Wayne County—who transitioned to Jayne County by the end of the 1970s—fronted several glam and punk groups throughout that decade: Queen Elizabeth, The Electric Chairs, and The Backstreet Boys (whose name was unwittingly ripped off by a 1990s boy band).
The Play-House of the Ridiculous initially developed out of a collaboration between John Vaccaro and Ronald Tavel. In 1965, they staged Tavel’s one-acts The Life of Juanita Castro and Shower at a little gallery on 89 East Tenth Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. “That street was originally inhabited by de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and all those types of artists,” recalled Vaccaro. “It was an art gallery called the Coda, and we had sixty folding chairs and no theater lights.” Vaccaro also directed the Tavel plays Screen Test, Indira Gandhi’s Daring Device, and The Life of Lady Godiva. The transgender glam-punk rocker and Off-Off-Broadway performer Jayne County (then known as Wayne County) recalled seeing the latter show in 1967, not long after she arrived in New York. “My mind was blown, totally blown. It was a life-changer,” County said. “First of all, I was shocked and very embarrassed. It hadn’t been that long since I had just come from Georgia, so I really had a lot of that little farm girl in me. The scene that really got me was when Ruby Lynn Reyner was fucking a wooden horse, and I had never seen anything like that. It embarrassed me. But it was genius, of course, genius.” Tavel and Vaccaro first called themselves Theater of the Ridiculous, but after city officials harassed them for running an unlicensed theater they became the Play-House of the Ridiculous Repertory Club, a semantic sleight of hand that allowed them to evade the letter of the law.
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis was big, not at all femme, and looked like a man in a dress: a little stubble or a beard, torn stockings, trashed dresses, smeared makeup, and plenty of body odor. This tattered look came out of necessity because Curtis was constantly broke, though it was also deliberate—because if a rich patron gave her a brand-new designer dress, she didn’t think twice about shredding it. “They would get rips and things in them,” recalled her friend Jayne County, “and she really didn’t have the money to buy new ones, so she would just continue to wear them and they’d get more and more holes in them. Finally, they were just kind of rags on her legs. They became works of art. Sometimes she would put them together with safety pins, not because she was trying to be cute, but because she was really trying to keep the dress together. It became a style and a fashion, but she was the first person I ever saw to wear that style.” Curtis loved 1930s dresses, which could easily be found in thrift stores or by raiding Slugger Ann’s and Aunt Josie’s closets. One time, when a neighbor passed away, Jackie crawled through the window onto the building ledge and broke into the deceased woman’s apartment, bringing back an entire wardrobe of black Italian dresses, shoes, and accessories. “Jackie was blowing up the idea of gender,” actress Melba LaRose observed. “When he was a boy he liked to look really rough: saddle shoes or other big shoes, vest sweaters like a boy jock.” Agosto Machado recalled, “With Jackie, you never knew what she was going to wear or what she was going to do, but she had a force of personality.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Several future stars and cult artists also passed through Max’s Kansas City. New York Dolls frontman David Johansen and the Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman worked as busboys, and country singer Emmylou Harris was a waitress in the late 1960s. Jayne County recalled another waitress who “was always stoned and regularly dropped cheeseburgers in people’s laps. Her name was Debbie Harry.” She had sung backup vocals in a short-lived hippie band named Wind in the Willows, then quit the group and worked as a waitress at Max’s. “I had fun and I certainly had friends there,” she said, “but I wasn’t part of the Warhol crowd. I wasn’t part of any single crowd. I was pretty much the fly on the wall, so to speak.” The back room crowd was always trying to one‑up each other and gain Warhol’s attention—like Andrea Whips, who might jump on the table and announce, “It’s SHOWTIME,” then insert a wine bottle in her vagina. “Max’s back room was everything you’d think it would be,” said Play-House of the Ridiculous actor Michael Arian, “with art on the walls and people freaking out and jumping up on the tables, throwing chickpeas everywhere, wagging their feet at people, and fucking on the floor in the back. It was a great place.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
One might say Max’s Kansas City owner Mickey Ruskin was an art patron who happened to run downtown bars and coffeehouses. Andy Warhol gave him art in exchange for an unlimited bar tab, so that he and his Factory associates could eat and drink for free. “Mickey had always been attracted to the downtown art atmosphere—at Deux Mégots, he’d held poetry readings—and now painters and poets were starting to drift into Max’s,” Warhol recalled. “The art heavies would group around the bar and the kids would be in the back room, basically.” Future Warhol superstar Viva (born Janet Susan Mary Hoffmann) began going to Max’s with a couple of painter friends well before she met Warhol. “We went to the opening of Max’s,” she recalled. “Soon, everybody congregated there, including Andy Warhol, but I met a lot of people at Max’s before I even got involved with Andy.” The energy at Max’s Kansas City increased in the spring of 1966 when Ruskin opened up the unused back room to Warhol, who lurked at a big roundtable. Dan Flavin’s red neon light sculpture, which lit the room, cast even the most innocent visitors in a hellish light. “Max’s was the place where all the different scenes crossed and merged, which was what made New York so fabulous in the late sixties and early seventies,” recalled Jayne County, then known as Wayne County. “The gay scene, the drug scene, the theatre scene, the music scene, the art scene. Everyone was getting ideas off everyone else, and everyone ended up in a film or a band or something.” During the 1970s, County became one of the club’s resident DJs, and her various bands regularly performed there with the Ramones, Blondie, and other punk groups.
Recalling Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale play at La MaMa, Jayne County said Patti Smith “played a mafia dyke with a mustache and a really ridiculous Italian accent, like ‘Heeeeeey, wassa matta, you fuck-a-wid me, I blow-a ya fuckin’ brains out!’ She had a big phallus hanging between her legs and she was always picking it up and waving it at people.” The ambiguously gendered Smith also shot-gunned lines like “He could take her or leave her. And he took her and then he left her.” At the end of Femme Fatale, the cast crucified Curtis’s character by stapling her to a giant IBM computer punch-card as one character said, “Christ, you’re hung!” While Curtis put on an unforgettable act, it was Smith who struck audience member Lenny Kaye as one of the show’s breakout performers. “It was pretty sweet,” the future Patti Smith Group guitarist recalled. “I immediately thought she was one of the most engaging persons I’d ever seen, and I didn’t even get to meet her that time. I just remember seeing her from afar. She was with Robert Mapplethorpe, and was a gloriously charismatic person with a lot of style.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Vain Victory’s rehearsals at La MaMa’s practice space in the East Village were scheduled around I Love Lucy reruns, which Curtis watched twice each afternoon. (“I Love Lucy was a staple of Jackie’s life,” said Jayne County, who recalled that she would often act out scenes from the show in the apartment they shared.) These rehearsals started mid-afternoon and would sprawl into the evening—which made it accessible for people like Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner to drop by, along with others. “It was a gathering, and a continuation of an almost party-like atmosphere,” cast member Agosto Machado said. “From there, people could just stroll up to Max’s Kansas City, a little north of Union Square. As they say, ‘Location, location, location.’ Jackie would meet someone at Max’s Kansas City, and invite them, ‘Would you like to be in my play?’ ” Vain Victory morphed considerably as Jackie added and subtracted cast members over the course of the extended six-month rehearsal period. “During that time we departed from the original script,” Machado said, “because Jackie would see something on TV or heard something and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this.’ ” Tomlin recalled, “It was terribly imaginative, connected with all kinds of pop culture references that took on another angle the way Jackie used them.” Sometimes, lines from I Love Lucy would make their way into the play, or dialogue from an old film that Curtis saw on late-night television. “Jackie would put speed in her coffee,” County recalled, “and she’d sit there and write and write—sometimes outrageous things that made no sense at all, and sometimes it would be things from the telephone book, or things from TV Guide. She took a lot from TV Guide, because she loved old movies.” Curtis’s plays were among the first to heavily appropriate from popular culture, a pastiche-heavy style that would become associated with postmodernism (not that she thought of her plays in such highfalutin terms).
Patti Smith was wary of the Warhol scene, but she supported Robert Mapplethorpe’s desire to break into that world. This led them to what she called the downtown’s “Bermuda Triangle”: Brownie’s vegetarian restaurant, Max’s Kansas City, and Warhol’s Factory, which were within walking distance of one another. Warhol had become reclusive after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, but the back room of Max’s remained one of the downtown scene’s hot spots. Its social politics were reminiscent of high school, though the popular people were not jocks and prom queens, but rather drag queens (who, as Smith observed, knew more about being a girl than most females). Mapplethorpe and Smith sat for hours nursing twenty-five cent coffees or a Coke as they slowly edged their way into the dark, red-lit cabaret that was Max’s back room—where “superstars” made grand entrances, blowing theatrical kisses. Smith was especially taken by Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Wayne County, whom she viewed as hybrid performance artists and comedians. “Wayne was witty, Candy was pretty, and Holly had drama,” she recalled, “but I put my money on Jackie Curtis. In my mind, she had the most potential. She would successfully manipulate a whole conversation just to deliver one of Bette Davis’s killer lines.”
Through hanging out in Max’s Kansas City, Patti Smith became friendly with Jackie Curtis—who cast her, Wayne County, and Penny Arcade in Femme Fatale, which debuted at La MaMa on May 6, 1970. Wayne County, who would become Jayne County by the end of the 1970s, was the newest addition to the downtown’s glitter mafia. She met Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn in 1969, soon after moving from Georgia to New York, and by this point she was living with Curtis and several others in a tiny cold-water apartment on the Lower East Side. “It was during this time that I first got the idea of going on stage,” County recalled. “Jackie had been writing a play called Femme Fatale at the flat, and she was looking for people to be in it. So she said to me one day, ‘Wayne, you should be in Femme Fatale. You’ll play a lesbian.” County’s first line was the setup for a gross-out gag: “You scared the shit out of me” (after which she pulled a plastic poop novelty item from under her dress). “That was my debut on the New York stage,” she said, “in Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale. You can imagine.”
The play Pork was based on transcripts of Andy Warhol’s audiotaped conversations with Factory regular Brigid Polk (née Brigid Berlin), with some notable alterations (Brigid Polk became “Amanda Pork” and Viva became “Vulva”). “Andy was just a very quiet guy who didn’t say anything,” recalled Tony Zanetta, who played the Warhol character in the show. “He liked to instigate other people to talk, and he started carrying around a tape recorder everywhere. What Warhol did with everything, he would take something real and then put it on the wall and it was ‘art.’ Pork was that as well because, really, what was it? It was a bunch of words. It was real conversations, but it was put onstage with actors speaking the lines. Pork became a play in the same way that his art was created.” While Zanetta performed in Wayne County’s World: Birth of a Nation and worked on the crew for the next show Tony Ingrassia directed, Sheila, Warhol was arranging for him to direct Pork. One day during rehearsals for Sheila, Ingrassia turned to him and said, “You could play Andy,” and Zanetta was happy to oblige. One of the first things he did was cut his hair like Warhol’s, and he also closely studied the artist when he came to rehearsals. “For me, it was the thrill of a lifetime to do Pork,” Zanetta said, “because I just thought that Warhol was, like, it. I look at pictures of the show and, sure, I don’t look like Andy Warhol—but if you look at pictures of me made up to look like Andy, there are a lot of physical similarities that I wouldn’t have even been aware of.” Wayne County played Vulva, and Pork also featured a young actor and playwright named Harvey Fierstein in his La MaMa debut (he would go on to win two Tony Awards for writing and starring in Torch Song Trilogy). “Pork was still the Ridiculous theater thing, but it pushed Ridiculous into a whole different area,” Zanetta recalled. “Ingrassia’s way was more polished, sort of like I Love Lucy. It was like TV acting. It was very broad, very exaggerated.”
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Pork debuted on May 5, 1971 at La MaMa before moving to London’s Roundhouse theater with the Amanda Pork character now played by Cherry Vanilla. Her character appeared naked throughout the show and shot up a speed-like substance called Vitameatavegamin (a classic reference to I Love Lucy). She also rolled around in a bed with two pretty boys named the Pepsodent Twins who wore high heels, and also powdered their pubic hair blue and green. The onstage action was controversial, but it was nothing compared to the cast’s offstage antics. “That outrageousness really flowered in London when we went to do Pork,” Tony Zanetta said, “because we were like Ingrassia. We were really loud, really vulgar exhibitionists. We like to attract attention to ourselves.” David Bowie, who had long worshipped Warhol and the Velvet Underground, attended the Roundhouse production of Pork, but when he invited the cast to one of his concerts the Americans were not impressed with what they saw. Zanetta had been intrigued by The Man Who Sold the World album cover—in which Bowie wears a dress that made him look like Lauren Bacall—but in person he was far from glamorous. “He just looked kind of hippie-ish when he came to see Pork,” Tony said. “He had long, stringy hair.” As Jayne County recalled, “We’d heard that this David Bowie was supposed to be androgynous and everything, but then he came out with long hair, folky clothes, and sat on a stool and played folk songs. We were so disappointed with him.”
Tony Zanetta graduated from high school in 1964 and went to art school in Buffalo, then dropped out. While coming to grips with his sexuality and discovering the gay world, he had a roommate from Massapequa, Long Island, who grew up with both Tony Ingrassia and Candy Darling. Zanetta got to know them both when he moved to New York City, where he lived fairly deep in the East Village on Twelfth Street and Avenue C. At first he did only conventional theater, though Zanetta was familiar with the underground theater scene. “I was aware of the Theater of the Ridiculous and I had seen two things that I absolutely loved, including Gorilla Queen, which was Ronald Tavel’s,” he said. “I also saw Night Club, which was directed by Tony Ingrassia.” Ingrassia directed several other Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Curtis’s Femme Fatale and the Wayne County–penned three-act play World: Birth of a Nation at the New York Theater Ensemble. “I went to the audition for World,” Zanetta said, “and I had previously met Tony Ingrassia through my college roommate. So Tony’s like, ‘Darling, you don’t have to audition. You can be in my play.’ ”
When compared to Wayne County, both Lou Reed and David Bowie seemed as transgressive as the era’s most chaste pop act, Donny and Marie Osmond. While working for MainMan, Tony Zanetta cooked up a plan to manage County. With the New York Dolls monopolizing the downtown rock ’n’ roll spotlight with their own drag act, Zanetta figured that the only way to set County apart from her peers was a full-blown theatrical show. This led to Wayne at the Trucks, staged at Westbeth Theatre. “The Trucks” refers to one of Zanetta’s favorite downtown hotspots—a gay cruising area at the end of Christopher Street, by the Hudson River, where delivery trucks parked at the piers. He and County came up with the idea of setting the show at the Trucks while having lunch: “Well, it should be kind of Gidget Goes to Hawaii,” Zanetta said, “like, Wayne Goes to the Trucks.” They rented a theater for a week for rehearsals and one performance, and brought in Tony Ingrassia to direct the show. At the beginning of the show, County clicked the heels of a couple fabulous platform boots—with a realistic looking penis that curled up in front, like Persian-style “genie” shoes—it cued her offstage band (the Backstreet Boys) to start rocking. Play-House of the Ridiculous musicals usually placed the musicians to the side of the stage, an idea that County borrowed for this show and was later adapted by Bowie. “In a way,” Zanetta said, “Wayne at the Trucks was a little bit of a rehearsal for Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, because Bowie wanted to do this theatrical tour but we weren’t sure how to stage it.” As Blondie’s Chris Stein recalled, “It was one of the first times that a rock show was done with a band out of sight. Many people think that was a big influence on the Diamond Dogs tour, where Bowie was onstage with a band behind a screen.”
Because Wayne County loved the Velvet Underground, many of the lines from the first scene of her play World: Birth of a Nation quoted the band’s song titles: “What goes on?” “I’m beginning to see the light.” “Oh! Sweet Jane!” The intimidating presence of Mary Woronov, who wielded a whip while those lines were uttered, pushed this Velvet Underground homage to more absurd heights. The play (staged at the New York Theater Ensemble) takes place in a hospital, where Tony Zanetta played Dr. Louise Pasteur, and its plot revolves around a necrophilic nurse who has sex with a dead dog. It also features a memorable scene in which John Wayne gives birth out of his anus, followed by a slapstick routine in which the plastic baby was dropped on its head and kicked around the hospital floor until various body parts fell off. “Oh no,” a nurse exclaimed, “he’s born dead!” Tony Ingrassia’s prankish casting decisions ratcheted up the madness. The more square the actor, the likelier they would be asked to play a wild part—just to see what these normal, straight thespians would be willing to do in the name of acting. The person who played John Wayne, for example, was just a mainstream actor who responded to the casting call ad with no idea what he was getting himself into. He refused to do full frontal nudity, but still agreed to expose his rear end for the birth scene.
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 Mercer Arts Center was the brainchild of air-conditioning magnate Seymour Kaback, a theater lover who turned an old downtown building into a large maze-like arts complex with several theaters and concert rooms. In addition to two three-hundred-seat theaters and two two-hundred-seat theaters, Mercer’s had an art-house cinema, jazz lounge, bar, restaurant, two boutiques, and the Kitchen—an experimental film and performance venue housed in the hotel’s old kitchen. All the rooms in Mercer’s emptied into a central gathering space that had an all-white design, which some people called the Clockwork Orange Room. “Whatever you were going to see,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “you would run into other people who were going to see something else. That’s what made it more interesting. So maybe you were going to see One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I was going to see Wayne County or the New York Dolls. We would be sitting in the same room before or after the show, but we might not have been in that room otherwise.” On some nights, David Bowie could be seen slouched in a bright red plastic chair next to a massive antique mirror, absorbing the atmosphere. Eric Emerson invited the Dolls to open for the Magic Tramps at Mercer’s, and they sent a jolt through the downtown scene by reminding folks that enthusiasm trumped technical proficiency. For drummer Jerry Nolan—who started out playing in Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth before joining the New York Dolls—David Johansen and company returned rock ’n’ roll back to basics.