Playwright Ronald Tavel was a friend of Jack Smith who worked on Flaming Creatures and wrote scenarios for Warhol’s mid-1960s films, then collaborated with John Vaccaro to form the Play-House of the Ridiculous before working with the Judson Poets’ Theatre to do his play Gorilla Queen.
“Jack was a pure genius,” said Jack Smith’s friend Agosto Machado, “a visionary artist who had the strength and determination to carry out his vision with almost no money. Jack talked about going to the Middle East to shoot, but since he couldn’t afford to, he created that location in tenements or various places where he could create an illusion of that faraway place. You were in another dimension when you were with him because he didn’t have a storyboard. He’d just set up and say, like, ‘Oh, you’re walking through the swamp, and there’s a mysterious creature that’s going to do this, that, and the other.’ ” At first Tony Conrad didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he helped Smith set up one Saturday to film Flaming Creatures on the roof of the defunct Windsor Theater, a tiny movie house on the Lower East Side. It took three hours for everyone to apply makeup and costumes, all while the drug intake spiked. Something very weird is going on here, Conrad thought as he and others began cross-dressing. Geez. If my friends like La Monte could see me now, I would be so embarrassed, because this is like the weirdest shit. “Jack also shot some of the scenes in Prospect Park, which wasn’t as peopled or cleaned up during those years,” Machado said. “You could walk through sections of slummy areas and do a shoot, if you just minded your own business and you did your thing.” Playwright Ronald Tavel, who went on to write scenarios for Andy Warhol’s mid-1960s films, also worked on Flaming Creatures—dropping bits of plaster from a ladder onto the actors during the earthquake scene, among other tasks.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol used an Auricon camera for his first sync sound film, Harlot, which was shot in December 1964. Gerard Malanga had been taking Warhol to Wednesday night poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where the writing of Jack Smith’s friend Ronald Tavel caught the artist’s attention. Warhol hired Tavel to write some “scenarios” for Harlot, and they soon began working together on Warhol’s other film projects. These sorts of collaborations happened often because the mimeo poetry zine scene frequently overlapped with the audiences for underground movies; Beat poet and Fugs cofounder Tuli Kupferberg, for example, could be seen selling his own mimeo publications at Mekas’s screening events. Harlot starred drag queen Mario Montez, who had previously appeared in Flaming Creatures and was named after Smith’s favorite 1940s starlet, Maria Montez. Warhol’s film depicts Gerard Malanga in a tuxedo blowing a puff of smoke at Montez, who is suggestively eating bananas. The only audio is Tavel and Billy Name having a conversation off-screen, perversely defeating the point of using a sync sound camera. “Mario maintained a wonderful duality,” said Montez’s friend Agosto Machado. “If you saw him in the neighborhood, you would pass him on the street and he was an attractive Puerto Rican man. But you would not know that he could transform himself into a goddess as Mario Montez, this goddess muse of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol.” He also appeared in several other Warhol films: Banana, Batman/ Dracula, Camp, Chelsea Girls, Lupe, and 1966’s Hedy, the last of which was part of Warhol’s “Hollywood trilogy” (a series of odd biopics that also included Harlot).
“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
Critics of mass media have often denounced popular culture for rendering their audiences passive and inert, but it is hard to view these downtowners as anything but active, knowing, and quite subversive. These gay men latched onto actresses whose over-the-top performances unintentionally parodied their femininity, like 1940s film star Maria Montez, “The Queen of Technicolor.” She was worshipped by director John Vaccaro, Harry Koutoukas, Jack Smith, Ronald Tavel, and, of course, Warhol film star Mario Montez. They would often quote from Montez’s 1944 film Cobra Woman, approximating her exotic accent: Geeeev me that Coparah chewel! “I was in two or three of Jack Smith’s films,” Vaccaro recalled. “We were both crazy about Maria Montez. When I was a kid, I liked her. So did Jack. I liked the way she looked and the way she acted and the type of films she did.” Smith was drawn to what he called “musty” or “moldy” entertainment products from the recent past, which had been swept into the culture industry’s dustbin. The outmoded movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s were beneath contempt for many contemporary mainstream critics, so Smith poached these “secret flix” (as he called them) in ways that resisted the logic of capitalist cultural production. Montez’s acting may have been dreadful—especially by the new Method acting standards—but that was part of the attraction. “People laughed at her acting because it was camp,” Agosto Machado said, “but there was a mystique about her. She didn’t pretend to be anything more than a beautiful woman who was put in an exotic setting, and we all recognized her as our own.” It also didn’t hurt that Maria Montez sometimes looked like a woman imitating a drag queen dressed like a glittery starlet.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After working with Andy Warhol on his early films, Ronald Tavel began staging his scripts with John Vaccaro’s theater company, Play-House of the Ridiculous. After another split—this time with Vaccaro—Larry Kornfeld agreed to stage Gorilla Queen at Judson Church. The show was about a tribe that worshipped an effeminate creature named Queen Kong; like Pomegranada, it was an entertaining comment on society. During the gorilla’s entrance, for example, Queen Kong swung on a rope and struck a swishy limp-wrist pose. “It was the funniest thing you could see,” Kornfeld said, “and it was high camp. A big gorilla suddenly doing a very fey limp wrist move? Only at Judson.” Gorilla Queen debuted in the spring of 1967, with George Harris Jr. playing the lead ape role, Brute, who served as a kind of narrator. His son George III was a member of the Glitz Iona tribe, a kind of Greek chorus that would fall silent during a scary scene, or move about and screech when something provocative was said. “What a sweet family,” said Norman Marshall, who played Queen Kong. “They were all lovely people. Hibiscus, or George Harris III, he was very, very young. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and he seemed like a child, sixteen or seventeen. His father and I, and Jimmy O’Bryant, we were the only straight guys in the play, and we became very good friends.”
The Play-House of the Ridiculous initially developed out of a collaboration between John Vaccaro and Ronald Tavel. In 1965, they staged Tavel’s one-acts The Life of Juanita Castro and Shower at a little gallery on 89 East Tenth Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. “That street was originally inhabited by de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and all those types of artists,” recalled Vaccaro. “It was an art gallery called the Coda, and we had sixty folding chairs and no theater lights.” Vaccaro also directed the Tavel plays Screen Test, Indira Gandhi’s Daring Device, and The Life of Lady Godiva. The transgender glam-punk rocker and Off-Off-Broadway performer Jayne County (then known as Wayne County) recalled seeing the latter show in 1967, not long after she arrived in New York. “My mind was blown, totally blown. It was a life-changer,” County said. “First of all, I was shocked and very embarrassed. It hadn’t been that long since I had just come from Georgia, so I really had a lot of that little farm girl in me. The scene that really got me was when Ruby Lynn Reyner was fucking a wooden horse, and I had never seen anything like that. It embarrassed me. But it was genius, of course, genius.” Tavel and Vaccaro first called themselves Theater of the Ridiculous, but after city officials harassed them for running an unlicensed theater they became the Play-House of the Ridiculous Repertory Club, a semantic sleight of hand that allowed them to evade the letter of the law.
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.”
Tony Zanetta graduated from high school in 1964 and went to art school in Buffalo, then dropped out. While coming to grips with his sexuality and discovering the gay world, he had a roommate from Massapequa, Long Island, who grew up with both Tony Ingrassia and Candy Darling. Zanetta got to know them both when he moved to New York City, where he lived fairly deep in the East Village on Twelfth Street and Avenue C. At first he did only conventional theater, though Zanetta was familiar with the underground theater scene. “I was aware of the Theater of the Ridiculous and I had seen two things that I absolutely loved, including Gorilla Queen, which was Ronald Tavel’s,” he said. “I also saw Night Club, which was directed by Tony Ingrassia.” Ingrassia directed several other Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Curtis’s Femme Fatale and the Wayne County–penned three-act play World: Birth of a Nation at the New York Theater Ensemble. “I went to the audition for World,” Zanetta said, “and I had previously met Tony Ingrassia through my college roommate. So Tony’s like, ‘Darling, you don’t have to audition. You can be in my play.’ ”
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the early 1970s, many downtown artists were taken by video—including playwright Harry Koutoukas, who turned 87 Christopher Street’s fire escapes into a staging area captured by Global Village’s trusty Portapaks. For Suicide Notations, Koutoukas conscripted his neighbor Lisa Jane Persky in her New York debut as an actress. If Off-Off-Broadway opened its doors to nonprofessionals, Suicide Notations was more like Off-Off-Off-Broadway. Persky’s mother let Koutoukas use the fire escape on the front of her apartment for the actors to shout their lines, and other scenes took place on her neighbor James Hall’s fire escape directly above them. Persky played the Girl in Gown—wearing her own exotic long yellow dress with red moons and stars—and Hall was the Sleepwalking Poet. Koutoukas stole the show as Louis XIV, wearing a crown and a gaudy silk bathrobe, complemented with feathers, beads, and glitter. “I didn’t think about Suicide Notations as being in a play,” Persky said. “It was just an off-the-cuff kind of thing—like a Happening, really. We had a dress rehearsal, which was a performance for the street, because we knew we were going to shoot it on video.” It was taped by Rudi Stern, who cofounded Global Village and had previously produced light shows for LSD guru Timothy Leary. When Stern shot it at night, he lit up the fire escapes on all six floors and ran the master switchboard in Persky’s apartment. “My friend on the street,” Hall recalled, “he threw his crutches in front of a bus to stop the bus so we could shoot a scene.” Taylor Mead, Ronald Tavel, and Jackie Curtis were also cast for the video production (though Curtis ended up being a no-show).
From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Harry Koutoukas’s apartment caught fire in 1972, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein wrote a show about his attempt to help clean up the mess, In Search of the Cobra Jewels. Fierstein played the Koutoukas character, mixing real details from the apartment (such as how Koutoukas partitioned his living space by tying together large scarves) with bawdy surrealism. He recited a poem about a lover as he cut a folded piece of paper with scissors—then opened it up to reveal a string of little paper men with penises, holding hands. The Cobra Jewels cast also included Agosto Machado, Ronald Tavel, Harvey Tavel, and the unpredictable Koutoukas himself, who began slicing his wrists with a razor onstage one night. “Take the razor out of Koutoukas’s hand!” people screamed as Ellen Stewart tried to stop him. “Take the razor out of his hand!” Machado recalled, “We all walked offstage, and Koutoukas—who is fabulous—he just said, ‘Oh, are you going to condemn me for getting blood on the stage?’ ” In Michael Smith’s Village Voice review, he reported that “the opening night blood-letting introduced too much reality onto the stage for my taste. I was sickened and horrified.”1 Stewart was also disturbed by the spectacle, and some time after she reminded him, “Harry, I actually saved your life, remember? You were onstage and you slit your wrists and then you started to cut your throat and I stopped you.” The stubborn playwright retorted, “Yes, but I still object to you stopping my performance, for censoring me. But I do thank you.”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore