Actor Michael Arian joined the Play-House of the Ridiculous, where he worked with director John Vaccaro for many years and met Ruby Lynn Reyner, whose band Ruby and the Rednecks featured Arian as a backup vocalist.
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.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.”
“There was a long sequence of utter, absolute insanity,” actor Michael Arian recalled of the Play-House of the Ridiculous’s musical Cock-Strong. “We did a ‘Kama Sutra Ballet,’ performed by all of us doing weird fucking positions: humping, blow jobs, and this and that and the other.” As they mock-performed every imaginable sexual act, still partially clothed, Silver Apples did their thing. “Danny and I played this wild and crazy music,” Simeon Coxe said. “It was the only time we were allowed to improvise during the whole show, so Danny and I would play as wild and crazy as we could. When everybody was singing the last big high note, the whole audience got sprayed with water from the giant penis.” It was hooked up to a sink in La MaMa’s backstage area, and the giant cock prop erupted when the glitter-slathered cast sang, “Get it up, get it up! You’re gonna get it up!” cast member Ruby Lynn Reyner recalled, “I remember there was a heat wave at the time. It was in the summertime, and instead of the audience getting outraged, they went, ‘Aaaahh!’ They loved it. There was no air conditioning in those days at La MaMa. It was hot as hell.” Coxe added, “After the first show people came with umbrellas. When that cock started to come out of the stage and go out over the audience, everybody would pop their umbrellas.” Before Arian joined the Play-House of the Ridiculous as a cast member, he witnessed the spectacle as an audience member. “It was just funnier than hell. We’d be drunk and just in glee. It was so much fun. We would always sit in the front and we would put up an umbrella, and I saw every single performance.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
One of the most memorable aspects of Cock-Strong, which debuted at La MaMa in 1969, came from the big discount bags of glitter that John Vaccaro would buy on Canal Street that helped create the Play-House’s cheap explosions of psychedelic Technicolor. “John would have these bags that weighed probably twenty pounds each,” Michael Arian said, “full of colors of glitter that you just never ever imagined you’d see. We had glitter on the costumes. We had glitter everywhere.” Vaccaro usually painted vivid, colorful designs on his face that conveyed something about his character, sprinkling the glitter on the makeup while the color was still wet. “I was raining glitter for years,” Ruby Lynn Reyner said. “I had so much glitter. With my makeup, people used to think I was a drag queen because I had big Joan Crawford lips and had completely filled them in with red glitter. My eyelashes, I dipped them in glitter with surgical adhesive—so I had glittery eyelashes, glittery eyes, glittery mouth.” It was easy to know if a friend was sleeping with someone from the Play-House, because glitter littered their beds or showers.
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.”
After Hibiscus quit the Cockettes, the group began taking paying offers to perform, which set the stage for their disastrous New York City debut on November 7, 1971. The show’s producers put the cast up in dumpy hotel rooms, and they were forced to stage Pearls over Shanghai in an even dumpier theater. The Anderson seated over three thousand people, and like many similar theaters in the neighborhood, it had been left to decay since the glory days of vaudeville. “The theater was a mess,” Play-House of the Ridiculous member Michael Arian said, “and it was too big, and it just needed to be torn down. It was like going into a haunted house, tile floors with dead leaves and that kind of thing.” When Ann Harris discovered that the producers were using her son’s image in the publicity posters, even though he had left the group, the firebrand matriarch marched down to the Anderson and ripped all of them down. “We only had quick run-throughs,” Lendon Sadler recalled. “We were improvising a show by the time the premiere happened.” The pre-show buzz spread quickly, and opening night became a full-on gala event, with klieg lights and paparazzi; street traffic was so jammed, the attendees had to get out of their limousines and taxis in order to walk a few blocks to the Anderson. With such high expectations, there was only one way to go: down. “That show would have been okay in San Francisco,” Sadler said, “but we had limousines pulling up in front of the theater. Andy Warhol and John Lennon were there, everybody was there. The reviews the next day were so bad that they were good.”
From Chapter 26 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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