Walter Michael Harris was the second child of the Harris family, the younger brother of Hibiscus (born George Harris III, aka G3), and was the youngest cast member in the Broadway debut of Hair.
“I think we were a little bit of an anomaly at the Cino and at La MaMa,” said Walter Michael Harris, “because we were so young. Here’s this family with kids who were all involved in whatever these artists were up to, in these magic places.” An Off-Off-Broadway director could cast a multitude of parts—a mom, a teenager, a boy, a girl—in one fell swoop. “If you needed a kid,” recalled Robert Patrick, “you called the Harris family. We just took them for granted.” Eloise Harris got her Equity card at the age of nine performing in Invitation to a Beheading at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, and Jayne Anne Harris could be seen serenading Lanford Wilson in a production of Claris Nelson’s The Clown at Caffe Cino (she was cast as a boy). The roles kept coming, with the kids doing theater at night and going to school by day. The family queued for meals around the clock to maintain their varied production schedules, and Ann helped the kids with homework and ran lines with them.
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When the family was living on El Dorado Avenue, eleven-year-old George Harris III (soon to be Hibiscus) hatched the idea to start a family theater troupe after learning that his mother had written two plays in college—Bluebeard and The Sheep and the Cheapskate—that had moldered in a trunk for years. Bluebeard was based on the classic story about the bloody nobleman, but in Ann’s version the wives were turned into furniture, instead of being murdered by Bluebeard. The Sheep and the Cheapskate was a generation gap play that took place in the 1920s and dealt with new ideas about liberty, freedom, and self-expression—topics that grew more timely as the 1960s wore on (the play would later be performed at La MaMa). “There were two ready-made little musicals that Mom had written,” Walter said, “so we put them on in our garage on El Dorado Avenue.” After that, George and his siblings began staging Broadway shows like Camelot. They didn’t have a script for that musical, nor had they seen it, but the kids reconstructed the show based on the liner notes in the original cast recording. “For Camelot,” Jayne Anne recalled, “my brothers put horse heads on the front of their bicycles and did jousting.” Walter said, “We sprayed cardboard with silver paint to make armor. We came at each other on our bicycles and tried to knock each other down.” Little did the family know that what they were doing was exactly what was going on in the downtown’s underground theater scene, a world the whole family would be immersed in by 1964.
When Ellen Stewart learned of the family’s garage theater in Florida, she inaugurated a “Young Playwrights Series” at La MaMa. George Harris III and the rest of the kids mounted Ann Harris’s Bluebeard and The Sheep and the Cheapskate, which they revived at La MaMa. “And there we were,” said Walter Michael Harris, “not only doing the ones we did in Florida, which were two that Mom wrote in college, but Mom was also inspired to create some more shows—working with my brother George and me on the book and the music.” This started a family tradition of writing about whatever was going on in their lives. “Our Macbeth parody, titled MacBee, spoofed the Mad Men era of advertising,” Walter said. “We all had some experience with this world, as we were constantly auditioning for TV commercials. We kids were all traipsing up and down Madison Avenue with our headshots and our portfolios, looking to find TV or commercial work, and so our show MacBee was about that.” They enrolled in acting classes—learning Method acting and discovering how serious and ridiculous it could be—which inspired their satirical musical, There Is Method in Their Madness. It received a positive review from Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith, and the El Dorado Players continued to thrive on the La MaMa stage.
“Everything was one, the music and theater and art,” Ann Harris recalled. “Everybody was interested in everybody then, and it was beautiful.” When Ann was in her mid-40s, she appeared in the 1970 cult film The Honeymoon Killers with actress Shirley Stoler, and Harry Koutoukas also cast her in one of his eccentric “camps.” She could occasionally be found running around with Koutoukas and Hair creators Jim Rado and Gerome Ragni, having a blast on the streets of downtown New York. “I think the Catholic Church was Mom’s anchor into a magical idea of life,” Walter Michael Harris said. “She had pretty strong, stringent Irish-Catholic roots in her childhood, and I think part of her fantasy life was really among the angels and with heaven—the idea of that sort of magical place.” After the family moved to New York, they stopped going to church and entered Off-Off-Broadway’s dingy temples. “Cino became the church,” he continued. “La MaMa took the place of that in our lives.” The Harris family matriarch finally entered a new act of her life after finding herself among a like-minded tribe of experimental playwrights, directors, and actors. From her headquarters on East Ninth Street in the East Village, Ann began writing more songs and collaborating with her husband, children, and newfound extended family. “It must have been a relief for Mom after what must have seemed like a long exile in a desert—the years in Florida. For Mom, I think it was just really quite liberating.”
The Judson Poets’ Theatre show Gorilla Queen was a bawdy, campy, satirical riff on old B movies that featured two members of the Harris family: George Harris, Jr. and his son, a pre-Hibiscus George Harris III. “I met the Harris family at Judson,” Agosto Machado recalled. “I feel very blessed to have met them. There was so much love with that family, and the parents were so nurturing.” Jayne Anne Harris appeared in the Judson production Sing Ho for a Bear, an adaptation of Winnie-the-Pooh with music by Al Carmines, and she also did a few Happenings there. “There was nudity,” she said, “there were people running around, there was all kinds of stuff going on.” One Happening involved a red team and a blue team that performed different dances to the Righteous Brothers song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as a man roller-skated by in a yellow dress. Walter Michael Harris also performed in a Happening that was organized by director Tom O’Horgan. “The whole point of that Happening was to have what Tom called a kinetic sculpture,” he said, “or human sculpture with music and other stuff.” O’Horgan collected musical instruments from around the world, and he gave Walter some Tibetan chimes for him to play as he walked around in a funny hat; the two would later work together in the 1968 Broadway debut of Hair, which O’Horgan directed. “Once we did an Easter sunrise morning Happening in Washington Square Park,” Kornfeld recalled. “During the middle of it, Andy Warhol arrived and he drove into the park in a white limousine. He drove right into the center to upstage it, so we embraced it. It was all part of camping, making an entrance.”
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
For Walter Michael Harris, Harry Koutoukas was like a colorful uncle and a guardian angel all rolled into one. They got to know each other during a production of Pomegranada, an experimental opera that debuted in the choir loft at the Judson Poet’s Theater in March 1966. Harris played drums along with pianist and Judson artistic director Al Carmines. Pomegranada featured a butterfly and a peacock and other creatures that were innocent until a mirror entered their lives, and they learned about a thing called vanity. “I’m superb and exquisite too / Oh, that’s me, and to think I never knew / I never knew how beautiful I was,” the creatures sang. The show was about how narcissism can destroy beauty, as Harris explained: “Harry was a social critic, and he played a lot with mythical tropes, but with a lot of camp.”
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Old Reliable was one of the many Polish-Ukrainian bars scattered throughout the neighborhood—a beer-and-a-shot type of place with a stinky dog named Cornflakes that slept on the sticky floor, amid the peanut shells, spilled beer, and broken glass. Many of the bar’s regulars were likely on welfare or were drawing from a pension, and the large back room had previously been used for dancing on the weekend. “The dancing basically was dry humping,” said playwright Michael McGrinder, who frequented the bar before it became a theater. “Mostly, it was black guys and white girls, and music from an old Wurlitzer jukebox” (the neighborhood had long been a safe zone for interracial couples). The Old Reliable began opening its back room to the Off-Off-Broadway crowd after playwright Jeannine O’Reilly put on shows there. “She invited us over to see them,” Robert Patrick recalled. “So when the Cino closed, there was no question that I would move to the Old Reliable.” The owner, Norman Hartman (also know as “Speedy”), was a thin man in his forties or fifties who spoke with a very heavy Polish accent and outfitted himself in a fedora, along with other snazzy flourishes. “Speedy was an unlikely Off-Off-Broadway producer,” said Walter Michael Harris, who also performed there. “He seemed like, ‘Well, why not? What the heck? Let’s give it a try.’ And so he let all these crazy artists in.” The Old Reliable’s former dance floor was retrofitted with a two-sided stage with an L-shaped seating arrangement that could hold around seventy people. Robert Patrick was gregarious and likable, and he probably made a good impression on Speedy, who was something of a ham. He seized any opportunity to make announcements or play an on-or offstage role.
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The little world these Off-Off-Broadway renegades created at the Old Reliable was wild, just like the streets that surrounded it, and the neighborhood’s foreboding atmosphere only added to the excitement. “The way to get to the Old Reliable,” Jeannine O’Reilly used to quip, “is to turn left at the burning car.” The Old Reliable was located on the same block as Slugs’ Saloon and the Young Lords Headquarters, along with an eclectic assortment of retail and other businesses. For Walter Harris, the Old Reliable was the farthest east he could remember venturing. “You always had to have the appearance of looking like you were going somewhere and not just wandering around, as a way to avoid trouble.” Adventurers going to the bar walked down the middle of the street because there would be almost no one on the roads in the evening, and one could avoid potential dangers lurking around the corners of alleys or basement stairwells. Homeless people burned trash in barrels, providing a little light where the streetlights no longer worked. “People who would go to the Old Reliable would walk down Third Street because they considered it safe, because of the Hells Angels,” playwright Michael McGrinder said. “The Hells Angels kind of made trouble among themselves, but they didn’t make trouble for others, for the most part.”
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
Though it savvily repackaged the counterculture, making it safe for the masses, Tom O’Horgan’s staging retained a subversive spark. “Hair was an antiwar play,” Walter Michael Harris emphasized. “It wasn’t ‘happy hippies doing their trippy thing,’ which is what a lot of people think about when they think about Hair today. In Tom’s hands, it was really quite focused on opposition to the war in Vietnam—which was a big, big reason why it was written to begin with. I know Jim and Gerry were really fascinated with youth culture at the time, and what the young people were doing and saying and thinking, and what their hopes and dreams were.” The final number, “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),” could easily be reduced to a hippie cliché, but it was a sober reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War when the death of Hair’s main character, Claude, was revealed on the Biltmore Theatre’s stage. “Nobody was smiling, nobody was waving the peace sign, nobody had flowers, it was very serious stuff,” Harris recalled. “What the audience saw was Claude laid out on a funeral bier, on top of the American flag, dead.” It was a shocker, a belly punch to the audience—who were left in darkness for a minute before the curtain call, contemplating what they had just seen.
From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The night before the Broadway opening of Hair at the Biltmore Theatre, Walter Michael Harris and three other cast members snuck into the theater to conduct a kind of holy ritual. Knowing the theater well, they hid in different locations to evade the security guards, who locked the theater and left for the evening. “Basically,” Harris said, “the idea was to purify the space with our presence, with our chants, so that it would be ready for the opening night. We also probably took LSD, or mescaline, or something like that.” Who knows how effective this ritual was, but the show was an aesthetic and commercial success. “Yet with the sweet and subtle lyrics of Gerome Ragni and James Rado,” New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes wrote, “the show is the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday. It even looks different. Robin Wagner’s beautiful junk-art setting (a blank stage replete with broken-down truck, papier-mâché Santa Claus, juke box, neon signs) is as masterly as Nancy Potts’s cleverly tattered and colorful, turned-on costumes.” Barnes’s rave review ensured that the show sold out for months, turning Hair into a massive pop culture hit, complete with a best-selling soundtrack and international tours. Musicals had long been a prominent part of twentieth-century popular culture and had spawned many a hit record, but Hair was truly the first modern musical. It established the template for the Broadway blockbuster and was an obvious precursor to contemporary shows such as Rent and Hamilton.
The links between the downtown underground and the midtown mainstream can be seen in Walter Michael Harris’s varied creative outlets. “I managed to simultaneously be in Hair and also participated in a Bob Patrick show at the Old Reliable at the same time,” he said. “We had already collaborated on a few things, and he asked me if I would help him with the music to an Easter pageant he wrote. The first one was Dynel and the second one was Joyce Dynel, which opened on April 7, 1969—which was exactly one week after I left Hair.” Joyce Dynel began like a piñata explosion as street kids gathered on an East Village corner one Easter evening. “Feathers, fringe, serapes, boleros, bells, beads, incense and streaming hair,” the stage notes explain. “No flowers—that was the West Side! And this is the East Side, the Lower East Side, of Greater Babylon.” The actors playing America’s Street Children passed around joints and begged the audience for money until two actors playing police officers emerged in glittering blue jumpsuits, twirling their nightsticks: “Rrrrrroutine duties to attend to, tend to.” Robert Patrick wrote each scene within the framework of Christ’s story, giving it an absurd spin, and Harris helped him arrange the music in his tiny loft on Second Avenue, between Third and Fourth Streets. “My one window looked out to the large window of the Hare Krishna temple across the street,” Harris recalled. “Each morning I awoke to pleasant chanting by the devotees, and incense wafted my way if the wind was right.” Much of this East Village atmosphere was incorporated into Joyce Dynel, which featured Mary (who wore chic white “swinger” garb), God, and their long-haired, guitar-playing hippie son, Jesus Christ.
Sixteen-year-old Walter Michael Harris was the youngest cast member in the Broadway version, though he hadn’t appeared in the previous Off-Broadway productions. He had seen the show when it played at the midtown disco the Cheetah—a transitional production that split the difference between its more stilted debut at the Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and the explosive Broadway version. Hair was constantly evolving in the lead‑up to its Broadway debut. Show creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni continued working on the script and songs at the same time Tom O’Horgan held auditions, which is how Harris got involved. When he accompanied a friend on piano during Hair’s open auditions, O’Horgan asked him if he wanted to try out. “Well, if you’re involved, Tom, then yes!” Harris had previously worked with the director as both an actor and musician in Foster’s Madonna in the Orchard, and also participated in a Happening that O’Horgan orchestrated at Judson Church. The Hair cast rehearsed at the Ukrainian Hall, one of the many old ballrooms located on Second Avenue. “Tom was kind, very self-effacing, not at all dictatorial as a director,” Harris recalled. “He could get tough when he needed to, but that was very rare. He was just a very soft-spoken conductor.” The word conductor was appropriate, for O’Horgan visualized scenes in musical terms—much like a flow of a symphony or a jazz composition. “I always said Tom directed the cast like they were an orchestra of flesh,” recalled Patrick. “His work was much more akin to dance and music than to what had been thought of as theater before.”
Even though Walter Michael Harris maintained his underground theater roots during his time in Hair at the Biltmore Theatre he was uneasy about being in a Broadway show. One day he called in sick, hopped on a plane, and headed out to San Francisco. He felt a bit hypocritical being paid to play a hippie when he really wanted to be more like his brother, George, and be a hippie—so he quit the show. “I went into Hair as an actor,” he said, “but I came out as a hippie, and it was George who inspired me to come West.” Before forming the Cockettes, George Harris III, aka Hibiscus, initially lived at the Friends of Perfection Commune—informally known as Kaliflower—which was run by Irving Rosenthal, a writer and editor who was part of the Beat scene. “Hibiscus had been a lover of Allen Ginsberg and various bohemians,” recalled Cockette Lendon Sadler, “and Irving immediately fell for him.”