Bette Midler was cast in the 1965 La MaMa production of Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets at the age of 18, and later performed a cabaret act at gay bathhouses with with pianist Barry Manilow (who also sometimes performed at Caffe Cino).
“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
Ann Harris remembers Jackie Curtis as a ubiquitous presence around the neighborhood. “My older kids ran into him around town,” she said. “Jackie was definitely around.” George Harris III, later Hibiscus, was Jackie’s classmate when they both attended Quintano’s School for Young Professionals, a special high school for performers in midtown Manhattan. (Jackie, Hibiscus, and actress Pia Zadora were all in the same math class.) Along with Hibiscus’s brother Walter Michael Harris, Jackie Curtis was cast in a 1965 La MaMa production of Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets, as the love interest of Bette Midler, who had just arrived from Hawaii. One day, the temperamental Curtis stormed off the set, and Eyen asked Walter to take the vacant role. He was already the drummer in the offstage band that performed the show’s music, so he would run back and forth performing various duties, like singing a lover’s duet with Midler. “Bette played the Nefertiti role and I took on Jackie Curtis’s role, Tobias, an angel sent by the god Ra to be Nefertiti’s downfall,” Harris said. “I was about fourteen. So I got to sing and perform with a nineteen-year-old Bette Midler and played drums for the other people’s songs when I wasn’t onstage.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Several of the bands that played at the Mercer Arts Center came out of theater—like Ruby and the Rednecks, which straddled the glam and punk eras. “I formed a band out of the musicians who played with the Play-House of the Ridiculous,” recalled Ruby Lynn Reyner, “and I said, ‘Why don’t we play these songs from the shows?’ I asked John Vaccaro’s permission and he said he didn’t care.” Ruby and the Rednecks’ staple, “He’s Got the Biggest Balls in Town,” was a favorite from Jackie Curtis’s Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit. “Ruby sang quite a few songs from Heaven Grand and Cock-Strong, and some original material,” said Play-House of the Ridiculous actor Michael Arian, a backup singer for the group. “All of her songs were not so much singing as little theater pieces, like Bette Midler did. Ruby was just extraordinary and was very, very entertaining.” Reyner often acted out the lyrics while contorting her rubbery face or shaking her glitter-slathered breasts like maracas to a Latin beat. Ruby and the Rednecks were one of the staples of the Mercer’s scene, appearing on the bill at a legendary New Year’s Eve 1972 gig with Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers, Suicide, Wayne County, and the New York Dolls. “Patti Smith was an opening act at Mercer Arts Center for a couple of shows when I played with the Dolls,” Reyner recalled. “She went on early, reading her poetry, so not that many people were there. She didn’t have her musicians yet, but she picked up the music pretty fast.”
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Dolls first threw rent parties at their downtown loft on 119 Chrystie Street before hitting the DIY concert circuit. With Jackie Curtis as the opening act, they played their first proper show in early 1972 in the Hotel Diplomat. The group also had a short residency at a gay bathhouse, the Continental Baths, where Bette Midler regularly performed with Barry Manilow (who sometimes blended in with the patrons by wearing nothing but a white towel). Underground rock, Off-Off-Broadway, and the cabaret scenes converged in the early 1970s, cross-pollinating each other. Midler, for example, had appeared at La MaMa in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets before she leveraged her act at the Continental Baths into pop stardom. Roberta Bayley, who later worked the door at CBGB, noted that the Dolls’ glittery, feminine clothes stood in sharp contrast to their masculine swagger. “That’s what was interesting,” Bayley said, “because these real guy-guys were wearing off-the-shoulder blouses and being very confident in their heterosexuality.” The Dolls had several ties to the fashion world; guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, for instance, was a designer who had a successful clothing company called Truth and Soul. “There were lots of people who wore colorful clothes or scarves or what have you,” said Agosto Machado. “It wasn’t unusual to see a more masculine man with a pink scarf, or have a few of their nails painted different colors.” Lisa Jane Persky added, “Growing up in the Village, everybody already dressed like the New York Dolls. And everybody was dressing like that in theater.”