Haralambos Monroe “Harry” Koutoukas was an outré playwright with a kaleidoscopic way with words, whose plays were presented at many of the key Off-Off-Broadway venues: Caffe Cino, La MaMa, Theatre Genesis, and Judson Poets’ Theatre.
In addition to biological families, Greenwich Village offered informal kinship systems that welcomed people like Agosto Machado. He arrived there in the late fifties after growing up in some rough New York neighborhoods, such as Hell’s Kitchen, where he heard schoolyard taunts like “Ooh, you’re so queer you should go to Greenwich Village.” “People came from different parts of the city to express yourself in the Village,” Machado said. “I didn’t really feel I was part of the majority culture, which is why so many people who were trying to find themselves gravitated there.” Just being gay made one a criminal and an outsider. In the early 1960s, a man still could be arrested for wearing women’s clothes in public, so Machado and his friends would carry their drag finery in shopping bags and then change once they hit a critical mass. After the sun went down, they promenaded up and down the street—sometimes gathering by Gay Street, which intersected Christopher, down the street from where Harry Koutoukas lived at 87 Christopher. “Honey, where are we? Gay Street!” they’d all shout. It was safety in numbers. “The queens, all the way down Sheridan Square, would have an audience,” Machado said, “people walking by, people on the stoop. And as the evening wore on, they got a little louder and grander—showing their new fabric they got, or a new wig. It was a street society, and you could walk around and feel that your community would protect you.”
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Haralambos Monroe “Harry” Koutoukas took a bus from his home in upstate New York to Greenwich Village just as the 1950s came to a close, in search of adventure. “When Koutoukas hit town, he was an Adonis, a Greek youth with abundant energy, personality, and natural wit. He was able to express himself in the vernacular of downtown—being free,” said Agosto Machado, a Chinese-Spanish Christopher Street queen and Zelig-like figure who witnessed the rise of the underground theater and film movements, the 1960s counterculture, gay liberation, and punk rock. Even in the Village, which was bursting with theatrical flourishes, this Greek American cut a striking figure. Entering a coffeehouse, Koutoukas might come swooshing in the door with a large swath of fabric flowing behind him—all while holding a cigarette high, for dramatic effect. “It was sort of grand,” Machado said, “but it wasn’t a pretentious-grand. It was a fun-grand.”
Harry Koutoukas likely picked up this flair for the dramatic while growing up outside of Binghamton, New York, in the “Magic City” of Endicott. His family ran a restaurant and entertainment establishment that booked “female impersonators,” though he was forbidden to see those shows when he was an adolescent. Undeterred, Koutoukas snuck in to see the outlandish performers (who were a bit taller than ordinary women, with large hands and an exaggerated sense of femininity). This planted a seed in Harry’s mind that a weirder world was within his reach, and through magazines and movies he discovered Greenwich Village. Ahh, Koutoukas thought, now there’s a place I’d like to go. “By the time Koutoukas came to the Village,” recalled Agosto Machado, “things were shifting. There was a ferment of sexual revolution, the beginnings of a youthquake.” Harry Koutoukas, who lived for fifty years at 87 Christopher Street, was one of many men and women who gravitated from other cities and countries to the Village, a catch-all term that included Greenwich Village, the East Village, and other surrounding neighborhoods.
Soon after arriving, Harry Koutoukas befriended a gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino, who helped spark the underground theater revolution known as Off-Off-Broadway. “Caffe Cino encouraged creativity and no barriers,” Agosto Machado said. “You’d just say you’re a playwright, and then you would put on a play.” This storefront theater was located on Cornelia Street, a block-long side street that connects Bleecker with West Fourth Street and got little foot traffic. Cornelia was one of those charming little Village roads near Washington Square Park that could have easily appeared on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (that iconic album cover was shot on Jones Street, just one block to the north). Coffeehouses proliferated in Greenwich Village because the area had plenty of empty commercial spaces; these establishments were much cheaper to run than bars, which required the proper city licenses and Mafia protection rackets. Caffe Cino had six or eight little tables with wire-back chairs that were complemented by a hodgepodge of other furniture found in the street. Its stage was usually set in the center, among the tables, though this arrangement often changed from show to show. In the back of the Cino, to the left, was a counter with an espresso machine and a hallway that led to a tiny dressing room and a toilet. During its early days, the place was lit by Chinese lanterns and other little lights, though Caffe Cino grew more cluttered as time went on.
Lisa Jane Persky entered Harry Koutoukas’s life in 1965, when she was about ten years old and her family moved into 87 Christopher Street. This nineteenth-century tenement apartment building was a microcosm of the neighborhood, hosting everyone from the playwright, Persky, and Yoko Ono to a mother-daughter pair who were always standing at the building’s entrance. Rosie was a diminutive older lady, and her daughter Ernestine was in her forties or fifties. “Harry is not a homosexual,” Rosie would insist. “He is refined.” “The thing about the Village that I really miss now,” Persky said, “there were lots and lots of old ladies in the doorways, just enjoying the night air and hanging out.” In these small residential buildings, neighbors passed each other returning with groceries or coming home from work (if they had jobs, which wasn’t true of Koutoukas). People were coming and going at all times of the day and night, and they inevitably stopped and talked to each other. The surrounding streets were also a mixture of old and new worlds, where openly gay street queens crossed paths with those from more traditionally conservative immigrant backgrounds. Persky also couldn’t help but notice that Christopher Street was a place where many gay men congregated, including Koutoukas. “I remember thinking that Harry was so exotic, because he dressed in a really flamboyant way,” she said, “but to me it was just fashionable and lavish. He had really cool clothes and other stuff. He had a very fanciful way about him that was, to a kid, so attractive—because it was totally genuine, not false.” She recalled that everything was theater to Harry, including the exaggerated way he carried himself while swooping to pick up a bag of groceries, or rounding a corner. He once described these fluid movements to Lisa’s mother as being “like the inside of a washing machine.”
Caffe Cino became an alternative to Off-Broadway, which emerged in response to the conservatism of Broadway—whose producers, even then, were loath to take risks and instead relied on revivals of established hit shows that could guarantee a return on their investments. Off-Broadway shifted American theater from its midtown Manhattan roots after venues such as Cherry Lane Theatre drew audiences further downtown. This new theater movement created a low-budget style that offered artistic freedom, but by the end of the 1950s Off-Broadway’s budgets rose and its theaters followed the same cautious logic of Broadway producers. The time was ripe for Off-Off-Broadway. “There was no way to get a show on Broadway,” said Michael Smith. “At that point in time it cost a lot of money to put a show on Off-Broadway. You would have to go raising money, and a lot of the budgets at that point were $20,000. That was a lot of money.” Instead, Caffe Cino staged shows for a few dollars or for nothing (when Smith staged his first play there, he dragged his own bed down Cornelia Street to be used as part of the set). Off-Off-Broadway locales were akin to the barebones venues where punk rock developed in the mid-1970s—introducing the idea that one could simply do it yourself, without waiting for funding or the approval of cultural gatekeepers. “Arrogant peacocks like Harry Koutoukas were a product of the Off-Off Broadway milieu,” recalled Robert Patrick. “Since nobody was making any money and hardly ever getting reviewed at that time, it was the first time in history that theater became this totally self-expressive art form. A playwright could produce whatever they wanted.” Koutoukas was free to craft his playful, poetic wordplay and unconventional scenarios that never could have made their way to Off-Broadway, much less Broadway, and he immediately attached himself to Joe Cino. “Harry just worshiped Joe,” Patrick said. “Most of my Cino memories of Harry are him at Joe’s side, or talking to Joe by the counter, or at a table with him.”
Playwright Robert Heide first met Koutoukas around 1959, when both young men followed bohemian paths that had been blazed by the Beats. “I met up with Harry several times on MacDougal Street, in the coffee shops,” Heide said, “where he would be carrying a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and I would as well. So we began talking existentialism.” When he first crossed paths with Koutoukas, Heide thought he was a lesbian with a 1950s-style DA haircut. They’d congregate at Lenny’s Hideaway, a Greenwich Village cellar gay bar that was an important node in the downtown’s overlapping social networks.
Along with Lenny’s Hideaway on West Tenth Street and Seventh Avenue, the San Remo was another regular stop on the downtown circuit—a traditional village tavern with pressed-tin ceilings and wooden walls that was further south, on MacDougal Street and Bleecker. There, playwrights Harry Koutoukas and Tom Eyen rubbed shoulders with eccentric characters like Ian Orlando MacBeth, who spoke in iambic pentameter, dressed in Shakespearean garb, and sometimes wore a live parrot on his shoulder. (He also dyed his beard pink.) MacBeth and others favored a drink called the Clinker, a powerful apricot brandy concoction served in a brass cup. “People would wind up on the floor drinking these things,” Robert Heide recalled. “They were really powerful.” Koutoukas appropriated MacBeth’s affectation and began wearing a stuffed parrot on his own shoulder. The bird perched on his black cape was as much tongue in cheek as it was a genuine attempt to cultivate himself as a memorable Village character. “Harry created this persona with his colorful clothing and dramatic flourishes,” Heide recalled, “and Andy Warhol as well. Andy created a whole persona that was kind of the opposite of Harry’s: affectless.” Whereas Koutoukas dramatically waltzed into the San Remo—with a cigarette held high, wearing his cape and stuffed parrot—Warhol was more likely to be barely seen and not heard, quietly sitting at a table, observing.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Harry Koutoukas’s apartment was small, dark, and cramped. There was just enough room for a sink and bathtub in the kitchen area, plus a little dining table, and behind that was a small area where the playwright slept. Actor James Hall, another resident of 87 Christopher, recalled, “All kinds of people went up to his apartment—Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni, who wrote Hair—all those guys. His apartment had dragons, creatures, all kinds of wild decorations.” Koutoukas also made an impression on the young Lisa Jane Persky. He dazzled her with his reality-bending stories, such as how his electricity was powered by albino cockroaches that ran on little spinning wheels in his bathtub. “It was like having a real poet in your midst,” she said, “who completely grasped what was going on around him and turned it into something more beautiful, elegant, crazy, exaggerated.” Jane, Lisa’s mother, remembered Harry as a very warm person who made life in the building much more interesting, introducing her to his friends and bringing them by the apartment. “I don’t think Harry ever had a regular job,” she said. “He had some patrons, always, but he also always owed money.” Ono helped Koutoukas from time to time throughout his life, and if bills came when he didn’t have any money, he would stamp it deceased and mail it back—so he could spend what little he had producing his Off-Off-Broadway shows.
From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Lisa Jane Persky’s family bounced around several apartments downtown until, in 1965, she moved with her mother, stepfather, and three young siblings into 87 Christopher Street—a five-floor walkup tenement building where Harry Koutoukas lived for a half century. Located about four blocks south of Jane Jacobs’s residence, it was one of those areas that may very well have been razed to make room for a large housing development if Robert Moses had had his way. Yoko Ono was also living there with her husband, jazz musician Tony Cox. On the evening the family was supposed to move in, Persky stood on the old hexagonal subway tile in the building’s entrance, then walked up the stairs past the metal mailboxes. “We got there about 9:30,” recalled Jane Holley Wilson, Lisa’s mother, “but we couldn’t get into apartment number ten, which we were supposed to move in to, so we knocked and Tony Cox came to the door.” Cox served as the building’s superintendent, along with Ono, who had recently given birth to their daughter, Kyoko. Because they were already living in the apartment Lisa’s family had been promised, Tony put them downstairs, in apartment number one. “I’ll give you the key to your apartment,” Cox said, “but first I want to show you my wife and kid.” The eleven-year-old Persky followed her mother into the apartment, where she saw a pull-down bed with a woman lying facedown with black hair spread out across the white sheets. “It was quite a moment,” Persky recalled, “the baby lying in the bed, and Yoko, black hair spread out. But I didn’t know who Yoko Ono was. I certainly did not understand that as a kid, so I was like, ‘Okay, we saw that. Can we get in our apartment now?’”
It didn’t take long for Lisa Jane Persky to figure out that Yoko Ono wasn’t a typical building superintendent. “Yoko was definitely doing Happenings and Fluxus art–type things,” Persky said, recalling an event Ono held on the rooftop of their building, Morning Piece. “She was always really interesting. I was fascinated by her. She gets the shit end of the stick a lot, but I think she is a miracle of womanhood.” The busy artist sometimes dropped off Kyoko for Lisa and her mother to babysit, telling them she would be back by eleven o’clock that night—though occasionally Ono would return much later. “She would also wait for my mother to leave and then say, ‘You take the baby,’ ” Persky said, “and it was just total nonsense. There were a lot of things about her that were interesting.” While living at 87 Christopher Street, Ono and Cox struggled a great deal in their marriage. “She and Tony had big fights,” Jane Holley Wilson recalled. “It could get uncomfortable.” The couple lived in the apartment next door to Harry Koutoukas, and Ono became good friends with him after having a terrible argument with Cox, who slammed the door and left. “Silence,” Ono recalled. “Then I heard somebody knocking on my door very quietly. That was Harry. He invited me for tea at his apartment. He made tea, never mentioning what he obviously heard through the paper-thin wall. He was very considerate. I have never forgotten that afternoon—and how sweet Harry was.”
Multimedia artist Yoko Ono organized downtown Manhattan’s first loft events, the Chambers Street Loft Series, in what is now called TriBeCa (the triangle below Canal Street). This area was her home base from the late 1950s until she moved in the mid-1960s into the same West Village building where Harry Koutoukas lived. Unlike more traditional venues that limited the length of individual pieces, Ono’s series had no such limitations, which helped change the course of modern composition by opening up new possibilities that were free from temporal constraints. The wide-open spaces in Ono’s industrial loft also created interesting spatial opportunities for the artists who participated in the Chambers Street Loft Series. John Cage and pianist David Tudor attended the first performance on a snowy day in December 1960—along with Dadaists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, a kind of avant-garde passing of the torch. “I met John Cage towards the end of the fifties through Stefan Wolpe,” Ono recalled. “What Cage gave me was confidence, that the direction I was going in was not crazy. It was accepted in the world called the avant-garde. . . . It was a great feeling to know that there was a whole school of artists and musicians who gathered in New York at the time, who were each in his or her own way revolutionary.” This was an epiphany, for Ono had spent much of her life up to that point feeling as though she didn’t belong. She studied philosophy at Gakushuin University in Tokyo and, later, composition at Sarah Lawrence College, but found both educational experiences constraining, so she forged her own path in downtown New York.
Eventually, Caffe Cino became known for staging plays based on comic books. This tradition began when someone suggested that they perform scenes from a Wonder Woman comic that was lying around the Cino. Great idea, Robert Patrick thought, so he sent someone out to buy extra copies of the comic at the corner store. “You’re Steve Trevor,” Patrick said, grabbing anyone who was available. “You’re Woozy Winks. You’re Etta Candy.” Diana Prince—aka Wonder Woman—was played by Harry Koutoukas (he eventually put the name “Diana Prince” on his mailbox at 87 Christopher Street). “Within the hour,” Patrick said, “we had The Secret of Taboo Mountain, the Cino’s first comic book play. There were four comic book shows: Wonder Woman, Snow White, Archie and His Friends, and a ‘Classic Comics’ version of Faust.” Koutoukas also appeared in Snow White, where friends and audience members were sometimes recruited minutes before a performance. Robert Shields, the actor who played Grumpy, recalled that the number of dwarves fluctuated from evening to evening. “One night we had something like eighteen to twenty dwarves running back and forth,” he said. “Fred Willard did it one night. Whoever was there, they’d just say ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll do that.’ So occasionally we had more dwarves than we had audience.”
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“I stepped into the new century my first day in New York when I stepped into Caffe Cino,” playwright Robert Patrick said. “There was no question that I was in the most important place in the world. I know Harry Koutoukas felt like that. Whenever nothing else was booked, Joe Cino would say, ‘Harry, you’ve got something?’ and Harry would give him a title. Then Joe would put the title in the Voice.” Though Koutoukas had been hanging around the Cino for a few years, his career as a playwright began in December 1964 with Only a Countess May Dance When She’s Crazy (an Historical Camp), which he wrote and directed at Caffe Cino. The script has the Countess shouting, “Bring me MY TIERRA—The one with the fewest jewels. . . . Oh there is no one to bring it—NO ONE TO BRING IT! NO ONE SHALL BRING IT OR CAN—I shall bring it unto myself! Even if I have to get it myself.” When the Countess returns with her “tierra,” she is interrupted by the ringing of a telephone, followed by the lowering of the paper cup on a string, which she answers. (When Koutoukas was asked why he couldn’t just use a prop telephone, the playwright snapped, “In a Koutoukas production, it’s paper cups.”) This provocateur, poet, and playwright had a knack for wordplay that spilled over into the titles of his “camps” (Koutoukas’s preferred term for plays), such as Tidy Passions, or Kill, Kaleidoscope, Kill (an Epic Camp) and Awful People Are Coming Over So We Must Be Pretending to Be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away.
During the Caffe Cino production of The Death of Tintagiles, Harry Koutoukas stirred up trouble as he sat by the stage wearing his cape with the fake parrot on his shoulder. “It was supposed to be a serious play,” said cast member Jayne Anne Harris, “but, well, Harry was kind of a force of nature, even from the audience.” The trouble began when the lead actress pushed open a set door with her pinky, even though it was supposed to be heavy, which Koutoukas found endlessly amusing. “She was a Method actress, and she was a pain in the ass,” Harris recalled. “If you laugh one more time, I will cut you,” she declared, which only made Koutoukas laugh harder. “If you laugh one more time, I WILL CUT YOU!” she said again in a very dramatic Shakespearean voice, while holding a sword over her head. Koutoukas laughed again. Robdert Patrick, who was managing Caffe Cino that night, recalled that “she buried her sword in Harry’s table and stormed out.” The Death of Tintagiles’s run abruptly ended, so the café crowd quickly threw together a new show—a common occurrence at Caffe Cino.