The youngest of the Harris family siblings, Mary Lou Harris appeared in several Off-Off-Broadway productions in the 1960s before teaming up with her sisters and brother Hibiscus to form the Angels of Light.
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
When the family was living on El Dorado Avenue, eleven-year-old George Harris III (soon to be Hibiscus) hatched the idea to start a family theater troupe after learning that his mother had written two plays in college—Bluebeard and The Sheep and the Cheapskate—that had moldered in a trunk for years. Bluebeard was based on the classic story about the bloody nobleman, but in Ann’s version the wives were turned into furniture, instead of being murdered by Bluebeard. The Sheep and the Cheapskate was a generation gap play that took place in the 1920s and dealt with new ideas about liberty, freedom, and self-expression—topics that grew more timely as the 1960s wore on (the play would later be performed at La MaMa). “There were two ready-made little musicals that Mom had written,” Walter said, “so we put them on in our garage on El Dorado Avenue.” After that, George and his siblings began staging Broadway shows like Camelot. They didn’t have a script for that musical, nor had they seen it, but the kids reconstructed the show based on the liner notes in the original cast recording. “For Camelot,” Jayne Anne recalled, “my brothers put horse heads on the front of their bicycles and did jousting.” Walter said, “We sprayed cardboard with silver paint to make armor. We came at each other on our bicycles and tried to knock each other down.” Little did the family know that what they were doing was exactly what was going on in the downtown’s underground theater scene, a world the whole family would be immersed in by 1964.
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.”
In 1971, prodigal son Hibiscus returned home with his boyfriend Angel Jack (born Jack Coe). They arrived at the door of the Harris family’s East Ninth Street apartment wearing long hair and white robes, looking like two apparitions through the peephole. “He was screaming, ‘HONEY!’ ” sister Jayne Anne Harris said. “So I knew it was him.” No longer the preppy-looking teen who left the fold in 1967, he was now wearing outlandish Angels of Light costumes all the time. This was no shock, for she and her sisters were used to crazy clothes growing up in New York’s avant-garde theater world. “Regular life moments in those days looked a lot like theater,” recalled Mary Lou. “No one walked around in regular clothes.” Hibiscus hit the ground running, recruiting his sisters and mother into the Angels of Light. “It was like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes in Arms,” Jayne Anne said, “when they do the show in the barn: ‘Let’s put on a show!’ That’s what it was like.” Their brother was a one-man Off-Off-Broadway Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio system, and whoever happened to wander into Hibiscus’s view was cast in a show. He had an eye for spotting talents and skills, whether it was tap dancing, crooning, or ballet dancing. The entire family knew how to sew costumes, build sets, and other theater basics, and their mother also taught the kids how to tap dance. Ann Harris had learned tap routines while attending the Dan Harrington School of Dance as a kid in the 1930s, until her father pulled her out because the costumes were too skimpy. “But she remembered every single dance,” Jayne Anne said, “and taught all the queens in the West Village how to tap dance. The Vietnam War was still raging, and we just did these colorful, happy midnight shows, and whoever came was in it.”
From Chapter 26 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Angels of Light’s secret weapon, Miss Marsha, regularly whipped audiences into a frenzy. Marsha P. Johnson was a street queen and early gay liberation activist who wandered into an Angels of Light show and decided to jump onstage. Hibiscus extended an open invitation to join them anytime, for Miss Marsha’s impromptu banter with the audience always brought down the house. “After a while, Hibiscus just stopped writing for her because she’d never get to it,” Mary Lou Harris said. “She would just get a huge cheers and standing ovations.” The Harris sisters described themselves as straight girls who were socialized as gay men. “The queens were kind of my role models,” Eloise recalled. “Marsha was very motherly, even though she was kind of living on the street. She was kind of our nanny.” When Hibiscus or their mom went out, Miss Marsha would take them out for ice cream or babysit them at home. They would take turns pretending to be Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland, and also sang duets à la Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell performing “Two Little Girls from Little Rock.” Miss Marsha also appeared with the gay theater group Hot Peaches, who were part of the same circuit as the Angels of Light. While there was certainly competition among these groups—and among individual queens such as Miss Marsha, International Chrysis, or Flawless Sabrina—for the most part it was a healthy competitiveness. “There were rivalries, there was bitchiness,” Mary Lou said, “but that sort of propelled them forward to get better and better—to try to one up each other. I think it ultimately led them to creating bodies of work that led them to become important figures, which in turn led to the laws and freedoms that are just beginning to bloom today.”
Angels of Light shows were hallucinatory homages to 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, a cinematic tap-dancing fantasy world in which Angel Jack and Hibiscus subbed for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Their first show was Studio M, a lovingly produced family affair that was performed on a small semicircular stage that ratcheted up the dazzle factor. For each show they put on, Hibiscus created elaborate storyboards, his sisters joined him onstage, and their mother composed the songs. “I wrote almost all the music for the Angels of Light,” Ann Harris said. “George would say, ‘Oh, I need a sheik scene, with a sheik in it,’ and then I would come up with a song.” The Angels of Light show Gossamer Wings featured a massive storybook whose pages turned, moving the action forward from the Ice Age to the 1970s. Many of their shows dealt with environmental disasters that were occurring with an alarming frequency during that decade. “Who cares if the birds don’t sing as long as the cash box rings?” they sang in “Disposable Everything.” Ironically, these shows indirectly benefitted from the consumer culture–driven economy of abundance, which produced the junk they used for their shows. “You could find plenty of things in New York that were beautiful, beautiful,” Ann Harris recalled. “That’s how people did those shows, with costumes from fabric found on the street.” When the family discovered that a factory was throwing out piles of feathers, for instance, Ann and the kids used them for another one of their productions, Birdie Follies (which featured their friend Agosto Machado).
The Harris family siblings foraged for costumes in thrift stores, where Jayne Anne found a bright yellow see-through skirt studded with heavy gold sequins that she wore in every Angels of Light show. She augmented it with rhinestones that weighted down the hem so that the skirt would fly open like an umbrella when she spun around. “I remember Hibiscus and Angel Jack made me my first sequined dress for my mermaid costume,” Eloise added. “They found the most beautiful material and made a big fuss over the tail and the crinoline and the wig.” It felt magical. Hibiscus and the girls would run through the streets in full drag to the Angels of Light’s home base, the Theater for the New City. “That’s when Timmy Robbins came into our lives,” Eloise said. “He was lighting the shows, and the shows were beautiful, visually—really enchanting. I mean, you couldn’t take your eyes off the visuals.” Long before he became a Hollywood star, Tim Robbins was a thirteen-year-old with a crush on Eloise, whom he met while doing backstage work at the theater. “If the homophobic Catholic school kids I went to school with ever figured that I was going to the theater at night,” Eloise recalled him telling her, “I would have been in big trouble.” The girls stayed very busy throughout the Angels of Light period, rehearsing for performances while also trying to finish their homework. “It was around the clock, sister,” Mary Lou said. “I don’t remember a day or a weekend or not one moment where I wasn’t in a show or in school.”