John Vaccaro was the mercurial director who orchestrated the Play-House of the Ridiculous, whose shows were unrelenting explosions of color, glitter, and noise underscored by social satire.
“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
Critics of mass media have often denounced popular culture for rendering their audiences passive and inert, but it is hard to view these downtowners as anything but active, knowing, and quite subversive. These gay men latched onto actresses whose over-the-top performances unintentionally parodied their femininity, like 1940s film star Maria Montez, “The Queen of Technicolor.” She was worshipped by director John Vaccaro, Harry Koutoukas, Jack Smith, Ronald Tavel, and, of course, Warhol film star Mario Montez. They would often quote from Montez’s 1944 film Cobra Woman, approximating her exotic accent: Geeeev me that Coparah chewel! “I was in two or three of Jack Smith’s films,” Vaccaro recalled. “We were both crazy about Maria Montez. When I was a kid, I liked her. So did Jack. I liked the way she looked and the way she acted and the type of films she did.” Smith was drawn to what he called “musty” or “moldy” entertainment products from the recent past, which had been swept into the culture industry’s dustbin. The outmoded movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s were beneath contempt for many contemporary mainstream critics, so Smith poached these “secret flix” (as he called them) in ways that resisted the logic of capitalist cultural production. Montez’s acting may have been dreadful—especially by the new Method acting standards—but that was part of the attraction. “People laughed at her acting because it was camp,” Agosto Machado said, “but there was a mystique about her. She didn’t pretend to be anything more than a beautiful woman who was put in an exotic setting, and we all recognized her as our own.” It also didn’t hurt that Maria Montez sometimes looked like a woman imitating a drag queen dressed like a glittery starlet.
From Chapter 13 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.”
The Play-House of the Ridiculous attracted misfits of all kinds, such as Chris Kapp, who didn’t blend in with her peers growing up in the 1950s. “I find that most people that go into show business have had horrid lives, and they sort of all joined together,” she said. “It was very much a second family. I think we all were outsiders—all the drag queens, certainly, and gay men. We had this common bond.” Penny Arcade added, “We had grown up in our imaginations and didn’t really have playmates, and suddenly we had all these playmates. So we would create cacophonous explosions everywhere we went, and part of Vaccaro’s genius was he corralled those kids.” The Play-House mostly consisted of people Vaccaro bumped into around town and on the scene. “Like with Penny Arcade,” Ruby Lynn Reyner said, “John used to pick people from the streets and put them on the stage. He used to take bums off the Bowery—you could go out during the day, and they would be lying all over the street—and he’d bring them onto the stage.”
From Chapter 16 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.”
John Vaccaro, Diane di Prima, and their friends also helped Jack Smith with his 1963 film Normal Love, which was shot over the course of three days in Connecticut. It was a sharp contrast from the baroque black-and-white imagery of Flaming Creatures, his previous film. “Normal Love, blazing with gorgeous color, left no holds barred,” di Prima recalled. “So many sequins, lizards, rhinestones, pythons, so much stained glass, makeup, art, flesh, costume jewelry, papier-mâché, spray paint, had never before seduced the filmgoer’s eye.” When Vaccaro formed the Play-House of the Ridiculous in 1965, Smith helped design sets and costumes, which made the shows sparkle and glow. “There was no one person who invented glitter,” Agosto Machado said, “but it was Jack Smith who gave a sense of purpose to it. In the early 1960s, Jack was the first one who used it in a way that made it copyable. The Play-House of the Ridiculous loved to use glitter, and Hibiscus and the Cockettes also loved glitter.” Play-House performer Michael Arian concurred. “John always gave a tip of the hat to Jack Smith,” Arian said. “Jack was the original gay glitter freak, and John always acknowledged that he got a lot of his sensibilities from him.”
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.
John Vaccaro’s combative nature was perhaps rooted in his working-class Italian immigrant background, which he desperately wanted to escape. “He reminded me of my Italian grandmother,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Sicilian and hardcore.” Vaccaro first performed comedy in a nightclub act while at Ohio State University and then began doing plays like Waiting for Godot; after graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City. “When I got to New York,” he said, “I had a loft and everybody used to come to my place on 9 Great Jones Street—artists, jazz musicians. I ended up paying seventy-five bucks a month. I had a big record collection, and we’d hang out and listen. I had everything. Jazz and the Beatles and stuff like that. I was heavy into rhythm and blues, but mostly jazz.” Vaccaro got to know Thelonious Monk when the pianist regularly performed alongside other jazz legends at the Five Spot Café, which was frequented by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and other writers. “John was coming out of the world of beatnik poetry readings, with bands playing in the background,” said Penny Arcade. “His friends were all these big jazz guys, and also he was an intellectual. When I met him, he had just stopped working as a rare book appraiser.” He became part of the New York Poets Theatre, which Diane di Prima ran out of the Bowery Theatre on East Tenth Street, near Third Avenue. The first show they mounted was the Frank O’Hara play Loves Labor, with Vaccaro part of a cast of twenty cavorting on the tiny stage. “There was a screaming queen in a tiger skin playing a shepherd, with many dancers for his sheep,” di Prima recalled. “Freddie Herko in a black cape was Paris; John Vaccaro, slim and monocled, with a top hat, played Metternich, and no less a personage than the ‘great’ freak show artist and drag queen Frankie Francine portrayed Venus.”
“I consider Ellen Stewart my honorary mother, and John Vaccaro my honorary father,” Agosto Machado said. “Through both of them, I felt part of a larger group, and a family.” Another member of that extended family was performer Penny Arcade (née Susana Ventura), who first worked with Vaccaro on his 1967 play Conquest of the Universe. “John Vaccaro is the most singularly underrated person in the alternative arts,” argued Arcade. “So much of what went into queer culture came through John Vaccaro, and it was John who first did that kind of rock ’n’ roll theater. There wouldn’t have been a punk scene without John.” Play-House of the Ridiculous shows were literally in-your-face—unrelenting explosions of color, glitter, and noise underscored by social satire. “There was always a strong political undercurrent,” said Ridiculous actor Tony Zanetta. “Kill the king or, you know, mainly kill—kill someone. It was all total insanity and nonsense, but it was really compelling.” Vaccaro fell in love with Bunraku puppet shows and Kabuki theater during his World War II military service in Japan and took these traditional theatrical forms in demented new directions after settling in downtown New York.
John Vaccaro was alternately described as a sort of gnome with an arched, monkey face, a scary owl with raised eyebrows, and a hunched-over troll. “He was very conscious of himself and his bizarre look,” Mary Woronov said. “He was not a handsome man.” But he had a grand sense of his own abilities as well as a maniacal drive, and that combination meant he was rarely easy on those working with him. “John Vaccaro loved to berate his actors and called them all kinds of names,” Caffe Cino playwright William Hoffman said. “Essentially, he loved them, but he didn’t hesitate to push them. He was really talented, although infuriating, because he could be very perverse.” Penny Arcade said, “I mean, Artaud—the Theatre of Cruelty—had nothing on Vaccaro. There would be a moment where John would, in the middle of the rehearsal, just start picking on somebody and would just torture them. I mean, super-psychological torturing, and the whole room would freeze.” During those maddening rehearsals, Vaccaro might lock his actors in a loft all night long or would scream, “If you make a mistake, DO IT AGAIN”—as in, do the entire play over, even if it was four in the morning. Woronov fondly described the director’s “homicidal” antics: “I say homicidal because whenever an actor was late he would close his eyes and say, ‘I killed him,’ ” she recalled. “Every night he hissed in my ear, ‘Do anything you like to them, I want fear in their eyes.’ ” Despite all the stories of Vaccaro throwing tantrums and locking his performers in a loft until sunrise, those around him remained extremely loyal. “With John Vaccaro,” Agosto Machado said, “no matter how difficult he was, we knew we were working with a great artist. I think he might have been more recognized if he was a little more accommodating, but he would have given up his artistry.”
All shapes, sizes, genders, ages, and dispositions found a home in the Play-House of the Ridiculous. One kind of person John Vaccaro didn’t want was traditionally trained actors, and instead he recruited people who were creative forces of nature onstage. “Don’t be an ac-TOR,” the director would say, making fun of Method acting. When Ellen Stewart first brought Michael Arian to Vaccaro, he was suspicious because Arian had been to acting school. “John wasn’t sure that people with training could adjust to his style,” he said, “but I did really fast because I liked it. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.” Ruby Lynn Reyner added, “Michael Arian and everybody directed themselves, pretty much. John got people who were creative and didn’t need that kind of direction.” Vaccaro wanted his performers to be over the top, and used to say, “There’s a close‑up on you at all times! Louder, louder! I can’t hear you. Bigger, bigger! The spotlight is on you. SHINE!” Everyone fought to have their face in front, and because all the performers were doing it with energy and gusto it became quite cohesive, even if it was still rough around the edges. “With the Play-House, we were bigger than life all the time,” Agosto Machado said. “What made those shows a hit was that energy level, and all that wonderful glitter and sparkle and the madness of the script.”
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.”
“Ellen Stewart took John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous under the umbrella of La MaMa, and she gave them a regular space to rehearse and perform,” recalled Agosto Machado. “They were her ‘babies,’ as she would say, and she always took care of them.” One of Stewart’s most notable babies was Jackie Curtis—born John Curtis Holder Jr.—who was about fourteen when they met in the early 1960s. “Jackie was just a boy when he came to La Mama,” she said. “I thought he was a genius. And he created many beautiful things. Jackie was a wonderful writer. And he said that being a drag queen brought him more fame, but he wished that his work as a playwright would establish him as a very great writer.” By the time Curtis was cast in the John Vaccaro-directed Cock-Strong in 1969, the gender-fluid playwright and performer had already written and staged two Off-Off-Broadway plays. “Ellen really treated Jackie like an honorary child,” said Machado, who appeared in Curtis’s Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. Stewart generously let Curtis use La MaMa’s rehearsal space during the lead‑up to that show, a downtown hit that secured her status as an underground celebrity.
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
Jackie Curtis originally wrote Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit, which debuted at La MaMa, while touring with John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, which appeared at the Pornography and Censorship Conference at the University of Notre Dame (ironically, their show was censored by university officials during the conference). “Everybody went there,” Vaccaro said. “Allen Ginsberg, we all went, and I did a show called The Life of Lady Godiva. We took a train to South Bend, and on the train Jackie wrote Heaven Grand, speeding out of his mind. He got the names of the character from a racing form.” The script was written in a large wallpaper sample book that was covered with Curtis’s tiny handwriting, filling the margins. Like many of his scripts, it was littered with references to old movies, television shows, and a random assortment of other pop culture ephemera, including the 1958 TV movie The Secret Life of Adolf Hitler, TV Guide magazine, All About Eve, a menu from Howard Johnson’s, Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and the surf rock group Dick Dale and His Del-Tones thrown in for good measure. Many of the lines in the play were borrowed from old films and television sitcoms, though a lot also came from what Curtis witnessed on the streets of downtown New York. The main character was partially based on a demented person he had seen wandering through a store shouting, “FASCINATION!”