Off-Off-Broadway actor Tony Zanetta played the Andy Warhol character in Pork; when he and the cast performed in London, he befriended David Bowie and became president of his management company, Main Man, during the Ziggy Stardust era.
A hypermasculine man with the build of a football player, Norman Marshall was the last person one would expect to be involved in Gorilla Queen, whose cast included a young George Harris III, soon to be Hibiscus. “I’m so butch that this reviewer said that I was ‘the male version of Nick Nolte.’ Anyway, here I am playing Queen Kong—in the middle of all this silliness, craziness—and I had a great time.” Like many Off-Off-Broadway actors, he had never been in a play or had any theatrical experience before he walked into Judson Church for an audition. “I just decided, ‘I think I’ll try acting.’ I had no idea what the hell it was all about.” Tony Zanetta—an Off- Off-Broadway actor who began working with David Bowie as his tour manager during his Ziggy Stardust period—recalled, “Gorilla Queen’s writing was so insane. Insane. It was really out there. Taharahnugi White Woman sent my twenty-year-old self into hysterics.” That character was played by a man dressed in a sarong, and during one gag he shocked another character by showing his hairy chest: “What’s the matter? Ain’t you never seen a white woman before?” Director Larry Kornfeld said of Gorilla Queen, “Campy, hell, It’s downright homosexual!” Musing on the ways that intellectuals and theorists have followed the lead of the downtown’s underground theater movement, Kornfeld observed, “Binaries were being used in those productions, and they were being torn apart, deconstructed. Deconstructing binaries—gender binaries, racial binaries—was starting way back then, through performance. Theorists always came second.”
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After splitting with John Vaccaro, Charles Ludlam staged a lightly rewritten version of Conquest of the Universe, pointedly titled When Queens Collide, and then gained much more acclaim when he mounted Bluebeard at La MaMa in 1970. It was camp pastiche of the old French folktale, in which Bluebeard was a mad scientist who tried to create a “third sex” by performing gruesome operations on his wives. It unfolded like a mash‑up of Victorian melodrama and 1930s horror films—culminating with the newest wife, played by Mario Montez, closing the show displaying an ambiguous “third genital.” While Bluebeard’s plot was way-out, it never veered into the alternate dimensions conjured up by Vaccaro’s shows. “Charles Ludlum’s style was about ‘gay’ theater,” Mary Woronov said. “It was guys dressing up as women and performing. Vaccaro didn’t care if you’re a girl or a boy. It had nothing to do with changing sexes, or being gay or straight.” Whereas Ludlam leaned heavily toward straightforward camp—with references to old Hollywood films and other common tropes—Vaccaro’s work was something else entirely: satirical, political, operatic, and visually over the top. “John felt he was painting with theater,” Zanetta said, “and he used actors like they were his colors. They were his tools. But he wasn’t really so much about traditional theater at all like Charles was.” When the two queens finally collided socially, after years of not speaking to each other, all Vaccaro said he could muster was, “Oh, Charles. You’re as ridiculous as I am.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
John Vaccaro’s combative nature was perhaps rooted in his working-class Italian immigrant background, which he desperately wanted to escape. “He reminded me of my Italian grandmother,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Sicilian and hardcore.” Vaccaro first performed comedy in a nightclub act while at Ohio State University and then began doing plays like Waiting for Godot; after graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City. “When I got to New York,” he said, “I had a loft and everybody used to come to my place on 9 Great Jones Street—artists, jazz musicians. I ended up paying seventy-five bucks a month. I had a big record collection, and we’d hang out and listen. I had everything. Jazz and the Beatles and stuff like that. I was heavy into rhythm and blues, but mostly jazz.” Vaccaro got to know Thelonious Monk when the pianist regularly performed alongside other jazz legends at the Five Spot Café, which was frequented by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and other writers. “John was coming out of the world of beatnik poetry readings, with bands playing in the background,” said Penny Arcade. “His friends were all these big jazz guys, and also he was an intellectual. When I met him, he had just stopped working as a rare book appraiser.” He became part of the New York Poets Theatre, which Diane di Prima ran out of the Bowery Theatre on East Tenth Street, near Third Avenue. The first show they mounted was the Frank O’Hara play Loves Labor, with Vaccaro part of a cast of twenty cavorting on the tiny stage. “There was a screaming queen in a tiger skin playing a shepherd, with many dancers for his sheep,” di Prima recalled. “Freddie Herko in a black cape was Paris; John Vaccaro, slim and monocled, with a top hat, played Metternich, and no less a personage than the ‘great’ freak show artist and drag queen Frankie Francine portrayed Venus.”
“I consider Ellen Stewart my honorary mother, and John Vaccaro my honorary father,” Agosto Machado said. “Through both of them, I felt part of a larger group, and a family.” Another member of that extended family was performer Penny Arcade (née Susana Ventura), who first worked with Vaccaro on his 1967 play Conquest of the Universe. “John Vaccaro is the most singularly underrated person in the alternative arts,” argued Arcade. “So much of what went into queer culture came through John Vaccaro, and it was John who first did that kind of rock ’n’ roll theater. There wouldn’t have been a punk scene without John.” Play-House of the Ridiculous shows were literally in-your-face—unrelenting explosions of color, glitter, and noise underscored by social satire. “There was always a strong political undercurrent,” said Ridiculous actor Tony Zanetta. “Kill the king or, you know, mainly kill—kill someone. It was all total insanity and nonsense, but it was really compelling.” Vaccaro fell in love with Bunraku puppet shows and Kabuki theater during his World War II military service in Japan and took these traditional theatrical forms in demented new directions after settling in downtown New York.
Glamour, Glory, and Gold served as the stage debut of both Candy Darling and a young actor named Robert De Niro, who played all the male roles in the show. Even before Darling transformed herself from a brunette into a peroxide blonde goddess with blue eye shadow, false eyelashes, and an icy wit, she could play a convincing woman. New York Times theater critic Dan Sullivan commented without irony in a review: “A skinny actress billed as Candy Darling also made an impression; hers was the first female impersonation of a female impersonator that I have ever seen.” Candy loved that review, which mistakenly warped Darling’s gender like a Möbius strip. The wider public didn’t know the truth until Ron Link did a big reveal when he directed Darling in Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway. Reflecting on Darling’s sexuality, Tony Zanetta recalled, “Maybe Candy actually was transgender, but in the beginning we didn’t think of Candy as a woman, or someone who was trying to be a woman. Candy was a boy who was being a star. He recreated himself in the guise of Lana Turner or Kim Novak. Candy’s life was performance art about stardom, more than anything. We were attracted to the movies, but we were especially attracted to the stars.” Darling even convinced aging film director Busby Berkeley that she was a woman during an open audition for a Broadway show he was involved in. Darling wore a black 1930s dress with leaping gazelles, while Curtis looked decidedly less femme in a ratty raincoat, torn stockings, and glitter-damaged face. Darling and Curtis were cooing and talking to the director, who took one look and said to Darling, “If it’s based on looks alone, you’ll get it.” He had no idea Darling was in drag.
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
“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.”
For the Play-House of the Ridiculous crowd, Max’s Kansas City was a second home. “We’d hang out in the back room,” John Vaccaro said. “It was fabulous just being back there because not just anybody was allowed back there, and it was fabulous back in the days of LSD. Everybody was taking acid.” He staged the show Monkeys of the Organ Grinder in Max’s upstairs room, as well as The Moke Eater (Jack Smith was a collaborator and early Velvets member Tony Conrad provided taped sounds for the latter show). Although the Vaccaro and Warhol people sometimes overlapped, the director had little time for the famous artist. “Warhol was in one corner,” Vaccaro said, “and I had my group in the other corner. My friends stayed with me and Andy had his group. Andy and I knew each other, but I didn’t take him very seriously, because, well . . . [makes yawning sound].” Tony Zanetta recalled, “Andy and John didn’t get along, or, at least, John didn’t get along with Andy, even though they had common immigrant backgrounds. When John came to New York, it was about the Cedar Tavern—where the Abstract Expressionists were—who were a bunch of macho guys who thought Andy Warhol was a little fairy illustrator. Which he was. Basically, I think John didn’t like Andy because he was fruity, and he was a very successful illustrator. So number one, that wasn’t real art. Second, he had money. Third, Andy was very calculating.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Soon after Mickey Ruskin opened Max’s Kansas City in December 1965, his bar and restaurant became one of the downtown’s premier social hubs. Ruskin—who Lou Reed described as a hawk-faced man with dark stringy hair that hung over his right eye—had already developed several music and entertainment contacts in the previous decade. Most notably, he ran the East Village’s Tenth Street Coffeehouse and Les Deux Mégots, and Greenwich Village’s Ninth Circle (which in the 1970s and 1980s transformed into a well-known gay hustler bar). At Max’s, large abstract art hung on the white walls, including a Frank Stella painting, though everything else was red—from the tablecloths to the red bowls filled with chickpeas, which sustained many a hungry artist. “What Mickey would do is he would trade credit for art,” said Off-Off-Broadway actor Tony Zanetta. “So basically, that’s how he built his business. Some of it was probably just luck, in that the Factory moved across Union Square, so the Warhol people started going there.” One might say Ruskin was an art patron who happened to run downtown bars and coffeehouses. Warhol gave him art in exchange for an unlimited bar tab, so that he and his Factory associates could eat and drink for free.
Before opening Max’s Kansas City, Mickey Ruskin had run the Tenth Street Coffeehouse, Les Deux Mégots, and the Ninth Circle. “Les Deux Mégots was a coffeehouse that was part of the underground poetry scene,” said Max’s regular Jim Fouratt, “but at Max’s, Mickey really mixed. It was the center of the universe, it really truly was. It was always a place where everyone passed through.” Large abstract art hung on the white walls, including a Frank Stella painting, though everything else was red—from the tablecloths to the red bowls filled with chickpeas, which sustained many a hungry artist. “What Mickey would do is he would trade credit for art,” said Off-Off-Broadway actor Tony Zanetta. “So basically, that’s how he built his business. Some of it was probably just luck, in that the Factory moved across Union Square, so the Warhol people started going there.” One might say Ruskin was an art patron who happened to run downtown bars and coffeehouses. Warhol gave him art in exchange for an unlimited bar tab, so that he and his Factory associates could eat and drink for free.
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
Vain Victory brought in rich people who were trying to “slum it” downtown, sometimes inviting Jackie and the rest of the cast to their fancy uptown residences. Agosto Machado said it was like inviting a sideshow performer to dinner for your friends to gawk at, something that Lily Tomlin also found troubling. “You just felt that someone was bringing them to be amused,” she said, “or be hip or to rub elbows with that culture—but not really take it in or embrace it totally. I just felt that it was kind of exploitative.” “The Ridiculous people—and Jackie, Holly, and Candy—were always getting invited to these big uptown parties,” Tony Zanetta said. “They were kind of like toys of the rich people, these little social freaks.” Despite the patronizing attitudes, Machado and his friends made the most of it. “It was such a novelty for many of us, being invited uptown. You could tell they were from different classes because they had nice teeth and could afford dentists. People who were like us, we didn’t have manicures.” The last time Robert Patrick saw Candy Darling, he was cruising around Times Square with friends in a baby-blue Thunderbird convertible when they saw her on the sidewalk looking distraught. “We stopped and said, ‘What’s wrong, Candy?’ She said, ‘Well, I’m supposed to go to this party and I get $500 for going to a party now, but my ride hasn’t come.’ ” When they offered to take Candy, she hopped in the back of the convertible with the grace and poise of a beauty pageant winner. “She sat up on the backseat,” Patrick said, “and waved at people like Miss America as we drove her to a party.”
Jackie Curtis wrote the underground hit Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. “La MaMa to me was an acknowledgment that we kind of made it,” recalled Tony Zanetta. “It was very respectable. So if Jackie Curtis did Vain Victory there, it was taken seriously, even though it was a total mess.” The show featured Curtis alongside a star-studded downtown cast that included Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Taylor Mead, Mario Montez, and Agosto Machado, among many others. Vain Victory was Machado’s first Off-Off-Broadway show, even though he had been hanging around the scene throughout the 1960s. “It never occurred to me that I would cross the footlights, but with the encouragement of Jackie Curtis I suddenly was on the other side, and people were so welcoming,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, because I don’t sing, dance, or act—and yet it was like, ‘Be part of our show!’ ” Eric Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps played Vain Victory’s backing music, and the glitter-slathered frontman had his own solo number as a naked cowboy, wearing little more than chaps. “There was glitter all over his pubic hair and what have you,” Machado said. “He was not self-conscious about nudity because he had done that in Warhol films.” Darling performed as a wheelchair-bound mermaid who was sad about having a tail but no legs (Woodlawn took that role after Darling left Vain Victory, accidentally rolling over the edge of the stage and into the audience during her first night as the mermaid).
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
With his eye on breaking David Bowie in America, his manager Tony DeFries hired Pork performers Tony Zanetta and Cherry Vanilla to work at the New York offices of MainMan, his management company, alongside photographer and scenester Leee Black Childers. Zanetta became president of MainMan, Childers was vice president, and Vanilla directed publicity. They had absolutely no business experience and were fairly irresponsible, but no matter—DeFries was selling an image one couldn’t learn about in business school. “MainMan was definitely about Tony DeFries wanting to make money,” Zanetta said, “but I was there because I liked David Bowie and I liked what he was doing.” MainMan’s new president became friends with Bowie and toured with him during the Ziggy Stardust era, which further fueled his Warholian infatuation with stardom and image-making. “Once I admitted that to myself,” Zanetta said, “it kind of freed me and the whole world kind of opened up, especially rock ’n’ roll.” Andy Warhol, however, did not receive Bowie quite as enthusiastically. When he paid a visit to the Factory, the artist muttered something about liking his shoes, but things got more awkward when Bowie played him “Andy Warhol,” a rather corny track from his Hunky Dory album. Silence. While visiting New York, Bowie also connected with Iggy Pop, who signed a management contract with MainMan, and Bowie finally got to know his musical hero, Lou Reed.