Agosto Machado was a Chinese-Spanish Christopher Street queen and Zelig-like figure who witnessed the rise of the underground theater and film movements, the 1960s counterculture, gay liberation, and punk rock.
Joe Cino’s appetite for a good time was equaled by his warmth and generosity. If one of his starving young artists was actually starving, he would offer them bread or pastries, even when he couldn’t pay rent himself. His café offered a warm refuge for the poor, tired, huddled gay masses who increasingly congregated in the Village—like a young Agosto Machado, who met Joe in 1959. “I was on Cornelia Street, around Bleecker,” he recalled, “and it was still heavily an Italian neighborhood, and there were these young men who were so attractive, carrying things like panels of wood. I thought I was being discreet, but I just got overwhelmed by their handsomeness and I followed them as they went up Cornelia Street.” When this group of men walked through Caffe Cino’s doorway, Agosto peered in. “May I help you?” Joe asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “I was just wandering about the neighborhood.” The friendly coffee shop owner ushered him in. “This is a café, and you’re welcome here. We don’t sell alcohol. We sometimes have poetry readings and little presentations. There’s hot cider, or espresso, or some cookies.”
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In addition to biological families, Greenwich Village offered informal kinship systems that welcomed people like Agosto Machado. He arrived there in the late fifties after growing up in some rough New York neighborhoods, such as Hell’s Kitchen, where he heard schoolyard taunts like “Ooh, you’re so queer you should go to Greenwich Village.” “People came from different parts of the city to express yourself in the Village,” Machado said. “I didn’t really feel I was part of the majority culture, which is why so many people who were trying to find themselves gravitated there.” Just being gay made one a criminal and an outsider. In the early 1960s, a man still could be arrested for wearing women’s clothes in public, so Machado and his friends would carry their drag finery in shopping bags and then change once they hit a critical mass. After the sun went down, they promenaded up and down the street—sometimes gathering by Gay Street, which intersected Christopher, down the street from where Harry Koutoukas lived at 87 Christopher. “Honey, where are we? Gay Street!” they’d all shout. It was safety in numbers. “The queens, all the way down Sheridan Square, would have an audience,” Machado said, “people walking by, people on the stoop. And as the evening wore on, they got a little louder and grander—showing their new fabric they got, or a new wig. It was a street society, and you could walk around and feel that your community would protect you.”
Haralambos Monroe “Harry” Koutoukas took a bus from his home in upstate New York to Greenwich Village just as the 1950s came to a close, in search of adventure. “When Koutoukas hit town, he was an Adonis, a Greek youth with abundant energy, personality, and natural wit. He was able to express himself in the vernacular of downtown—being free,” said Agosto Machado, a Chinese-Spanish Christopher Street queen and Zelig-like figure who witnessed the rise of the underground theater and film movements, the 1960s counterculture, gay liberation, and punk rock. Even in the Village, which was bursting with theatrical flourishes, this Greek American cut a striking figure. Entering a coffeehouse, Koutoukas might come swooshing in the door with a large swath of fabric flowing behind him—all while holding a cigarette high, for dramatic effect. “It was sort of grand,” Machado said, “but it wasn’t a pretentious-grand. It was a fun-grand.”
Harry Koutoukas likely picked up this flair for the dramatic while growing up outside of Binghamton, New York, in the “Magic City” of Endicott. His family ran a restaurant and entertainment establishment that booked “female impersonators,” though he was forbidden to see those shows when he was an adolescent. Undeterred, Koutoukas snuck in to see the outlandish performers (who were a bit taller than ordinary women, with large hands and an exaggerated sense of femininity). This planted a seed in Harry’s mind that a weirder world was within his reach, and through magazines and movies he discovered Greenwich Village. Ahh, Koutoukas thought, now there’s a place I’d like to go. “By the time Koutoukas came to the Village,” recalled Agosto Machado, “things were shifting. There was a ferment of sexual revolution, the beginnings of a youthquake.” Harry Koutoukas, who lived for fifty years at 87 Christopher Street, was one of many men and women who gravitated from other cities and countries to the Village, a catch-all term that included Greenwich Village, the East Village, and other surrounding neighborhoods.
The street scene on Christopher functioned like an extended family for those who had been rejected by their own relatives, an embracing place where social networks formed. “There was no internet,” Agosto Machado said, “so how do you find out what’s happening? You go out on the street and you can hang out in Sheridan Square, Washington Square Park, and you’d find out more or less what people were doing.” He likened it to street theater, with different people making an entrance—“Hi, girl! What are you doing?”—and putting on a show. Roller-Arena-Skates (also known as Rolla-Reena Skeets) glided around on cobblestone streets while wearing a soiled dress and holding a wand, looking like a shabby Glinda the Good Witch. Another street character named Bambi cruised Christopher Street with his little dog, day and night, until some queens found him frozen to death one winter evening. That night, Lisa Jane Persky huddled on the stoop with her neighbors Rosie and Ernestine as they watched the cops zip Bambi into the body bag. The next day, he was back in his spot sitting on the stoop across the street; it turned out Bambi had awakened in the morgue. “I don’t know who was more scared,” he told Lisa Jane Persky, “me or the guy who heard me scream.” Machado fondly remembered the vibrancy of Sheridan Square and Christopher Street, where people socialized and made connections. “Oh, I’m going to sing in the chorus at the Judson Church,” someone might tell him, “and why don’t you join?” Agosto added, “There was the Judson Church circle merging dance and Happenings, and Caffe Cino and La MaMa, plus other alternative groups, plus street theater. They were just hanging out, and you expressed yourself on the street, developed your own persona, and then figured out your own place in that world. You could reinvent yourself.”
“We were raised in an America that hated art, sex, and intellect,” Robert Patrick recalled, “and sex was not the worst offense.” He was beaten up in grade school, junior high school, and high school not for being gay—which he was—but for carrying too many books. “Once we all left the small town to hit the big city, we were ready to explode. There were people at the Cino who were versed in every aspect of history, arts, science. Nobody beat you up for it there.” Patrick surrounded himself with creative, forward-looking people who were smart, friendly, and supportive. “Most of us had never been part of a group where we came from, so it was rather intoxicating to be in one.” Sitting around having coffee, they shared their frustrations and aspirations with each other, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to say, “Hey, let’s act this out—let’s put on a show!” Every night at Caffe Cino, Joe Cino walked from the espresso machine to his makeshift stage, rang chimes, and announced, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen, it’s magic time!” When the lights went down, a different reality materialized: “It was the magic and ingenuity of Off-Off-Broadway,” Agosto Machado said. “You had to suspend belief, because you wanted to, and you’re enjoying it. If you didn’t have money, you used your ingenuity. It was so magical, so special. It was a playhouse for yourself and the selective group of people who were seeing this.”
Soon after arriving, Harry Koutoukas befriended a gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino, who helped spark the underground theater revolution known as Off-Off-Broadway. “Caffe Cino encouraged creativity and no barriers,” Agosto Machado said. “You’d just say you’re a playwright, and then you would put on a play.” This storefront theater was located on Cornelia Street, a block-long side street that connects Bleecker with West Fourth Street and got little foot traffic. Cornelia was one of those charming little Village roads near Washington Square Park that could have easily appeared on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (that iconic album cover was shot on Jones Street, just one block to the north). Coffeehouses proliferated in Greenwich Village because the area had plenty of empty commercial spaces; these establishments were much cheaper to run than bars, which required the proper city licenses and Mafia protection rackets. Caffe Cino had six or eight little tables with wire-back chairs that were complemented by a hodgepodge of other furniture found in the street. Its stage was usually set in the center, among the tables, though this arrangement often changed from show to show. In the back of the Cino, to the left, was a counter with an espresso machine and a hallway that led to a tiny dressing room and a toilet. During its early days, the place was lit by Chinese lanterns and other little lights, though Caffe Cino grew more cluttered as time went on.
The neighborhood’s Ukrainian residents were suspicious of their first black neighbor, Ellen Stewart. “She was attractive, and they saw white young men going down to the basement, so they kept calling the police thinking that she was a prostitute,” Agosto Machado said. “They were unaware that she was trying to start a theater, and that the young men were gay men who were helping her, so they harassed her and harassed her and harassed her.” Nosy neighbors eventually called the health department to shut her down, but in a stroke of luck—one of dozens that kept La MaMa open over the years—the inspector had a history in theater and vaudeville. Instead of issuing a summons, he helped her obtain a restaurant license to avoid further legal complications. Stewart’s theater still had no name during the inspection, and she needed something for the restaurant license application. After one friend suggested “Mama,” they decided to fancy-it‑up by calling it “Café La MaMa.” After satisfying the health inspector, Stewart focused on winning over her neighbors. “Ellen had a very wonderful way of putting people at ease,” Paul Foster said. “She baked cookies, and gave them cookies. She ingratiated herself, and pretty soon, they became friends and we got them into the theater. It was maybe the first one that they had ever seen in their lives.” But Ellen’s charm offensive did little to protect the theater against a constant stream of citations from city officials throughout the 1960s. In April 1963, the city’s Buildings Department enforced a ban on theaters in the area and shut down Café La MaMa once again. Undaunted, Stewart moved her theater to a second-floor loft at 82 Second Avenue, and soon after was forced to move it farther down Second Avenue. Like a bureaucratic version of whack-a-mole, La MaMa then moved to St. Mark’s Place, and finally to its longtime home on East Fourth Street.
From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“La MaMa” referred both to Ellen Stewart herself—a warm but tough-as-nails maternal figure—and the theater she founded. With no theatrical experience, she established Café La MaMa in a basement location in the East Village back in 1961, not long after Joe Cino had turned his coffeehouse into an Off-Off-Broadway theater. “Ellen Stewart was La MaMa,” recalled Agosto Machado. “She gave care, attention, and nourishment for playwrights, directors, set designers, costumers, and others in her theater.” The details of Stewart’s early history are hazy. The only facts she ever verified were that she was born in Chicago and lived for a while in Louisiana—likely where she picked up her strong Geechee dialect and gave birth to her only son, Larry Hovell, 1943. After living for a while in Chicago, Ellen enrolled in New York’s Traphagen School of Design, one of the few fashion schools that accepted African Americans in 1950. Upon arriving at Grand Central Station, Stewart discovered that the apartment she was promised fell through, so she used the last of her savings on a Spanish Harlem hotel room. After a few days struggling to find a job, she lit a candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and called on her faith to help her get back on her feet. As Ellen was leaving the church she noticed Saks Fifth Avenue across the street and, miraculously, was given an entry-level job working as a design assistant. It was like a plot ripped from a Hollywood film, and her long and winding story grew more cinematic and fantastical throughout the 1960s.
From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When the Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel arrived on the Lower East Side in 1959, the midwesterner was a bit leery of living in a slum. Is it dangerous? he wondered. Is there trouble? Yes, it could be a bit sketchy, but this was counterbalanced by the incredibly cheap rents. Bibbe Hansen—who lived at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D—recalled that it was an extremely poor neighborhood. “It was more about poverty than anything else,” she said. “There were artists living around where I was living, but mostly because we were poor. There are so many important people that were part of the everyday landscape that are now these monumental, awesome giants of alternative culture and experimental art.” Agosto Machado had always found the West Village to be a little expensive, so he mostly lived on the East Side. “Now, we’re talking thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-dollar-a-month apartments,” Agosto Machado said. “That allowed a generation of people to come to New York City and spend, like, three-quarters of their time being an artist and a quarter of their time doing some sort of pickup day work to pay for your rent.” By the mid-1960s, the social and economic dynamics in the neighborhood were shifting—as was the Lower East Side’s name. “The landlords changed the name to the East Village so they could make a little more rent,” recalled Peter Crowley. “That began in the early sixties, and by the mid to late sixties it was like a gold rush.” Richard Meyers was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and landed on the Lower East Side in late 1966; within a few years he had reinvented himself as Richard Hell. As a child, he and his mother had visited his grandmother in the West Village every three or four years, so he already had an impression of the city. “The West Village was—in terms of New York—deceptively quaint and peaceful and beautiful,” Hell said. “It wasn’t until I actually came here that I got exposed to Fourteenth Street and Forty-Second Street and the East Village—the real New York, which is much more squalid than this isolated Village where my grandmother lived.”
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
At the same time that these adventurous playwrights were presenting their work at Caffe Cino and Café La MaMa, an unlikely outlet opened its doors to Village artists of all kinds. “Judson Memorial Church was so pivotal to the foundation of downtown because they were so open to freedom of expression,” said Agosto Machado. “They encouraged expression and let so many people in all the art movements do their thing. They took away the pews. They had Happenings. There was dance, movement, song. Gender preferences did not matter to the church.” For example, Al Carmines, Judson’s openly gay minister (who was also a musician), staged material that could’ve gotten him arrested for obscenity elsewhere. “The painters, the sculptors, the actors, the playwrights,” director Larry Kornfeld said, “everybody at Judson were involved in exploring and extending mediums and the blending of them.” Kornfeld—who saw himself as “a sculptor of space”—was deeply influenced by Merce Cunningham’s and John Cage’s spatial and temporal explorations. “Space was being explored by painters who were at the theater, people like Rauschenberg, who did sets for us. People were always at each other’s shows, recitals, performances. They were drinking together, screwing together. There was a vast interchange of information and activity. It was a community, an anarchic community.”
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“Jack was a pure genius,” said Jack Smith’s friend Agosto Machado, “a visionary artist who had the strength and determination to carry out his vision with almost no money. Jack talked about going to the Middle East to shoot, but since he couldn’t afford to, he created that location in tenements or various places where he could create an illusion of that faraway place. You were in another dimension when you were with him because he didn’t have a storyboard. He’d just set up and say, like, ‘Oh, you’re walking through the swamp, and there’s a mysterious creature that’s going to do this, that, and the other.’ ” At first Tony Conrad didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he helped Smith set up one Saturday to film Flaming Creatures on the roof of the defunct Windsor Theater, a tiny movie house on the Lower East Side. It took three hours for everyone to apply makeup and costumes, all while the drug intake spiked. Something very weird is going on here, Conrad thought as he and others began cross-dressing. Geez. If my friends like La Monte could see me now, I would be so embarrassed, because this is like the weirdest shit. “Jack also shot some of the scenes in Prospect Park, which wasn’t as peopled or cleaned up during those years,” Machado said. “You could walk through sections of slummy areas and do a shoot, if you just minded your own business and you did your thing.” Playwright Ronald Tavel, who went on to write scenarios for Andy Warhol’s mid-1960s films, also worked on Flaming Creatures—dropping bits of plaster from a ladder onto the actors during the earthquake scene, among other tasks.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol used an Auricon camera for his first sync sound film, Harlot, which was shot in December 1964. Gerard Malanga had been taking Warhol to Wednesday night poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where the writing of Jack Smith’s friend Ronald Tavel caught the artist’s attention. Warhol hired Tavel to write some “scenarios” for Harlot, and they soon began working together on Warhol’s other film projects. These sorts of collaborations happened often because the mimeo poetry zine scene frequently overlapped with the audiences for underground movies; Beat poet and Fugs cofounder Tuli Kupferberg, for example, could be seen selling his own mimeo publications at Mekas’s screening events. Harlot starred drag queen Mario Montez, who had previously appeared in Flaming Creatures and was named after Smith’s favorite 1940s starlet, Maria Montez. Warhol’s film depicts Gerard Malanga in a tuxedo blowing a puff of smoke at Montez, who is suggestively eating bananas. The only audio is Tavel and Billy Name having a conversation off-screen, perversely defeating the point of using a sync sound camera. “Mario maintained a wonderful duality,” said Montez’s friend Agosto Machado. “If you saw him in the neighborhood, you would pass him on the street and he was an attractive Puerto Rican man. But you would not know that he could transform himself into a goddess as Mario Montez, this goddess muse of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol.” He also appeared in several other Warhol films: Banana, Batman/ Dracula, Camp, Chelsea Girls, Lupe, and 1966’s Hedy, the last of which was part of Warhol’s “Hollywood trilogy” (a series of odd biopics that also included Harlot).
“A lot of the Cino scene was camp,” Jim Fouratt recalled. “Just look at Dames at Sea. That was the embodiment of camp.” Caffe Cino’s biggest hit was a playful homage to old 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals and, in particular, the black-and-white films of Busby Berkeley. “I think what made us such a hit was we were doing this homage to Busby Berkeley films, which had hundreds of dancers,” said David Christmas, who starred opposite Bernadette Peters in the Cino production. “But there were only six of us recreating all of that stuff in this tiny storefront coffeehouse.” Joe Cino almost always restricted productions to two-week runs in order to make room for the next play, but he made an exception for Dames, an inventive DIY show that raked in the money. “It’s quite amazing when you look back at how much originality was happening,” said Agosto Machado. “The stage area was tiny, and they did so much with so little.” Joe Cino painted his tiny eight-by-eight-foot stage with high-gloss black paint sprinkled with glitter, and the costumes, lighting, and makeup were also staged entirely in black and white. The Dames at Sea set used reflective Mylar to create the cheap illusion that there were many more people onstage during the dance numbers, and the other side of the rotating wall panels was decorated to look like a ship during other scenes. Show composer Jim Wise often played piano at the Cino, though sometimes his substitute was Barry Man. Later known as Barry Manilow, he accompanied Bette Midler for her cabaret shows in gay bathhouses during the early 1970s, and Midler also passed through Caffe Cino and La MaMa after she arrived in New York.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
John Vaccaro, Diane di Prima, and their friends also helped Jack Smith with his 1963 film Normal Love, which was shot over the course of three days in Connecticut. It was a sharp contrast from the baroque black-and-white imagery of Flaming Creatures, his previous film. “Normal Love, blazing with gorgeous color, left no holds barred,” di Prima recalled. “So many sequins, lizards, rhinestones, pythons, so much stained glass, makeup, art, flesh, costume jewelry, papier-mâché, spray paint, had never before seduced the filmgoer’s eye.” When Vaccaro formed the Play-House of the Ridiculous in 1965, Smith helped design sets and costumes, which made the shows sparkle and glow. “There was no one person who invented glitter,” Agosto Machado said, “but it was Jack Smith who gave a sense of purpose to it. In the early 1960s, Jack was the first one who used it in a way that made it copyable. The Play-House of the Ridiculous loved to use glitter, and Hibiscus and the Cockettes also loved glitter.” Play-House performer Michael Arian concurred. “John always gave a tip of the hat to Jack Smith,” Arian said. “Jack was the original gay glitter freak, and John always acknowledged that he got a lot of his sensibilities from him.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore