Born Robert Olivo, Ondine acted in Play-House of the Ridiculous plays and appeared in more Warhol footage than anyone (because of his acid tongue and ability to talk for hours, days even, while taking speed), landing memorable roles in The Chelsea Girls and other Warhol films.
Ed Sanders fully immersed himself in the underground film scene after seeing Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees at the Charles Theatre and meeting Warhol at a Film-Makers’ Cooperative screening. “Finally the inspiration of Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative made me decide to acquire a 16-mm camera,” he recalled. “I went to my friend Harry Smith for advice.” Smith was known in music circles for his Anthology of American Folk Music, but he was a man of many talents and interests, including experimental filmmaking. Harry suggested buying a “battle camera, like the kind they used filming the war,” which he found at Willoughby’s Camera on West Thirty-Second Street. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage showed Sanders how to use it, and Mekas helped him locate inexpensive film stock. By 1965, Sanders started making Amphetamine Head: A Study of Power in America, about Lower East Side speed demons such as Billy Name and Ondine. “There were plentiful supplies of amphetamine,” Sanders recalled, “sold fairly cheaply in powder form, on the set.” The set, as Sanders’s friend Peter Stampfel explained, was their slang term for the scene: “Like, ‘That guy’s such a dick, he should be bricked off the set,’ ” Stampfel said. “You know, being kicked out of the scene for being an asshole.” Sanders observed that because so many “viewed their lives as taking place on a set, there was no need to hunt afar for actors and actresses. What a cast of characters roamed the Village streets of 1963!”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Factory became a second home for Bibbe Hansen, a streetwise kid who—rather than feeling out of place among all these strange adults—felt they were entering her world. “We were the ones with miniskirts,” Hansen said of her generation. “We’re the ones with silver everything. We’re the ones with great pop music. Because with the Beatles and all these things, these cultural explosions absolutely captivated the world. So not only did we have the numbers, we had the culture, we had the PR, we had the forward thinking, the enlightenment, the freedom, and then we had this incredibly rich cultural scene happening all around us in the Village.” On a typical day at the Factory, Hansen might go up to the roof and smoke a joint with someone, or get a double bacon BLT with a milkshake or a soda at the corner diner. “Lunch was big,” she said. Hansen already knew Factory people like Ondine and Billy Name, part of the contingent of speed-freak Mole People who lived near her Lower East Side tenement apartment. Ondine liked to repurpose clothes left lying around at the Factory, turning a cashmere sweater into a loincloth or turban. “One time we came in to find him in a plastic bag outfit made out of trash bags,” Hansen said, “years before that punk fashion became popular.”
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.”
When Ondine first sat for his “Screen Test” in early 1966, he squirmed and squinted in front of the bright movie lights, doing his best to endure. (“My crowd took a lot of drugs and avoided bright lights,” he later explained.) For his second sitting, Ondine came armed with sunglasses, which he used as cover to close his eyes and take a short nap. Bibbe Hansen, who also did two Screen Tests, viewed it as part of the Factory’s initiation and vetting process. “How you behave, how you deal with that, speaks volumes about who you are, or who you are passing yourself off to be,” she said. “I knew instinctively, and I behaved accordingly, because I was from the street culture and also the downtown New York outsider arts community of the fifties and sixties. It was as much of a Warhol gang initiation as a collaborative art portrait. Three minutes. Did you fidget? Did you wilt? Were you uncertain? Were you apprehensive? And were you cool? The camera doesn’t lie. Camera tells you what’s what.” Hansen acknowledged that it could be kind of petty, but at least the judgments weren’t being formed around one’s social position or bank balance.
It was certainly true that Ondine and other Factory folks ramped up the amphetamine use at Caffe Cino, though it wasn’t as if they brought the forbidden fruit of drugs into an innocent Garden of Eden. After all, marijuana and speed had already been around the Cino from the beginning, but as Harry Koutoukas put it, “The Warhol people brought in drugs we never even smelled before.” The little hallway in the back was littered with syringes, and there were always pots of amphetamine cooking in the dressing room, with people shooting up. “Cino, it was speed-infested,” Caffe Cino regular Jim Fouratt said. “And of course, there was glitter everywhere. There was a lot of amphetamine use at the Caffe Cino, but I don’t want to talk too darkly about it, because it was very innocent.” Fouratt recalled how Ondine suggested one night that they go to the bathroom together, which turned out to be a kind of prank. “I thought I was going to get a blow job,” he said, “and he pulls out the biggest dick I’d ever seen in my life, and then shoots up in it, with speed. I had never seen anything like this in my life. I was completely, AHHH! I must have been ashen.” When Fouratt walked out, three people sitting on the other side of the room burst out laughing because they knew what just happened.
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
On the morning of March 30, 1967, the phone rang at Johnny Dodd and Michael Smith’s apartment down the street. “Joe was killing himself, and he was calling Johnny Dodd,” Smith said. “I picked up the phone because I was awake and Johnny was asleep. That was the reason I walked in on his death.” Smith let himself into Caffe Cino and saw Joe on the floor surrounded by blood, lit only by the dawn sunlight and the café’s twinkling Christmas lights. Joe picked up one of the other knives on the floor, but his hands were so slippery with blood that he could barely hold on to it. Smith screamed for him to stop and tried to pry the knife from his hands, to no avail. An ambulance finally came and took Cino to St. Vincent’s hospital, where he survived the day and was given antibiotics. Ellen Stewart stood vigil the whole time as dozens came to donate blood, but he died three days later. “After Joe killed himself,” Robert Patrick said, “both Harry Koutoukas and Ondine came to me in tears saying that they had killed Joe by slipping him some drugs. They had gotten some terrifically good, superior acid, and each of them had dropped a tablet of it in his drink. They never knew the other had, by the way. Each of them thought they had killed Joe.”
From Chapter 14 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.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.”