Peter Crowley worked at the Living Theatre well over a decade before he began booking the Ramones, Blondie, and other punk bands at Max’s Kansas City; in both venues, he witnessed the dissolution of barriers that separated audiences from performers.
The Play-House of the Ridiculous attracted misfits of all kinds, such as Chris Kapp, who didn’t blend in with her peers growing up in the 1950s. “I find that most people that go into show business have had horrid lives, and they sort of all joined together,” she said. “It was very much a second family. I think we all were outsiders—all the drag queens, certainly, and gay men. We had this common bond.” Penny Arcade added, “We had grown up in our imaginations and didn’t really have playmates, and suddenly we had all these playmates. So we would create cacophonous explosions everywhere we went, and part of Vaccaro’s genius was he corralled those kids.” The Play-House mostly consisted of people Vaccaro bumped into around town and on the scene. “Like with Penny Arcade,” Ruby Lynn Reyner said, “John used to pick people from the streets and put them on the stage. He used to take bums off the Bowery—you could go out during the day, and they would be lying all over the street—and he’d bring them onto the stage.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
John Vaccaro’s combative nature was perhaps rooted in his working-class Italian immigrant background, which he desperately wanted to escape. “He reminded me of my Italian grandmother,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Sicilian and hardcore.” Vaccaro first performed comedy in a nightclub act while at Ohio State University and then began doing plays like Waiting for Godot; after graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City. “When I got to New York,” he said, “I had a loft and everybody used to come to my place on 9 Great Jones Street—artists, jazz musicians. I ended up paying seventy-five bucks a month. I had a big record collection, and we’d hang out and listen. I had everything. Jazz and the Beatles and stuff like that. I was heavy into rhythm and blues, but mostly jazz.” Vaccaro got to know Thelonious Monk when the pianist regularly performed alongside other jazz legends at the Five Spot Café, which was frequented by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and other writers. “John was coming out of the world of beatnik poetry readings, with bands playing in the background,” said Penny Arcade. “His friends were all these big jazz guys, and also he was an intellectual. When I met him, he had just stopped working as a rare book appraiser.” He became part of the New York Poets Theatre, which Diane di Prima ran out of the Bowery Theatre on East Tenth Street, near Third Avenue. The first show they mounted was the Frank O’Hara play Loves Labor, with Vaccaro part of a cast of twenty cavorting on the tiny stage. “There was a screaming queen in a tiger skin playing a shepherd, with many dancers for his sheep,” di Prima recalled. “Freddie Herko in a black cape was Paris; John Vaccaro, slim and monocled, with a top hat, played Metternich, and no less a personage than the ‘great’ freak show artist and drag queen Frankie Francine portrayed Venus.”
“I consider Ellen Stewart my honorary mother, and John Vaccaro my honorary father,” Agosto Machado said. “Through both of them, I felt part of a larger group, and a family.” Another member of that extended family was performer Penny Arcade (née Susana Ventura), who first worked with Vaccaro on his 1967 play Conquest of the Universe. “John Vaccaro is the most singularly underrated person in the alternative arts,” argued Arcade. “So much of what went into queer culture came through John Vaccaro, and it was John who first did that kind of rock ’n’ roll theater. There wouldn’t have been a punk scene without John.” Play-House of the Ridiculous shows were literally in-your-face—unrelenting explosions of color, glitter, and noise underscored by social satire. “There was always a strong political undercurrent,” said Ridiculous actor Tony Zanetta. “Kill the king or, you know, mainly kill—kill someone. It was all total insanity and nonsense, but it was really compelling.” Vaccaro fell in love with Bunraku puppet shows and Kabuki theater during his World War II military service in Japan and took these traditional theatrical forms in demented new directions after settling in downtown New York.
“Jackie [Curtis] was a nice person,” John Vaccaro said, “but she was very screwed up with drugs.” Some would say the same about Vaccaro, but what really stirred up trouble between him and Jackie Curtis was their diverging choice of mind-altering substances: Curtis was a speed freak, and Vaccaro’s go-to drug was marijuana (“John always had tons of pot around,” actor Tony Zanetta said, “really, really good pot”). During the Heaven Grand rehearsals at La MaMa, the mercurial Vaccaro grew frustrated with Curtis—who played the lead character, Heaven Grand—after she showed up late and a bit out of it. “I’m going to kick your ass!!!” Vaccaro would shout, until one day he fired the playwright from her own show. “They were always having these horrible fights,” Play-House actress Ruby Lynn Reyner said, “and so finally he just turned to me and said, ‘You’re playing Heaven Grand.’ ” The fallout between Vaccaro and Curtis blurred the lines between high drama, slapstick comedy, gangster movies, and real life—Vaccaro ranted every day that he was going to have Curtis killed (it was rumored that the Italian director had ties to the mob). “I’m gonna call Joey Gallo,” he would scream. “I’m gonna break Jackie’s legs!” Curtis hid out at an Avenue B loft belonging to painter Larry Rivers, and Arcade would stop by after rehearsals. “It was totally insane,” cast member Penny Arcade said. “I mean, Jackie was terrified of Vaccaro, but it was also kind of a joke. Like it was both, a joke and it was real. Reality, per se, didn’t exist.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore