Before he co-created the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls, Tom Eyen had more humble beginnings at Caffe Cino and La MaMa, which presented his Off-Off-Broadway hit Frustrata, or the Dirty Little Girl with the Red Paper Rose Stuck in Her Head Is Demented.
Along with Lenny’s Hideaway on West Tenth Street and Seventh Avenue, the San Remo was another regular stop on the downtown circuit—a traditional village tavern with pressed-tin ceilings and wooden walls that was further south, on MacDougal Street and Bleecker. There, playwrights Harry Koutoukas and Tom Eyen rubbed shoulders with eccentric characters like Ian Orlando MacBeth, who spoke in iambic pentameter, dressed in Shakespearean garb, and sometimes wore a live parrot on his shoulder. (He also dyed his beard pink.) MacBeth and others favored a drink called the Clinker, a powerful apricot brandy concoction served in a brass cup. “People would wind up on the floor drinking these things,” Robert Heide recalled. “They were really powerful.” Koutoukas appropriated MacBeth’s affectation and began wearing a stuffed parrot on his own shoulder. The bird perched on his black cape was as much tongue in cheek as it was a genuine attempt to cultivate himself as a memorable Village character. “Harry created this persona with his colorful clothing and dramatic flourishes,” Heide recalled, “and Andy Warhol as well. Andy created a whole persona that was kind of the opposite of Harry’s: affectless.” Whereas Koutoukas dramatically waltzed into the San Remo—with a cigarette held high, wearing his cape and stuffed parrot—Warhol was more likely to be barely seen and not heard, quietly sitting at a table, observing.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When Robert Patrick began hanging out at Caffe Cino in 1961, he had no grand design to become a playwright. It was his friend Wilson who helped inspire him to begin writing The Haunted Host, a play that was set on Christopher Street and also featured an openly gay character. “We went around to a diner called Joe’s for lunch, and I reached for a napkin,” he recalled. “I started writing The Haunted Host, but I would never have thought of writing the play if I hadn’t already been part of the Cino.” When Patrick asked Joe Cino to put on the show, he just threw the script over his shoulder and into the garbage. “You don’t want to be a playwright. Playwrights are terrible people,” Cino said, motioning to his star scribes—Lanford Wilson, David Starkweather, and Tom Eyen. “Oh, all right,” Patrick replied, dropping the issue. “Joe, you should do Bob’s play,” Wilson interjected. “He pulls his weight around here and you should do his little play.” Cino said, “No. He’ll thank me someday.” Wilson then insisted, “If you don’t do Bob’s play, none of us will do plays here anymore.” The other two playwrights looked at Wilson with raised eyebrows until Joe said, “Oh, all right, if it’s going to be a palace revolution.” The Haunted Host was a hit, kicking off Patrick’s wildly prolific career.
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Ellen Stewart extended the downtown diaspora’s connections across the globe, touring shows overseas and bringing international troupes to her theater. La MaMa’s first forays abroad began in June 1965 with a European trip taken by Jacque Lynn Colton and Mari-Claire Charba (who appeared in the Andy Warhol film Soap Opera). Colton and Charba met when they were cast in a LeRoi Jones play, The Baptism, and they appeared together in Tom Eyen’s Off-Off-Broadway hit at La MaMa, Frustrata, or the Dirty Little Girl with the Red Paper Rose Stuck in Her Head Is Demented. The two soon hatched a plan to get Eyen to write them a play as an excuse to go to Europe, and they had quite a send-off. “Tiny Tim and Harry Koutoukas and Tom Eyen and all of Off-Off-Broadway came down to the boat to see us off,” Colton said, “and threw roses at us. She and I had our floaty chiffon scarves blowing in the wind. It was all very picturesque.” Charba and Colton performed Eyen’s The White Whore and the Bit Player on a transatlantic ocean liner, then put on Eyen’s show everywhere from Amsterdam to Paris.
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Ann Harris remembers Jackie Curtis as a ubiquitous presence around the neighborhood. “My older kids ran into him around town,” she said. “Jackie was definitely around.” George Harris III, later Hibiscus, was Jackie’s classmate when they both attended Quintano’s School for Young Professionals, a special high school for performers in midtown Manhattan. (Jackie, Hibiscus, and actress Pia Zadora were all in the same math class.) Along with Hibiscus’s brother Walter Michael Harris, Jackie Curtis was cast in a 1965 La MaMa production of Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets, as the love interest of Bette Midler, who had just arrived from Hawaii. One day, the temperamental Curtis stormed off the set, and Eyen asked Walter to take the vacant role. He was already the drummer in the offstage band that performed the show’s music, so he would run back and forth performing various duties, like singing a lover’s duet with Midler. “Bette played the Nefertiti role and I took on Jackie Curtis’s role, Tobias, an angel sent by the god Ra to be Nefertiti’s downfall,” Harris said. “I was about fourteen. So I got to sing and perform with a nineteen-year-old Bette Midler and played drums for the other people’s songs when I wasn’t onstage.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Melba LaRose first met Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling during a production of Glamour, Glory, and Gold, a ridiculous send‑up of Hollywood melodramas. She played the lead role as Nola Noon, an amalgam of old movie stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. The play—Curtis’s first—began with Noon working in a burlesque house, followed her rise as a big Hollywood star, and ended with LaRose’s character mock-tragically walking into the ocean as the Warsaw Concerto played. Glamour, Glory, and Gold was directed by Ron Link, who went on to direct many Off-Off-Broadway shows, including Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars. During the opening scene of this explosive production, LaRose walked onstage wearing nine feather boas and started throwing glitter. “It was everywhere,” she said. “The set was covered with sparkles and glitter.” Oddly enough, the show’s title came directly from Lady Bird Johnson (President Lyndon Johnson’s wife) when she crossed paths with an extravagantly dressed Jackie Curtis, who was lurking in the lobby of the Lincoln Center. As Johnson came down a set of stairs, she saw Curtis and exclaimed in her regal southern accent, “Oh my. Glamour, glory, and gold.” Jackie thought, Ding! Yes. That’s gonna be the title of my play.
Tom Eyen’s script for Women Behind Bars was wild and over-the-top, and under Ron Link’s direction the show burst with the energy of punk rock. “It had to move like the Ramones,” cast member Lisa Jane Persky said. “It just wasn’t anything without that pace.” After the original run, Women Behind Bars opened at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, with Divine as the Matron and Lisa playing the Innocent Raped by the System. “I would get brought in to see the Matron,” she said, “and I would be all trembling and everything. It was arch. Divine would pull a chain and this giant bed with satin quilt came down, which would go boom! It fell on the floor, and then things proceeded from there.” Mainstream and underground culture often overlapped downtown, as when 1970s pop superstar Elton John frequently came to the show. “He’d buy a whole row of seats and fill it with friends,” Persky recalled, “and you could hear him laughing loudly in the audience.” John asked Divine to join him onstage at Madison Square Garden and invited the whole Women Behind Bars cast to the arena. Kiki Dee—who duetted with him on the 1976 hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”—came out for a couple songs, then Divine did a number in front of the biggest audience of his career. Divine was certainly not a household name outside of the worlds of trash cinema and Off-Off-Broadway but, as Persky recalled, “It turned out that the Elton crowd loved Divine. They went crazy!”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After Lisa Jane Persky made her stage debut at La MaMa, she performed her next role in Women Behind Bars at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, located across the street. The show was written by Tom Eyen, who had humble beginnings at Caffe Cino but later created the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Women Behind Bars was a trashy satire of women’s prison movies with a cast that included Divine, who had also worked with the Cockettes in San Francisco. Divine was cast in the second production of Women Behind Bars, directed by Ron Link, who directed Jackie Curtis’s first play Glamour, Glory, and Gold, along with several other underground theater productions. One day in 1974, Lisa Jane Persky ran into Sweet William Edgar, a warmhearted actor who had a very nasal voice and brilliant comedic timing. “They’re casting for this new show, Women Behind Bars,” he told her. “You should audition!” She didn’t get a part at first, but she was hired as the understudy for all the roles and became Link’s assistant, which meant she did everything—from running lights and ironing costumes to bringing a rooster back to her apartment on weekdays. (The rooster played a chicken named Rosalita, a gender-bending casting decision that was typical of Off-Off-Broadway.) The original production was performed at Astor Place Theatre. Starring Pat Ast, Helen Hanft, Mary Woronov, and Sharon Barr, it was funny and entertaining, but it was also a starker version. Even the set was stripped down, with just a couple of benches and fake prison bars. “Ron could make something out of very little,” Barr recalled, who played a Marilyn Monroe type named Cheri Netherland. “Sharon Barr was fabulous,” recalled Woronov. “She was gigantic and gorgeous, and she walked around like she was on Mars. It was very funny.”