Q&A Play With the Master
By Joyce Slaton
There was a time when discipline meant the ability to resist seconds on dessert, when bondage referred only to slave trafficking, when people who saw a length of rope in your closet figured you liked to go sailing. It seems amazing in our sex-drenched present, but there was a time when sex wasn't something you talked about and SM games were so far out most people couldn't even imagine they existed. Even if they hoped it did.
Robin Roberts could imagine such an underground, however, and since no outlet for his fevered BDSM fantasy life existed in the 1960s he did what all great thinkers have done -- he invented it himself. His Menlo Park School of Bondage (later renamed The BackDrop Club), founded in 1966, was the first Bay Area BDSM society and one of the very first formalized societies in the world, preceded only by gay leather groups and the venerable Eulenspiegel Society.
Roberts quickly became a pillar in Bay Area BDSM circles, putting on the first parties and events that eventually caused a loose-knit band of perverts to coalesce into a real, live "scene," the seeds of the very same scene that flourishes in the Bay Area and all over the world today. But Roberts wasn't content merely to bring his inspiration to life, push it out of the nest and encourage it to fly on its own. No, the now-60 upstart is still organizing events, training dominants and slaves and participating passionately in BDSM in all the levels of his life.
Despite 35 years as a BDSM master under his (black leather) belt Roberts shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. But reaching his 35th anniversary with BackDrop gave him an opportunity to reflect on the changes 35 years have brought, as well as the part he has played in those changes.
JS: What was your early history with BDSM? How were you initiated?
RR: As a kid I played a lot of Cowboys & Indians. I tried to work it so I would be on the team without girls so I could capture one to tie up and interrogate. (Laughs) Around the age of 14 I realized it was sexual. The next year something else happened. A girl with whom I used to play Cowboys & Indians came over on a rainy day and asked to play. "But there's only two of us," I told her. She smiled and said "I'll let you win." It was an "aha" moment -- I realized I wasn't the only one who could enjoy this game.
JS: But it doesn't really fly when you're 25 to ask your dates to play Cowboys & Indians.
RR: No. I joined the Navy at 17 and I was on leave visiting friends in New York when I met up with a friend who was doing photography for [famed bondage photographer] Irving Klaw. He asked me to help him with a few shoots for money. I was a hell of a lot better at bondage than he was.
Robin laughs again, and pulls out a photo book to show me. It's full of beautiful black-and-white vintage BDSM shots, complete with bee-hived, silk-stockinged, lush-hipped 1950s beauties.
RR: I started taking my own photos and developing them in my own darkroom.
JS: Were you selling the shots to girlie mags?
RR: No, at that time detective magazines always had covers with some girl tied up. Or I'd hold photo shoots for a bunch of men, who'd come over and shoot but who wouldn't even have film in their cameras.
Roberts called his photography club Latent Image, but it wasn't long before he realized there was more gold in them thar hills than he could mine with photography alone.
RR: I rented a space in Cambridge Avenue in Palo Alto in 1966, two offices in a business complex, and started The Menlo Park School of Bondage. That's when I changed the name to BackDrop, because I realized we were more than just a bondage school; we were becoming the backdrop to people's fantasies. People would call up and ask "Can any of your girls put makeup on me?" or "Do you do wrestling shoots?" And we'd do it.
Roberts next moved his business and his "girls," opening up a full-fledged session house and clubhouse on University Avenue in Berkeley in 1969.
RR: You had a lot of schoolgirls up there looking for work. At that time there were about 40 massage parlors in Berkeley, the University Meat Rack. We fit right in.
JS: You were running a sessions house with paid pro-dommes but you were also holding events?
RR: About 24 a month -- slave auctions, master-slave dinner parties, forums, demos, classes. We tried to keep the atmosphere welcoming and friendly, make it a place where people could hang out. We had a library of fetish material, a chess set, a community room. At 5:00 we'd have one of the house slaves serve dinner and everyone there was fed.
The BackDrop Berkeley clubhouse was friendly all right -- no less a personage than "SM 101" author Jay Wiseman remembers BackDrop as "Welcoming and warm, which was particularly needed since I was terrified to be checking out the place at all."
JS: People liked the fun, easy atmosphere didn't they? Particularly since they were so afraid of what they'd find in this den of iniquity?
RR: At that time even admitting to an interest in fetish or BDSM was tantamount to admitting you had mental problems. People usually found us from one of our ads in [since-defunct counterculture newspaper] The Berkeley Barb, which was one of the first papers to run BDSM ads. They'd call us up and make an appointment for a session, or ask to come to an event. Then they'd come and be so amazed that there were actually people who shared their interests! And these people were normal, and even had a sense of humor and play. The 70s, when people really started opening up and exploring their sexuality, was an amazing time for us.
The BackDrop scene started to fracture a bit in the late 70s and 80s. Once so utterly taboo, BDSM had become both more mainstream and more popular, and the inevitable fissures appeared.
RR: There were a lot of clubs that came out of BackDrop. When the scene was tiny we'd all hang out together, gay, straight, dom, sub. We'd have adult babies, we'd have people just into shoes and feet, etcetera. When enough people came together they started forming groups devoted to their specific interests:
Even fractured, the BackDrop pro sessions house and clubhouse was still getting enough business and traffic respectively that Robin kept both open. The sessions house moved from Berkeley to Hayward to San Francisco, staying open on and off for the next thirty years.
RR: Every year we have a Halloween party, and participate in the Exotic Erotic Ball. We have and continue to hold dinner parties, classes on leather making, demos on BDSM techniques. And we're opening up a sessions house again, more details to come on that soon.
JS: You find there's still a need to do this? After 35 years, you still want to do this and people who want to participate?
RR: BDSM has changed -- people wear leather on the street, and you see bondage images in even mainstream ads and movies that are explicitly sexual, not just implied as it was in the 50s. There's not the same need for people to come together just to make sure that it's OK that they like things like tying a girl up and hitting her with a cane or getting walked on with spike heels. People know that's OK now, and it's easier for them to find others who like it too. But there's still a need for the community to come together, both in play situations and just for socializing over dinner or a demo. People still need a backdrop for what they'd like to do, and we're going to continue being that.
In a world where BDSM is tame enough to bring up at the dinner table there's something refreshingly naughty about a sixty-year-old who unabashedly desires to turn young women over his knee and give them a good, sound spanking. Robin Roberts is still kicking, not to mention still whipping, 35 years after he formalized his descent into the sexual underground.
But perhaps the most important, and the most interesting thing about Roberts isn't that he dared defy convention and embrace his own alternative sexuality. It's all the people he dragged with him. In his three and a half decades making the BDSM scene literally thousands of people have received validation, training, friendship, introductions and hours upon hours of steamy SM play thanks to this man. May he live long enough to spank thousands more deliciously squirming asses.