Playwright and performer Charles Ludlam briefly worked with John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous before forming his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company and mounting his breakthrough play, Bluebeard, at La MaMa.
“I would go on the Greyhound bus and sneak away to New York,” recalled film director John Waters, a devotee of Jonas Mekas’s screenings. “I’d go to the Bridge Theatre. I went to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. I went to see the early Warhol movies, Jack Smith movies, all that stuff.” He also attended Play-House of the Ridiculous shows, and developed a shared sensibility with downtown artists like John Vaccaro, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. “I went to a lot of the John Vaccaro stuff,” Waters said. “Also, Charles Ludlam was my friend. That’s what influenced my movie Multiple Maniacs, like the lobster rape scene. It was the Theater of the Ridiculous.” Waters even attended New York University briefly, until he was expelled after being busted for marijuana possession. “But it wasn’t really NYU’s fault,” he said. “I didn’t go to class. I went to Times Square every day and saw movies. I stole books from their bookshop and sold them back the next day to make money. I took drugs. I probably should’ve been thrown out.”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After splitting with John Vaccaro, Charles Ludlam staged a lightly rewritten version of Conquest of the Universe, pointedly titled When Queens Collide, and then gained much more acclaim when he mounted Bluebeard at La MaMa in 1970. It was camp pastiche of the old French folktale, in which Bluebeard was a mad scientist who tried to create a “third sex” by performing gruesome operations on his wives. It unfolded like a mash‑up of Victorian melodrama and 1930s horror films—culminating with the newest wife, played by Mario Montez, closing the show displaying an ambiguous “third genital.” While Bluebeard’s plot was way-out, it never veered into the alternate dimensions conjured up by Vaccaro’s shows. “Charles Ludlum’s style was about ‘gay’ theater,” Mary Woronov said. “It was guys dressing up as women and performing. Vaccaro didn’t care if you’re a girl or a boy. It had nothing to do with changing sexes, or being gay or straight.” Whereas Ludlam leaned heavily toward straightforward camp—with references to old Hollywood films and other common tropes—Vaccaro’s work was something else entirely: satirical, political, operatic, and visually over the top. “John felt he was painting with theater,” Zanetta said, “and he used actors like they were his colors. They were his tools. But he wasn’t really so much about traditional theater at all like Charles was.” When the two queens finally collided socially, after years of not speaking to each other, all Vaccaro said he could muster was, “Oh, Charles. You’re as ridiculous as I am.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The first three years of the Play-House’s existence were turbulent, and the itinerant company bounced from location to location until finding a home at La MaMa in 1968. There was also quite a bit of turnover, beginning with the departure of Ronald Tavel. He balked when John Vaccaro wanted to cut out two-thirds of the seventy-page script for his camp masterpiece Gorilla Queen, so the playwright took it to Judson Church and left the Play-House of the Ridiculous for good. Vaccaro then directed Big Hotel by newcomer Charles Ludlam, who also quit, taking most of the cast with him to form his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “Conquest of the Universe was the one Charles wrote, and then he left,” Vaccaro explained. “So I got all these people from Warhol—like Taylor Mead, Ondine, Mary Woronov, and Rene Ricard—to do the show at the Bouwerie Lane Theater.” Vaccaro’s press release described Conquest as a “paramoral” science fiction story where Adolf Hitler’s writings mixed with old movie scripts and dialogue from television shows: “The dour pornography of the daily Vietnam reports is here met by the screaming pornography of the truth.”
Pam Tent lived in downtown New York in the late 1960s before moving to San Francisco and joining the Cockettes. She was squatting in a rundown building on East Third Street that was populated by a biker gang, the Aliens, who rode their motorcycles up and down the stairs. “It was pretty wild,” she said. “It was a very scary scene, very dubious, so we didn’t stay there long.” Tent didn’t have a steady job, so she panhandled in the streets while singing “Pennies from Heaven” and catching coins that people threw at her. She had been a natural performer since she was a child, when her mother made curtains and set up bleachers in their backyard for a “circus” that she produced every summer. While she was still living downtown, Tent met future New York Dolls frontman David Johansen. He was working after high school in a clothing store in the St. Mark’s Place area that had all sorts of garish clothes strewn throughout—fantastical outfits with boas, rhinestones, and other glitter-camp materials. “It turns out that he was making costumes for Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company,” Johansen said of the store’s owner. “So I started going around to where they would rehearse and getting involved in that, playing guitar or doing the sound and lights. Sometimes I would be a spear-carrier or something.” He appeared in a few Ludlam productions, such as Whores of Babylon, where he appeared as a lion, nude with teased hair. “David was walking down the street and we got into a conversation,” Tent said of the first time they crossed paths. “There was never stranger danger. Everybody just was brothers and sisters. David and I used to sit around St. Mark’s Place, which was a place for all the hippies.” The two became quite close, and he introduced her to Max’s Kansas City, where he had worked.
From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore