L.A. CARES Tells Do's, Don'ts : 'Mother's' Ads on TV Advise Gays on AIDS

Times Staff Writer

The scene begins with the woman ironing to the strains of soap-opera music. "I want to have a chat with you, son," she says, looking up from her board.

"Remember when you were little and you used to get hurt when you played outside?" she continues. "Well, now some of your friends are very, very sick, and there's nothing to make them feel better."

As Mother, Zelda Rubinstein--whose previous credits include a psychic in "Poltergeist" and the role of Atrocia Frankenstone in "The Flintstone Comedy Show" cartoon series--is the central figure in a public awareness campaign aimed at stopping the spread of the deadly disease AIDS by urging gays to "play safely."

The campaign, called L.A. CARES (Los Angeles Cooperative AIDS Risk-Reduction Education Service), is part of a government-funded safe sex educational movement that many in the gay community see as the best hope for slowing the spread of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) until researchers can come up with a vaccine or cure.

Cases Confirmed

Forty-eight more cases of AIDS were confirmed by Los Angeles County health officials last month, bringing the county total to 909. Of those, 476 have already died.

In the television spots, Mother pleads with an unseen son to "play safely." In videos created especially for gay bars, her sons appear as bare-chested young men.

When it's time for a detailed explanation of the do's and don't's of playing safely, Rubinstein bashfully defers to "one of your brothers," who in no uncertain terms makes clear which sexual practices are safe and which are not.

L.A. CARES program coordinator John Mortimer and business liaison Gary Mullet hope that the bars will find room for Mother in their standard video diet of Madonna and Billy Idol.

The play safely theme recurs in a series of ads displayed in newspapers and on billboards and RTD buses, as well as in more explicit material distributed by trained employees of gay bars and bathhouses.

While the campaign began in February, the ads did not begin appearing on RTD buses until last week. RTD officials initially balked at the language of the ads and suggested revisions that were not accepted by L.A. CARES, according to Tony Fortuno, director of marketing and communications for RTD.

Ads Unchanged

Subsequently, City Council members Peggy Stevenson and Pat Russell intervened and convinced RTD officials to run the ads unchanged, program officials said.

AIDS is caused by a virus and is believed to be transmitted among homosexuals, its primary victims, by the exchange of body fluids, such as blood, semen, waste products and saliva.

"Our major responsibility now is to get it across that certain practices--for instance, having intercourse without a condom--need to be avoided," said Dr. Martin Finn, medical director for public health programs in Los Angeles County and a member of the L.A. CARES advisory board.

Jerry Hyde, the manager of the popular Westside gay bar, Rage, said a screening of the videos at a recent L.A. CARES benefit was a hit with his regular patrons and the Mother posters are so popular that he can't keep them on the walls for more than a couple of days.

"This is the right approach," Hyde said. "They're providing needed information without contributing to the funeral-to-funeral atmosphere."

Play Safely

The brainchild of publicist Mark Manning, the play safely message and Mother concept were the product of meetings with directors of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and the AIDS Project of Los Angeles.

Funding for the project, which totaled $175,000, was provided by the state Department of Health Services.

Rubinstein, who worked for more than 20 years as a medical technologist before she switched to acting, said she was looking for a way to get involved in the fight against AIDS when Manning approached her about the Mother role--coincidentally on the same day that a friend of hers died of the disease. As do the other actors in the ads, Rubinstein donates her services, but she said the role has its own rewards.

"You can already feel the effect this campaign is having in the community," Rubinstein said. "People are being more responsible--they're staying away from blood banks and they're being more careful about what they do and with whom."

Gerry Goulet, owner of the Hollywood Spa, a large bathhouse, agrees. Safe sex posters and literature are readily available in his establishment, as are condoms--free of charge. Orgy rooms no longer exist in his club, Goulet said, and alcohol and drugs are forbidden.

Well Informed

"The idea that all bathhouse customers are compulsives is a sham," Goulet said. "AIDS is not a bathhouse disease. The people here are as well-informed about their choices as anyone."

Bill Misenhimer, executive director of the AIDS Project Los Angeles, said the awareness campaign will widen its target group to include sexually active heterosexuals--those who have more than one sex partner--if additional funding is approved in the budget now on Gov. George Deukmejian's desk.

Six AIDS cases among heterosexuals have already been confirmed in California--100 nationwide--and health officials are concerned that the number may grow.

Mortimer said he hopes the mass media approach will reach gays who are in the closet--and therefore might not be as well-informed about AIDS as are openly gay men.

"We're promoting a middle ground, an acceptable alternative to dangerous sexual behavior," Mortimer said. "There is another choice besides celibacy and promiscuity. We can provide the information, but the behavioral change will have to come from peer pressure."

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