The Chelsea Girls actress Mary Woronov began hanging around the Factory around the time the Velvet Underground joined forces with Andy Warhol to produce the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which featured Woronov and Gerard Malanga as dancers.
Ondine, born Robert Olivo, appeared in more Warhol footage than anyone because of his acid tongue and ability to talk for hours, days even, while taking speed. “Ondine was older,” said Mary Woronov, who arrived at the Factory soon after Bibbe Hansen. “He wasn’t young and beautiful. He was old and wasted looking. He used to be beautiful, that’s what he had. Plus, he was hysterically funny. I once saw Ondine pick up a salad bowl, dump it on his head, and say, ‘Do you think this is a good look?’ I mean, he was not afraid of humiliation or embarrassment.” Off-Off-Broadway actress and musician Ruby Lynn Reyner recalled finding Ondine casually walking around his apartment with a beer goblet tied by a leather thong to his well-endowed penis. “What are you doing? There’s a glass hanging from your dick.” He replied, “Yeah, I want to get it big enough so I can blow myself.”
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“The Cino was becoming well known,” Robert Patrick said, “and it attracted people who just cared about publicity—i.e., the Warhol people. The first was Soren Agenoux, who did a crazy gay Christmas Carol.” Vinyl, Ronald Tavel’s loose adaptation of the novel A Clockwork Orange, was also staged at the Cino in 1967 after Warhol shot his own filmed version. In both the movie and stage versions, Mary Woronov played the doctor and Gerard Malanga was the victim. “I started doing movies for Andy Warhol when Ronnie Tavel was also working for Andy Warhol,” Woronov recalled. “That’s when I met Ronnie, and he used me constantly in his plays. That’s how I ended up at Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and other Off-Off-Broadway places.” Actor Norman Marshall, who also appeared in the Cino version of Vinyl, said that Woronov was a convincing S&M sadist: “She was really torturing the poor guy.” Many at Caffe Cino felt that the presence of the Warhol people fundamentally changed its character. “Soren Agenoux’s shows were absolutely nonsense,” playwright William Hoffman said. “They were doing plays that were gibberish, very speed-oriented.” There was the feeling that, well, Maybe the play might make sense on drugs? Or not. “The Warhol crowd was what it was,” Robert Patrick added. “I don’t know whether to blame Warhol. He was surrounded by freaks, creeps—some of them were okay people, some were not. Mostly, it was just a freak show and cultivated as such.”
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In April 1966, the Velvet Underground began their residency playing with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Dom, where Factory newcomer Mary Woronov joined in. “Gerard Malanga felt we would be center stage and liven things up,” Woronov said. “So he brought me on with the black leather suit and a whip, and we worked out a dance with a sort of S&M kind of theme.” Their routines were supposed to be dark and theatrical, but they sometimes veered into goofier realms. “For ‘Waiting for the Man,’ I would lift weights,” Woronov said. “For ‘Heroin,’ Gerard would run around with a plastic needle that was two feet long and shoot up. It was sort of an act, to music.” Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground unleashed sheets of sound as Warhol slipped colored gelatin slides over film projector lenses or just stood on the balcony, observing the crowded scene. One night he saw “a small, muscular blond kid make a ballet leap that practically spanned the dance floor.” Warhol promptly went downstairs and met the young man, Eric Emerson, whose good looks and magnetic personality secured him a spot in several Warhol films. He was cast alongside Nico and Woronov in The Chelsea Girls and appeared in Lonesome Cowboys, San Diego Surf, and Heat.
From Chapter 15 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.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
During the original run of Conquest of the Universe, Ondine played the King of Mars (“I’ve come to Venus to see the ka-ween!”) and Mary Woronov was Conqueror of the Universe (“Seize him! Sterilize him!”), while Holly Woodlawn covered her nearly naked body in baby oil and rolled in glitter on the floor. “It wasn’t sexy, even if there was nudity,” Woronov recalled. “It didn’t have much to do with sex. My minions would spend half the time onstage trying to shit in a pail.” Woronov already had a masculine image because she had played strong characters in Warhol films such as Vinyl, so she brought that persona to John Vaccaro’s stage. “I would be in a dress, but I was obviously a woman posing as a man, doing manly things,” she said. “So in other words, it was playing with gender—which is much different from a queen dressing up as a woman.” Costar Ruby Lynn Reyner added, “It was all very sexually ambiguous in those days. Gender roles were being exploded.” Reyner started out in the chorus in Conquest of the Universe, then got her big break after one of the lead actresses had an accident and could no longer perform. “Beverly Grant broke her ankle, like in 42nd Street, the Busby Berkeley film. Ondine and Louis Waldon came over to my apartment, and I was getting ready to play my usual chorus part when they told me.” They worked all day to help Reyner learn her new lines, telling her not to worry if she forgot them, because she could always improvise. Conquest of the Universe became a downtown hit that attracted the likes of Marcel Duchamp, who declared, “This is a Dada play.”
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.”
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.”
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.
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Lisa Jane Persky made her stage debut at La MaMa, she performed her next role in Women Behind Bars at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, located across the street. The show was written by Tom Eyen, who had humble beginnings at Caffe Cino but later created the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Women Behind Bars was a trashy satire of women’s prison movies with a cast that included Divine, who had also worked with the Cockettes in San Francisco. Divine was cast in the second production of Women Behind Bars, directed by Ron Link, who directed Jackie Curtis’s first play Glamour, Glory, and Gold, along with several other underground theater productions. One day in 1974, Lisa Jane Persky ran into Sweet William Edgar, a warmhearted actor who had a very nasal voice and brilliant comedic timing. “They’re casting for this new show, Women Behind Bars,” he told her. “You should audition!” She didn’t get a part at first, but she was hired as the understudy for all the roles and became Link’s assistant, which meant she did everything—from running lights and ironing costumes to bringing a rooster back to her apartment on weekdays. (The rooster played a chicken named Rosalita, a gender-bending casting decision that was typical of Off-Off-Broadway.) The original production was performed at Astor Place Theatre. Starring Pat Ast, Helen Hanft, Mary Woronov, and Sharon Barr, it was funny and entertaining, but it was also a starker version. Even the set was stripped down, with just a couple of benches and fake prison bars. “Ron could make something out of very little,” Barr recalled, who played a Marilyn Monroe type named Cheri Netherland. “Sharon Barr was fabulous,” recalled Woronov. “She was gigantic and gorgeous, and she walked around like she was on Mars. It was very funny.”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore