Off-Off-Broadway actor Benton Quin contributed props and sets to Blondie’s early live shows after Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and Gary Valentine moved into the Bowery building where he lived, which became known as the ”Blondie Loft.”
In 1973, Harry Koutoukas waltzed up to Lisa Jane Persky on the street and said, “Darling, I’ve written a play for you. Rehearsal starts Sunday. The pay is twenty-five dollars a week. I’ll send someone to pick you up.” That Sunday, actor Benton Quin came by and walked Persky to La MaMa for a rehearsal of Grandmother Is in the Strawberry Patch. Quin was cast as Eunice, the Woman Next Door, and Persky was Cordelia Wells, the World’s Most Perfect Teenager; Grandmother was played by Koutoukas’s favorite actress, Mary Boylan, who had worked in film during the 1930s and 1940s, and television in the 1950s. The script was a rich source of drama and comedy, as was the playwright—who had another meltdown during the show’s opening night. About twenty minutes in, the actress who played Persky’s mother forgot her lines and froze. It felt like ten minutes, though it was probably only sixty seconds, but Koutoukas rose from the back of La MaMa and stormed down the aisle. He was trailed by large swaths of fabric, screaming, “Stop. Stop! This. Is. Professionalism?! Begin again! Start over!” And they did. Koutoukas replaced the actress with a woman he claimed was his therapist, which could have been a complete fiction—or not. Later in the 1970s, Persky ran into her friend Tomata du Plenty (a former Cockette who formed the punk band the Screamers in Los Angeles). “He knew me for a long time,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘I had been meaning to ask you. When Harry came down and freaked out, was that part of the play?’ And that was the first time it even occurred to me, like, ‘Oh, yeah. They didn’t know.’ ”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Another connector figure in the downtown scene was Benton Quin, an Off-Off-Broadway performer who rented Harry and Stein a loft on the Bowery where the couple lived and the band rehearsed. “Benton is the person who gets credit for all that,” Lisa Jane Persky said of the way he helped spark many artistic relationships. “He masterminded a lot of the stuff, even though he was a bit cuckoo in many ways.” Quin was also a very literal matchmaker for Persky and Gary Valentine. After Quin appeared with her in Harry Koutoukas’s Grandmother Is in the Strawberry Patch, they remained close; and when Valentine moved into the loft, he realized the bassist was perfect for Persky and insisted that the two should meet. “Benton must have been persuasive, and so she came over,” Valentine said. “We later consummated our first meeting after a Vain Victory performance, the one Blondie appeared in. There was a party in the Upper West Side somewhere, and so a lot of people from the theater scene—Divine and all that—were there. That was a special night for Lisa and I.” He later wrote the early Blondie hit, “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear,” about their relationship.
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
This interest in fashion intensified when designer Stephen Sprouse moved into the building’s top floor. “I invited Stephen to live there sometime after I met him at Reno Sweeney, when Holly Woodlawn was performing there,” Benton Quin said. “Stephen began designing and making a few things for Debbie, and also loaned her things. She was just basically wearing a lot of thrift shop stuff, so Stephen ramped up her glamour several notches.” Sprouse had a professional background working for Halston, a major designer at the time, and he created clothes for everyone in the band. “He was very much an artist who was aggressive about how he would cut up materials,” Chris Stein said. “He was just so far ahead of his time.” “Stephen would find things for me to wear,” Debbie Harry recalled, “or go through my collection of rags and put them together so that it had a strong visual look. He had all that experience at Halston of creating collections, so he was able to compile things.” Roberta Bayley added, “Dressing Debbie was probably inspirational for him, and it was great for her because she really developed her look—going from a thrift shop look, because nobody had money, to actually having dresses that were made for her to be onstage.” Sprouse did other graphic design work for the group, and in 1976 he was tapped to be the art director on the first two Blondie videos, “X Offender” and “In the Flesh.” From the very beginning, Blondie understood that visuals matter. The group started making music videos five years before MTV debuted in 1981, and photos of Harry circulated widely well before the band ever had an American hit, which undoubtedly laid the foundation for their later success. Although Blondie began as the runts of the CBGB scene, the group became its biggest global export by the end of the decade.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Blondie Loft was a four-story building on the Bowery with a liquor store on the ground floor, about a block south of CBGB. “We went to CBGB five to seven days a week,” Clem Burke said. “It was a place to go, it was the thing to do, it stayed open late. We would rehearse at the loft and just live there, and sleep on the floor. Or sleep with other girls. Things would happen, you know, anything goes. I was a teenager. But it was primarily Chris and Debbie’s residence.” The building’s unofficial landlord was Benton Quin, whom Gary Valentine described as “a good artist, a flamboyant creative fellow, with all the eccentricities that go with that.” He rented the bottom loft floor to the bandmates and lived directly above them in a space littered with cans of urine (because there was no bathroom on his level). “Benton was a real character,” Chris Stein said. “He made a lot of cartoon-like cutout things that would get pummeled onstage by Debbie, like during ‘Kung Fu Girls.’ He also made the leather briefs that Debbie wore with that ‘Vultures’ T‑shirt in Punk magazine.” Burke recalled, “It was a close relationship with Benton and the band. It was a little micro world of our own in that loft building. Debbie helped Benton bleach his body hair, because he wanted it to be blond, and he had a lot of body hair—you know, he had all these different strange goings on.” The loft was cluttered with Quin’s large paintings, and Harry and Stein placed occult bric-a-brac on the walls. “Chris and I shared some interests,” Valentine said, “like horror films and comic books. He was keen on voodoo and pentagrams. Actually, Chris was kind of a goth in the beginning, wearing eyeliner and silver skulls.”