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Bob Crane's not-so-secret life

The sexual addiction of the late actor was no secret backstage, says a former Showboat Dinner Theatre stage manager.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2002

The sexual addiction of the late actor was no secret backstage, says a former Showboat Dinner Theatre stage manager.

Paul Schrader's film Auto Focus leaves the impression that actor Bob Crane gave some of his most memorable dinner theater performances in motel rooms after the shows.

Auto Focus examines Crane's dark side, one that Hogan's Heroes fans never expected. He was a sex addict in the 1970s before that diagnosis existed, using the newly emerging technology of videotape recording to document romps with scores of women and men.

The obsession began in Los Angeles when Crane became a TV star playing Col. Robert Hogan, leader of Allied POWs in a comical Nazi prison camp. After that sitcom ended and other roles failed, Crane hit the dinner theater circuit with a comedy called Beginner's Luck -- and his video equipment.

Crane brought his play and kinky habits to Clearwater's now-demolished Showboat Dinner Theatre in 1974 and 1975.

Former Showboat stage manager Tom McCluskey recently told me Crane's sexual addiction was no secret backstage.

"He was wide open about it," McCluskey, 56, said by telephone from Tallahassee, where he works as an investment consultant:

"First day, he walks into rehearsal and says: 'Hey, I need to know where the gay clubs are.' I just kind of looked at him. He said: 'No, I'm straight. I just videotape kinky stuff.'

"It was kind of embarrassing, if you want to know the truth. It was almost like talking about athlete's foot or something. He was pretty open about this (topic)."

That Showboat engagement in 1975 was McCluskey's second acquaintance with Crane. Three years earlier, McCluskey worked as propmaster for the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville when Beginner's Luck was performed. He became friends with the married actors who toured with Crane in a show he exclusively owned and performed.

"They used to say: 'Bob's got this kinky side to him. Don't worry about it.' They never participated. He graciously offered to film them if they wanted to (make love) in front of the camera. They laughed it off and said no."

However, McCluskey said he wants one thing about Crane made perfectly clear:

"Bob had a sweet personality. He wasn't a closet evil guy or anything like that. He was a complex personality. He had a strong desire to be liked and he was a likable guy. He was a guy's guy. He knew football. He'd hang out at the bars, was pretty friendly, not your typical star personality where he needed to be pampered.

"But he had this side to him where he just got off on filming people making love, the kinkier the better. He was very outspoken about the fact that he loved to know people who are into that, too."

Yellowed newspaper clippings and auto-focused hindsight offer interesting details about Crane's visits to Showboat Dinner Theatre.

Former Evening Independent entertainment writer Fred Wright interviewed Crane for a Feb. 21, 1974 article during the first run of Beginner's Luck:

"His other hobbies -- his "activities" he calls them -- include lugging his videotape machine from town to town so he can tape the Carson and Cavett shows if he's working while they're on."

Former Times staff writer (and current Tampa Tribune film critic) Bob Ross interviewed Showboat manager Maurice Shinner for a July 1, 1978, article after Crane's murder in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel, before details of his sexual obsessions were revealed.

"One thing he always did was practically run into the lobby immediately after the show," Shinner told the Times. "He was there to shake hands and sign autographs almost before anyone left the theater."

According to Auto Focus and Robert Graysmith's book The Murder of Bob Crane, those after-show introductions gave Crane a chance to audition new talent for his homemade pornography.

"He wasn't shy about it but he didn't push it on anyone," McCluskey said. "No pressure or anything like that. He just made it very clear that if anyone was interested, he'd be happy to set up his camera."

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