Tony Ingrassia was larger-than-life figure who directed several Off-Off-Broadway plays, including Andy Warhol’s Pork, Wayne County’s World: Birth of a Nation, Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale, and Island (the latter two featured Patti Smith in acting roles).
The Warhol film Flesh introduced Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis to the underground film world, after which the two became regulars at Max’s (in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed observed, “Candy came from out on the Island, in the back room she was everybody’s darling”). Born James Slattery, Darling grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island—where she was friends with future Off-Off-Broadway director Tony Ingrassia. By the mid-1960s she and Ingrassia made their way to New York City, where Darling became part of the street scene. Hanging out on the stoops or in the parks, she would often be invited back to people’s apartments in the hope that she could inject a little glamour into their evenings. “Candy looked beautiful,” Jane Wagner recalled, “like she just stepped out of a movie.” Curtis quickly took Darling under her wing and, one evening, brought the new arrival to Jim Fouratt’s apartment. “I would like you to meet this boy that just arrived in town,” Curtis told him. “His name is James, but we’re going to call him Candy—Candy Darling. And Candy Darling is never going home again.” Curtis and Darling first met Andy Warhol on the Greenwich Village streets, asking for an autograph and inviting him to Glamour, Glory, and Gold, playing at Bastiano’s Cellar Studio. “Walking just ahead of us was a boy about nineteen or twenty with wispy Beatle bangs,” Warhol recalled, “and next to him was a tall, sensational blonde drag queen in very high heels and a sundress that she had made sure had one strap falling onto her upper arm.” Warhol loved Curtis’s show and provided a publicity blurb—“For the first time, I wasn’t bored”—which led to parts for Curtis and Darling in Warhol’s Flesh.
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When Patti Smith was performing in Femme Fatale at La MaMa during the summer of 1970, she got to see the Velvet Underground for the first time in the upstairs room at Max Kansas City’s, which held about a hundred people. That same evening, Ridiculous director Tony Ingrassia asked Smith to read for his play Island. It was about a family that met at Fire Island for summer vacation, and Smith played another amphetamine-crazed character who rambled incoherently about the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. “It’s probably Tony Ingrassia’s best work,” Off-Off-Broadway actor Tony Zanetta said. “It was this big ensemble cast, where Patti was a speed freak niece who shot up onstage, threw up onstage.” Smith didn’t actually vomit—that effect was achieved by a mouthful of cornmeal and crushed peas—nor did she really shoot up onstage. Ingrassia had assumed that she was a genuine speed freak because of her disheveled hair, pale skin, and skinny frame, but Smith nearly fainted when he casually asked her to use a needle to shoot water into her veins and pull a little blood (they ended up putting hot wax on her arm to make it look real). Smith said that her experiences doing Island finally solidified the notion in her head that she could be a performer. However, she hated memorizing lines and didn’t like how scripted action constrained her—something that wasn’t true of performing poetry and music, her next destinations. “Even though she became known for her music,” Zanetta said, “Patti was kind of a natural actress. She was obviously at the beginning of something, because she had a little following already.” Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha ran an acting workshop that Smith was a part of, in which they worked with sounds and movements, and did other theater games. “She got more into more physical stuff like that as a result of the workshop,” Barsha recalled. “Later, Patti said she had learned a lot from that, and it helped her become more of a rock performer onstage.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The play Pork was based on transcripts of Andy Warhol’s audiotaped conversations with Factory regular Brigid Polk (née Brigid Berlin), with some notable alterations (Brigid Polk became “Amanda Pork” and Viva became “Vulva”). “Andy was just a very quiet guy who didn’t say anything,” recalled Tony Zanetta, who played the Warhol character in the show. “He liked to instigate other people to talk, and he started carrying around a tape recorder everywhere. What Warhol did with everything, he would take something real and then put it on the wall and it was ‘art.’ Pork was that as well because, really, what was it? It was a bunch of words. It was real conversations, but it was put onstage with actors speaking the lines. Pork became a play in the same way that his art was created.” While Zanetta performed in Wayne County’s World: Birth of a Nation and worked on the crew for the next show Tony Ingrassia directed, Sheila, Warhol was arranging for him to direct Pork. One day during rehearsals for Sheila, Ingrassia turned to him and said, “You could play Andy,” and Zanetta was happy to oblige. One of the first things he did was cut his hair like Warhol’s, and he also closely studied the artist when he came to rehearsals. “For me, it was the thrill of a lifetime to do Pork,” Zanetta said, “because I just thought that Warhol was, like, it. I look at pictures of the show and, sure, I don’t look like Andy Warhol—but if you look at pictures of me made up to look like Andy, there are a lot of physical similarities that I wouldn’t have even been aware of.” Wayne County played Vulva, and Pork also featured a young actor and playwright named Harvey Fierstein in his La MaMa debut (he would go on to win two Tony Awards for writing and starring in Torch Song Trilogy). “Pork was still the Ridiculous theater thing, but it pushed Ridiculous into a whole different area,” Zanetta recalled. “Ingrassia’s way was more polished, sort of like I Love Lucy. It was like TV acting. It was very broad, very exaggerated.”
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.’ ”
Because Wayne County loved the Velvet Underground, many of the lines from the first scene of her play World: Birth of a Nation quoted the band’s song titles: “What goes on?” “I’m beginning to see the light.” “Oh! Sweet Jane!” The intimidating presence of Mary Woronov, who wielded a whip while those lines were uttered, pushed this Velvet Underground homage to more absurd heights. The play (staged at the New York Theater Ensemble) takes place in a hospital, where Tony Zanetta played Dr. Louise Pasteur, and its plot revolves around a necrophilic nurse who has sex with a dead dog. It also features a memorable scene in which John Wayne gives birth out of his anus, followed by a slapstick routine in which the plastic baby was dropped on its head and kicked around the hospital floor until various body parts fell off. “Oh no,” a nurse exclaimed, “he’s born dead!” Tony Ingrassia’s prankish casting decisions ratcheted up the madness. The more square the actor, the likelier they would be asked to play a wild part—just to see what these normal, straight thespians would be willing to do in the name of acting. The person who played John Wayne, for example, was just a mainstream actor who responded to the casting call ad with no idea what he was getting himself into. He refused to do full frontal nudity, but still agreed to expose his rear end for the birth scene.
In 1975, Blondie performed as the backing band in a revival of Jackie Curtis’s Vain Victory, with Debbie Harry playing the role of Juicy Lucy and the boys in the band wearing identical blue sharkskin suits that Chris Stein found at a discount store on Broadway. Danny Fields wrote about the show in his SoHo Weekly News column, which was the first time Blondie was mentioned in print. “That was big for us at the time,” Stein recalled, “and we got a lot of attention. We got exposed to a lot of the intelligentsia through that.” Local media outlets like the SoHo Weekly News, Village Voice, and the soon-to-be-launched New York Rocker played a pivotal role in the development of the downtown’s various arts scenes. Influential rock writers like the Voice’s Robert Christgau publicized what was happening and accelerated their momentum, creating a kind of feedback loop. Tony Zanetta was also cast in the revival of Vain Victory with Blondie, which was directed by the ubiquitous Tony Ingrassia. “I think a singer or a star needs to be able to magnify their own personality,” Zanetta said, “and Tony was really, really good at that. I mean, he worked with Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Wayne County, and Cherry Vanilla, and I think they all took something from those experiences.” Back in 1973, when the Stilettoes were performing at places like Bobern Bar and Grill, Harry and Stein hired Ingrassia to help the group with choreography, projecting a cohesive image, and singing with attitude. “Tony did a lot of stage work,” Stein said. “He was a very flamboyant and a loud guy, and was responsible for a lot of cool projects, even though he was very unsung.” Harry added, “He was a slave driver. He was making us work very hard and not to sing technically, but to sing emotionally. And that was a great lesson, to make sure that you really had a connection with what you were saying or talking about or singing about, rather than just singing a nice melody with good technique.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore