The gas station at 5770 Hollywood Blvd. is now a firehouse. That’s not surprising, since during the postwar years things at that location sure got hot. Scotty Bowers used the site as a combination gay dating service (that’s a euphemism) and bordello. The bordello was the trailer in back and motel across the street.
Early on in Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” a cheery Bowers says, “It’s hard to believe, unless you were there, how much fun that gas station was. People disappearing up in the trailer and going in the washroom, doing this and that.”
Bowers and the doing of illicit this and even more illicit that are the documentary’s subject. The film is lively and dishy (an understatement), though it does lose oomph as it goes along. Trying to make Bowers a precursor of gay liberation seems like a bit of a stretch. “I felt good that I made so many people happy,” he says. That’s not a bad epitaph, without having to reach for some larger cultural significance.
Now 95, Bowers is the sprightliest nonagenarian you’ll ever meet. His second wife, a cocktail-lounge singer, says of him, “He came past me one night and said I liked your singing. . . . He looked like an old leprechaun.” He still does.
Tyrnauer, who’s directed documentaries about the urban activist Jane Jacobs and fashion designer Valentino, puts Bowers front and center. He’d long been a kind of Hollywood urban legend: the go-to guy for finding guys — any kind of company, really — in a company town. He also had a lot to say to Alfred Kinsey for “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” but that was anonymously. Then in 2012 Bowers published a memoir, “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.” Think of “Scotty” as the movie adaptation.
Bowers joined the Marines at 18. After seeing combat in the South Pacific, he decided to move to LA rather than return to his native Midwest. “I upgraded myself and went to Hollywood,” he says with a chuckle. He chuckles a lot in “Scotty.” His consistent jolliness ranks with cheerful salaciousness as one of the documentary’s chief virtues.
Bowers answered a classified ad for a service-station attendant. In a nice touch, we get to see the ad. One day who should drive up but that pillar of feature-film probity Walter Pidgeon (Mr. Miniver!). He invited hunky young Scotty for a swim back at the Pidgeon estate.
One thing led to another, as one thing so often does. Soon enough, simply through the wonders of word of mouth, Bowers was arranging encounters, same-sex and otherwise, for all sorts of people at 20 bucks a throw. Even factoring in inflation — that would be about $210 today — this was a pretty good deal. “You couldn’t believe how busy I was,” he happily recalls. “I needed help.”
We visit one of several properties Bowers owns, all of them stuffed to the rafters with stuff. The man has a serious hoarding problem. That could be a whole other documentary. This one’s about hoarding memories. “I paid . . . $22,000 for the house in $20 bills,” he says. “Those $20 bills add up quick,” he laughs
Bowers is glad to name names as regards whose pockets those double sawbucks came from. His biggest clients, he says, were Tom Ewell (“The Seven-Year Itch”), Ramon Navarro (the silent “Ben-Hur”), Cole Porter. Introduced to an applied mathematics major, a woman I know asked, “What’s your favorite number?” Porter’s, apparently, was 15. Discretion precludes an explanation. Other names that figure in the proceedings belong to Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, the director George Cukor.
Telling all is not necessarily the same thing as telling the truth, even if Bowers’s memory seems as clear as the glint in his bright blue eyes. Maybe it’s his ego that’s not clear — or too much so. Also, some people in the film raise the issue of betraying trust. Yet more than half a century would seem to qualify for a statute of limitations, and many of Bowers’s customers have long been known as gay or bisexual.
Were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor clients — in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, no less? Did Bowers sleep with Bette Davis and J. Edgar Hoover (separately! separately!)? Did he sleep with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner (together! together!)? Did Cary Grant and a young Rock Hudson hook up at the gas station? Inquiring minds want to know. Alas, only God can say for sure, and he’s not leaving his cabana. What’s certain is that hearing about all this TLC will make watching TCM a very different experience.
SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, nudity, more sexual situations than there are stars in heaven — well, almost).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.