Film director John Waters often visited New York City as a young man—watching performances and films by Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, which deeply influenced the trash cinema auteur.
In addition to DIY mimeo printing, the downtown’s social networks thrived with the help of community and underground papers like the Village Voice and the East Village Other. Michael Smith joined the Voice in the early 1960s as a theater critic, when the paper was still struggling on a week-to-week basis to keep the lights on. It was more volunteer work than anything else, but Smith’s passion for promoting underground theater kept him going. In New York, negative reviews had serious consequences for a show’s bottom line, so producers and theaters tended to gravitate toward critic-and crowd-pleasers. For example, Sam Shepard’s budding career as a playwright was nearly over before it began after mainstream papers panned his debut production. “I was ready to pack it in and go back to California,” he said. “Then Michael Smith from the Village Voice came up with this rave review, and people started coming to see it.” Jonas Mekas also exerted a major influence on underground film through both his Village Voice film column and Film Culture, the magazine he published with his brother Adolfas Mekas. Future filmmaker John Waters devoured Jonas Mekas’s writings from afar. “When I was in high school,” Waters said, “I would read Jonas Mekas’s ‘Movie Journal’ column every week in the Village Voice. That was a huge, huge influence to me. Mekas’s Film Culture magazine was my bible. He was my life saver. That’s how I knew about everything when I was living in Baltimore.”
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“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