Off-Off-Broadway actress and musician Ruby Lynn Reyner was the star of several Play-House of the Ridiculous shows, including Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit and Cock-Strong; her band Ruby and the Rednecks often played the Mercer Arts Center, Max’s Kansas City, and CBGB throughout the 1970s.
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 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
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.”
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.
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.”
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn appeared in many Warhol films, on cabaret stages, and in underground theater productions. As with the other two, Woodlawn (née Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhaki) was also name-checked in that Lou Reed classic: “Holly came from Miami, F-L-A, hitchhiked her way across the USA, plucked her eyebrows along the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.” In fact, Holly Woodlawn didn’t hitchhike—she took the bus to New York—but the rest was more or less true. “Through Jackie, I would end up at Max’s with Jackie and Candy and Holly,” Bruce Eyster recalled. “They were all very funny in different ways and had their own take on things. Holly was kind of like the Martha Raye comedienne slapstick girl.” Ruby Lynn Reyner also hung out with all three, and would act out scenes from 1940s movies and 1950s televisions shows with them. “They knew all the dialogue from old Kim Novak movies, Joan Crawford movies, or I Love Lucy,” she said. “We’d switch off playing the roles. Jackie and I would always fight over who would be Lucy and who would be Ethel. Oh, and Holly and I had adventures together. We used to wear these old vintage 1930s nightgowns and wander through the East Village, clinging together in the night. One time she came to answer the door and she was just out of the shower and she had a big dick. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought of Holly as my girlfriend.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“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.”
The mainstream magazine Newsweek published a glowing review of the Play-House of the Ridiculous’s production of Jackie Curtis’s play—an unlikely turn of events for such an underground show: “What this is can only be experienced, and seeing Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit is seeing an explosion of pure theatrical energy unconfined by any effete ideas of form, content, structure, or even rationality. It is an insanely intense, high-velocity, high-decibel circus, costume ball, and scarifying super-ritual in which transvestism, scatology, obscenity, camp, self-assertion, self-deprecation, gallows humor, cloacal humor, sick humor, healthy humor, and cutting, soaring song all blast off through the tiny, backless-benched theater.” John Vaccaro played Princess Ninga Flinga, an aspiring actress whose career was hampered by the fact that her arms were cut off at the elbows, and the show featured designed-to-offend songs such as “Thalidomide Baby” and “In God’s Shitty Lap.” As for the plot, actress Ruby Lynn Reyner summed it up thus: “The show was nonsensical.” She recalled that when Curtis brought the script to Vaccaro, “it was nothing but gibberish. It was a litany, a mishmash—dialogue that was taken from old movies and transposed into a play.” Vaccaro had to make sense out of it, so he set it in a carnival sideshow filled with bizarre characters. He liked directing plays that made little sense, because he could imbue them with his own brand of social satire. “With Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit,” Arcade said, “once again, John took that play and made it into something entirely different, which had nothing to do with anything that Jackie had planned.”
It was at Max’s Kansas City that the pioneering electronic rock duo known as Silver Apples made a name for themselves downtown. Consisting of keyboardist Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor, Silver Apples regularly performed in Max’s second-floor room starting in 1968. Coxe said they were the only band that Ruskin would allow to play there at the time (turning down overtures from the Band and other high-profile artists). “We were just wild and crazy enough to fit his whole concept of the restaurant,” he said, “so we became the house band up there for the longest time, pretty much for a whole year.” Coxe grew up in New Orleans, and around 1960 he decided to move to New York City and become an artist. “Back then, the whole Lower East Side was pretty much inhabited by artists, writers, musicians, poets, and actors,” Coxe said, “and there were all kinds of part-time jobs available.” He recalled working at the American Kennel Club proofreading dog certificates along with up-and-coming painter Robert Rauschenberg and future members of the Velvet Underground. He first played rock ’n’ roll covers around Greenwich Village in the Random Concept and later joined the Overland Stage Band, which included drummer Danny Taylor. “Silver Apples were way ahead of their time,” said Ruby Lynn Reyner. “They were the original electronic band who had a huge, bulky, humongous piano-sized computer.” Coxe’s primitive synthesizer looked like a DIY spaceship control panel with several oscillators mounted on plywood. Taylor’s unique, pulsating drumming style developed because it was hard for Coxe to use his electronic equipment to play bass lines, which was the traditional way drummers locked into an instrumental groove.
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In an unlikely turn of events, New York City mayor John Lindsay took a liking to Silver Apples and invited them to perform in Union Square, Tompkins Square, and other city parks. (“He just loved our stuff,” a mystified Simeon Coxe said. “I don’t know why.”) The mayor dubbed their droning, minimalist music “The Sound of New York,” and even commissioned Silver Apples to provide a live soundtrack for the Apollo 11 moon landing on June 20, 1969. They performed in Central Park while video projections showed the lunar module touching down on the surface of the moon. Silver Apples signed to a major label that had no idea how to market them, so the duo wound up on the oddest assortment of live bills. “They hooked us up with Jethro Tull, MC5, Procol Harum, Blue Cheer, 1910 Fruitgum Company, T. Rex, Tiny Tim,” Coxe said, “the whole spectrum.” Play-House of the Ridiculous director John Vaccaro recalled, “We used to see the Silver Apples at Max’s all the time. God, the sounds they made were just fantastic.” Simeon Coxe said that the Play-House people would always come to their Monday night residency, take acid, and watch the group play. “After a while,” he said, “John asked if we would be interested in doing an insane musical—right up our alley! What a beautiful but bizarre bunch of folks.” The musical was Cock-Strong, starring Ruby Lynn Reyner, and it ran in early 1969 at La MaMa.
“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.”
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 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