Best known as the star of several John Waters films, Divine also appeared in several Cockettes shows, as well as Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars (along with Lisa Jane Persky, who also performed in the 1976 production at the Truck and Warehouse Theater).
Wendy Clarke felt that the Chelsea was a great place for her mother, Shirley Clarke, because it connected her to other like-minded souls. “It was the perfect lifestyle for her,” she said. “The lobby was like your living room, so you can sit in the lobby for hours and just have conversations with the most amazing people—Jonas Mekas, Divine, the guys who did Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni.” Just off the lobby was El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant and bar that served inexpensive lobster and was a popular hangout. Smith wandered in one night and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Tom Eyen’s script for Women Behind Bars was wild and over-the-top, and under Ron Link’s direction the show burst with the energy of punk rock. “It had to move like the Ramones,” cast member Lisa Jane Persky said. “It just wasn’t anything without that pace.” After the original run, Women Behind Bars opened at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, with Divine as the Matron and Lisa playing the Innocent Raped by the System. “I would get brought in to see the Matron,” she said, “and I would be all trembling and everything. It was arch. Divine would pull a chain and this giant bed with satin quilt came down, which would go boom! It fell on the floor, and then things proceeded from there.” Mainstream and underground culture often overlapped downtown, as when 1970s pop superstar Elton John frequently came to the show. “He’d buy a whole row of seats and fill it with friends,” Persky recalled, “and you could hear him laughing loudly in the audience.” John asked Divine to join him onstage at Madison Square Garden and invited the whole Women Behind Bars cast to the arena. Kiki Dee—who duetted with him on the 1976 hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”—came out for a couple songs, then Divine did a number in front of the biggest audience of his career. Divine was certainly not a household name outside of the worlds of trash cinema and Off-Off-Broadway but, as Persky recalled, “It turned out that the Elton crowd loved Divine. They went crazy!”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Lisa Jane Persky made her stage debut at La MaMa, she performed her next role in Women Behind Bars at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, located across the street. The show was written by Tom Eyen, who had humble beginnings at Caffe Cino but later created the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Women Behind Bars was a trashy satire of women’s prison movies with a cast that included Divine, who had also worked with the Cockettes in San Francisco. Divine was cast in the second production of Women Behind Bars, directed by Ron Link, who directed Jackie Curtis’s first play Glamour, Glory, and Gold, along with several other underground theater productions. One day in 1974, Lisa Jane Persky ran into Sweet William Edgar, a warmhearted actor who had a very nasal voice and brilliant comedic timing. “They’re casting for this new show, Women Behind Bars,” he told her. “You should audition!” She didn’t get a part at first, but she was hired as the understudy for all the roles and became Link’s assistant, which meant she did everything—from running lights and ironing costumes to bringing a rooster back to her apartment on weekdays. (The rooster played a chicken named Rosalita, a gender-bending casting decision that was typical of Off-Off-Broadway.) The original production was performed at Astor Place Theatre. Starring Pat Ast, Helen Hanft, Mary Woronov, and Sharon Barr, it was funny and entertaining, but it was also a starker version. Even the set was stripped down, with just a couple of benches and fake prison bars. “Ron could make something out of very little,” Barr recalled, who played a Marilyn Monroe type named Cheri Netherland. “Sharon Barr was fabulous,” recalled Woronov. “She was gigantic and gorgeous, and she walked around like she was on Mars. It was very funny.”
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