shorts helped spearhead the zesty vitality of gay liberation which his documentaries in turn captured.” 

The man Esquire called “the Cecil B. De Mille of gay films” was born Pasquale Vincent Serrapica in Brooklyn, the son of an Italian American family. Rocco moved to Southern California at 11 and came out as gay at 13. During the ‘50s and ‘60s Rocco pursued a diverse career in entertainment. He had his own radio show, appeared on television with Tennessee Ernie Ford and other celebrities, ran a theater in the Simi Valley and directed plays.  

In 1967 Rocco answered an ad in the Los Angeles Free Press and began a new career as a male physique photographer, which in turn led to the creation of his production company, Bizarre Productions, which specialized in gay erotic films.  

“The timing,” Strub noted, “could not have been better: a confluence of forces, including gay activism and its push for increased visibility, the rapidly diminishing scope of obscenity laws, the market demands of a gay consumer base, and the broader spirit of sexual revolution, all worked in tandem to open a new space for gay erotic expression.” 

In 1968, after years showing straight skin flicks, the Park Theater in Los Angeles began its series of “homosexual film festivals:” homoerotic works by Rocco, Kenneth Anger, Jean Cocteau, Bob Mizer, and others. These were the first movies to show full-frontal male nudity, though critics derided them as “danglies” (where the penis would “dangle” and not do much else). Rocco’s “male nude film festival” was the most popular of the lot. Film scholar Thomas Waugh noted that “Rocco’s short and sentimental danglie programs were so sensational that the premieres were covered by Variety, hyped by spotlights and limousines, and attended by the filmmaker’s mother.”  

Rocco himself told an interviewer that his films “were the first really overt gay films with nudity in a public theater. I have had a number of people tell me that ‘I came out because of your films.’ Soon there was an enormous upsurge of popularity. Men would come up and say, ‘I’ve got several young men that I know that I’d like you to meet.’ In a couple of cases I had fathers come and say, ‘I’d like you to use my son in a film.’” Even gay activists were impressed: Jim Kepner called Rocco’s films “exhilarating, fresh, ideal, basic and agonizingly beautiful” while Jack Nichols wrote that “Pat Rocco will do more to uplift the morale and self-image of American homosexuals than a thousand Mattachine orators.” Kepner and other devotees of Rocco formed the fan club SPREE — Society of Pat Rocco Enlightened Enthusiasts. A social club and service organization, SPREE offered its members “entertainment with an emphasis on male nudity in a wholesome atmosphere.” 

Though Rocco’s films were remarkable for their time and place, in retrospect there was not much to write home about. Jeffrey Escoffier, in his history of gay porn cinema, called Rocco’s movies “conventionally sentimental. His films usually showed attractive boys holding hands, walking through shady woods, and kissing behind chiffon curtains. They rarely even showed simulated sex. Nevertheless, showing two males kissing was considered daring. Altogether Rocco made more than a hundred films over the next few years — for the Park and other theaters.” Lacking a major film studio’s budget, Rocco filmed his naked boys in outdoor locations throughout L.A., including Disneyland, Hollywood Boulevard, Griffith Park, Echo Park and even the L.A. Freeway. 

Though Pat Rocco specialized in short subjects, the Park and other venues showed them in groups as full-length features. One of them, “Mondo Rocco” (It’s a Gay World) (1970), is available on YouTube. With production, direction, photography, editing, narration and screenplay by Pat Rocco, “Mondo Rocco” is Rocco in a nutshell.  

It includes several of Rocco’s soft-core features, starring Rocco regulars like Ron Dilly and muscle-bound Rick Cassidy. Of greater historical value are Rocco’s documentaries. In “Meat Market Arrest” Rocco filmed a police raid on L.A.’s Meat Market bar, where dancer Bob Philpot was arrested for dancing completely nude. (Rocco later returned to the bar to film Philpot’s “obscene” performance.)  

In “Homosexuals on the March” Rocco captured his friend, the Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church, leading a gay protest against California’s sodomy law. Finally, “A Night at Joanie’s” showcases Halloween night at that iconic bar, complete with a costume contest (the ubiquitous Rev. Perry was one of the judges) and a performance by female illusionist Jim Bailey as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Mae West. 

Sadly, as porn historians Kenneth Turan and Stephen F. Zito wrote, “Pat Rocco is an interesting example of almost instant obsolescence in the erotic film world.” The rise of hardcore porn left behind a man who porn producer Gorton Hall called “the Walt Disney of the homosexual” (and not as a compliment). When the Park Theater’s owners urged Rocco to include explicit sex in his features, the filmmaker refused. “It was not an easy decision to make,” Rocco recalled. “I was offered great sums of money to make certain films. I really feel however that showing the complete sexual action — hardcore — is not necessary to make a story real or believable.  

It can be indicated without going into explicit or clinical detail. Yet this is what the distributors wanted.” It was also what the consumers wanted. Even so, Rocco continued to make movies, including the full-length drama “Drifter” (1974) and the documentary “We Were There” (1976), which featured “naked gay men, lesbians, and elephants all triumphantly marching” (Strub) in the bicentennial year’s Pride parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Pat Rocco lived his remaining decades in quiet retirement with his partner and died on November 8, 2018, at the age of 84. 

This article owes much to Whitney Strub’s essay “Hey Look Me Over: The Films of Pat Rocco,” as well as books by Jeffrey Escoffier, David K. Johnson, Kenneth Turan and Stephen F. Zito, and Thomas Waugh.


This is a part of our LGBT History Month special package. Check out sfgn.com/historymonth2020 daily for new stories.

Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and journalist. He has been an active member of South Florida's LGBT community for more than four decades and has served in various community organizations.


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