Writer and theorist Susan Sontag famously used drag and camp to think through the relationship between performance, artifice, and sexuality—something that was partially inspired by Caffe Cino’s outrageous shows and free-thinking atmosphere.
Harry Koutoukas’s plays were wild and chaotic, but they still followed a basic order and logic: what the playwright called “the ancient law of glitter.” Camp developed as a private language shared among the urban gay men who populated Caffe Cino, which was frequented by Andy Warhol and others who absorbed ideas from its free-thinking atmosphere. Downtown scenester, actor, and gay rights activist Jim Fouratt recalled, “When Susan Sontag—who came from outside—looked at camp, she created a more intellectual interpretation than the sort of thing Harry Koutoukas did.” Camp had been used as a gay survival tool that was meant to heighten and make fun of the reality of their surroundings, to not let the pain of life get in. “It’s all coded to the straight person,” Fouratt said, “but we all know what it meant, and that sensibility really was incubated at the Cino.” One important element in camp’s coded language was imagery from trashy old movies. “Harry had that kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude,” Robert Heide said, “and he used to come over to my apartment and we’d watch the stars of the silver screen like Gloria Swanson, shining gloriously on late-night movies on television. Harry liked that whole romantic idea of the silver screen, these actresses that were bursting out of themselves.” The composer John Herbert McDowell had celluloid copies of old 1930s and 1940s Hollywood movies like Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street, Dames, and Gold Diggers of 1933—which Koutoukas, Heide, and McDowell sometimes watched backward while tripping on LSD.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore