George Harris, Jr. was married to Ann Harris, and together they raised six children who were all involved in theater at Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and Judson Church.
Before George Harris III became part of the La MaMa family and later formed the gender-fluid theater troupe the Cockettes, the future Hibiscus put on shows with his family in Clearwater, Florida. George—who was also called G3, along with other nicknames—was the oldest of six siblings: three girls and three boys, sort of an avant-garde Brady Bunch. In the early 1960s, the kids formed the El Dorado Players, a theatrical troupe that put on shows in the Harris family’s cramped garage, where the backstage door led to the kitchen. They placed lawn chairs in their driveway and sometimes rented klieg lights to announce the latest premiere of their homemade shows. “Hibiscus had real leadership qualities,” said his youngest sister, Mary Lou Harris. “He came out of the womb as the grand marshal. He was just like the leader of the parade.” She compared her brother’s methods to a Hollywood studio system in the way that he conceived and cast his DIY theatrical productions, then put his family to work. George also got help from his mother, who wrote plays and music in college, and his father, a natural theatrical performer and drummer. “Just look at those Busby Berkeley movies, he was our idol,” his mother, Ann Harris, said. “We all liked Busby Berkeley. I made sure they saw those thirties movies and things that I loved, like Fred Astaire. I would take them to the movies and show them what I liked.” From these beginnings to the very end of his life—Hibiscus was among the very first who succumbed to the AIDS epidemic, in 1982—his colorful productions were a product of, and collaboration with, a family that cultivated his offbeat aesthetic.
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After staging their DIY productions in Clearwater, Florida, the Harris family decided to dive into show business by moving to New York. “I recall sitting around in a room, with Mom and Dad having discussed it,” Walter Michael Harris said, “and they decided to put it to us kids, and they asked us what we thought.” Mary Lou recalled, “We had those pivotal moments where somebody would say, ‘It’s time to jump.’ We always did, and I feel like we always jumped to the right place.” In January 1962, Big George moved to the city ahead of the rest of the family to check out the situation. He got his Equity card right away with a play called Wide Open Cage and, purely by chance, met Ellen Stewart. They became close, and she helped find the first apartment his family would move into—a cramped walkup apartment on First Avenue, just around the corner from La MaMa. “Thanks to Ellen,” George said, “I had a place to live, current New York credits, and introductions to playwrights and producers.” The next person to move to New York was G3, in 1963. “My brother George came back and forth a few times,” Jayne Anne said, “and then when I was eight, going on nine, I remember getting on the train with him, and it was a twenty-four-hour ride. We ended up in a car full of nuns who took us under their wing because we were in coach and they had little rooms.” By 1964, the rest of the family was in New York. Eloise Harris’s first sight after arriving in the city was steam coming out of the sewers and a massive Camel cigarettes sign that blew smoke rings into the air. “Imagine taking your kids and moving to the Lower East Side with the idea that everybody is going to be actors, and then everybody just went ahead and did that,” said Eloise. “No one was thinking, like, ‘How are we going to make money?’ There was no real plan.” Ann Harris recalled that they just decided to do it. “I mean, with no knowledge of anything except suburban life,” she said, “and this was the nitty-gritty city in the East Village.”
Eventually, Ellen Stewart found the Harris family a larger loft apartment around the corner, right next door to Café La Mama, at 319 Ninth Street. Eloise and Mary Lou’s sleeping loft was in the living room, with a white picket fence around it, and the girls would roller-skate through the long apartment. The kitchen had a piano that was constantly being used, along with a set of drums that Walter and Big George played. Ann made their thespian hub run like clockwork—walking the kids to school, shopping for groceries at the A&P, and on weekends dragging bags of clothes and costumes back from the laundromat as the kids jumped in the piles of warm fabric. “Fortunately, we had ready-made theater friends in Ellen Stewart and Joe Cino,” Walter said, “because Dad had already been doing shows in both of those places. Judson Poets’ Theatre was another one. In those days, there was a Holy Trinity of Off-Off-Broadway: Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and Judson.” Of the three, Stewart was most involved with the Harris family. After Café La MaMa moved to its Second Avenue location, Stewart kept that East Ninth Street location as a rehearsal space and opened it up for the Harris family to use. “Ellen was lovely,” Ann effused. “There were some really beautiful people who really latched onto us and showed us the way, because we didn’t know anything about what to do. You could go over to Judson or Caffe Cino and mount a show. Joe Cino didn’t care what you did. He just gave you a date.” Walter added, “I think we were a little bit of an anomaly at the Cino and at La MaMa, because we were so young. Here’s this family with kids who were all involved in whatever these artists were up to, in these magic places.”
The Judson Poets’ Theatre show Gorilla Queen was a bawdy, campy, satirical riff on old B movies that featured two members of the Harris family: George Harris, Jr. and his son, a pre-Hibiscus George Harris III. “I met the Harris family at Judson,” Agosto Machado recalled. “I feel very blessed to have met them. There was so much love with that family, and the parents were so nurturing.” Jayne Anne Harris appeared in the Judson production Sing Ho for a Bear, an adaptation of Winnie-the-Pooh with music by Al Carmines, and she also did a few Happenings there. “There was nudity,” she said, “there were people running around, there was all kinds of stuff going on.” One Happening involved a red team and a blue team that performed different dances to the Righteous Brothers song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as a man roller-skated by in a yellow dress. Walter Michael Harris also performed in a Happening that was organized by director Tom O’Horgan. “The whole point of that Happening was to have what Tom called a kinetic sculpture,” he said, “or human sculpture with music and other stuff.” O’Horgan collected musical instruments from around the world, and he gave Walter some Tibetan chimes for him to play as he walked around in a funny hat; the two would later work together in the 1968 Broadway debut of Hair, which O’Horgan directed. “Once we did an Easter sunrise morning Happening in Washington Square Park,” Kornfeld recalled. “During the middle of it, Andy Warhol arrived and he drove into the park in a white limousine. He drove right into the center to upstage it, so we embraced it. It was all part of camping, making an entrance.”
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After working with Andy Warhol on his early films, Ronald Tavel began staging his scripts with John Vaccaro’s theater company, Play-House of the Ridiculous. After another split—this time with Vaccaro—Larry Kornfeld agreed to stage Gorilla Queen at Judson Church. The show was about a tribe that worshipped an effeminate creature named Queen Kong; like Pomegranada, it was an entertaining comment on society. During the gorilla’s entrance, for example, Queen Kong swung on a rope and struck a swishy limp-wrist pose. “It was the funniest thing you could see,” Kornfeld said, “and it was high camp. A big gorilla suddenly doing a very fey limp wrist move? Only at Judson.” Gorilla Queen debuted in the spring of 1967, with George Harris Jr. playing the lead ape role, Brute, who served as a kind of narrator. His son George III was a member of the Glitz Iona tribe, a kind of Greek chorus that would fall silent during a scary scene, or move about and screech when something provocative was said. “What a sweet family,” said Norman Marshall, who played Queen Kong. “They were all lovely people. Hibiscus, or George Harris III, he was very, very young. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and he seemed like a child, sixteen or seventeen. His father and I, and Jimmy O’Bryant, we were the only straight guys in the play, and we became very good friends.”
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore