Suelynn Gustafson was doing goth before it was cool. In fact, Suelynn Gustafson was doing goth about five decades before anyone even thought to call it goth, let alone cool, and furthermore, she doesn't mind telling you that she doesn't think much of the teenyboppers doing it today. "I think they're phony," she says, with utmost frankness and an apology for her weak voice, since she happens to be in the hospital recovering from an operation that placed a shunt in her aorta. "They do it out of...it's like an exposure thing or something to wave at somebody. I do it for the love of it. It's meaningful to me."
Her reasons for that only continue to get deeper — but that's the way it's been for a long time, since she was just a girl. "My family had always been in the antique business," she recalls, "and when I was about ten years old, my mother gave me a funeral card about a little boy who died. It had the date of the funeral, the date he was born and the date he died; it said a little about how he had two brothers. And I cried because I thought it was so sad, but also because the words were so pretty. So I started collecting those."
The collection grew, and when Gustafson took over the family antiques business on South Broadway, she thought it would be fun to have a coffin. And another coffin. And maybe a skeleton. Or some skulls. And eventually the business morphed to become the institution we now know as Flossy McGrew's. Even if you've never been in there, you'll know the place by the pile of cobwebs and skulls outside the front entrance year-round. And Gustafson came to embody it, not just in her appearance — she's a tiny seventy-year-old with a sharp chin and magenta hair who's given to wearing black — but in her personal life, since she lives in an old church, a living shrine to her deathly collection.
Suffice it to say, she's a character.
So you might say that the most surprising thing about Grandma Goth, the documentary about Gustafson that's screening April 9 at the Oriental Theater, is that nobody had thought to make a movie about her before. Instead, the inspiration came to Deborah Heistand — an old acquaintance of Gustafson's who had previously been in the antiques business — when she was a student at the Colorado Film School in her early fifties. "There's something about being up-and-coming and old-and-going at the same time," Heistand jokes. "I used to walk down the halls and people would be like, 'What do you teach?' No, I'm just a student."
The first film that came out of that experience was Grandma Goth, which started as an assignment to make a two-minute documentary and turned into something much bigger (the documentary itself is still relatively short, clocking in at about fifteen minutes). Going in, Heistand knew that Gustafson was a perfect subject. "Suelynn is a very private person, and I was sort of afraid to approach her at first," she remembers, "but I think she was just ready to tell her story. She really came out of herself in a lot of ways."
It was also the beginning of a relationship that would take Heistand and Gustafson through another film together, Flowers for a Funeral, this one the short fictional tale of a young goth girl who sets out to kill herself, a movie in which Gustafson co-stars basically as herself. "I was always very theatrical," Gustafson admits, "so it was a great experience to have that opportunity. I mean, how many people get to make a movie, especially at my age?"
In the movie, Gustafson provides a positive force in the depressed girl's life — and that's a role that seems to connect with the real Grandma Goth, who, despite her fixation on the morbid and her opinion that goths are phony, keeps her outlook remarkably upbeat. "Most people just look at the surface part of life," she reflects. "When you really look at the bowels of life — death, struggle, sorrow — then that's when you really learn something, that's when you see what it's really all about, and that's what it's about to me. The silence of it. The mystery.
"I have this straitlaced son," she continues. "He's very prim and proper; who knows how that happens? And he thinks his mother's absolutely nuts. But we enjoy our life. And if you can't enjoy life, no matter what or who you are, screw it."