BY PUMA PERL | What makes a successful businesswoman like Jessica Robinson walk away from her career to become a filmmaker? Over the course of 35 years running Robinson Creative Services, an advertising design studio, her client list included names like Condé Nast and American Express. Previously, as a creative director in advertising, she made videos for an equally prestigious list of clients, including The Graduate Center, CUNY. That pretty much sums up her film experience.
As we sat watching raw footage of “The Man on the Fifth Floor: 3 Decades in the Chelsea Hotel,” Robinson elaborated on her inspiration. “One day [Dec. 16, 2007], I happened to open the New York Times to the Neediest Cases section, and there was Gerald Busby. I was shocked. Here was my friend, composer of Robert Altman’s ‘3 Women,’ child piano protégé, raconteur, and one of the most charming men I’d ever met, featured as one of the year’s neediest cases. What had happened? I had to find out. I had to tell this quintessentially New York story of culture and counterculture; this iconic story of New York City and a lost Bohemia. I had to become a filmmaker.”
The events that brought Busby, now 80, to the attention of the New York Times could not have been imagined when he first arrived in the city several decades earlier. Nobody had yet even heard of HIV/AIDS. The bathhouses and clubs were jumping, and many gay men like himself were giddy with this new, post-Stonewall freedom. Busby and his younger lover, the late Sam Byers, both eventually tested HIV-positive.
Sam suffered a long, lingering death, Busby by his side (he was 58 when Sam passed away; they’d been together for 18 years). Depressed and traumatized, he stopped composing and tried to escape through sex and drug binges. He went bankrupt. After three rehab stints, he finally found sobriety in 2005, and returned to composing music.
Several weeks after my meeting with Robinson, I knocked at the door of Gerald Busby’s fifth floor apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, where the “renovations” are ongoing; the halls were draped in plastic, and warnings against photographing inside the building were taped up next to Stop Work Orders. Busby is one of about 80 residents who have hung in; a tenants union now protects their rights to remain in their rent-stabilized units.
When the nattily dressed Busby answered the door, smiling widely, I immediately understood why Robinson called him “charming.” From almost the moment we began chatting, I was entranced, you might even say smitten. He felt like a lifelong friend I just hadn’t met yet. Following the death of Sam Byers, he downgraded from a four-and-a-half-room apartment to this studio. Somehow, even with the presence of a piano, computer equipment and artwork, it is his spirit that fills his room. There is no sense of material clutter.
Our interview was freewheeling — speaking of art and AIDS, poetic inspiration, the links between brilliance and narcissism, existential film, whiskey, and addiction (his, and the winding roads of his journey). Busby also spoke of the five geniuses with whom he has had the good fortune to work: Paul Taylor, Virgil Thomson, Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein, and Robert Altman. The late Thomson, a composer and critic, was also his mentor. Altman, he explained, was the most “mystical” of the five. “He wanted you to be the best, so he gave you the very best of what he had.” Scoring 1977’s “3 Women,” Busby learned to “put things together and turn them into something else.” He also forayed into acting with Altman, drawing on his fundamentalist experiences growing up in Texas to improvise the role of the preacher in 1978’s “A Wedding.”
Busby’s life today is about writing as “fast and furiously as possible. Just go,” he said. “Instinct, intention, and, eventually, critical thought kicks in.” He no longer plays the piano, but works on his compositions eight to 10 hours a day. He listens to Mozart every morning and considers Bach the artist of construction. “They are both surprising and inevitable,” he explained. He rarely reads books, although he does utilize poetry as a muse for his compositions.
“The most important thing to me at this stage of my life is being willing to make myself happy for no reason at all, to get reasonableness completely out of my thinking as the source of happiness and success. Reiki [healing meditation] is the center of that practice for me,” he revealed. “I’ve learned that if I make myself happy by being continually present to myself, reasons for happiness pour into my life. Health, success, friends and money all appear and support me. The key is to stop identifying myself with any negativity. This shows me what I really need to stay healthy and write music and fulfill my obligations. My objective is to relate to consciousness with total openness and regard emotion like a gas that passes through me.”
“The Man on the Fifth Floor: 3 Decades in the Chelsea Hotel” is still in the fundraising stage; they have finally finished the rough cut and are ready to prepare the final cut. Top billing is shared by Busby and the Chelsea Hotel itself, and includes appearances by Larry Kramer, Brad Gooch, Linda Troeller, Craig Lucas, Paul Taylor, and other artists and former residents.
Jessica Robinson and her production team are hoping for a December release. “It’s so easy to lose contact with the past because time keeps marching on,” she said. “Looking back at the city’s iconic history from the ’70s to the ’90s, it astounds me to remember that it was a slower, darker world with all this amazing creative energy gurgling under the surface. It was a rich and creative stew, a wonderful piece of madness. Gerald Busby is a genuinely witty and idiosyncratic character whose life parallels an iconic era and that’s what makes this film so unique.”